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  • The Nation’s Nature: How Continental Presumptions Gave Rise to the United States of America

Continent, Geography, North America

The Nation’s Nature: How Continental Presumptions Gave Rise to the United States of America. By James D. Drake. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Pp. 416. Cloth, $45.00.)

This book offers the perhaps most exhaustive study to date of the continental imagination in the eighteenth century, with special emphasis on the Anglophone world and British–American culture. While the book addresses a familiar topic, its wide-ranging survey expertly captures the way in which British colonists used the term “continent” in the decades [End Page 503] leading up to the American Revolution and shortly after. We are familiar with labels such as the “Continental Congress,” the “Continental Army,” or the “Continental Dollar.” We know that European and American artists relied on stereotypical iconography to represent continents. And we most certainly remember Thomas Paine’s battle cry raised in Common Sense that “nothing but Continental authority can regulate Continental matters.” But by directly engaging with continental labels and prefixes, The Nation’s Nature illustrates layers of meaning unfamiliar to many. Synthesizing scholarship from various disciplines and mining an array of documents that include newspapers, diaries, pamphlets, prints, and maps, The Nation’s Nature provides a historical survey of how the concept of the continent entered public discourse and became a popular platform for American geopolitical imaginings.

In a move appealing to audiences across the disciplines, the book reminds us to always historicize the very terms we find are peppering headlines of tracts, essays, and other archival materials. Here, it foregrounds the study The Myth of Continents (1997) by historical geographers Martin Lewis and Kären Wigen to remind us that speaking of continents has a unique history in Anglo–American thought. The meta-geographical unit of the “continent” was a spatial construct new to eighteenth-century epistemology, offering a taxonomic principle much welcomed by the collectors and interpreters of New World information. The book also reminds us how being called by continental names, such as by the shorthand name “American,” was anything but an objective locative phrase but rather a highly charged rhetorical conceit reflective of changing perceptions and values.

The Nation’s Nature traces the continental terminology and its cultural implications for North American subjects in seven chapters. By emphasizing scientific discourse of the period (unfortunately this happens at the expense of literary discourse), the first chapter documents the shift in continental definitions marked by geography textbooks, maps, and travel narratives. While it was common practice during the late seventeenth century to lump together geopolitical units like France, Germany, or Spain with the tectonic spaces of continents, the territorial conflicts of the early eighteenth century changed the continental conception into a more meta-geographical definition. As shown by many studies on the history of geographical thought in Europe and America, geography books, travelogues, and in particular school geographies facilitated meta-narratives of generalization. At the same time, maps and their decorative [End Page 504] iconography propagated a new understanding of continental identity that was predicated on cartographic outlines and the corporeal figurations of America as the racially determined Native American Other.

Chapters 2 and 3 track continental references made in public discourse during an era marked by territorial conflict. Early eighteenth-century conceptions of the American continent were made widely visible in the wake of a French and British map war in which both sides sought to portray their colonial possessions in cartographic views that favored transregional representations. British–American mapmakers, such as William Douglass, Lewis Evans, and John Mitchell, participated in the British effort of laying claim to the North American continent, which by 1755 was regularly depicted as a “sea-to-sea empire” (89) stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Pole. But it was the period following the Seven Years’ War that the ensuing political debates over colonial autonomy became increasingly couched in “continental” terms. Sermons and political speeches by authors such as Jonathan Mayhew, James Otis, and Christopher Gadsden introduced the rhetoric of “continentality” to illustrate colonial concerns and to make political claims of cultural difference and identity.

Chapters 4 and 5 concentrate on the impact of the continent on American thought and actions during the war years from 1775 to 1783. For political leaders, the idea of the continent provided a powerful symbol enabling a disparate people to unite and debate under the auspices of a “Continental Congress.” In the space of only a few years, the figure of the “continent” emerged as a pervasive rhetorical figure and was used by military strategists, popular pamphleteers, and less known diarists to explain the war efforts while also arguing for the creation of an independent political territory. Chapters 6 and 7 recount late eighteenth-century uses of the continental episteme: For natural historians, the continent provided a taxonomic order for organizing the social world along geographical and increasingly racialized lines. For the newly appointed leaders of the United States, the challenge of managing the new nation’s territory resulted in visionary legislation like the Land Ordinance Act of 1785, which took measure of the nation as a continental empire. And for the American people, the continent served as a regenerative resource, sponsoring everything from land banks for war veterans to popular tropes of national identity.

The strength of this book is that it shows the rise of an American continental imagination through a multitude of genres in a compressed [End Page 505] but yet very accessible form. The array of sources consulted is impressive, leaving the reader convinced that this book is bringing to light the most relevant sources bearing the imprimatur of the “continent” in word and image. At times, navigating the wealth of sources is made difficult by the book’s narrative habit of jumping back and forth between descriptions of intellectual history and historical events. At other times, in the effort of being as inclusive as possible—and this is commensurate with the stated goal of being a “synthetic” project—the book overly relies on paraphrase and summaries of current scholarship. But this does not diminish the book’s important double message: First, compared with other American colonial societies, Anglo–Americans were the ones most eager to evoke the concept and image of the continent during debates of colonial and national identity; second, continental land claims were fully articulated as both a political and imperial agenda by British Americans and first-generation citizens long before Manifest Destiny became a household phrase.

Martin Brückner

Martin Brückner is associate professor in English and material culture studies at the University of Delaware. He is the author of The Geographic Revolution in Early America (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006) and editor of Early American Cartographies (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011).

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