A Nation Among Nations America's Place in World History

Thomas Bender

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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Americans are accustomed to telling their country's story as if the nation were naturally autonomous and self-sufficient. Thomas Bender asks us to rethink this presumed exceptionalism and proposes an alternative to the conventional national narrative. Placing American history firmly in a global context, he recasts the historical developments that were central to the making of the nation and shows why they can be fully understood only in light of America's global entanglement over five centuries.

Bender's exciting argument focuses on five major events or themes. He begins with "the age of discovery," when people everywhere were first feeling the transforming effects of oceanic trade and communication. He then reconsiders our founding Revolution as one of several similar rebellions occurring on many continents, and the Civil War as part of a larger history that associated freedom with a new meaning of nationhood. He also examines the American commitment to empire, from Jefferson's presidency to our own time; and last, in analyzing America's response to the challenges posed by capitalist industrialization and urbanization, he shows its participation in the worldwide conversation addressing these issues, and how American liberalism took its place in the larger global pattern of responses.

A Nation Among Nations makes clear what damage is done to our self-understanding and to our relations with the world when we fail to consider the full dimensions of American history. Bender boldly challenges us to think beyond our borders.


Praise for A Nation Among Nations

"In A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History, New York University Professor Thomas Bender . . . challeng[es] us to reimagine the development of the United States as but 'one history among histories' and to relocate our national history within 'an interdependent world.' Bender tackles the chauvinistic assumption that the nation is 'the natural container and carrier of history' and the linear view that history is primarily a chronological development. The author is a member of a group of scholars calling for a way out of the 'self-enclosed' and time-based perspective that has long characterized the teaching of U.S. history, especially in the wake of the Cold War. He calls for incorporating American history inside global history . . . Most American history courses touch upon world history only insofar as it impinges on the United States, such as the U.S.-Mexican War; and the teaching of world history typically is framed as events happening somewhere else, to people unlike us. As for geography, it gets relegated to identifying the shapes of the 13 colonies, naming state capitals and other make-work exercises in social studies. This book has its roots in a joint project of the Organization of American Historians and New York University's International Center for Advanced Studies, begun a decade ago to increase cooperation between historians around the world . . . Now we have A Nation Among Nations, a sophisticated polemic combining intellectual precision with moral passion, written for a general audience in lively prose that is neither condescending nor arcane. Bender does not pretend to write an exhaustive history of the United States but rather whets our appetite with tastes of his global and spatial revisionism. We are asked to consider, for example, that the real discovery of 1492 was of 'the ocean, which entered history, creating a new world' and that the story of North America is 'part of that larger, more important history, not vice versa' . . . While A Nation Among Nations is analytically nuanced, Bender does not shy away from controversy or taking principled stands. 'Slavery is central to American history,' he asserts; the American celebration of freedom is largely a ruse for 'economic and cultural domination of the planet'; and since World War II, the United States has been 'the most powerful and consistent counterrevolutionary force in the world.' Bender's paradigm shift has political as well as intellectual ramifications. With 'civic purpose' in mind, he urges us to embrace 'the cosmopolitan citizenship that being in the world invites and demands.' As long as we teach our children to think of this country in triumphal and exceptional terms, the easier it is for the Bush administration to package imperial ambitions as the 'advance of freedom.' Underneath the flimflam of political demagoguery lies a deeply grounded jingoism that envisions the United States as the vanguard of civilization. It is not surprising, writes Bender, that the quest for empire generates 'a massive, consistent failure of empathy' on the home front . . . If you are tired of learning about this country's past through a prism of nationalist myopia and relish a good argument, this is the book for you . . . You will never again think about 'American history' in the same provincial way."—Tony Platt, San Francisco Chronicle

"Thomas Bender's book is a welcome historical narrative of that portion of the world's surface usually designated as the United States, but told here with reference to contemporary developments among global states, economies, and societies . . . His book is not a world history, but rather a contextualization of American development in light of global processes . . . Bender brings as usual a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity to his research and historiographical manifestos. He has read widely in English-language secondary literature and ventured into some French and Latin American sources. The deployment of comparisons from outside the United States and the citation of revealing commentaries by European observers of American development reinforce his argument for a global framing of U.S. development . . . For those American historians who have not already started systematic reading in world history, this book will be a useful introduction to wider perspectives . . . Bender uses comparative history . . . to illuminate what elements remain unique from society to society."—Charles S. Maier, Harvard University

"[T]he key notion, as Thomas Bender argues in his insightful book . . . is that America has long been part of the larger world. And to understand the nation's past, Bender writes, it is essential to set American history in a global context . . . [T]here is much to admire in A Nation Among Nations. Beyond offering a genuinely fresh interpretation of American history, Bender reminds us that the US is simply one among many countries in an 'interdependent world.' He suggests, moreover, that it would be salutary if that realization led the US to adopt the spirit of humility suggested by Woodrow Wilson when he urged that Americans live up to 'the standards we have professed' and heed 'the opinion of the world.'"—Jonathan Rosenberg, The Christian Science Monitor

"Here's a new interpretation of American history, setting it within context of international influences . . . [A Nation Among Nations] is a remarkable series of connections between American events and world influence, drawn by a history professor with a dozen books to his name."—The Midwest Book Review

"Bender's book is a welcome historical narrative of that portion of the world's surface usually designated as the United States, but told here with reference to contemporary developments among global states, economies, and societies . . . Bender brings as usual a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity to his research and historiographical manifestos . . . For those American historians who have not already started systematic reading in world history, this book will be a useful introduction to wider perspectives."—Charles S. Maier, Journal of American History

"Original, ambitious, and consistently provocative, A Nation Among Nations should change the way we study and teach American history. If ever we needed an approach to our past that emphasizes how it is embedded in global history, now is the time."—Eric Foner, Columbia University

"Writing with verve and eloquence, Thomas Bender challenges much that we thought we knew in this profoundly disconcerting meditation on American history. His fresh, invigorating interpretations will make your old college textbooks feel obsolete, and he offers a new angle of vision on the ways the twenty-first-century world was shaped. I could not put this book down."—Linda K. Kerber, University of Iowa

"In A Nation Among Nations . . . a highly stimulating analytical narrative that is consistently informative, occasionally revelatory, and never dull . . . Bender rejects the presumption . . . that the nation is freestanding and self-contained. On the contrary, he contends, national history has from the beginning been shaped by developments both larger and smaller than the nation itself. In making this claim, Bender most emphatically does not reject the nation as an object of historical inquiry . . . Bender's goal, rather, is to historicize the American nation by locating it in a global context . . . A Nation Among Nations is filled with illuminating observations on a multitude of topics that have been culled from the scholarship of historians around the world . . . organized around five thematic chapters, which locate in a global context topics long familiar to historians of the United States. These topics are the age of discovery; the "great war" between France and Britain in the mid-eighteenth century; the Civil War; westward expansion; and progressivism. Each chapter, with the exception of the first and the last, revolves around warfare . . . Indeed, A Nation Among Nations can be read as a thoughtful brief for the provocative claim that the history of war, broadly conceived, should occupy a central place on the U.S. history curriculum of every university, college, and community college history department in the country . . . It is likely to find a wide audience among general readers, college and university professors intrigued by the "global" turn in U.S. history, and high school teachers seeking fresh perspectives on such venerable classroom staples as the age of exploration, the westward movement, and the Civil War. Engaging, accessible, and thought provoking, it provides an excellent introduction to recent historical writing on a variety of themes and may well point the way to a new, more globally oriented, history of the United States."—Richard R. John, Common Place

"History professor Bender argues for a more global view of our nation's history—its place among the nations of the world. The notion of U.S. history as self-contained and taught separately from world history is outdated and based on nineteenth-century ideas of nationalist ideology that 'became embedded in the development of history as a discipline.' Focusing on history from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, Bender emphasizes five major themes in U.S and world history: the 'discovery' of the New World and the beginning of global history, the American Revolution in the context of competition among empires, the Civil War in the context of European revolutions of 1848, the U.S. as an empire among empires in the late 1800s, and American social liberalism as part of the global response to industrialization. In the final chapter, Bender examines how U.S. history has been, and continues to be, bound up with world history and how a broader perspective can aid international relationships. This is an engaging new perspective on history and the enduring tensions between American parochialism and cosmopolitanism."—Vanessa Bush, Booklist

"Since 1500, argues NYU's Bender, people everywhere have participated in a single global history. Yet American historians have often myopically suggested that America exists in a vacuum, isolated from the rest of the world. In this exciting and lucid study, Bender reframes American history, arguing persuasively that America's past must be seen as part of an international story. From the colonization of the New World in the 16th century to the social reforms of the early 20th century, America's triumphs and travails have shaped and been shaped by decisions, people and trends in Europe, Africa and Asia . . . More arresting is Bender's reading of the Civil War as not simply an internal fight between North and South: it can only be understood when seen as part of 'a larger history of . . . conflicts over nationalism and freedom and the proper balance of central and local authority.' This timely book will doubtless turn Bender into a pundit du jour; more importantly, he will help Americans make sense of their place in the wider world, past and present."—Publishers Weekly

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A Nation Among Nations


Until recently the basic narrative of American history began with a chapter on exploration and discovery. That...

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  • Thomas Bender

  • Thomas Bender is professor of history and the humanities at New York University. A renowned historian of American culture, he is the author and editor of more than a dozen books. He lives in New York City.

  • Thomas Bender Copyright David Bender