Thomas Paine believed that revolutionary America could remake the world. In Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire, Eliga H. Gould disagrees. Remaking the world was not on the agenda. In a thematic study of revolutionary diplomacy, Gould argues that Americans knew that their survival as a nation depended on conformity to the diplomatic rules and customs of the Old World. Gould's study is part of a broader trend to see American diplomacy in the context of imposing European rules on a wider Atlantic system; see, for example, Leonard J. Sadosky, Revolutionary Negotiations: Indians, Empires, and Diplomats in the Founding of America (2009). Gould also stretches the study of early American diplomacy in time to include the late colonial period and in space to include the borderlands. For Gould, 1776 is more of a turning point than a break, and it marked American acceptance of European rules. Gould's key concept is "treaty-worthiness," that is, when a nation is accepted as a legitimate member of the international community (pp. 12-13). Cynically put, a nation was treaty-worthy not when other nations signed treaties with it, but when other nations adhered to the treaties they signed. The quest for treaty-worthiness was thus the central problem of early American diplomacy.
The first half of Among the Powers of the Earth sets up the European rules in three areas: the system of European laws, the role of slavery in the Atlantic system, and the imposition of European law on America. The Swiss writer Emer de Vattel called Europe "a law-bound community of nations" that formed a kind of republic (p. 17). British jurist William Blackstone internalized the law of nations [End Page 79] as part of the British constitution. European nations had a common conception of the laws of war and peace, which they attempted to impose on their empires. Relations with the Indian tribes, with different rules, marked the outer limit of the European ability to project power. Slavery was an anomaly in the legal structure of the Atlantic world, but European public law was flexible enough to accommodate institutions that were appropriate to one region but not another. The new British regulations imposed on the American colonies after 1763 marked the high point of British attempts to impose European public law on the periphery.
The second half of the book considers the role of American independence in what Gould calls the "globalization" of European public law (p. 7). Gould sees three key events. The first was the Declaration of Independence, which transformed the American rebels into a formal nation, signalling that the United States accepted European law. The second was the implementation of Jay's Treaty in 1794. The Treaty of Paris did not mean the United States was treaty-worthy, but the withdrawal of British troops from the northwestern forts in 1796 did. Jay's Treaty also confirmed that slavery was protected by European public law. Gould takes the antislavery rhetoric of the founding era seriously but recognizes its limits. The third turning point, the Seminole War of 1817-18, revealed those limits. When James Monroe ordered the seizure of Amelia Island in 1817, he cut off both an entry point for the illegal importation of slaves and an exit point for American slaves attempting to escape. The invasion of Spanish Florida and the execution of two British subjects marked the unchallenged ability of the United States to impose its public law on outlying areas.
Much of this study deals with ideas and perceptions and could have done with a little more attention to concrete power. For example, what calculations of power led Great Britain to consider the United States treaty-worthy in 1796 but not in 1783? Nonetheless, Gould has delivered a well-argued and thought-provoking work that is a welcome addition to the revitalization of the study of early American diplomacy. [End Page 80...