Adas and Guarneri on Integrating the United States into Global History

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Adas, Michael. “From Settler Colony to Global Hegemon: Integrating the Exceptionalist Narrative of the American Experience into World History” American Historical Review, Vol. 106, No 5 (December 2001), pp 1692-1720.

Guarneri, Carl. America in the World: United States History in Global Context. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

In the above-cited works, historians Michael Adas and Carl Guarneri provide convincing views on studying America in the context of global history. Adas argues that idea of American exceptionalism must be reshaped to acknowledge a distinctive “but by no means exceptional” (1720) impact on world historical processes. Meanwhile, Guarneri provides us with a monograph of United States history that situates it in a world context, comparing various events and key issues to those happening simultaneously elsewhere. His descriptions of U.S. historical events and their transnational connections and impacts show the nation’s progress from a somewhat unimportant colonial outpost for the British to world power in the 20th century. Both works strive to show that United States history is important in both an individual and global context, and that its history consists of multi-lateral threads of impact that go both ways.

Michael Adas’ article engages the notion of exceptionalism, first propagated by John Winthrop and his followers after their colonization of Massachusetts. He points out that American exceptionalism not only consists of a notion of uniqueness but also one of a mission (quoting William Appleman Williams) which involves a teleological sense of destiny and providence. This distinctive mix of messianic nationalism and exclusivity set the tone of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the U.S. sought to “civilize” other cultures and countries. This affected Native Americans internally, as well as those outside U.S. borders. Adas goes on to explore the global impact on exceptionalist ideas, and argues that “the need for the full integration of U.S. history into comparative…and global frameworks has perhaps been the most convincingly demonstrated by the important ways in which cross-cultural studies have shaped…a diverse range of subfields dealing with the processes that have been central to the American experience” (1701). He draws a sharp distinction between exceptionalism and difference, commenting that softening the exceptionalist doctrine to one of difference allows for a lessening of the traditional American superiority complex, while also inviting other societies to imitate the best notions of republican/democratic thought and practice. The last section of the article focuses on how the history of the U.S. “provides important variations on a number of the core processes of world history” (1704). He delves into the colonial plantation establishment, impacts of disease and colonization on Native Americans, and describes the similar cross-cultural and continent comparisons elsewhere. Adas concludes with a review of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis and discusses utilizing its perspective in other non-U.S. situations in order to rethink the notion of American exceptionalism. Particularly salient to this is his separation of the notions of borderland versus frontier and the impact of that distinction when studying the colonization and expansion of Westerners in South Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere. This final argument strengthens his conclusion that America’s exceptionalism is perhaps not so exclusive.

Carl Guarneri’s book about American history in world context provides a nice complement to Adas’ essay. Guarneri argues that the U.S. is the “prime inheritor of Europe’s economic legacy” and that in three centuries, it “moved from the periphery to the core” of the world stage (20). He sets out to explore the reasons why journalist Henry Luce eventually dubbed the twentieth century “the American Century” and questions the possibility of it lasting if America begins to imitate the more outsize notions of empire. The book is organized to look at the U.S. over a four part schema – frontier, colony, nation and empire, and shows the transnational and cross-cultural connections of various institutions and ideologies such as slavery, trade networks, capitalism and social movements. Each chapter looks at the impacts American events made on the world, while also exploring world events and their impact on the U.S. His discussion of U.S. involvement in the Philippines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries posits that the U.S. has less of the stomach to initiate true imperialism and empire-building. He writes, “The Philippine experience showed the difficulty of sustaining Americans’ commitment to formal imperialism after their initial enthusiasm waned. Democratizing and modernizing colonies demanded more time and money than Americans were willing to invest…” (226), and points to contemporary critics who cited the notion that “an imperial republic” is a contradiction in terms (223). Overall, Guarneri’s conclusions are similar to that of Michael Adas’ in that despite the argument that the U.S. has become a global hegemon – or even empire – it is integral to the discussion of its rise to power to include transnational comparisons.

Lauren MacIvor Thompson