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  • Transferring Loyalty
  • Lindsay M. Chervinsky (bio)
Carol Berkin. A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism. New York: Basic Books, 2017. ix + 320 pp. Bibliography, notes, and index. $30.00.

In the last decade, scholars have increasingly turned their attention to the growth and development of the federal government after the ratification of the Constitution. Max Edling's A Hercules in the Cradle (2014) and Gautham Rao's National Duties (2016) lead other recent work that has showcased the complicated and messy process of state building and demonstrates how the government took years, if not decades, to form. In A Sovereign People, Carol Berkin contributes to this growing field by examining how the American people grew to accept the institutions that the United States Constitution created. She analyzes how the first domestic and international threats to American sovereignty forced citizens to defend the Constitution and the federal government in the decade after ratification. Berkin largely succeeds in showing how the patriotism and nationalism that welled up in response to these crises came to equal support for the government and the Constitution.

Berkin explores four key events in 1790s that fostered the growth of American nationalism: the Whiskey Rebellion, the Genet Affair, the XYZ Affair, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Each section provides a concise and vibrant description of these events and offers valuable arguments about the rise of the American identity or challenges existing scholarly interpretations.

In the first section on the Whiskey Rebellion, Berkin focuses on the administration's response to the rebellion in western Pennsylvania. She notes that Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton was quick to advocate a military response when farmers first resisted the excise tax in 1791. Washington initially demurred, electing to issue a proclamation and pursue a diplomatic solution. He acted out of deference for public opinion, fearing that the public would condemn a military response. Berkin observes that historians, with the benefit of hindsight, have approved of President George Washington's patient response to the insurrection—only turning to military enforcement once all diplomatic solutions had failed. But, she argues, had the rebels been better armed and better organized, Hamilton's plan to quash the rebellion in [End Page 371] the early stages would have been prudent. Berkin argues that Washington's unique stature contributed to the public's acceptance of military suppression of the rebellion. The public trusted Washington and therefore transferred some of that trust to the presidency and the federal government. Furthermore, Washington's response showed that the federal government could enforce the rule of law with leniency and could handle domestic rebellion without resorting to tyranny (pp. 78–80).

In the section on the Genet Affair, Berkin demonstrates how government loyalty became synonymous with American nationalism. Most Americans cheered Genet's arrival when he landed in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1793. Yet when Washington requested Genet's recall in August 1793, most Americans supported that decision, too. Genet's flagrant disregard for American policy and disrespect for Washington alienated most of his supporters. Washington's recall request asserted the United States' right to dictate its own foreign policy and to demand that diplomats respect that policy. Many historians have observed that the public vocally defended the president's right to shape foreign policy. Berkin expands on this argument by suggesting that when Congress, Republicans, and the public defended the president's authority over diplomacy, they professed loyalty to the federal government. Furthermore, she asserts that the Genet Affair witnessed the American public transfer additional loyalty from Washington to his office. Americans were outraged by Genet's disrespect toward the office of the presidency, not just his disrespect for Washington.

Berkin's description of the XYZ affair offers a brilliant narrative of the botched negotiations between American commissioners, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry, and the French agents. This section provides valuable insight into why the diplomatic negotiations failed. Unlike other historians who point to French Minister Charles Talleyrand's demands to open the conversation, Berkin emphasizes American factors. First, Pinckney, Marshall, and Gerry were horrible choices for peace commissioners. Pinckney had just experienced humiliation at the hands of the French...


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pp. 371-374
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