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The introduction argues that conflicts usually seen as political struggles to make nations began as conflicts between and within empires that mixed with popular insurgencies in key regions to break empires, undermine and transform American economies essential to global trade, and found diverse nations as Britain led the world to industrial capitalism. Parallel political conflicts mixed with contrasting economic trajectories to create diverging national and social experiences across the Americas in the nineteenth century: stability with slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States—until civil war wracked the latter; instability and uncertainty in Haiti and the new nations of Spanish America—while families of once-enslaved peoples in the former and native peoples in the latter found modest yet meaningful gains.

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