Do the Americas have a common history? The question seems first to have been posed in these words in 1941. It was chosen as the title for the English translation, published by the Pan American Union, of an article that originally appeared in Spanish under the title of “Hegel and Modern Pan-Americanism.” Its author was the distinguished Mexican philosophical historian Edmundo O’Gorman, best known in the English-speaking world for his book The Invention of America, which provocatively argued that America was not “discovered” by Columbus but was a European “invention” of the sixteenth century.1

O’Gorman’s article, first published in Havana in 1939, included a characteristically vigorous denunciation of the famous presidential address delivered by Herbert Bolton to the American Historical Association in 1932 in which he argued that the time had come to move beyond national history and write an “Epic of Greater America.” Bolton’s thesis was that the hemisphere had a larger historical unity that transcended the traditional distinctions between North and South, Anglo-Saxon and Iberian, America. It was the existence of so many shared features of the various New World societies, like their common frontier experience, that called for and justified the “Greater” American approach he so forcefully advocated. O’Gorman would have none of this. Bolton, like Hegel, was the victim of a “geographical hallucination” that had led him to subordinate history to a “geographical category.” As a result, he had succumbed to a facile Pan-Americanism, which he then sought to buttress by historically dubious arguments—for instance that “the essential unity of the Western Hemisphere” was revealed by the solidarity of North and South America in opposing Germany during World War I.

It was indeed true, argued O’Gorman, that “larger historical unities” existed, but these were “unities of Nature and not of human nature, which is the essence of history.” Bolton, in his reductionist approach to the history of an American continent perceived in purely spatial terms, had ignored the whole dimension of cultural history and the sharp contrasts between Anglo-American and Ibero-American civilization. Something more than a Pan-American highway was required if we were to believe in the existence of a Greater America.2

Since the days of Bolton and O’Gorman, much has changed, and much has not. Bolton’s address failed to inspire the next generation of historians to embark on an “Epic of Greater America,” and in some respects, as historians and university history departments proliferated, there was, if anything, increased compartmentalization between the histories of the United States and Latin America, with a corresponding narrowing of vision as specialization intensified. Yet at the same time the idea of a history that embraced the hemisphere refused to lie down and die, as can be seen from the publication in 1964 by the distinguished Latin Americanist Lewis Hanke of an anthology of articles about the Bolton theory, under the title Do the Americas Have a Common History? In spite of the strength of exceptionalism, whether North American or Latin American, there were certain topics, like slavery or the frontier experience, which cried out for an approach that transcended national boundaries. Some historians appreciated that such an approach, making use of connections and comparisons between different societies, was capable of producing new insights into both local situations and the general phenomenon. Even if the end result might not be authentically Pan-American, a comparative study of slavery in Virginia and Cuba, or an examination of Latin American frontier history in the light of the Turner thesis, could only encourage fresh inquiry by placing standard topics in a broader historical context.3

The historiographical climate in the 1970s and 1980s, however, was not particularly conducive to broad-gauged historical enterprises. Marxist and marxisant historiography, which, for all its defects, had sought to grapple with major problems of historical change, was in retreat, and revisionist historians, with their pointillist approach to the past, were on the attack. The new fashion for microhistory meant that the general yielded ground to the particular. The big picture, painted in bold brushstrokes, gave way to the miniature.

Over the past few years, however, there have been growing signs of a new turn of the historical wheel. Large themes, which had tended to be left to political and social scientists, have once again come into fashion with historians, as globalization has reduced the size of the world. Emigration, empire, enslavement, the encounter between the West and the rest—all of them subjects linking different worlds and societies—are central subjects today.4 Inevitably this new desire to connect has been reflected in recent historical writing on the Americas. It has found expression in impressively wide-ranging works on slavery, like Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery and David Eltis’s The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, and in the current invigorating, if debatable, turn to “Atlantic history” linking the two sides of the ocean in a single narrative.5 This should therefore be a good moment for rethinking the feasibility of a unified history of the Americas, as I suggested in a lecture I gave in 1996, for which I appropriated the title of O’Gorman’s article and Lewis Hanke’s anthology: “Do the Americas Have a Common History?”6


The lecture, appropriately, was sponsored by the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, to commemorate the passage of 150 years since that prince of book collectors, John Carter Brown, began to amass his great collection of Americana. Works on North and South America were of equal interest to Carter Brown, and to this day the library that he founded has remained faithful to his vision that the hemisphere should be treated as a unity. In my lecture, I traced, very sketchily, the points at which the histories of the different Americas appeared to me both to converge and diverge. In doing so, I was throwing down a gauntlet, in the hope that someone would be brave enough to take it up. The challenge has now been accepted with characteristic panache by Dr. Felipe Fernández-Armesto.

Fernández-Armesto, who teaches at Queen Mary College, University of London, is not a historian afflicted by inhibitions. Over the past few years he has achieved international prominence as a prolific author of sometimes lengthy volumes on an impressive array of topics, ranging from the history of the last thousand years and a study of civilizations in relation to their environment to the history of truth and the history of food.7 In alimento, if not in vino, veritas. He always has something to say, and he says it with verve and flashes of brilliance. He can be opinionated, idiosyncratic, and sometimes perverse, but he can also cut through to the essentials of an argument, and illuminate a standard topic with a sudden shaft of light. His range of reading is enormous, he has written extensively on European overseas exploration in the Age of Discoveries, and, as a former visiting scholar at the John Carter Brown Library, he has had the inducement and the opportunity to consider the history of the Americas as a hemispheric whole. These are useful qualifications for a daunting task.

The result is not, as might have been expected, another blockbuster. The Americas: A Hemispheric History is, on the contrary, a short book and more in the nature of an extended essay than a substantial and deeply researched work of historical scholarship. Within its relatively short compass of just over two hundred small pages, it bears all the hallmarks of a Fernández-Armesto production. There are the personal anecdotes—a conversation with a Buenos Aires taxi driver, a visit to a museum in Guatemala City where he discerns the face of a rain god in the frame of a seventeenth-century painting of the Virgin, an exchange at dinner in his Oxford college with Walter Rostow, who claimed that Brazilians are superior to other Latin Americans—and the personal references: “I am a Catholic…. It would comfort me to believe that capitalism and imperialism are peculiarly Protestant vices. Alas, they are prevalent among my coreligionists, too.”

Fernández-Armesto’s prose can be hard and precise, with an impressive deployment of vivid and telling examples, but it can also be pretentious and overwrought: “Short-lived histories, like those of the stagecoach companies and the Pony Express, assumed disproportionate magnetism in the mythopoeia of dime novels and B movies.” This is not the kind of sentence that lifts the heart. There is, too, the characteristic resort to provocative assertion: “It was never self-help that made the United States great; it was mutual support.” Some readers will enjoy the stimulus of such dogmatic statements of opinion, expressed as incontestable truths. Others may prefer a more detached and measured approach to the complexities of the past.

No less characteristic of Fernández-Armesto, however, than the sometimes irritating parade of personal idiosyncrasies is the willingness to engage with large historical issues in imaginative ways. In attempting a “hemispheric history” he has embarked, as he recognizes, on a pioneering enterprise. This is Bolton’s “Epic of Greater America,” although not as Bolton would have written it. Indeed neither in scale nor in approach is it an epic, but it does display an epic determination to grapple with the problems that face any historian willing to look over the parapet protecting an enclosed piece of territory and survey the vast expanse of unfamiliar land on the other side.

At the heart of these problems is the question of exceptionalism, of unity and diversity. Is that land beyond the parapet so very different, or is it essentially more of the same? Do the Americas have a common history, or do we have to recognize, as Fernández- Armesto writes near the beginning of his book, that “the more inclusive we make the name of America, the frailer its unity becomes; the valid generalizations diminish, the anomalies multiply”? This is a dilemma that faces all comparative historians, and Fernández-Armesto can no more escape it than anyone else.


Yet it is a dilemma that needs to be confronted by historians of the Americas, if only because of the issues at stake. Historians, political and social scientists, and economists have long been preoccupied with the disparities of development between North and South America, the “success” of the first and the relative “failure” of the second. Are they to be explained by the contrasting values of Anglo-Saxon and Iberian culture, as many have argued, among them Claudio Véliz in his The New World of the Gothic Fox (1994),8 or by geographical and environmental considerations, or perhaps by extraneous factors, like the economics of imperialism? “One of the greatest problems of the history of the Americas,” writes Fernández-Armesto, “is, why the divergence? One of the greatest unsolved problems of the future of the Americas is, what are we going to do about it? Those problems are the subject of this book.” It is only, he argues, by “seeing the Americas whole” that the problems can be fully understood.

To enable us to see “the Americas whole” he takes us on a whirlwind chronological itinerary that begins with the peopling of the Americas some 15,000 years ago and ends with Argentina’s economic collapse. This grand tour of 15,000 years of hemispheric history is in no sense random, but is designed to make us concentrate on the long-term relationship between north and south. His central argument is that for most of those 15,000 years it was the south and not the north that predominated, and that “the modern story of the Americas is one of transition from north-on-south to south-on- north dependency.” It is not clear to me that “dependency” is quite the right word for the phenomenon he seeks to describe and explain, but the drift of his argument is clear enough. In the precolonial period, for instance, the “nurseries and nerve centers” of civilization were to be found in Mesoamerica and the Andes, and those North American cultures that made contact with cultures to the south of them “fell under their spell.”

Fernández-Armesto is often at his strongest when he relates human development to the geographical environment, and here he has illuminating comments to make on why environmental conditions should have favored the southerners over the northerners for such a long period of history, until, over the last two centuries, what had long appeared the “normal” north–south relationship came to be so strikingly reversed. Although he argues that the colonial period, at least up to the later eighteenth century, foreshadowed the later changes, he sees it as still favoring the south—the regions colonized by Spain and Portugal. But the effect of colonialism, whether British, French, or Iberian, was to “make the Americas more like each other, not to drive them apart.” There was a convergence both of plant and animal life and of technologies, a convergence of economic and political practices, and even a convergence of religion, “for Christianity, whether in the Protestant or Catholic tradition, was remarkably uniform compared with the paganism that had preceded it.”

When and why, then, does the divergence come? He sees it as stemming from the events of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: on the one hand the opening up of the continental interior of North America and on the other the movements for independence which snapped the chains of formal empire, and turned former European colonies into sovereign states. In the nineteenth century the United States, by capitalizing on an unusually favorable set of circumstances, took its great leap forward, leaving the states of Latin America panting to keep up in the rear. Between them industrialization and democracy transformed North America, and set the United States on the path to its present world domination. But whether the current imbalance of north and south remains the new “normalcy” is an open question, and the book ends with the possibility that the historical trajectories of North and South America may yet reconverge.

Inevitably, given the limited space at his disposal, Fernández-Armesto uses very broad brushstrokes, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments in particular receive only the most cursory of treatments. But his general thesis is clear and often persuasive, and it has the great virtue of challenging some well-entrenched stereotypes. In particular, it dismisses the argument, so often made, that Iberian societies in general, and Latin American societies in particular, are somehow honorably ineligible for the struggle of life in the modern world.

Yet in his determination to free hemispheric history from the clutches of all kinds of determinism, from climatic to cultural, Fernández-Armesto seems to me to sweep too much out of sight. His instinct as a historian is to favor “circumstances” in the shaping of the past. “On the whole, it is a mistake to suppose that great events must have great causes or long-drawn-out origins.” This leads him, I think rightly, to place more emphasis than many historians do on matters of timing and contingency as an explanation of the very different consequences for British and Spanish America of their wars of independence. He could indeed have substantially strengthened his case by setting them more firmly in the context of the enormous transformations that overtook Europe and the Atlantic world between the outbreak of the American Revolution in the 1770s and that of the Spanish-American revolutions in the 1810s, among them the effects of the French Revolution and of the conquests and defeats of Napoleon. But he properly draws attention to the protracted nature of the Spanish-American struggle for independence, and the long shadow that this was to cast over the future of the southern half of the hemisphere. “In cauldrons of war,” he remarks, “the ingredients of successful state making sometimes coagulate, but the longer the wars go on, the less likely that outcome.” The struggle of the United States for independence was traumatic but short; that of Latin America was protracted and ruinous.

But however valid his point, it ignores too much that happened before. The distinctive characters of the colonial societies on the eve of independence cannot, to my mind, be so casually dismissed. When we examine what had preceded it, colonialism no doubt gave the Americas a degree of uniformity they had never previously experienced. But this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that in their political and religious cultures and their social and economic organization and practices there were profound differences between the British and the Iberian colonies, as well as important similarities. The British-American colonies had a long tradition of virtual self-government based on representative institutions; the Spanish-American colonies did not. The British-American colonies were religiously pluralistic; the Spanish-American colonies had a single officially recognized faith. Span-ish America, unlike British, contained densely settled indigenous populations which had to be incorporated into the social order. Also, unlike British America, it possessed vast deposits of precious metals, whose exploitation did much to dictate the nature of the colonial economies and their relationship to the outer world.

Over time, these differences had a multiplier effect, which was bound to influence the character of the response of the former colonial societies to the challenges and opportunities that faced them after they achieved independence. Contingent circumstances were of undoubted significance, but they have constantly to be assessed in the light of conditions created by long-term developments, which themselves may have helped to shape the nature of the contingency. Would Spanish America’s wars of independence, for instance, have been so protracted if so many members of the Mexican and Peruvian creole elites had not been afraid of the social and ethnic upheaval that the struggle for independence could unleash?

It is here, in the weighing of “cir-cumstance” against the influence of longer-term trends—although by no means necessarily immutable ones—that Fernández-Armesto’s book fails in its attempt to explain the “great divergence.” His acute analysis of the environmental context of American history is not accompanied by an equally acute analysis of the varieties of political, religious, social, and economic order developed in that environmental context over the course of the centuries. But this is a richly suggestive essay rather than a close examination conducted in depth.

Edmundo O’Gorman, in his critique of Bolton, remarks that “he travels over the map of America like an expert aviator and in his flight selects, points out, underlines clusters of events which he terms ‘great unities’.”9 Something of the same criticism could be leveled against Fernández-Armesto. Yet as he soars through the skies and swoops down on the hemisphere, making bracing observations as he goes, one cannot help but salute the daring of an intrepid aviator, or fail to agree with him that “a Pan-American approach cannot solve the problems, but it does put them into perspective.” A perspective, even when taken from the empyrean, is vastly preferable to no perspective at all.

This Issue

February 26, 2004