“A nation without borders,” Donald Trump declared on the campaign trail, “is not a nation at all.” Don’t react too quickly—there is at least some historical truth to that statement.
The nation—more precisely, the nation-state—is nothing if not a system of boundaries. In this country, it arose in the middle of the 19th century, powered by the revolutionary advance of industrial capitalism as it moved across Europe and the Atlantic and on to American soil. Like its contemporaries around the world—Bismarck’s Prussia, say, or Qing China—the ascending American nation-state never really had precise boundaries and it faced a vast array of local and foreign challenges to its authority. Likewise, its expansion never seemed to end. What was first an open-ended settler confederation on the imperial fringe became an enclosed nation-state, which then transformed into an unbounded empire.
The process through which the American nation-state emerged and then grew into an empire is the subject of A Nation Without Borders, a compendious new work on America’s 19th century by New York University historian Steven Hahn. The third entry in the Penguin History of the United States, A Nation Without Borders takes us from the Jacksonian dawn of American “democracy” to the First World War.
Hahn reminds us that our little postcolonial republic had imperial inclinations even at its birth. From its outset, the country was seeking to seize new lands and resources as well as to consolidate those territories it had already absorbed. That America’s economic and political origins can be found in its imperial expansion—first within the American continent and then abroad—is well-established. But Hahn manages to do something new by showing how the Civil War and the struggle to abolish slavery from this country fits into this narrative as well.
The conceptual heart of Hahn’s new history is an argument that the nation-state has never been a stable political form that is distinct from empires. It has always emerged out of and then sustained itself on the imperial conquest of new territories. Just as the 19th-century European nation-states had to plunder and exploit the “third world” to quell various social upheavals at home, so too has the American nation-state needed to go hunting abroad in search of natural resources, new markets, and cheaper labor.
The irony, of course, is that the triumph of American empire outside the country’s borders has also meant the weakening of the American nation-state within them. Once a critical instrument in marking off American territory, defining its citizens’ identity, and enabling economic growth, the success of American empire has created all sorts of domestic uncertainties and calamities. American identity, sovereignty, and democratic control—especially over the economy—all began to dissolve just as the United States came to dominate the rest of the world. While international imperium and the formation of the American nation-state once ran together, it is now clear that they also have the capacity to tear each other apart.