THE GROWTH AND COLLAPSE OF ONE AMERICAN NATION is an erudite history of the country’s early development as a republic. Author Donald J. Fraser investigates and articulates a fundamental split in American identity, about whether it follows the universalist American creed of equality, liberty and democracy, or the notion of an exclusionary ethnonationalism based on race, culture and language. Fraser’s readable style and scholarship, as exhibited by the copious primary and secondary sources cited, give the volume its vigor.
Fraser picks up the historical account in the 1790s after the ratification of the United States Constitution and, interestingly, starts with political party formation by the Founders. Despite the stated desire at the founding to reject parties, or “factionalism,” almost immediately these affiliations took off. Through the lens of partisan battles between Federalists and Republicans, Fraser delineates American political strains that were present with four Founders: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Fraser sketches the predispositions of these figures along a spectrum of political ideologies that range from liberal to conservative. This section, although useful, was problematic in that it drew on biological determinism to explain differences from a great historical distance.
The principal tension about the source of political power in America eventually was embodied in Thomas Jefferson, the liberal-minded Republican, and Alexander Hamilton, the preeminent, right-leaning Federalist. As Fraser describes, Jefferson believed in a more decentralized power that flowed up from the people while Hamilton envisioned a strong central government in which power flowed from the elite to the masses. The book builds a framework for understanding other historical events by pairing the role of governmental power with the debate over America as an idea versus an ethnic state. Within this framework, Fraser explains the importance of the presidential transfer of power from John Adams to Jefferson after a contested election with Alexander Burr, which Jefferson hailed the “revolution of 1800” because it came from the “suffrage of people.” This context gives events like the War of 1812 greater meaning when the near defeat to the British solidified American independence, identity and economic dynamism. Jacksonian democracy that brought populism coveted by many Americans, further oppressed and terrorized the Native American population who continued to suffer from the U.S. government, only now more drastically, as they were forced from their lands onto the Trail of Tears. Underlying it all is America’s original sin of slavery, a breach that was at times papered over with the Constitution and compromise, but never repaired. As the institution of slavery deepened from ratification onward, so does the opposition from the abolitionist movement, which is well chronicled by Fraser.
The book culminates with the secession of the Confederacy and the launch of the Civil War. That the conflict over slavery rent America apart is well established. Less understood is how it shredded its identity. Reminiscent of Eric Foner’s proposition that the Civil War destroyed America as a nation and commenced its second founding through Reconstruction, THE GROWTH AND COLLAPSE OF ONE AMERICAN NATION documents the circumstances and tensions embedded within the nation that led to its dissolution and eventual regeneration. Fraser reminds us that American unity is not certain, but depends on shared ideals that are always contested.
THE GROWTH AND COLLAPSE OF ONE AMERICAN NATION is an erudite history of the country’s early development as a republic. Author Donald J. Fraser traces the leaders, movements and events involved in building the American form of government and politics that shaped its identity. Fraser’s readable style and scholarship give the volume its vigor.
~Kai Olson-Sawyer for IndieReader