- The Maritime Turn in the Early Republic: National Identity and Foreign Relations on the Oceanic Frontier
In the 1980s, Benedict Anderson argued that nationalism is a social construct created only when people could imagine that they belonged to a larger community that shared ideas and nationhood. Crucial to this development was print capitalism and the ability to imagine others in time and space. Since Anderson’s pathbreaking study, many scholars have examined the process by which disparate peoples become one nation. Both Dane Morrison and Brian Rouleau offer thoughtful contributions to this endeavor, adding to our understanding of American nationalism in the early republic. Together, these two books remind us that almost as important as how a new people viewed the outside world was how that outside world viewed a new people. Nowhere did this become more apparent than in the distant Pacific and Indian Oceans where seafarers came into contact with other commercial nations and with alien cultures that brought into focus what it meant to be American. In the process, Morrison and Rouleau not only contribute to our understanding of the emergence of American nationalism, they also demonstrate the utility of the wave of studies on the oceanic frontier that might be called the “maritime turn” in the history of the early republic.
Morrison explicitly addresses the issue of national identity. Beginning with the history of the voyage of the Empress of China, Morrison argues that contact with the East—China, the East Indies, and India—was vital in defining what it meant to be an American because it was in dealing with these distant cultures that Americans projected a peculiar view of themselves and, in turn, the United States became accepted by others (Europeans) as a legitimate and [End Page 58] independent nation. Methodologically, Morrison relies upon five biographical chapters that are each based on the writings of a specific individual. The subjects of the book include officers and captains of vessels (Samuel Shaw, Amasa Delano, and Edmund Fanning), resident merchants (Robert Bennet Forbes), and one woman (Harriett Low) who went to China as a companion of the wife of a merchant. Four of the five wrote accounts of their experiences intended for publication and therefore actively participated in the print capitalism referenced by Anderson. The fifth, Low, wrote for a more limited audience—her sister and immediate family members—in a journal that did not find its way into publication until the early twentieth century.
Morrison sees his characters as representative of hundreds of other sea-and wayfarers who traveled to the Indies before the Civil War. He provides a larger context for understanding his five main characters in short “Interludes” between each chapter. The first interlude is called “Tempestuous Seas of Liberty, 1785–1790” and is devoted to outlining the larger problems confronted by American shipping in the age of revolution, including those caused by the Franco-British conflict that began in 1793 and the harassment by the Barbary states that started in the 1780s but continued until 1815. The second interlude is less concerned with the larger historical setting and focuses more on the importance of the oceanic frontier in the early republic, making the case of the representativeness of the biographies themselves. Thus Morrison’s interludes are both interpretive and contextual summaries that place his five narratives in a larger framework.
Morrison selected his five characters because of the compelling manner in which they wrote and because they captured the essence of the “Eastern contact” while echoing “the national mood and reflected its changes” (p. xiv). Those changes represent a significant component of Morrison’s argument since he believes that the first three voyagers (Shaw, Fanning, and Delano) saw themselves as “republican patriots” defending national honor and reputation while simultaneously being citizens of the world, part of...