The evidence is all around us that for a former colony, the first decades after it receives its independence are ones of uncertainty and confusion. Questions of national identity, of control of resources, of geopolitical insecurity, and, in general, feelings of confusion and apprehension can be overwhelming. The situation was the same for the new American republic. But there was more. The decolonization, which was a major theme of the twentieth century, was agreed to by rapidly weakening powers and, until after 1991, few of the new states were threatened by their former masters. The experience of the United States was different. During the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, the former imperial power of the United States was the superpower of the age, with no challengers for the position. The Royal Navy certainly ruled the waves; Great Britain had by far the largest empire in the world; it was the only significant industrial power for many of those decades; and it was the only international [End Page 103] financial power. Who would not be apprehensive?
Professor Haynes has set out in great and sometimes amusing detail the difficulties Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century had in standing on their own two feet. Wherever they looked, there was Britain. Her geopolitical power and influence threatened the United States on both her northern and southern borders. The United States was essentially an economic colony, dependent on Britain for the financing of infrastructure—British investors to a great extent financed the Erie Canal; for trade—in 1850, almost half of American exports, largely raw materials, went to Britain, which was the source of 44 percent of American imports, largely manufactured goods; and for credit, as funds from London even financed the taking of the cotton crop to market. The United States was a cultural and especially a literary colony of Great Britain, with American publishers largely publishing books which had received good reviews in Britain. Indeed, Walt Whitman was taken seriously in his own country only after the London critics were complimentary, and as late as the turn of the twentieth century, Ezra Pound claimed that London was the cultural capital of America.
But most important of all was the question of national identity. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur had posed the question in 1782 in his Letters From an American Farmer: “What then is the American, this new man?” Professor Haynes demonstrates that there were two answers to this. One was, I am an American, and America does, or will, lead the world. But the other was, I am not a Briton, and, indeed, I’m better than the Briton—and the Briton should say how wonderful we are. This defiance of, mixed with the wish for approbation from, Great Britain was a major theme of American life and politics during this period.
Professor Haynes organises his discussions by topic rather than by chronology, with a brief look beyond 1850. He makes a strong case for the continuing fear of Britain, although he sometimes overstates it: the United States also worried about France, Spain, and Native Americans, and about internal dissention. But a bogeyman is always useful, and Great Britain, its power and influence seemingly pervasive [End Page 104] and encircling, perfectly fit the requirement. The idea that Britain seldom interfered in the foreign or domestic affairs of the United States was simply not believed, and if Americans preferred to read British books, that was their choice.
This is a very good book. Many of the particular topics have been discussed elsewhere, but Professor Haynes conveys this information, as well as the results of his own research, with insight and judgment. It is also a very well written book and highly recommended.
Kathleen Burk is the professor emerita of modern and contemporary history at University College London, United Kingdom. The author of a number of books, including Old World, New World: Great Britain and America from the Beginning (2007), she is currently writing a...