Presenting America in Universal History
A Review of Matt Ehret’s The Unfinished Symphony: The Clash of the Two Americas, volume I
By Nancy Spannaus
July 8, 2021—Too often these days, people choose to view the United States from one of two templates. On the one side is the “patriotic” tradition which paints America as an unadulterated independent force for good, usually at odds with the rest of the world. On the other is the increasingly popular view that brands America as a font of hypocrisy from the beginning, responsible for virtually all the great evils of the world.
Enter Matt Ehret, in his latest book The Unfinished Symphony: The Clash of Two Americas. Ehret, with co-author Cynthia Chung, sets out to challenge all simplistic views of the United States and its history by taking the discussion to the level of universal history. He thus provides a useful and highly informative antidote to the current culture war, while also proposing a potential way out of today’s global conflict between the American-led “West” and Russia and China.
The Global Movement
As Ehret states in his Introduction, “Father of Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, shaped not merely a revolution of 13 independent-minded colonies against the British Empire, but rather a global movement stretching from France, Russia, Poland, Ireland, Prussia, India and even Africa!” That movement represented universal ideals of freedom for human creativity, technological progress, and peaceful cooperation among nations. As such, it was in constant warfare with British imperialism on all continents.
In the chapters that follow, Ehret enlightens his readers with stories of forgotten history from that international process. You will learn about how Russia not only contributed to the founding of the American Republic, but acted decisively in our defense during and after the Civil War. You will learn about how the Indian Muslim Hydar Ali’s battle against the British in 1780 contributed to our victory in the Revolutionary war, and the connections in thought and diplomacy between American patriots, starting with Franklin, and leading Chinese statesmen. And you will learn how British imperialists organized themselves to prevent this collaboration.
Especially detailed and fascinating to me are the presentation of the history of Canada, as it relates to the American battle against British imperialism from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War. How unfortunate that petitions from British Columbians to join the United States were not acted upon, for example. A Canadian himself, Ehret has written a series of books on the hidden history of Canada, which provide even more detail on this aspect of strategic warfare.
This is not to say that the internal struggles of the United States are not covered as well. There are chapters on the Northern Secession movement of the late 18th-early 19th century, on Hamilton and Lincoln’s fights for the American System of Political Economy, and the real history behind the growth of slavery and launching of the Civil War.
The William Gilpin Story
One of the most extensive discussions in 250-page book concerns the story of the Governor of Colorado and Lincoln ally and bodyguard, William Gilpin. Through Gilpin’s personal history, Ehret is able to concretize several of his essential themes about America’s real identity.
In one lengthy chapter, Ehret presents Gilpin’s role as a “prophet of progress” promoting the earliest campaign for a Trans Continental Railway starting in the 1840s; his efforts to create a U.S.-China alliance to undo the corruption spreading in the USA; his role in preventing the South’s opening of a Western front during the Civil War; his deployment of greenbacks modelled on Lincoln’s example in Colorado; and his 25-year post-Civil War campaign to extend rail not only across the Bering Strait into Eurasia but also across Africa, South America, Asia and more.
In effect, as Ehret emphasizes, Gilpin was fighting for the 19th century predecessor of a world land-bridge, which would unite Asia and the American continents, providing the basis for global cooperation and economic development.
Which America Will Prevail?
In titling his book The Unfinished Symphony, Ehret stresses the fact that the battle for defining America’s role in universal history is not yet decided. The unfinished portrait of the 1783 Treaty of Paris by Benjamin West, for which the British representatives refused to sit, which appears on the cover, eloquently symbolizes that point.
Volume I concludes at the dawn of the 20th Century, and Volume II will pick up the battle at that point. Meanwhile, as Ehret implies, it is up to us citizens to determine whether the ideals of the American Revolution are fulfilled or not.
Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.