Barbary Coast, Captivity, Algiers, Public sphere, American Navy, Slavery
Lawrence Peskin’s Captives and Countrymen adds to a rich vein of recent scholarship exploring the foreign relations of the early American republic with the Islamic North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis—together composing the Barbary Coast. Given the number of excellent studies that focus on the formation of an early American Islamic Orientalism such as Timothy Marr’s The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (Cambridge, UK, 2006) and Robert Allison’s The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815 (Chicago, 2000), Peskin bypasses the religious aspects of the clashes between North Africa and the United States. Instead, he relies primarily on newspapers, American state papers, eyewitness and fictional captivity narratives, and other forms of creative expression (songs, poems, plays) to supply a fresh, systematic examination of the influence on domestic affairs of American entanglements with the different Barbary nations from 1785 to 1816. Peskin credits American captivity and warfare against these Islamic city–states with aiding the construction of an American public sphere, early antislavery arguments, the rise of party politics, the first American navy, and, more broadly, a distinct national identity. Further, Peskin mixes cultural with political questions, tying, for instance, anxieties about republican masculinity to Americans’ concerns about their “third-rate” status within international diplomatic and commercial circles. The study largely fulfills its ambitious agenda by dint of careful research and straightforward, clear narration.
Peskin divides his case for the influence of North Africa on the early American republic into three thematic sections. In “Part I: Captivity and the Public Sphere,” he establishes the underlying structure of what he terms the “late-eighteenth century world wide web” (13), the source for news about Americans’ captivity in Algiers that joins the global to the local. Deeming this earlier WWW “surprisingly vast and inclusive” (23), [End Page 143] Peskin cites oral and written communication and newspapers as its core—the oil fueling the American public sphere. In the next two chapters, he details the campaigns for redemption waged from Algiers by the American captives themselves as well as endeavors made on their behalf by uncertain federal officers and by the impassioned David Humphreys, poet, U.S. minister to Lisbon, and self-appointed publicist for the captives.
Although this entire first section details the circulation of news, debates, and publicity about Barbary captivity within the early national public sphere, Peskin does not fully define Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the “public sphere” until the third chapter of the section. Moreover, in the earlier chapters, he often invokes this theoretical concept as a concrete if recently invented “thing,” a fact rather than a phenomenon. By his third chapter, however, Peskin conveys that the early national public sphere is something emergent rather than established. Even in this chapter and throughout the book, though, I would have liked a more nuanced application of Habermas’s concept, one that recognizes the very contingent constitution of a public sphere as a shifting set of discursive networks and venues.
Peskin’s subsequent two sections, “Part II: The Impact of Captivity at Home,” and “Part III: Captivity and the American Empire,” address how Americans’ captivity in the Barbary Coast shaped domestic affairs and, not least, the young republic’s struggles to establish itself within the world as a nation distinct from its former patrons and colonizers, France and England. Here and throughout, Peskin is careful to claim only that the North African captivity crises contributed to and intensified a range of political conflicts, not that they generated those debates. In Part II, he covers well-trod scholarly ground by showing the influence of fictional and real accounts of white Barbary “slaves” on early abolitionist activism and on public demands for a U.S. navy. However, he also details the far less well-documented impact of North African captivity on public support for a stronger national government and, nearly a decade later, on the formation of a “national political culture” built upon...