American Visions: The United States, 1800-1860 (Paperback)

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American Visions: The United States, 1800-1860 By Edward L. Ayers Cover Image

American Visions: The United States, 1800-1860 (Paperback)

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“An inspiring book.… American Visions beautifully shows how remarkably resilient dreams of a better republic remained even in the darkest of times.” —Christoph Irmscher, Wall Street Journal



A revealing history of the formative period when voices of dissent and innovation defied power and created visions of America still resonant today.


With so many of our histories falling into dour critique or blatant celebration, here is a welcome departure: a book that offers hope as well as honesty about the American past. The early decades of the nineteenth century saw the expansion of slavery, Native dispossession, and wars with Canada and Mexico. Mass immigration and powerful religious movements sent tremors through American society. But even as the powerful defended the status quo, others defied it: voices from the margins moved the center; eccentric visions altered the accepted wisdom, and acts of empathy questioned self-interest. Edward L. Ayers’s rich history examines the visions that moved Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, the Native American activist William Apess, and others to challenge entrenched practices and beliefs. So, Lydia Maria Child condemned the racism of her fellow northerners at great personal cost. Melville and Thoreau, Joseph Smith and Samuel Morse all charted new paths for America in the realms of art, nature, belief, and technology. It was Henry David Thoreau who, speaking of John Brown, challenged a hostile crowd "Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong?"


Through decades of award-winning scholarship on the Civil War, Edward L. Ayers has himself ventured beyond the interpretative status quo to recover the range of possibilities embedded in the past as it was lived. Here he turns that distinctive historical sensibility to a period when bold visionaries and critics built vigorous traditions of dissent and innovation into the foundation of the nation. Those traditions remain alive for us today.



Edward L. Ayers, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, has won the Bancroft and Lincoln Prizes for his innovative histories of Civil War America. He is president emeritus of the University of Richmond, where he is executive director of New American History.

Product Details ISBN: 9781324086307
ISBN-10: 1324086300
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: September 3rd, 2024
Pages: 384
Language: English
This nimble history surveys the ‘visions’ that Americans fashioned for the nation taking shape before them in the ‘lurching’ period of 1800 to 1860. Ayers…pays particular attention to lesser-known Black abolitionists and Native Americans. The result is a dynamic portrait of a country in transition.
— The New Yorker

When Barack Obama awarded Ayers a National Humanities Medal in 2013, the president praised Ayers’ ‘commitment to making our history as widely available and accessible as possible.’ …American Visions aligns well with this mission, and teachers looking for ways to help their students understand the relevance of history may be its ideal readers.… Ayers offers…a lens through which we as a nation can see where we’ve been and where we’re going.

— Paula Tarnapol Whitacre - Washington Independent Review of Books

Ayers’ accurate, balanced, and compelling history proves that progress is possible and that patriotism can be rooted in the complicated truths about the past.
— Booklist

A richly illustrative defense of the role of ideas in the crafting of America’s national character.
— Kirkus Reviews

Ayers skillfully handles the huge cast of characters, drawing intriguing parallels between them. It’s an illuminating exploration of American political history.
— Publishers Weekly

Edward Ayers is a rare and distinctively gifted American historian.… American Visions does not wallow in our national sins even as it vividly reveals them; it does not celebrate except to help us see how so many different kinds of Americans had their eyes on the anxious future. Read this ye who are weary of bad prose, narrow and politicized history, and see how unpredictable the past can be. Ayers's new book is a literary achievement worthy of that moment when Emerson opened his copy of Leaves of Grass.

— David W. Blight, author of Frederick Douglass

Within the Pandora’s box of antebellum America, Edward L. Ayers finds hope from a dazzling array of eloquent prophets, secular and sacred. In vivid prose and with keen insight, American Visionaries reveals many alluring futures for our embattled republic.

— Alan Taylor, author of American Republics

Edward L. Ayers reveals a deeply contested but also very American way of envisioning possibility and promise. A page-turning tour de force by one of our most visionary historians.
— Kathleen DuVal, author of Independence Lost

[A] triumphant scholarly synthesis that depicts a broad range of figures—authors, reformers, pseudoscientists, mystics, showmen, and more—who made this period one of the most fascinating and important times in American history.
— David S. Reynolds, author of Abe

In vivid prose, Ayers etches diverse Americans on the move and at odds in this energetic guide to artistic, literary, utopian, and pragmatic impulses in the United States across six critical decades. May this account of earlier Americans’ sense of possibility spur us to reimagine our own world.
— Kate Masur, author of Until Justice Be Done