Blessed Among Nations How the World Made America

Eric Rauchway

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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In a mere fifty years, the United States transformed itself from a second-tier country crippled by its effort to abolish the appalling institution of human slavery into a great power unlike any the world had ever seen. The question of how it did this should command our attention all by itself, but the question of why it became such a peculiar—and incompetent—empire surely ranks as one of the great questions of modern history. For truly, measured by consequences, few global disasters can match the mismanagement of the international system in the 1920s, which owed almost entirely to bad decisions made in America. All that saves the United States from complete responsibility is the answer to the first question, of how this change happened so fast: America became a great power so swiftly, and became such a peculiar empire, because the rest of the world made it that way.

Globalization does not always level the world's playing field. It produces winners, losers, and, on occasion, global economic disasters. As Eric Rauchway compellingly shows, no nation more clearly reflects the effects of globalization's uneven influence than the United States. A historian's answer to the rosier predictions of economists, Blessed Among Nations is a narrated reminder that we need merely to review the decades between the end of the Civil War and the aftermath of World War I—the first era of globalization—to realize that one nation's enrichment need not benefit the whole world.

An incisive explanation of why America has inspired more envy than imitation, Blessed Among Nations warns that if we do not better understand how the United States failed, early on, to master the forces that made it what it is today, we stand to make the same mistakes again, in a world with even higher stakes.


Praise for Blessed Among Nations

"The opening chapter of Blessed Among Nations notes how much the United States differed from other industrial and industrializing nations between 1850 and 1920. The book;s main theme is that despite its unique character, the United States benefited extraordinary from globalization . . . As a description of various aspects of American behavior and development, the book is provocative and thoroughly researched. Rauchway writes very well and unearths interesting examples to illustrate his points. As a supplemental reader, the book will stimulate questions and elicit animated discussion."—John M. Dobson, The Journal of American History

"Provocative . . . Blessed Among Nations combines the same fluid writing style, bold interpretive approach, and ambitious agenda that made the work of mid–twentieth century historians like Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and C. Vann Woodward so important and so broadly relevant."—Joshua Zeitz, American Heritage

"Blessed Among Nations is a welcome contribution to a growing literature that examines the history of the United States in the context of global economic development. Rauchway pulls a mass of interesting and complex information together into a solid, convincing, and clear narrative that will lead readers to a new appreciation of the depth of the United States' historical engagement with the global economy and to an understanding of the intimate consequences of this engagement for the country's political, social, and institutional development." —Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

"America's rise to preeminence, the author argues, was the product of a perfect storm of foreign investment, luck, and global instability, and we forget at our peril the fickle nature of such forces. With hegemony comes responsibility, he suggests, responsibility that the U.S. may presently be all too willing to shirk."—The Atlantic Monthly

"Written by an accomplished, imaginative historian who well understands those beginnings of modern America—the years of the Progressive Era—this book on one level suggests why socialism never took root in the United States, and why the supposed melting pot and the early Federal Reserve System worked as they did, but on quite another level develops a highly revealing argument how Americans' faith in their 'empire' and their exceptionalism shaped in often unexpected ways what we now call globalization and their part in it."—Walter LaFeber, Tisch University Professor, Cornell University

"I can always depend on Eric Rauchway to display the meticulousness of a careful historian with the literary flair of a fine novelist. Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America adds to this admixture a powerful public voice as well; a tour de force."—Eric Alterman, author of When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences

"With his trademark lapidary elegance, Rauchway shows us that America's position astride the currents of globalization is due not merely to a mysteriously voracious capitalistic impulse, but to often fortuitous effects of seemingly unconnected particulars, such as monopolies rather than government dominating lending, and the diversity of our immigrants impeding a socialist revolution. A flinty and compelling synthesis."—John McWhorter, author of Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America

"American 'exceptionalism' is one of those things often asserted, seldom convincingly proved. By setting the history of the United States in the context of the history of the first age of globalization, Eric Rauchway has come up with a powerful new argument about what exactly made the American experience different. Blessed Among Nations is both brilliant and convincing. For the breadth of his vision, the author deserves to be blessed among U.S. historians"—Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and author of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire

"Laying the groundwork for American empire was an international enterprise—so why doesn't the world want to be American? 'The earth's people have more often envied than imitated America,' writes Rauchway, preferring parliamentarianism and welfare statism to republicanism and laissez-faire. To find out why, Rauchway examines America's rise to empire, which occupied the years between 1865 and 1917. During that time, he writes, America received both financial and human capital from abroad; the working class was predominantly immigrant, as was the army that tamed the western frontier, while huge flows of European cash into the post-Civil War economy made an industrial super-revolution possible, leading to a manifold increase in the nation's wealth. Yet Americans refused to do the things that newly wealthy countries do—namely, invest in public infrastructure and build social-welfare institutions and mechanisms. Rauchway observes that just before WWI, America's army was smaller than Ethiopia's, while 'relative to the size of its economy it had a smaller government than the Netherlands;' he reckons that at least some of the refusal to build a welfare state had precisely to do with the fact that the working class 'appeared visibly to consist of people from other countries,' leading native-born Americans to look the other way when issues of, say, occupational safety and labor exploitation arose. Our laissez-faire ways seemed particularly problematic when it came time to raise an army to fight overseas, leading to the creation of particularly inept bureaucracies, for 'routine competence simply did not lie within the experience of Americans who had relied for years on an incidentally benevolent world to take care of them.' And when it came time to protect the world economy with American initiatives after the armistice, Americans failed to come through, yielding worldwide depression—good reason to avoid imitating the American way of life. Given the current reliance on foreign capital and immigrant labor, Rauchway's book is right on time and right on target."—Kirkus Reviews

"The furor created in the United States by recent demonstrations on behalf of illegal immigrants makes Rauchway's analysis of America's early experiences with a global community especially timely. Rauchway posits that the United States became quintessentially 'American,' i.e., an economic powerhouse, in the years between the Civil War and World War I. In a staunchly unbiased fashion, he draws upon events during those years that made the United States the favored recipient of foreign capital investment. Cheap immigrant labor played a central role in the building of America, while other countries spent far more on the social welfare of their citizens than did the United States. Yet the influx of labor and capital did not make America more like other nations but instead more distinctive; it came to see itself, in President Wilson's phrase, as 'blessed among nations,' a concept that fostered the smug isolationism it abandoned when the United States was forced to enter World War I and become a major player in world affairs. Rauchway believes that the United States, by virtue of its standing among nations, has the obligation to maintain a commitment to globalization rather than to regard it as a self-regulating mechanism . . . Excellent."—Library Journal

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and America
King Edward's new policy of peace was very successful and
culminated in the Great War. . . . [Afterward] America was . . .
clearly top nation, and History came to a [full stop].—W. C. Seller and R. J....

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  • Eric Rauchway

  • Eric Rauchway has written for the Financial Times and the Los Angeles Times. He teaches at the University of California, Davis, and is the author of Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. He lives in northern California.

  • Eric Rauchway William and Yolanda Summerhill
    Eric Rauchway