The Page 99 Test

It might be assumed that a “writer’s tricks” are about fooling readers. For me, it’s about fooling myself.

New projects are intimidating, so I begin by telling myself that I’m not a great writer, just a good one. I don’t have to be literary, merely clear. I’m composing a new version of Fun With Dick and Jane rather than the Great American Novel.

But I’m happy in retrospect, having just completed a new work of American history, to find I can at least clear one bar.

Another blogger recently asked me to take the “Page 99” test established by the great English poet, novelist, and literary critic Ford Madox Ford. (His parents must have had that wacky British sense of humor.)

Ford famously said, "Open the book [any book] to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

Of course, I fretted. What if page 99 of American Umpire (released March 4 by Harvard University Press) was a blank sheet between chapters, or worse, filled with antlike footnotes that spell geek?

But I now feel I can look Ford Madox Ford in the eye at a Bloomsbury cocktail party.

Turning to page 99 of American Umpire, I found the dramatis personae all on stage. The year was 1823. The American president (played in this scene by cleft-chinned James Monroe) worries that the United States is unprepared for foreign threats. Craven Cabinet members echo and amplify his fears. The Secretary of State (starring the prickly, gimlet-eyed John Quincy Adams) suffers fools silently, if not gladly, and bides his time before introducing the solution he knows will take others by surprise. Off stage, British Foreign Minister George Canning is overheard in soliloquy, plotting the grand strategy of the Pax Britannica.

On this page and throughout, American Umpire re-examines the familiar terrain of U.S. foreign relations between 1776 and the present, discovering new overlooks and hidden trails that reveal the nation’s place on the terrain of world history.

The first thing it finds is that—contrary to many scholarly and even casual critics—the United States is not an empire. Instead, because of its unusual federal structure, the government has always functioned as a kind of umpire, compelling states’ adherence to rules that gradually earned collective approval.

My book, on page 99 and elsewhere, traces America’s role in the world from the days of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to the present. It argues that the United States has been the pivot of a transformation that began outside its borders, in which nation-states replaced the empires that had dominated history. The “Western” values that America is often accused of imposing were the result of this global shift. American Umpire finds that the United States is distinctive not in its embrace of thee new values but in its willingness to persuade and even coerce others to comply. Yet there are costs, some quite terrible. Taking sides in explosive disputes imposes significant financial and psychic burdens. By definition, umpires cannot win.

On page 99, my umpire looks outside the domestic ballpark for the first time, and onto the international playing field. Uncle Sam must decide whether to join with Great Britain in defending the right of Spain’s colonies to declare independence, or go it alone. The larger question on Page 99 is whether America should guarantee “international security” to ensure its own–or not?

Here, friends, is Page 99. Tell me. Did I pass the test, or am I fooling myself again?


American Umpire, by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman (Harvard University Press).

The offer was an extraordinary compliment coming from the victor of Waterloo. For the first time in its brief history, the United States was being asked to sign on to a high-level international diktat. George Canning, foreign secretary of the United Kingdom and America’s former adversary, courted Washington’s opinion.

Only the U.S. secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, disagreed. He shrewdly waited until others had vented their enthusiasm and then appealed to every politician’s soft spot: vanity. Britain wanted to deter France and Spain from forcibly re-imposing imperial control over the breakaway Latin republics. This was splendid. Adams himself had acerbically lectured Britain’s minister in Washington that “the whole system of modern colonization is an abuse of government and it is time that it should come to an end.” But America ought to proudly issue its own preemptive declaration, he said, rather than rowing behind the Royal Navy. “It would be more candid, as well as more dignified,” Adams observed, “to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of a British man-of-war.” Actually, it would have been more candid for the United States to acknowledge that the whole idea of a public protest had been England’s from the start.

By the end of the long afternoon, Monroe was nearly persuaded. The president certainly did not wish to be seen as deferring to the United Kingdom, not after the United States had just lost 2,200 men defending its honor on land and sea in the War of 1812. Not after the carpenters and painters had just finished restoring the burned-out shell of the White House, torched by British troops in 1814. But with the weight of the country on his shoulders, Monroe remained anxious that Spain, France, and Russia might send as many as 10,000 troops to quell republicanism in the Americas. He could not quite bring himself to adopt Adams’s breezy self-confidence. Britain was the only country equipped to stop the menacing European powers. Prudence counseled acceptance of its offer.