- The Nation’s Nature: How Continental Presumptions Gave Rise to the United States of America by James D. Drake
James D. Drake’s award-winning The Nation’s Nature: How Continental Presumptions Gave Rise to the United States of America reinterprets American history from the Seven Years’ War to the ratification of the Constitution through the metageographical imagination of early Americans.1 Eighteenth-century British colonists, Drake argues, embraced contemporary scientific taxonomies that linked and naturalized geography, political systems, and racial hierarchies. Largely ignorant of the true continental landscape, colonists “imagined” a geography that in turn became central to who they were. In other words, Drake argues that British North Americans became Americans through the construction of a “continental” identity created in reference to an “imagined natural space” (p. 154). Furthermore, these continental presumptions had tremendous causal power in the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and the creation and ratification of the Constitution.
Well written and well researched, this ambitious and stimulating reinterpretation of Revolutionary America is thinly predicated on the “metageographic presumptions” of elite white male colonists and relies on the power of language to shape and express unconscious notions of self and nation. Drake is thus forced to read and interpret sources to demonstrate a “continental” identity colonists and patriots infrequently consciously expressed. Adrift in an imagined space shaping unconsciously arrived at notions of self, nation, and polity, many readers will find metageographical rhetoric lacking as an interpretive framework for Revolutionary America. [End Page 983]
Drake’s book is divided into two parts, seven chapters and an epilogue. Part 1, chapters 1–3, lays out the basic premise and develops the narrative to the beginning of the American Revolution. Part 2, chapters 4–7, uses the ideas established in part 1 to reinterpret the Revolution, and the writing and ratification of the Constitution. The brief epilogue examines the demise of metageographic presumptions, even as continental ambitions survived.
In part I Drake forcefully and convincingly argues that colonial Americans fused the new scientific taxonomic systems with geography, racial theory, and notions of polity to establish three basic ideas common to the elite white men he studies: first, the continent was a coherent and natural whole; second, Britons were naturally best suited for domination of the continent; third, the projected demographic dominance of the Britons in North America was confirmation that their rule over the continent was natural. Merging scientific ideas with “geopolitical” visions, colonists imagined the “continent” as “an inherently unified entity” (p. 154) that nature demanded they rule.
Having established this intellectual framework Drake then applies these ideas to the series of events that began with the Seven Years’ War and culminated in the ratification of the Constitution and are commonly referred to by early American historians as Revolutionary America. The Seven Years’ War, Drake argues, was an effort by Britons and British colonists armed with “assumptions about continents and corollary notions about race and demography . . . to drive others out of North America” (p. 69). Conceptualizing the Imperial crisis of the 1760s through the looking glass of colonists’ continental presumptions, Drake concludes that colonists perceived themselves a “distinct” political community “unnaturally” dominated by a distant Parliament (p. 109). Colonists thus imagined Britain as an opponent “by virtue of its geography” (p. 154). Continental presumptions were also, according to Drake, critical to military victory. Demoralized by their early military losses, colonists’ continental identity proved critical to rousing patriotic feeling at key moments and was “no less important than, say, Washington’s crossing the Delaware, or France’s declaration of war on Britain in determining the outcome of the Revolution” (p. 173). A continental identity, Drake concludes, was also key to Patriots’ success in forging a federal union drawing disparate regions together into a governable whole under the principles enshrined in the Constitution.
Drake’s argument is strongest when he deals with intellectual concepts his subjects directly engage. Thus, his discussion of eighteenth-century taxonomy and the implications of these ideas for political [End...