The Magazine

This American World

The ‘last, best hope of earth’ goes global.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By EDWARD SHORT
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An example of Black’s insight into the larger currents that drive history can be found in his concluding chapter, where he observes that, if America is in decline, it has “taken a good time for a setback.” For Black, the American superpower is fortunate to have no serious rivals, largely because “China will hit the wall of false financial reporting and unsustainable official corruption long before the difficulties of the United States induce any irretrievable decline.” 

Still, he does not minimize the extent to which America’s strategic negligence continues to be consequential: “America missed the opportunity to be more tightly connected to the rest of the Americas, and thus have a more comparable demographic bloc for its economic progress than China and India. It could have had effective federal unions with large parts of the hemisphere”—with Canada and Mexico, for instance—by which it could have “added 50 percent to its population and 150 percent to its treasure house of natural resources.” But now, Latin America and Canada “have no interest in being too intimately associated with the United States.” And in much of Latin America, a calamitous socialist-state model continues to fill the void.  

Black’s delight in questioning the pieties of American nationhood can be seen in his handling of the secession of the colonies from Great Britain, which he presents as little more than “a grubby contest about taxes, colonial gratitude, and the rights of the .  .  . mother country.” Here, Black refers to the unwillingness of the Americans to pay Britain taxes to help cover the costs of the Seven Years’ War—which Britain undertook, at least partly, to protect the colonists from the imperial clutches of the French. For Black, the Americans had no grounds for regarding those taxes as tyrannous; indeed, he is convinced that they knew as much themselves and that they deployed the eloquent Thomas Jefferson expressly to “repackage” the contest as “an epochal struggle for the rights of man, vital to the hopes and dreams of everyone in the world.” Of Jefferson’s assertion that the colonists could lay claim to the same individual liberties as the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest, Black is at his most pungent: “The whole argument was moonshine,” he writes; it was illustrative not so much of the rights of the colonists or Anglo-Saxons (who had had no system of individual rights) as of Thomas Jefferson’s deft polemical rhetoric.    

If Black occasionally pokes holes in America’s amour-propre, he is ready also to celebrate it when celebration is in order. In his treatment of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, Black shows himself to be deeply sympathetic to the appeal of American exceptionalism. After establishing that the Civil War “was the greatest war in the history of the world”—producing 360,000 Union and 300,000 Confederate dead, as well as 90,000 civilian dead, and about 475,000 combined civilian and military casualties—Black remarks, “No foreigners had foreseen the vehemence and fury of the struggle, or had imagined the emergent might of the victorious armies.” The war opened eyes in ways that changed the world.  

Those who had thought America the light of the world now knew it to be so. Those who had lamented the moral palsy of slavery that was behind the Jeffersonian message rejoiced. And those who had doubted the strength—as opposed to the diplomatic agility, polemical talent, and geographical good fortune—of the Americans and their leader saw the strength of the American people in their devotion to their country and its ideals and were struck almost dumb by the genius and humanity of their leader.  

Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Culture and Abortion.