- Domesticating Foreign Struggles: The Italian Risorgimento and Antebellum American Identity
Until 1861, when King Victor Emmanuel II proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy, Italy was divided into six major states and several minor ones, most of them under Hapsburg or Bourbon rule. Not until Pope Pius IX lost his temporal authority over Rome in 1870 was the peninsula finally united under one government, a constitutional monarchy. This process, known as the Risorgimento or resurgence, began in 1814 and paralleled a similarly important period in the United States, the tumultuous years before the Civil War. Paola Gemme shows how Americans embraced the Risorgimento for its opposition to papal and foreign rule and identified with its quest for a unified constitutional republic. In so doing, Gemme argues, Americans reinvented Italian reality to suit their domestic needs, creating fictions of national identity that addressed their own political, racial, and religious conflicts and reinforced their self-constructed image as the world's exclusive center of republicanism and civic virtue. In contrast to scholars who find America turning inward to discover itself, Gemme finds that international events were essential to the discourse and construction of national identity.
Gemme musters powerful support from literary, economic, historical, journalistic, and government documents, and her fluency in Italian deepens her understanding of Italian culture. Writers as diverse as the journalist Margaret Fuller, the popular historian Joel Tyler Headley, the Roman Catholic convert Orestes Brownson, the former slave Frederick Douglass, the editors of the liberal journal Democratic Review, and the cultural nationalists in the Young America movement demonstrate American enthusiasm and ignorance as they appropriated Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, and other Risorgimento patriots. By identifying Italians as slaves, for example, abolitionists strengthened their arguments for liberating African-Americans at home. Meanwhile, official United States policy supported the Risorgimento for economic, not political, reasons, as Italy's struggle fed American commercialism, xenophobia, and anti-Catholicism. Even sympathizers like Henry Tuckerman believed Italians lacked the energy, self-reliance, military skill, and political seriousness to govern themselves, thus proving American moral and economic superiority. When the Roman Republic [End Page 296] of 1849 fell to French troops, such skepticism seemed even more justified, as evident in the stereotypes of Italian character that Gemme discerns in Fuller's dispatches and letters. These prejudices were harder to maintain after 1859 when Garibaldi rapidly conquered Naples, but Americans then racialized the Italian other by praising northerners Garibaldi and Cavour over the darker and supposedly inferior Sicilians and Neapolitans. In other words, Americans reinterpreted the Italian experience to corroborate their own sectional and racial discourses and to justify racial politics if not slavery itself. The Risorgimento also fueled American anti-Catholicism, which soared during the antebellum period. If Italian reformers opposed papal rule, surely Protestant Americans were correct to oppose Catholic political power and beliefs. American Catholics countered that Pius IX, who rejected his early reforms, remained a true liberal compared to anarchic, atheistic socialists like Mazzini. Good Catholics could be good republicans no matter what the Know-Nothing Party contended.
Gemme's original, strongly argued, and clearly written study is a model of the transnational turn in American cultural studies. Her belief that Americans valued Risorgimento nationalism not for itself but as a reflection and validation of American values offers a clear example of what scholars mean by "cultural imperialism" and deepens that approach with thorough, focused research. The thirteen illustrations of maps, cartoons, portraits, statues, and paintings sample the rich political iconography that popularized the Risorgimento in America and provide a genuinely intercultural perspective on its subject. This is stimulating, readable, well informed scholarship that opens new paths to understanding America's global reach and how Catholicism and the Italian revolutions helped shape America's national identity.