Edward L. Ayers

Nov 25, 2023

American Visions

The United States, 1800-1860

W. W. Norton & Company 2023

American Visions: The United States, 1800-1860 (Norton, 2023) is a revealing history of the formative period when voices of dissent and innovation defied power and created visions of America still resonant today. 

With so many of our histories falling into dour critique or blatant celebration, here is a welcome departure: a book that offers hope as well as honesty about the American past. The early decades of the nineteenth century saw the expansion of slavery, Native dispossession, and wars with Canada and Mexico. Mass immigration and powerful religious movements sent tremors through American society. But even as the powerful defended the status quo, others defied it: voices from the margins moved the center; eccentric visions altered the accepted wisdom, and acts of empathy questioned self-interest. 

Edward L. Ayers’s rich history examines the visions that moved Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, the Native American activist William Apess, and others to challenge entrenched practices and beliefs. So, Lydia Maria Child condemned the racism of her fellow northerners at great personal cost. Melville and Thoreau, Joseph Smith and Samuel Morse all charted new paths for America in the realms of art, nature, belief, and technology. It was Henry David Thoreau who, speaking of John Brown, challenged a hostile crowd "Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong?" Through decades of award-winning scholarship on the Civil War, Edward L. Ayers has himself ventured beyond the interpretative status quo to recover the range of possibilities embedded in the past as it was lived. Here he turns that distinctive historical sensibility to a period when bold visionaries and critics built vigorous traditions of dissent and innovation into the foundation of the nation. Those traditions remain alive for us today.

AJ Woodhams hosts the "War Books" podcast. You can subscribe on Apple here and on Spotify here. War Books is on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

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AJ Woodhams

AJ Woodhams hosts the "War Books" podcast. You can subscribe on Apple here and on Spotify here. War Books is on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

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