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Thinking about American identity before the Civil War requires situating the United States within European civilization. We should take our cue from transatlantic travelers, who insisted on doing so. Americans were receptive to European opinion on matters great and small. Antislavery travelers counted on that openness when they pleaded with European audiences to use their influence to counter the massive resources of the Slave Power. “Give us the power of your public opinion,” Sarah Parker Remond begged a Manchester audience in 1859. “Words spoken here are read there as no words written in America are read.” Robert Baird hearkened to that same sentiment when he called upon Americans to emulate the little kindnesses that Norwegians extended to one another in public spaces. “We are a rude people,” Baird announced bluntly. Adopting Norwegian ways would have a “humanizing, a softening influence” that could only improve American national character. Although Baird’s subject was less momentous than Remond’s, they both shared the same conviction: the United States was part of a global community, but more specifically a European one, whose members had diverse talents. Americans could not afford to go it alone.1 Travelers like Remond and Baird led the campaign against the selfcongratulatory variety of American exceptionalism epitomized by Harry McCall, whose observations from Rome opened this book. “We are not of them,” he had lectured his cousin, though his very presence in Europe suggested otherwise. Most visitors certainly believed that the United States was superior to Europe in most respects. However, that conviction was highly qualified. Transatlantic Americans were eager to define the parameters of their national distinctiveness while affirming their membership in the European Atlantic World. The national identity that Americans developed in the decade before the Civil War—a unified people dedicated to representing liberalism around the globe—owed much to travelers’ relentless advocacy of cosmopolitanism as a rebuke to Conclusion 168 Being American in Europe, 1750–1860 insularity and provincialism. Americans knew they stood “linked by a thousand ties to the popular sentiment of Europe,” Francis Wayland explained in 1825. Wayland’s vision was hardly free of smugness. He assumed that the United States would lead Europe, and then the world, into overthrowing secular and religious tyrannies. But Wayland was neither a romantic nor a jingoist. He told Americans that their leadership would cost them dearly in blood and treasure. And, in the end, they would achieve not an American empire but a “truly holy alliance”—all the peoples of the earth, “united in the pursuit of one object, the happiness of the whole.”2 By 1861, Americans had come a long way from the anxious provincials who strove to embed themselves in the British Atlantic World. They had become less defensive about their orientation to the much older, established civilizations of Europe. Visitors were becoming comfortable with their ability to reconcile gentility with republicanism. It was possible, they realized, to embrace refinement without legitimating aristocracy. Travelers negotiated a similar rapprochement with Catholicism, despite the nativist sentiment that remained powerful in the United States. Appreciating Catholic art—even voicing respect for the rituals of the mass—did not imply endorsement of Church doctrine or the political machinations of the Vatican. While hardly broad-minded, this orientation to Roman Catholicism did compel travelers to reject the most illiberal nativist policies . Americans’ attitude to England went through the most dramatic transformation . Americans still recognized John Bull as a potential rival, but the whitehot hatred for England so prevalent after the Revolution (though always less intense among the traveling population) had cooled into isolated pockets of Anglophobia . In its place a conception of Anglo-Saxon unity was emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. In the wake of the disappointments of 1848, travelers rejected the arguments of some Americans and Britons that continental peoples were unprepared for self-government. They had only contempt for the idea that some Europeans were racially fit only to be ruled, but never to rule themselves. Partly in response to the shocks of 1848, cosmopolitans developed a mature civic nationalism that defined the boundaries of American distinctiveness while maintaining the republic’s commitment to the universal values of the Revolution of ’76. As the Civil War loomed, traveled Americans had made much progress toward striking a balance between national exceptionalism and full participation in western European civilization. Cosmopolitan as that identity was, racism and national self-regard still marred it, as transatlantic abolitionists strove...


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Subject Headings

  • Americans -- Travel -- Europe -- History.
  • Europe -- Description and travel.
  • Americans -- Europe -- Ethnic identity -- History.
  • Ethnicity -- Europe -- History.
  • Europe -- Social life and customs -- 18th century.
  • Europe -- Social life and customs -- 19th century.
  • Europe -- Foreign public opinion, American.
  • Travelers' writings, American -- Europe.
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