Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Seizing Destiny"

New from Knopf: Richard Kluger's Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea.

About the book, from the publisher:
From the Pulitzer Prize–winning social historian Richard Kluger, Seizing Destiny is a sweeping chronicle of how the vast territory of the United States was assembled to accommodate the aspirations of its people — regardless of who objected. It is a remarkable story of how Americans extended their sovereignty from the Atlantic coastline to the mid-Pacific in the first 125 years of their national existence.

America’s surge to dominion was equally admirable and appalling. The nation’s pioneer generations were, to be sure, blessed with remarkable energy, fortitude, and boundless faith in their own prowess. They were also grasping opportunists, ravenous in their hunger to possess the earth, who justified their often brutal aggression by demeaning the humanity of nonwhites.

These visionary nation-builders proclaimed earnestly, if not innocently, their own rectitude to be the force behind the heroic “taming” of the wilderness and saw in this triumph the hand of Providence. Their good fortune was thus transformed into a mission of continental entitlement — their “manifest destiny,” as they began calling it well after the process was under way. Yet declaring it did not make it so. As we see, luck and their foes’ weaknesses played no less a role.

In a compelling drama, vivid with historical detail, we watch three of the most brilliant Founding Fathers — Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams—outfox British, French, and Spanish diplomats to win more than ample boundaries for their new republic. Finesse, however, had little to do with General Andrew Jackson’s Indian-slaughtering and disdain for the Spanish garrison in capturing Florida. Or with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’s bluff and bluster in gaining for the nation a northwest passage to the Pacific. Or with how the singleminded James Polk, devious and manipulative, confected a war with Mexico and thereby amassed more land than any other U.S. President.

We learn why the nation’s most famous acquisition, France’s Louisiana Territory, had little to do with Thomas Jefferson’s foresight and everything to do with Napoleon’s failure to subdue black freedom fighters in the jungles of Haiti. Sam Houston tried vainly to prevent the predictably suicidal defense of the Alamo before he could rally rowdy Texans to win their independence. William Seward, in just one week, overcame political disrepute and convinced a hostile Senate to approve his secret deal with Russia to buy seemingly useless Alaska. And Teddy Roosevelt connived with the Panamanians to win land for the canal that so enhanced America’s economic dominance.

Comprehensive and balanced, Seizing Destiny is a stunning reinterpretation of American history, revealing great accomplishments along with the American tendency to confuse success with heaven-sent entitlement.