Review by Nancy Kwak
The Empire State: A History of New York

Edited by Milton Klein, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Paula Baker, University of Pittsburgh
Edward Countryman, Southern Methodist University
L. Ray Gunn, University of Utah
Ronald W. Howard, Mississippi College
Oliver Rink, California State University at Bakersfield
Joel Schwartz, Montclair State University

Cornell University Press
and the 
New York State Historical Association

6 tables, 1 map, 20 line drawings, 80 halftones, 16-page color insert 
ISBN: 0-8014-3866-7 $45.00

At once iconographic and exceptional, New York history consistently eludes scholars’ attempts to tell its story in a single slim volume. Milton Klein’s most recent effort is no exception, although his mammoth 837-page The Empire State: A History of New York shrinks in comparison to predecessor Herbert L. Osgood’s four-volume series, or Alexander Flick’s weighty ten-volume version. Nonetheless, Klein masterfully connects the contributions of his six writers with two techniques: first, all seven parts of the book connect local and state developments with larger national and international trends while noting cause and effect; second, all writers integrate political, economic, and social history and likewise pay close attention to the diversity of viewpoints attendant in each. The result is a staggering compendium of the major debates and narratives in New York State history to date.

The volume is neatly organized in seven parts, with varying numbers of chapters within each part. Organized along chronological lines, the story begins in 1609 with the formation of the Iroquois Longhouses and finishes with some thoughts on recent elections and budgetary debates within the Pataki administration as well as the role of New York in the global economy. The last hundred pages are devoted to a detailed bibliography on selected primary and secondary resources, and are structured along the same chronological guidelines as the previous seven parts. This last portion provides a particularly valuable guide to the historiography behind the narrative, and compensates for the lack of footnotes throughout the main text.

The narrative portion of the text begins with a first chapter by Oliver Rink, a historian most well known for his work on Dutch New York. The first paragraphs sweep across a broad span of history, and offer an overview of the development of Iroquois society up to the seventeenth century before delving into the specifics of the 1600s. Rink carefully notes the power differentials that emerged between the Iroquois Confederacy and their neighboring Algonquian groups; although he momentarily slips into anthropological discussion of “the common practices and beliefs of the indigenous peoples of New York,” Rink generally pays close attention to the political maneuverings of specific interest groups as he narrates the rise of the fur trade and the Beaver Wars. Referring to Alfred Crosby’s seminal 1972 Columbian Exchange, Rink applies the study of “virgin soil epidemics,” plants, animals, and disease to assess the relative strengths of different Native American groups; he likewise narrates the ecological development of New York’s natural resources, including an especially helpful evolutionary explanation of the Hudson River.

Successive chapters on the Dutch are remarkable in their attention to nuance and subtlety. Rink calls to attention the rich diversity of residents in their settlements, and notes that in one sample of the late 1650s, up to 25 percent of the residents were listed as “foreign.” In addition to a reconstruction of the history of Dutch slaves, levels of bondage, and the much disputed practice of “half freedom,” Rink also notes the details of agricultural production, food consumption, and the evolution of family law, as well as the consequences such niceties might have on the lives of Dutch women. In this way, Rink’s descriptions provide a much-needed Dutch counterpart to the British folkways of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. In fact, the neglect of Dutch sources is an interesting story in its own right, one that Rink tells in the “Selected Readings” portion of the book. (Particularly memorable is Rink’s note about a set of West India Company records sold off as scrap paper in the 1820s.)

The second part of the book begins in 1664, the date the Duke of York and Albany was issued a grant including the then Dutch colony of New Netherland. While overlapping in time period with the previous section, Ronald Howard explores the more internal aspects of colonial politics, emphasizing the characteristics of governors Richard Nicolls, Francis Lovelace, Edmund Andros, and Thomas Dongan, as well as the impact of the Duke’s Laws on the structure of government itself. Eventually, class tensions climax in Leisler’s Rebellion, and Howard includes a useful summary of the major historiographic debates surrounding the exact nature and causes of Jacob Leisler’s two-year rule. After Leisler’s demise, Howard narrates the ways in which the British attempt to Anglicize a dangerously diverse New York; Anglicization is attributed less to such prominent individuals as Lord Cornbury, and more to the “slow but steady expansion of British commerce and English common law.”

Despite his strong interest in political history, Howard does not neglect economic or social issues, as is evidenced by his discussion of slavery, immigration, and the relationship between industry and class relations. When narrating the social context of colonists’ day-to-day existence, Howard includes descriptive passages on education and the culture of drink, as well as references to historian Richard Bushman’s work on refinement. Perhaps the weakest portion of Howard’s writing is on women and minorities on the eve of revolution, with such simplistic comments as, “For Native Americans as well as African Americans, the coming of the American Revolution meant little. In the end, it turned out to be a white man’s conflict, with a peace that would bring no lasting benefit to either minority.” Overall, however, Howard’s deft handling of economic and political development during this period is well worth the read.

Edward Countryman launches the next portion of the story in his chapters on revolution and statehood. A well-respected historian on precisely this period in American history, Countryman leads readers through the text with crisp prose and tight organization. Countryman outlines the war in three interconnected strands: first, important interest groups should be identified; second, the chronology of the war itself needs to be laid out; and third, the leadership of the new republican order requires explanation. Throughout all three, Countryman argues the American Revolution truly was “a revolution for all New Yorkers.” (230) His rich descriptions of coalitions such as the Iroquois Confederacy or Black New Yorkers provide a much fuller understanding of internal divisions and debates. All New Yorkers were affected, but no group had a single response.

After the conclusion of revolutionary fighting, residents struggled to erect new forms of local and state government. Here Countryman’s use of illustrations and maps is particularly helpful in depicting the transitions experienced by New Yorkers at the time. New York gradually expanded from three strips of land along Long Island Hudson Valley, and Mohawk Valley to its current dimensions, and as the state grew, so also did its capacity for change. The construction of the Erie Canal marked the end of New York’s frontier stage, and New York City would begin its rise to the top of the national hierarchy.

Antebellum society and politics marked the rapid transition of New York into the exceptional place of Milton Klein’s introduction. New York was in no way typical, according to third contributor L. Ray Gunn; it led the country in industry, commerce, and sheer population while also being one of the first places to undergo concomitant social changes. Transitioning from the canals of Countryman’s chapters to rails, Gunn explains how train service began first to supplement the water-based system in the mid-1800s, and post-1851, how they actually competed with the same.

Gunn, a historian of the early republic and Jacksonian era, shifts the focus to commercial and economic development within the state. Applying Charles Sellers’ ideas about the market revolution to the particularities of New York, Gunn explores larger trends while noting the rise of class identification and the beginnings of labor agitation amongst workers of the Empire State. Gender roles came into play with the division of labor, and women often assumed social welfare positions of childcare and homemaking. Gunn is careful to include a clear explication of the rise of domesticity in the context of such labor developments and the trend towards physical separation of work and home. These same women then seized social power through evangelical and reform movement such as sabbatarianism, temperance, and most importantly, abolitionism in the 1820s and 1830s.

Gunn applies an equally steady hand to his explanations of the rise of print and commercial popular culture, including a literature review and discussion of the Hudson River School of painting, all the while arguing that “New York was both a beneficiary of these trends and a catalyst in the broader cultural transformation of which they were a part.” Only after the emergence of the second party and the formation of the Republican Party (solidified within New York State by the 1856 election) did slavery become increasingly prominent not only in national politics but also in state elections.

Paula Baker begins her description of the climax to Civil War in her oddly named section on “The Gilded Age” from 1860 to 1914. Despite the disconcerting periodization, Baker does an excellent job of illuminating the rise of pro-union sentiment in New York City, as well as the conflicts within the state about the right policies and approaches to war. Commendable attention is paid to the context in which Gotham’s infamous draft riots occurred, as well as to its aftermath. Reconstruction gets proportionally less treatment; instead, Baker highlights the rise of nineteenth-century urban corruption and the rise of the Grange movements.

Baker’s real strength, of course, is in her understanding of histories of social policy, and of the intersection of gender within labor and political histories. Much of the narrative on the late-nineteenth century focuses on developments in New York City, especially as Baker narrates the efforts of female labor activists and suffragettes. Here Baker seems to follow the argument of her earlier book (The Moral Frameworks of Public Life: Gender, Politics, and the State in Rural New York 1870-1930) in weaving together male and female political worlds in the late-nineteenth century. Likewise does she include fuller descriptions of the motives and experiences of southern immigrants to New York by embracing Theda Hunter’s research on urban black female labor and leisure. Baker concludes with a nod to “the new rural history” in her comments on “reforming the countryside.”

Joel Schwartz seamlessly continues the Progressive story with his chapters on “The Triumph of Liberalism” from 1914 to 1945 and “The Empire State in a Changing World” from 1945 to 2000. Throughout the earlier years of war and depression, progressive reformers “were able nonetheless to intensify the government intervention and private-sector initiatives that made New York the leader of the states in social betterment.” This triumph would be short-lived, as the last half of the twentieth century witnessed New York’s voyage through a slow urban and manufacturing decline, a convulsive period of social upheaval, and the mixed bag of what Schwartz calls “uneven recovery.” Throughout this 75 year-long story, Schwartz does a particularly excellent job at including specific place-based histories, and he is quick to note the unique characteristics of Buffalo’s suburbs, for instance, while also acknowledging larger trends for the region and national tendencies toward suburbanization. From beginning to end, Schwarz demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the variety of economic and social experience particular to different regions, suburbs, and cities within the state; nowhere do you feel that the narration has slipped into a simple and generalized national story. Baby boomer education becomes a story of Ossining and Long Beach’s gifted student programs; racial tensions in public housing provision become a problem not only for New York City’s Mayor Robert Wagner, but also for Syracuse’s Mayor William Walsh. Schwartz’s astonishing command of detail offers readers a deeper historical understanding of the sheer variety of local experiences, as well as a coherent narrative in which to fit such tales about the Empire State.

Milton Klein’s accomplishments in publishing such a well-synthesized, comprehensive, rich narrative of New York State’s history are indeed something to be applauded. Undoubtedly this compilation will become a standard reference for many scholars and teachers.

Nancy Kwak

Nancy H. Kwak is a PhD. candidate in History at Columbia University. Her current work includes constructing an international comparative history of public housing policy.


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