Jay Sexton is the Kinder Institute Chair in Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri. This interview is based on his new book A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History (Basic Books, 2018).
JF: What led you to write A Nation Forged by Crisis?
JS: What prompted me to write this book was a move I recently made from British academia to that of the United States. Soon after I returned to the Midwest after nearly two decades in England, I realized that how I had taught and researched U.S. history would change. I thought that I ought to write something broad on how I taught U.S. history to British students before I forgot it all! Second, this book took shape during the unanticipated political developments of 2016 – most of all Brexit and the election of Trump. Hearing everyone on the news and in the papers holler about how the volatility was unprecedented made me think that it would be useful to write something that reminded folks that our history has not always been smooth.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Nation Forged by Crisis?
JS: This book has two arguments. First, it contends that moments of crisis have shaped the development of the United States. Second, it argues that America’s most transformative crises were entwined with sharp shifts in the international system, particularly those relating to national security, immigration, and international capitalism.
JF: Why do we need to read A Nation Forged by Crisis?
JS: This book shows readers that the course of U.S. history was not pre-ordained. Most of all, it highlights the underappreciated role played by foreign powers and the foreign-born within the United States.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JS: Though I’ve always loved the study of the past, I stumbled into the profession. A two-year masters in England morphed into a PhD, post-doc, and then a permanent job. The rest, as they say, is history.
JF: What is your next project?
JS: I’ve been working for some years now on a history of steam transport in the second half of the nineteenth century. The book I just finished meant that that project has been idling on the high seas. But I’m looking forward to firing up the coal engines and going full steam ahead again.
JF: Thanks, Jay!