Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire (review)
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American Revolution, Treaties, Diplomacy, Jay Treaty, Law of nations, Political history

Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire. By Eliga H. Gould. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. 301. Cloth, $45.00.)

In the Declaration of Independence, Americans articulated their desire to make the United States a sovereign nation “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Borrowing the title for his latest work from this preamble, Eliga H. Gould argues that the United States’ drive for European acceptance as an equal nation “played a role in making the American republic at least as important as the liberal and republican ideologies that have framed scholarship on the American Revolution since the Second World War.” Gould asserts that “the revolutionaries’ emphasis on peace through treaty-worthiness explains why Americans ultimately opted for a national union that could represent the ‘one people’ in the Declaration of Independence over a looser association” (11) under the Articles of Confederation. [End Page 721]

Gould defines the characteristics of a “treaty-worthy” nation and chronicles the long journey of the United States to achieve that status throughout his six chapters. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the law of nations represented a system of treaties whereby the secular leaders of Europe and the Roman Catholic Church agreed that the governments under their authority would recognize the rights and liberties of other European nations. To be “treaty-worthy,” a sovereign had to participate in treaties and be able to enforce the provisions of those it signed. Treaty-worthy nations had the right to expect that other nations would respect their borders and trade rights in times of peace and would treat their citizens humanely in times of war. In theory, the law of nations applied to the overseas possessions and citizens of treaty-worthy nations. In actuality, all of the American colonies stood barely within the reach of the law of nations.

According to Gould, the American Revolution occurred in part because Great Britain tried to place its North American colonies firmly within the jurisdiction of the law of nations. London officials saw America as a lawless land, a place where smugglers and pirates ruled the Atlantic waves and where backcountry Indian traders incited rebellion. Britain sought to stabilize governance in North America by imposing “a series of sweeping reforms” (91) to rid the continent of its multiple legalities. Great Britain strengthened its naval forces, admiralty courts, and customs collectors to rid American waters of lawless sailors. Additionally, the empire stationed ten thousand regulars in the trans-Appalachian west to check the power of seditious Indian traders. Gould contends that while Americans “accepted the ends that Britain’s reforms were meant to serve” (6, 107), they rejected the imposition of Parliamentary taxes to pay for them. Rather than submit to taxation without direct Parliamentary representation, many American colonists opted to declare independence and try to “replicate the order that Britain was attempting to produce” (6–7) on their own terms.

Gould takes a long view of the American Revolution. He begins his narrative near the onset of the French and Indian War (1755) and concludes it with the Monroe Doctrine (1823). Gould sees the Revolution as an intellectual movement and expands the interpretation by asserting that “the American Revolution was never just a struggle for the right of Americans to govern themselves . . . it was also a struggle for dominion over others” (4). He insists that the Americans’ right to self-government and their prerogative to assert dominion over others came from entanglement [End Page 722] with Europe, not independence. Only when European sovereigns saw the United States as an equal did the law of nations protect American affairs from European interference.

Obtaining equality with Europe did not prove easy. European countries gave little consideration to forging long-term peace and trade alliances with the Americans until after 1793. Before 1793, Europeans believed as Lord Sheffield: “No treaty can be made with the American states that can be binding on the whole...


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