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American Quarterly 57.3 (2005) 727-749

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Toward a History of Statelessness in America

Browsing through an electronic card catalog not long ago, I found a new edition of Edward Everett Hale's A Man Without a Country.1 First published during the Civil War, the novella is a frightening cautionary tale. The fiction begins in 1805, when a young naval officer is seduced (Hale's word, not mine) by Aaron Burr, and drawn into the former vice president's conspiracy to detach the Southwest and reconfigure the United States. The voice of the narrator moves between fact and fiction; many readers are still convinced that they are reading history. In the story, the young officer, Philip Nolan, is tried for treason in a regional imitation of Aaron Burr's trial in Richmond, Virginia. When the chief judge asks him whether he has anything to say that will prove his loyalty to the United States, Nolan blurts out, "Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!"

The shocked court, composed of Revolutionary War veterans, grants his wish. Nolan is condemned to perpetual exile, sailing around the globe on American ships for the rest of his life, doomed never to return and never to hear talk of home. He does not question his punishment. Late in life, he cautions another young officer, the narrator, to avoid his fate: "And for your country, boy . . . and for that flag . . . never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you." The punch line is absolute and uncritical.

The tale is a densely layered fable. Philip Nolan himself may not step on the earth over which his nation's flag waves or claim his nation's protection, but he lives out his life on a floating nation, a ship that flies the American flag and freely moves across the globe, conveying American claims to authority and influence, and in that way constructing the new nation as a player in an international contest for space and power. Aaron Burr figures in the narrative in only one dimension of his many-dimensioned career: only in the guise of the Devil, whispering temptation, the Aaron Burr who killed the hero Alexander Hamilton in a duel. There is no hint of the Aaron Burr who admired Mary Wollstonecraft, the Aaron Burr who raised his daughter, Theodosia, to be an intellectual (as Thomas Jefferson most assuredly did not raise his daughter, [End Page 727] Martha). There is certainly no hint of the Aaron Burr who eloquently opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts and who called on America to be "an asylum to the oppressed of every nation."2

Edward Everett Hale intended simply to make an intervention into the politics of his own time, hoping to undermine Confederate sympathizer Clement Vallandigham's race for governor in Ohio.3 But Hale's novella has had an extraordinarily long life. Reaching back to the founding era for its setting, published as a patriotic narrative in the midst of the Civil War and as a support to Abraham Lincoln's suspension of civil liberties, it was reprinted steadily throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with flurries of new editions during World War I and again during World War II. During World War I several dramatic versions were staged; shortly after World War II a radio adaptation was broadcast, with voice-over narration by Bing Crosby, and in 1973 a sympathetic made-for-TV version appeared, echoing the anxieties of the Vietnam War, starring Cliff Robertson. And then no more reprints until after 9/11.

A roughly similar drift in the pace of attention paid to the issue of statelessness can be traced in the lineage of nonfiction books and articles, tracking with chilling accuracy the rise and fall of the threat of statelessness throughout the world. Thus a number of legal and political monographs were published in the aftermath of World War I, then their numbers receded. They reemerged in the 1930s; among them the rare monograph on the subject, published a little...