In the introduction, Tyrell begins with a brief outline of the traditional narrative often ascribed to the formation of the United States as a nations. This narrative focuses on domestic developments which championed internal forces over European cultural influence, almost giving the impression that America developed in isolation. Tyrell aims to challenge this oversimplified image of American history through an exploration of the way that America’s history shaped/has been shaped by global events, placing US history in the context of larger global shifts and patterns. He argues that ‘the nation itself is produced transnationally’ (p.3) as a nations must define themselves against others, and this occurs at multiple regional and global contexts concerning security, economic competition, and demographic changes. Therefore, the development of the United States was dependent on factors such as pressures from Britain and France, or wider patterns of social and economic modernisation.
Chapter One deals with the relationship between America and the wider world, particularly Britain and France, from 1789-1815. Tyrell here paints a picture of America that sees it as torn between British and French rivalry. These transatlantic connections form an important aspect of internal conflicts within the US at the time as America’s fledgling political parties had either pro-French (Democratic-Republicans) or pro-British (Federalists) sympathies. He also provides transnational links for America’s territorial expansion stating that events such as the Louisiana Purchase were prompted by a fear of other nations inhibiting US regional dominance. This chapter effectively highlights the way in which the traditional view of internal growth is challenged by a shift in focus towards America’s relations with other world powers. However, it is important to note that the transnational exchange was not one-way, Tyrell also states that the revolutionary movement in France in 1789 was influence by the earlier American Revolution, creating a cyclical flow of revolutionary ideas.
It is ideas, and their movement, that chapter three focuses on. A number of examples are given in this chapter, such as the Temperance movement. This is particularly interesting as it shows the way in which the flow of ideas can be facilitated by other transnational aspects. The Temperance movement was spread primarily through America’s maritime trade links. This links to a broader theme which runs across both this chapter and Chapter 4: the theme of migration. It is ultimately the flow of people, in this case sailors and missionaries, that facilitate the spread of ideas, making migration an important transnational issue. This is the focus of Chapter four.
Chapter four is by far the most interesting chapter as, aside from migration being a ‘hot topic’, as historians such as Clavin have stated transnational history is about people and the networks they form, and the importance of these networks is particularly apparent in this chapter. It begins in the same way as the introduction in that it provides an overview into the traditional American narrative of immigration which is seen as a one-way process in which arrival in the US was followed by assimilation and a loss of culture. However, Tyrell shows this interpretation to be too simplistic. He states that immigration is a larger transnational process that is made possible by factors such as advances in global communications and multiple global and regional layers of economic shifts. I admit that I was guilty of subscribing to the image of America in the period before 1924 as the main destination for immigration. The romantic image of immigrants travelling to America for a better life has persisted in various cultural forms. However, Tyrell shows that immigration to America was not unique, rather it was part of a global movement, with America as one of many destinations. Nevertheless, America benefitted from the influx of immigration as meant that the labour demand could be filled. The most important aspect of the chapter is that it demonstrates the effect that transnational migration flows had on the world. In Europe the population shift towards the US meant that it lost a large part of its young male workforce, aiding America’s pre-1914 economic dominance. However, Europe also benefitted from this transnational movement as returning migrants often brought wealth and US innovations back to their communities.
Clavin, Patricia, ‘Defining Transnationalism’, Contemporary European History 14, 4 (2005), pp. 421-439.
Tyrell, Ian, Transnational Nation, United States History in Global Perspective since 1789, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2007), Intro, chapters 1, 3, and 4.