- Being American in Europe, 1750–1860 by Daniel Kilbride
Travel, Europe, American identity, Cultural history
Once they became independent, Americans struggled for decades to define what being “American” actually meant. Even though they had thrown off their political ties to England, the “Old World” still proved a powerful influence as Americans crafted a national identity. Following on impressive earlier work that examined the formation and impact of cross-regional elite identities in antebellum America, Daniel Kilbride creatively uses the views of Americans who traveled to Europe between 1750 and 1860 to reveal how the Old World continued to shape Americans’ ideas of themselves and their society long after the Revolution. Indeed, Kilbride persuasively argues, Americans’ opinions of Europe played a crucial role in the creation of an American identity during this era of nation building.
Admitting at the start that only a tiny, if growing, number of Americans traveled to Europe in the years before 1860, Kilbride rightly insists that these travelers’ writings “provide an unparalleled perspective on how Americans defined themselves within and against Europe in the formative period of national identity” (7). Traveling men and women, who, of course, were mainly white and wealthy, found themselves on “the front lines,” as Kilbride states, “in the struggle about the place of the United States within Western Civilization” and about the cultural and political meanings of Europe for the fledgling nation (6). Far from dismissing the Old World as irrelevant to American society, these travelers knew there were many lessons—both good and bad—to be learned from examining Europe closely. Across decades, they constantly compared and assessed their nation’s political and cultural values with those [End Page 131] of the European countries they visited and, in the end, came to a generally shared consensus about the definition of “Americanness.” Americans visiting Europe regularly confronted some of the major issues Americans hotly disputed at home. What should the nature of their relationship with Great Britain be? What were the dangers and attractions of aristocratic culture for republican citizens? Similarly, and not unimportantly in this era, what were the dangers and attractions of Catholicism? Also, should (and how could) Americans help promote liberal ideas and movements in the Old World? Ultimately, Kilbride concludes, they wondered how the United States and Americans could create national distinctiveness while remaining linked to Europe.
Kilbride’s study is organized chronologically. Colonial travelers established an early “pattern of American ambivalence” toward the Old World, believing that Americans could benefit much from Europe, while the Atlantic Ocean would “insulate” them from European “imperfections” (10). Many colonials returned home quite satisfied with their provincial lives. After the Revolution, republican citizens worried immensely about the corrupting influence of European politics and culture, but also wanted to maintain various connections with Europe. While still deferring to European “cultural authority,” traveling Americans in the early decades of nation building sought to “define an identity vis-à-vis Europe that staked out a distinctive nationalism while situating the republic within the Atlantic community” (46). Aristocrats and their elite culture proved a real dilemma for republican travelers, as they truly admired, but simultaneously feared, the palaces, fashions, and finery. Kilbride deftly discusses the crucial role sociability played in the process of crafting nationalism. Throughout the period he examines, but especially in this post-Revolutionary era, socializing with fellow citizens abroad helped travelers to crystallize “those qualities Americans shared” that “distinguished them from other peoples” (76).
For the antebellum era, Kilbride notes the increase of middle-class Americans making the trip to Europe and a corresponding shift toward middle-class culture becoming “the normative standard that Americans applied as they assessed their nation’s place in the European community of nations” (80). The most powerful component of this middle-class view, Kilbride proclaims, was a strong belief in the popular “egalitarian myth” of the Jacksonian era that led travelers to regard Europe, with its mass poverty, poor treatment of women, and benighted Catholics, as [End Page 132] inferior to the United States. Moreover, Kilbride argues (with less...