California Literary Review

Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America by Eric Rauchway

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April 10th, 2007 at 9:17 am

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Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America
by Eric Rauchway
Hill and Wang, 256 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★½☆☆

Halfway There

Academics often say that there are two ways to use history: As a means to understand the past, or as a means to understand the present. The critique, somewhat implied, is that historians get so bogged down in details of the past that they forget about what in today’s world got them wondering about history in the first place.

Although Eric Rauchway, in his new book Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America, suggests that he will use the 19th century’s globalization of railroads and telegraphs to highlight some lessons for today’s second wave of globalization, he largely fails to connect his research to the present.

This is not because he gets lost in the distant minutiae of the nineteenth century. Instead, Rauchway has written a far-too-brief book that explores how a range of issues—from immigration to foreign investment—set America on a different course from other industrialized nations and led to America’s much smaller centralized government as well as its isolationism between World War I and World War II. Specifically, he claims that while European empires needed to maintain large armies to be able to expand their colonial holdings, the United States, although driven to expand at its Western frontier, did not have the same requirements for a standing military because Western land in the Americas was relatively uninhabited.

He argues that foreign capital as well as immigration accelerated this expansion. Following the American Civil War, wealthy Europeans sunk huge sums of money into railroads and other projects that, by their nature, pushed many Americans Westward. In contrast, for other developing countries like Canada and Argentina, foreign railway investment was met with hostility if not outright nationalization.

While investment limited centralized financial management, Rauchway argues that the huge influx of immigrants—who migrated to the United States from a wider array of countries and in much higher numbers than to anywhere else—further drove Americans West and reduced the size of government. Such substantial numbers of immigrants increased the supply of labor, dragging down wages and unionization, and increasing internal migration. The number and diversity of the migrants spurred a significant backlash, decreasing class solidarity as well as government social spending.

As a result, the United States federal government differed markedly from European governments. There was little central banking regulation to protect against a major market crash; when that crash occurred in the 1920s, there was no welfare state to catch the millions of people suddenly put out of work.

Rauchway’s arguments are logical and his writing is clear. But at fewer than 175 pages excluding footnotes, he lacks the space to connect these macrohistorical processes to specific people, places or events, leaving the feeling that people in the nineteenth century could do little to alter the course of the nation. Nobody resists these trends, in Rauchway’s book, nor for that matter does anyone use these trends for productive aims. Thus, for example, he never shows how early railroad investment might have aided Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers or any of the countless other turn-of-the-century inventors who did so much to spur technological development. In fact, with the exception of a couple of bankers, he hardly mentions anyone by name.

But more frustrating is the lack of connection to the present promised at the beginning of the book. At nine pages, Rauchway’s conclusion reads like the preliminary notes to a conclusion, as he nearly fails to connect the relationships between the movements of people and capital to the size of the government, much less connect the nineteenth century to any time more recent than 1920.

In a blurb on the back of the book, the prominent historian and journalist Eric Alterman says that with Blessed Among Nations, Rauchway, a professor of history at UC Davis, has signaled his emergence as a public intellectual. And it is clear from this book that he has the ability—as both a researcher and writer—to one day speak to an audience beyond historians.

But he has not done that here. Eric Rauchway has written a very good half of a book, and unfortunately, has placed it in a cover and published it.

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