Taylor, acutely sensitive to such strains on the national fabric, traces the continuing conflict between competing visions of democracy: the Hamiltonian, which favored centralization and rule by the social elite; and the Jeffersonian, skeptical of national power and devoted to states’ rights and the common man. The overall drift of American politics, as Taylor points out, was toward democratization, epitomized by the populist Andrew Jackson, who served two terms as president (1829-37).
Taylor’s special contribution in “American Republics” is his capacity for panning out to capture major historical trends. Not only does he cover about five decades in a relatively concise 384 pages of text, but he discusses events and people in various sections of the nation and in Canada and Mexico as well. The result of this broad-spectrum approach is, as Taylor’s subtitle indicates, a truly continental history.
To the north, the British-ruled Canada was a tempting target for the United States. Thomas Jefferson said in 1812 that “the acquisition of Canada, this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.” Others who envisaged a takeover of Canada, Taylor tells us, included the Vermont politician Ira Allen (brother of the famous Ethan), who schemed to form his own nation, United Columbia, by combining his state with Canada, and the Scottish-born Canadian William Lyon MacKenzie, who organized secret lodges in the Northern United States with the idea of invading Canada and forming an independent country. Meanwhile, British loyalists in Canada mocked America as a hypocritical nation that boasted about liberty and equality but held millions of Black people in slavery.
To the south, Mexico was a magnifying mirror of America’s instability. Recent historians have pointed out that Mexico, where slavery was abolished by law, was a desirable haven for enslaved people who fled from their Southern masters. True, Taylor argues, but economic inequality was far worse in Mexico than in the United States. So was political instability. Between 1822 and 1847, Taylor reports, Mexico witnessed 50 coups, many of them led by the magnetic but incompetent Antonio López de Santa Anna, who became the nation’s leader no less than 11 times.
Taylor’s discussion of Mexico leads to his account of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), a conflict provoked by pro-slavery Southerners who wanted to seize the vast western lands then governed by Mexico. The war, which the United States won, resulted in the acquisition of territories that eventually became the states of Texas, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, as well as portions of five other future states. But gaining these territories raised a crucial question: Would slavery be allowed in them? The South’s answer was a resounding yes, the antislavery North’s, an increasingly vehement no. And so, the formerly fragmented nation was well on its way to becoming the House Divided.