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  • This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity
  • James A. Hijiya
This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity. By Carroll Smith-Rosenberg (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2010) xxii, 484. pp $45.00

This Violent Empire attempts to describe how, in the decades just after the Revolution, Americans formed an unstable national identity that made them violent. Smith-Rosenberg’s argument for American violence, however, seems almost as volatile as the national identity that she claims to describe.

According to Smith-Rosenberg, in the early national period, the United States was fractured not only along state lines but also along lines of region, race, national origins, class, and religion. Some people, mostly Federalists, thought that the country needed something to unify the population. Hence, they pointed an accusing finger at “Others”—people who seemed to pose such a threat that disparate Americans would join together to combat them. These Others included Shaysites and other small farmers, Indians, women, artisans, petty merchants, and blacks. The energy that these nation-builders dedicated to opposing these Others created a national identity rooted in violence that has persisted to this day. “This Violent Empire,” says the author, “will argue that the need to artificially produce a sense of national cohesion for a people with no common heritage . . . exacerbates the tendency to exclusion, violence, [End Page 467] xenophobia, and paranoia all national identities harbor within themselves” (21–22).

The protagonists of this book, the people who tried to forge that sense of national cohesion, were writers and editors who published novels and political magazines between 1786 and 1820. Once Smith- Rosenberg delves into this literary evidence, however, she finds that these would-be nation-builders could not easily locate reliable enemies for Americans to hate, despise, and fear. Instead, the Others were consistently “problematized” and “destabilized.” Hence, in novels and magazines, Indians were noble as well as savage. Blacks were not just contemptible slaves but also fellow human beings who deserved liberation. Small farmers, artisans, and petty merchants may have been ignorant and uncouth, but all men were created equal, as the Declaration of Independence proclaimed. A magazine might publish stories portraying women as brainless spendthrifts, but it would also publish excerpts from works like Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (New York, 1792). White gentlemen—the presumptive models for a national identity—were often portrayed as more virtuous than the various Others. However, these men could also be portrayed as sybarites, thieves, and even murderers, Who would want to identify with them? Could their “performances of gentility augment troubled representations of gender and race and so produce a coherent ‘American’ identity?” (340).

Apparently not: “The differences that mark the boundaries between our Others and ourselves continually dissolve” (467). If, however, no definite, dependable Other is available, then how can there be an “us,” a coherent American identity? And if there is no coherent American identity, what else could make Americans violent? How about an incoherent American identity? “The roots of American paranoia, racism, and violence,” maintains the author, “lie in the instability of Americans’ national sense of self” (x). In regard to whites and blacks, for example, “one of This Violent Empire’s central contentions” is “that racist violence (rhetorical as well as literal) emerges, in part, at least, out of frustration with the repeated erosion of difference” (435).

The commas and parentheses in that sentence are the bloody footprints left in the snow by a thesis in retreat. The violence of the American empire, it now appears, is sometimes merely rhetorical. Moreover, whatever literal violence does occur against anybody may not be caused by Americans’ having identified that person as an Other but—“in part, at least”—by their having failed to do so and by their feeling “frustration” over that failure. Frustration leads to rage, which leads to violence. Smith-Rosenberg does not show precisely how either Otherness or the collapse of Otherness caused specific historical examples of violence.

She does, to be sure, describe plenty of carnage, mainly between whites and Indians—for example, the captivity of Mary Rowlandson in 1675 looms large (251–269). However, much of that...


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pp. 467-469
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