Review: Caitlin Fitz, OUR SISTER REPUBLICS

I blogged earlier this year about the “Continental” approach to the Age of Revolutions. Amongst the most persuasive examples of this new historiographical movement is Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (Liveright, 2016). In the decade and a half after the War of 1812, Fitz argues, Americans were obsessed with the series of revolts in Latin America, as people in Brazil, Peru, and other nations overthrew their colonial oppressors and attempted to form new republics. “Historians who explore the United States’ early overseas connections have focused overwhelmingly on the North Atlantic,” she explains, “but U.S. audiences after the War of 1812 also obsessively pondered the South Atlantic, their political imaginations charting newer longitudinal axes as well as older latitudinal ones” (5). In Our Sister Republics, we find an American nation obsessed with its southern neighbors.

But this obsession is qualified at every turn. For starters, most Americans had merely superficial information, and they were mostly only interested insofar as they felt it reflected back on them. They were narcissistic observers, in other words. Fitz wisely points out that this “is less a history of early U.S. relations with Latin America than it is a U.S. history that uses Latin America to cast new lights on the United States” (12-13). Further, Americans did not view all Latin American revolutions the same. In general, those further away from U.S. border were more exciting; closer to home, activities in areas like Mexico and Florida, both locations many Americans hoped to colonize themselves, often drew consternation rather than praise. Fitz teases out a political geography in which politicians and cultural activists constructed a “South America” that was significant enough to deserve attention yet distant enough to not disrupt their way of life. In general, Americans were anxious to imagine themselves as instigators of a continental-wide republican revolution, but not eager to receive a reciprocal influence from southern nations.

How Americans responded to these revolutions frames the end of what Fitz calls “an analytically coherent period”: the fifty years following the Revolution, in which Americans remained at least circuitously committed to universalist republican principles (9). During this era politicians, elite intellectuals, and common citizens struggled with the limits of democratic freedom. For the decade following the War of 1812, there was a broad consensus that these revolutions were good—even, as I’ll discuss below, as revolutionaries pushed anti-slavery causes—because it stroked the American ego: these new republics were following in their footsteps. Revolutionaries and dignitaries who visited American cities met an eager audience, newspaper editors produced stories and opinions that were engulfed by a paying readership, and politicians appropriated these developments for their own advantages.

The scope of Fitz’s research and analysis is impressive. Our Sister Republics attempts to capture cultural tensions at both elite and common levels. For the former, she provides smart and innovative readings of Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and other prominent politicians. But she is just as interested in lesser-known citizens. Just as congressmen were debating the valor of Simon Bolivar, hundreds of parents named their children after the Latin American revolutionary; at the same moment federal executives considered providing revolutionary aide, local political gatherings toasted revolutionaries in the southern hemisphere. Fitz should be credited for scouring birth records and newspapers—and providing numerical data concerning these trends—to reconstruct local responses to international tensions. This is one of those rare books of the new political history that successfully blends cultural spheres within its analysis.

It also helps that the book is beautifully written. Rarely does a work on politics flow smooth, but Fitz is a gifted writer. As one example, consider this narrative aside amidst a chapter discussing newspaper editors and their role in this Latin American clamor:

Printers were men of elegant words and big ideas. They were also manual laborers, apron-sheathed and ink-stained workers who crawled into bed at night with aching backs and sprained shoulders. Every letter, every space, every punctuation mark that appeared in their papers had to be pulled without looking from an upright typecase and then arranged into words, sentences, and paragraphs. (80)

This is prose worthy of a trade press.

There are two cultural themes that become prominent, at least to me, in this book. The first, race, receives the most attention. How could Americans support revolutions taking place in nations with non-white populations, especially those promoting abolitionist aims, while simultaneously developing a form of trenchant racial superiority at home? At first, even slaveholders “accepted [the Latin American] anti-slavery struggle because they believed so strongly in the broader anti-colonial one that it served, and also because that struggle seemed so abstract, so distant, and, hence, so unthreatening” (90). But this changed over time. On the one hand, anti-slavery activists in the United States, like Benjamin Lundy, as well as African American authors, like David Walker, explicitly tethered abolition to these revolutionary moments. In response, United States southerners developed a pro-slavery ideology that cast the institution not as a necessary evil but as a positive good, which in turn had serious repercussions in their perspectives of Latin America. Integrating debates over South American revolutionaries is an important contribution to our understanding of American conceptions of race.

The second cultural theme, sometimes broached but rarely engaged, was the prevalence of Catholicism in Latin America. Could Catholics, bastions of an apostate antiquity and lacking Protestant commitments to freedom, establish a republic? This seems an especially pertinent question for America’s early republic, as the religious fervor of the 1810s and 1820s—the primary period of Fitz’s study—more closely aligned religious and political ideals. But if such an issue escapes the focus of Our Sister Republics, it remains to be uncovered by future historians.

Ironically, one of Our Sister Republics‘s greatest strengths is also its most frustrating weakness: Fitz is consistently quick to nuance her argument and qualify her scope. Yes, she knows, there are a plurality of reasons that parents named their kids “Bolivar”; and yes, she emphasizes, there are limits to the meanings of patriotic toasts. “Taken separately, the toasts, naming trends, and legislative ballots would be suggestive, not conclusive,” she explains. “But pieced to gather, the generalities line up,” she quickly adds (130). This is not the most adamant form of conclusion. But while such modesty can sometimes undercut her own argument, it also helps her elude accusations of over-generalization, a flaw that is common in transnational studies.

There are important questions posed by this book for historians of revolutionary America. Most prominently, Fitz argues for an extended “revolutionary age,” one that reaches all the way to 1826. In those fifty years, she argues, Americans were at least marginally committed to a universalist republican vision. (Not to mention a tacit approval of anti-slavery ideology.) The Democrat rejection of the Panama convention during John Quincy Adams’s presidency, however, marked “a movement away from the nation’s founding universalist language and toward a bold new vision of U.S. greatness” (213). The year 1826, then, could be seen as the end of the revolutionary age, as Americans forfeited their universalist republicanism.

Fitz’s exhaustive research, provocative argument, and adept writing simultaneously makes Our Sister Republics a significant contribution to scholarship on the early American republic as well as registers her as one of the most skilled young historians in the field. I recommend the book as a model of historical scholarship.

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