A popular myth in the American nationalist imaginary is that the country has been on a continued path of progress. Another is that the country’s history has been the self-realization of the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Jay Sexton
says these are wrong. In fact, in his new book A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History
(Basic Books, 2018), he shows how crises and contingency have given the United States its shape, from 1776 to the Civil War through to the Great Depression and world wars of early twentieth century. Some of the most influential changes occurred, Sexton writes, during “contingent moments in which the existence of the nation was up for grabs.”
In this impressively concise and provocative book, Sexton places the history of the republic in the broader currents of the international system (“foreign powers,” he writes, are “the most overlooked actors in American history”) and chronicles the crises that have rocked the country into change (the Union’s mobilization during the Civil War, for instance, fueled the growth of Wall Street). The book deserves to be read by historians and non-historians alike.
Dexter Fergie is a PhD student of US and global history at Northwestern University. He is currently researching the 20th century geopolitical history of information and communications networks. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DexterFergie.