Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ian Tyrrell's "Reforming the World"

Ian Tyrrell is Scientia Professor of History at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia; and Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University, for 2010-11. He has written, among other books, Transnational Nation: United States History in Global Perspective since 1789 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Reforming the World: The Creation of America's Moral Empire, and reported the following:
Ever wondered where Americans got the idea that they could save the world? One place to start looking for an answer is Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire. The page 99 test leads straight to a humanitarian urge. Here the book begins to tackle the question of why there was a sudden surge in humanitarian sentiment in the 1890s. Certainly “Long before the 1890s the people of the United States had shown interest in the plight of the less fortunate abroad.” But Americans accelerated their concern after 1880, spurred by missionaries abroad and a web of transnational reform organizations. Readers learn that Americans donated to and formed support groups for the South Asian educator and cross-cultural figure Pandita Ramabai. American aid to Ramabai’s work “for high-caste Hindu child brides became a prototype for later activities” in the reforming impulse.

A cast of characters that includes temperance reformer France Willard and the evangelical leader of an extraordinary mission outburst in that decade, John Mott, make page 99 cameo appearances in supporting roles, as Americans moved out from their inward-looking concerns to see the world as their field to change morals, relieve suffering and reform the world.

Where does this all lead? Toward the bottom of the page readers discover that similar humanitarianism saw Americans give to Russian famine relief, and that the Red Cross joins the transnational networking. “In the Johnstown floods of 1889 and other earlier domestic disasters, the American Red Cross was instrumental in providing relief, but from the time of the famine, it and its coworkers turned to international affairs.”

The page raises an old argument, often dismissed, but now put in proper context. The drive of Americans to relieve suffering in Spanish-controlled Cuba in 1897-98 prior to the Spanish-American War became a humanitarian justification for that war. The imperial adventure it started is not discussed on this page, but the parallels are unmistakable. In the 1950s, prominent historian Richard Hofstadter interpreted the spirit of 1890s expansionism, relating it to psychological anxieties and the American public’s increasingly bellicose temper towards Spain. For Hofstadter the sources of this humanitarianism and imperialism in the Progressive Era lay inward, in the traditional narrative of American history’s dynamic outward drive, but in this book, American empire has its origins in missionary and humanitarian transnational encounters that spin a web of obligations encouraging Americans to take action against Cuba in 1898.

The running head on page 99 is “BLOOD, SOULS, AND POWER”, and on this page "body and soul” is the real humanitarian concern. To find the blood and power, and where it all led for America in the imperial imbroglio of the Philippines and beyond, it’s necessary to read the whole book.
Read an excerpt from Reforming the World, and visit Ian Tyrrell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue