Hahn Turns American History "Inside Out"

By Phyllis Jeffrey - Why do certain historical narratives become entrenched—and with what consequences? On October 10, 2016, in a talk entitled "The United States from the Inside Out and Southside North," Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor in American History at New York University Steven Hahn explored the consequences of shifting the vantage point from which we look upon processes of historical change.

Such a shift is, Hahn noted, no easy task. History as a discipline is intimately tied up with history-making as the work of sovereign nation-states. The continued social and political relevance of history-making can, for instance, be seen in incidents like last year’s controversy over a high school textbook’s presentation of slavery. While contemporary American historians may not be the handmaidens of the state, Hahn posited that the means by which dominant narratives remain entrenched are often subtle and therefore difficult to dislodge.

Aggressive Atlanticism

In U.S. historiography, Hahn observed, the paradigm that has assumed dominance is the “Atlanticist” frame. This perspective presumes that historically significant processes, movements, and developments arose in the (north) Atlantic region and extended westward, yielding a narrative in which an industrialized, developed North Atlantic “core” absorbed an underdeveloped, raw “periphery.” Thus, for example, the rise of capitalism is understood as a wave, sweeping east to west. 

More perplexing, Hahn noted, is how the Atlanticist narrative has proven difficult to shake. The past decade has seen the emergence of approaches seeking to disrupt the narrative by “looking east,” focusing on borderlands, or examining rebellion or resistance to governance. This growing body of work has helped to expose the assumptions of Atlanticism by demonstrating that westward expansion was not simply an unstoppable force. Rather, it was subject to the resistance, negotiation, and struggle of native peoples and other groups.

However, for Hahn, more work is needed to produce a sustained alternative narrative. And even then, drawing attention to the struggles westward expansion faced may not actually displace the master narrative. Looking at border-based struggles may, for instance, ironically shore up the reality and “inevitability” of those borders. Instead, Hahn argued for a renewed focus on contingency and counterfactual “what-ifs” via new stories that cover the same central processes as the dominant narrative, but that start and end in less canonical places and movements.

Seeking the facts

So, what could a sustained history of the U.S. from “inside out” and “southside north” look like? Hahn offered a three examples— capitalism, slavery, and the Civil War—to demonstrate how our understanding of each might change with an inverted frame of analysis.

In Civil War historiography, Hahn noted, we are accustomed to talking about the war as a matter of struggle between North vs. South; or (used synonymously) slave-owning vs. non-slave-owning states. But doing so not only ignores key geopolitical dynamics, it risks reifying divisions whose existence may reflect the influence of politics more than objective historical fact. 

First, Hahn demonstrated that the North vs. South frame ignores the crucial importance of the West to the aims of policymakers. Gaining power in the Pacific was an important aim of policymakers, who saw it as a gateway to riches. Such was the centrality of “West” in the conflict that it is possible (although not completely proven) that famed abolitionist campaigner William Seward expressed willingness to “accommodate” slavery in California as a trade-off for gaining that state for the union.

Another place from which to launch a revealing “inside out” Civil War narrative is the Mississippi Valley. This region, Hahn revealed, was envisioned by both Northern and Southern Democrats as the nexus of a sweeping Southeast-based agrarian and commercial empire, to be completed by annexation of Cuba and, perhaps, parts of Mexico. Northern Democratic senator Stephen Douglas, for example, was willing to ally himself to Southern slave-owners while personally opposing slavery, simply because he shared this expansionist vision.

Uncomfortable truths

Looking “inside out” and “southside north” forces us to engage seriously with counterfactuals—in particular, with the non-inevitability of an industrialist society dominated by the Northeast. Perhaps more discomfiting is the challenge to the familiar trope of moral victory, which saw a staunchly anti-slave-owning North prevail over a backward, slave-owning South. The examples of Seward and Douglas, and the role generally of expansionist and even imperialist aims in this war, unsettle such an account.

In this and other examples, Hahn demonstrated that by inverting the narrative, we can escape the effects of entrenched political constructions and see history in more rigorous—if sometimes uncomfortable—terms.

Learn more about Steven Hahn at his New York University faculty webpage. His new book, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, is forthcoming from Viking Press.