In This Review

American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783–1850
American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783–1850
By Alan Taylor
Norton, 2021, 544 pp

This volume follows two earlier works, American Colonies and American Revolutions, to form a trilogy by one of the preeminent historians of the period. The plural terms in the second and third titles underline the books’ central theme: that the early history of what became the United States was not what most Americans have been taught. The real story, Taylor writes in this deeply researched and beautifully written book, is not of a singular revolution that followed a sure path toward nationhood and then swept across the continent with confidence and moral purpose but rather a tale of fragility and intense dispute. The key actors were disparate states, deeply suspicious of one another, to which Americans owed their primary allegiance. Their coming together was so contentious and uncertain that most Americans at the time had reason to think of what they were doing as framing only a union, not a nation. Taylor grippingly describes the yawning gap that opened up between the founding documents’ soaring principles and the reality of white Americans’ behavior. The massive wrongs the majority perpetrated in their oppression of Native Americans and Black slaves were nearly equaled by the terrible treatment they inflicted on free Black people.