Forged By Crisis

Jay Sexton

A Nation Forged by Crisis (2018, Basic Books) tells the history of the United States through the greatest periods of crisis in each century of its existence. It opens with the 18th Century Revolution and covers the Civil War, Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. These periods of crisis forever altered the nation’s political landscape.


A Nation Forged by Crisis tells the history of the United States through the greatest periods of crisis in each century of its existence. It opens with the eighteenth-century Revolution and founding, when the thirteen colonies broke from the British Empire and created a new political union. Next comes the Civil War—America’s “second revolution”—which witnessed the abolition of slavery and accelerated the nation’s international rise. Then we reach the protracted and interrelated crises of the mid-twentieth century: the Great Depression, the Second World War, and—finally—the onset of the Cold War. These periods of crisis were like violent earthquakes that forever altered the nation’s political landscape.

Traditionally, historians of the United States have given primacy to internal factors when explaining the nation’s development: long simmering social and political struggles that periodically have come to a boil, such as the campaign against slavery in the nineteenth century and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; the emergence of new political practices, alignments, and institutions—for example, the collapse of the Whigs and the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s; and specific leaders, as in “the age of Jefferson.” Some historians have suggested that there are peculiar rhythms or cycles within American history involving flurries of reform and innovation. Wars undeniably have been powerful drivers of transformative change at home in that the demands of mobilizing resources and political will have necessitated changes to America’s domestic institutions. It is no coincidence that all the periods examined here occurred in the midst of intense conflicts.

There is merit to these explanations, many of which inform the pages that follow. My argument is not that they are wrong, but rather that they are incomplete. The history of the United States—particularly its moments of crisis—cannot be understood in a vacuum. Nations are more than repositories of individual rights and political traditions; they are configurations of power forged by geopolitical pressures. The United States that we know today bears the imprint of the international forces that have been placed upon it in the past: the booms and busts of the global economy, the ebbs and flows of human migration, and the violent fluctuations in the international order. The old shibboleth of American “exceptionalism”—that most persistent of nationalist myths, which posits that the course of US history has been the unique product of its internal formations, institutions, and ideology—has obscured the ways in which the volatile forces of global integration have conditioned its development. Far from being an exceptional nation walled off from the world, the United States has always been entangled within it—even in those times in which Americans have attempted to limit their connections to the international system.

A Nation Forged by Crisis is less a description of the domestic fault lines that opened up during periods of crisis than it is an assessment of the distant, yet powerful, forces that shifted the underlying tectonic plates of historical change.

A Nation Forged by Crisis is less a description of the domestic fault lines that opened up during periods of crisis than it is an assessment of the distant, yet powerful, forces that shifted the underlying tectonic plates of historical change. When we broaden our perspective beyond the nation in this way, things look different: a new set of determinants of historical change become visible; familiar stories unfold in unexpected ways; contingent moments in which the course of American history—and world history—might have played out differently come into focus.

Three aspects of America’s foreign relations, in particular, emerge as drivers of its history. The first is what we today call national security. The development of the United States, particularly in moments of crisis, has been shaped by international pressures, foreign threats, and imperial rivalry. For most of its existence, the United States has been a vulnerable nation, one weaker than the traditional European powers as well as one whose innovative but untested system of constitutional democracy was in danger of imploding. Native peoples, revolutionary ideologies, and foreign cultures have struck fear into the hearts of the citizens as well as the leaders of the United States.

Anxiety and insecurity have been as important to US history as have confidence and national triumphalism. Even archnationalists, operating at moments of relative stability, have feared the worst. “Within five years from this time,” Henry Clay predicted in the midst of the high tide of early nationalism in the aftermath of the War of 1812, “the Union would be divided into three distinct confederacies.” Yet for all these anxieties, what is most striking when one takes the long view of American history is the extent to which the United States has been the beneficiary of geopolitical reconfigurations. The age of revolutions, the era of mid-nineteenth-century nation making, and the global crisis of the 1930s and 1940s all ended with the United States occupying a more secure and profitable position within the international system.

National security has been more than merely a matter of diplomacy and foreign relations; it also has molded domestic politics, fueled the growth of the federal government, and fostered America’s ardently nationalist culture. International crises have been the catalysts of political innovation. The 1787 Constitution—the world’s oldest written national constitution—aimed not only to balance liberty with order but also to enhance the security of the imperiled former British colonies. The specter of foreign threats similarly prompted the creation of the modern national security state in the mid-twentieth century. And it was sometimes the absence of external threat that made all the difference. It was no coincidence that the Civil War unfolded at a moment of newfound security for the Union, nor that the destructive partisanship and culture wars of our own era have occurred against the backdrop of America’s Cold War triumph.

Second, the development of global capitalism has played a key role in the making of the United States. Here, too, America has benefited from broader developments. Over the course of the last two and a half centuries, the United States has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of the economic processes that we now call globalization. It has attracted foreign capital at relatively low rates of interest, it has been a magnet for laborers seeking work, and it has accessed lucrative foreign markets and resources as well as attracted competitively priced imports. The development of the American economy, including the establishment of the immense internal market that has been the material foundation of US power, has been inseparable from the broader formation of global capitalism. The pursuit of wealth and economic power has been as central to the course of American history as has the pursuit of equality. “Our plan is commerce,” Paine averred in his 1776 pamphlet, “and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because, it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port.”

But for as much as the international economy helped give rise to the US economic juggernaut, it also has been the source of internal discord and political conflict. The United States has never been a single economic unit; rather, like most nations, it is a conglomeration of different economic interests, many of which pursue their own objectives in the wider international order. Competition between different economic, sectional, and social groups has generated political tensions, which in turn have been intensified by the financial panics and economic downturns that have been an inescapable feature of global capitalism. The result has been divisive debates over economic questions, including tariffs, trade policy, foreign investment, and imperial connections. The international economic order, in short, has deepened internal divisions and contributed to crisis even as it has made the United States the wealthiest nation in world history.

Last, but certainly not least, is immigration. The inflow of people is a defining feature of the history of the United States, a “nation of nations.” The largest numbers of immigrants arrived in the half century between 1870 and 1920 as well as in our own era since 1980. In both of these periods, the percentage of the population that was foreign-born climbed into the teens, triggering heated debate over immigration policy (the historic high is 14.8 percent in 1890; in 2016, the figure stood at 13.4 percent). But these were not the only times in which immigration created political controversy. Two of the periods that witnessed the largest proportionate increase in the population that was foreign-born often come as a surprise.

The decade after 1845 saw some three million newcomers arrive on America’s shores at a time when the 1850 census counted twenty-three million people in the United States. This wave of immigration, which was driven by the Irish potato famine and dislocation in Europe, particularly in Germany, accounted for a remarkable 13 percent of America’s population. The span between the end of the Seven Years’ War and the outbreak of the American War of Independence saw a similar surge of new arrivals, who came both voluntarily (from the British Isles and Germany) and against their will (enslaved Africans). The new arrivals of the 1760–1775 period amounted to an estimated 10 percent of the overall population of the colonies. The sudden bursts of immigration in these periods destabilized existing political institutions, contributing in both cases to the breakdowns that were to follow.

Immigration has been of greater importance than merely functioning as a wedge issue debated by “native” Americans. Those who landed upon America’s shores brought with them new ideas and political agendas. Immigrants arrived not to a monolithic society but rather to one with its own social fault lines, above all, those related to African American enslavement and its legacies. Immigrants and their children—even in eras such as the mid-twentieth century, when the percentage of the US population that was foreign-born plummeted to its all-time low of less than 5 percent as a result of federal immigration restrictions—have shaped the culture and politics of their new home just as much as the United States has changed them.

The quest for national security and global power, America’s shifting position in the international economy, and fluctuations in immigration have made the United States the nation that it is today. America’s foreign relations have conditioned its history not only in their cumulative effects over the long haul but also as a result of their volatility. In periods of crisis, America’s position in the world has lurched in unexpected directions. For as inexorable as the rise of the United States appears in retrospect, there have been contingent moments in which the very existence of the nation was up for grabs.

This is the essence of crisis: the world turned upside down; the known being replaced by the unknown; panic reigning as people struggle to maintain their balance.

This is the essence of crisis: the world turned upside down; the known replaced by the unknown; panic reigning as people struggle to maintain their balance amid shifts in the very ground beneath their feet. “It came with a speed and ferocity that left men dazed,” New York Times correspondent Elliot Bell wrote of Wall Street’s catastrophic collapse in October 1929. “The market seemed like an insensate thing that was wreaking a wild and pitiless revenge upon those who thought to master it.”

Crises are contagious, spreading like viruses from one realm to another. It is not without reason that the word crisis was associated with medical conditions and health scares in the nineteenth century. Each of the periods under consideration in this book were less a singular crisis than a set of interlinked crises—a political crisis could trigger an economic panic, which in turn could intensify social conflict, and so on. As these pandemics spread throughout the body politic, crisis itself was normalized, becoming an almost accepted characteristic of an age.

Just as foreign crises have spread to the United States, domestic ones have spilled outside its borders, unsettling foreign countries and peoples as well as reconfiguring America’s connections to the world. Consider the fateful winter of secession that followed the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. The crisis over slavery that divided the Union into warring sections also led to a series of sharp reversals in America’s position in the global system. The immigration surge of the 1840s and 1850s was followed by a span that saw the lowest number of foreign arrivals in a century. The foreign capital that had rushed into the roaring American economy in the preceding decades suddenly began to flee; indeed, more capital left the United States in 1860–1862 than came into it, also a once-in-a-century occurrence.

One of the world’s most valuable commodities and America’s largest export—Southern cotton—was confined to the ports of the Confederacy as a result of Richmond’s ill-fated diplomatic strategy, leading to unemployment and social unrest in the British textile towns of Lancashire. The most unexpected reversal was how the national security that the United States had attained after the war against Mexico in the 1840s was suddenly imperiled, with European powers encroaching once again upon the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, Confederate emissaries crossed the Atlantic in search of an alliance with Britain. “Our country, after having expelled all European powers from the continent,” Secretary of State William H. Seward lamented in early 1861, now threatened to “relapse into an aggravated form of its colonial experience, and, like Italy, Turkey, India, and China, become the theatre of transatlantic intervention and rapacity.”

A wider view of American history that looks beyond the nation’s borders brings into focus not only the migration patterns, economic flows, and international rivalries that have connected the United States to the world but also those rare moments in which the very existence of the nation was in question. Perhaps none was more pregnant with implications than the autumn of 1777, when the fate of the patriots’ bid for independence hung in the balance.

Having proclaimed their independence to the world the previous fourth of July, their cause had stalled, on the battlefield and in the diplomatic courts of the Old World. “I think the game is pretty near up,” Washington privately confessed at year’s end. “To accomplish their independence is not quite so easy as to declare it,” the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham haughtily remarked. But then a series of events forever changed the course of modern history: the stunning patriot victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October; the drafting of the Articles of Confederation in November that, for all its limitations, further demonstrated the political resolve of the Americans; and, most of all, the alliance signed with France in February 1778, which provided the patriots with the resources, military assistance, and naval power that ultimately tipped the scales in their favor.

There are comparable “Saratoga moments” in other crises of US history, as we shall see. These contingent moments played out in their own distinctive ways but are joined by a common denominator that has been curiously forgotten in our age of US global power: foreign states and peoples have played decisive roles in the critical moments of American history. As we make our way through our own era of global instability in an unprecedentedly interconnected world, there is perhaps no more important lesson from the past to keep in mind.

Foreign states and peoples have played decisive roles in the critical moments of American history.

“Crisis may beget crisis,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said as his administration transitioned from battling the Great Depression to entering the Second World War, “but the progress underneath does not wholly halt—it does go forward.” Like so many of Roosevelt’s public statements, this one reveals a truth even as it conceals others. The United States came out on the other side of its greatest crises as a stronger and more efficiently organized nation, as Roosevelt suggested. The process of mobilizing resources to counter threats catalyzed innovations in political economy, such as the creation of a national financial system during the Civil War and the economic reforms of the New Deal. Previously marginalized social groups, particularly women, African Americans, and immigrants, secured new political rights, not least because of the sacrifices they made on behalf of the nation in its moments of need. In the bigger picture, the United States came to be the most powerful nation the world has ever known because of the stress tests it endured, the rivals it overcame, and the power it accrued during its moments of trial.

But as true as all of that is, such Whiggish notions of the forward progress of the United States are misleading. The crises that forged the nation saw rights taken away from social groups, as well as granted to them. The new nation of the 1780s was founded upon slavery as well as freedom. The political rights earned by African Americans during the Civil War were rolled back in the era of Jim Crow; loyal Japanese Americans were rounded up into internment camps in the 1940s; and “Rosie the Riveter” was welcomed into the workforce during the Second World War, only to then be told to return home after 1945. Crisis moments might have catalyzed the rationalization of the political system, but they also perpetuated inequalities and sowed the seeds of future troubles.

When we view American history from a global perspective, we see a nation that has been prone to abrupt reversals in its relations with the wider world. The United States has gyrated between free trade and economic nationalism, between encouraging immigration and restricting it, and from expansionist foreign policies to those aimed at limiting its commitments abroad. Old enemies have been embraced as new allies, only then to revert to rivals. Amid all these twists and turns, there is a discernable—and curiously underappreciated—pattern: geopolitical shifts that enhanced American security and power have devolved into periods of instability at home.

Moments of international triumph have quickly transitioned to political crisis. A mere dozen years lay between the 1763 victory in the Seven Years’ War and the 1775 “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord; the conquest of Mexico in 1848 and the collapse of the Union in 1860; the decisive US intervention in the First World War in 1917 and the Wall Street crash of 1929; and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. America’s global ascent has not unfolded in a linear manner, even if the historical trendline—at least until recently—has been the growth of US national power.

As we navigate through what Lincoln called “the stormy present,” it behooves us to take a new look at our history and see how past moments of crisis have made America the nation it is today.

As we navigate through our own iteration of what Lincoln called “the stormy present,” it behooves us to take a new look at our history to see how past moments of crisis have made America the nation that it is today. Furthermore, in an age in which our political crises are entangled with the volatile processes of modern globalization, we would be well served to revisit the nation’s history from a global vantage. When we do this, the familiar story of America’s history looks different. To return to the metaphor of the ship of state, far from being one that has inexorably sailed forward in pursuit of its founding ideals, the United States is one that has been blown in unexpected directions and whose rudders have sharply turned when tossed about in tempestuous waters. American history does not move consistently in any direction; US citizens alone have not determined their nation’s destiny; and the interconnected nature of the modern world ensured that the crises that forged the United States were not confined to its borders.


Excerpt from A NATION FORGED BY CRISIS: A New American History by Jay Sexton. Copyright 2018. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group. Jay Sexton is the inaugural Kinder Institute Chair in Constitutional Democracy and Professor of History at the University of Missouri.

Forged By Crisis

by Jay Sexton time to read: 15 min