- The Threshold of Manifest Destiny: Gender and National Expansion in Florida by Laurel Clark Shire
With careful prose and an impressive array of sources, Laurel Clark Shire convincingly demonstrates the importance of gender to American settler colonialism and expansion in antebellum Florida. While others, most notably Amy Kaplan, have shown the discursive importance of gender in similar contexts, Shire provides concrete evidence of how women supplied "material labor and cultural support" for settlement (p. 2). Women's homemaking "operated at both national and household levels," at a virtual threshold between the two, creating what Shire calls "expansionist domesticity" (p. 15).
Shire has created a multilayered account of how women's homemaking in antebellum Florida furthered America's territorial expansion. She is careful to discern the racial differences in women's roles and treatment, and she rightly questions the trustworthiness of her sources. The book attends to discourses crafted in both white stories of Indian depredations and Native people's oral histories and incorporates empirical evidence, including census data, estate inventories, and court and land records.
The book is divided into two sections. The first focuses on how the expansion of white households in Florida in the 1820s and 1830s was built on violent Indian removal and slave labor. Chapter 1 shows that the transition from Spanish to American rule in Florida left women with greater property rights than women possessed elsewhere in America. Shire notes that when they moved to the territory married women, with their ability to own property in Florida, often displaced Native people and slaves. As chapter 2 illustrates (along with a digression into race and labor dynamics) Native people who were displaced and attacked white households were portrayed in white narratives as savage aggressors who preyed on innocent white women and children. Chapter 3 counters these stories with the Seminoles' version of depredation stories, in which "Seminole storytellers provocatively reverse white narratives" to paint white people as the savages (p. 103). [End Page 151]
The second section of the book argues that federal policy in the late 1830s and 1840s encouraged white women to settle in Florida, making women agents of the government's expansionist policy in a relatively early test case. Chapter 4 explores how federal aid to white families harmed by the Second U.S.-Seminole War supported expansionist domesticity, and Shire offers a particularly smart reading of the gender dynamics of ration policies. Chapter 5 examines the evolution of the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 that granted land in unsettled portions of Florida to "heads of families" and thus implicitly involved a small but notable number of women (p. 163).
Throughout the book Shire offers insightful connections between her story and larger issues in American history. Her readings of the role of women in settler colonialism, the gendered implications of policies (down to the titles of federal bills), and the role of domesticity could easily be extrapolated to other times and places. Perhaps most provocative is Shire's suggestion that the ration policy in Florida "shaped early patterns of social provision in the United States" (p. 161).
There are two small but important omissions in this otherwise excellent book. First, while Shire's story largely focuses on East Florida, she insufficiently distinguishes between East Florida and West Florida, which was effectively under American control after 1810. Second, given the focus on the physical presence of American homes, I wanted to know more about architecture and material culture. What did these homes look like, and how were they outfitted? While not extensive, there is scholarship on this topic that could have enriched Shire's account. Quibbles aside, Shire's book is important and should be widely read by scholars of gender, colonialism, and early American history.