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  • The American School of Empire by Edward Larkin
  • Daniel Diez Couch (bio)
The American School of Empire edward larkin New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016 151 pp.

Edward Larkin's study The American School of Empire examines the crucial role of empire in the years surrounding the American Revolution. His valuable work places the concept of empire on an equal footing with "democracy, freedom, nation, and republic" (2) and makes the case that the "characterization of the United States as an empire" was "not in dispute" during the late eighteenth century (1). In Larkin's hands, the structure of Anglo-American empire emerges as one of the central concepts underlying the development of political thought in the formation of the United States. Rather than prioritizing the concept of nation or state—as scholars of the period have done for generations—Larkin follows the recent move to deemphasize nationalism (which scholars have pursued through transatlantic, hemispheric, and postcolonial frames). These approaches have threaded their way through American literary studies, but Larkin identifies a region of resilient nationalism that he seeks to undo: the American Revolution. As Larkin adeptly summarizes, "Anglicization describes a movement from empire to nation" in the eighteenth century "that mirrors the postnationalist trajectory of nation to empire" in the early nineteenth century (16). Crucially, scholarly narratives of both trends use the Revolution as a privileged site of national creation and only place empire on either side of it.

Larkin's corrective thesis considers the ways in which colonials and early Republicans envisioned their country as an empire, not a nation. Larkin reveals how, even in the country's most "nationalistic" moments, such as the [End Page 981] writing of The Federalist Papers and the ratification of the Constitution, the underlying dynamics of political thought stem from the desire for an appropriate structure of empire. In managing the development of the country, thinkers like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton did not want to abolish British imperial structures; they wanted to improve on them by creating a centralized empire that could successfully imagine "the states as individual nations acting in concert within the logic of empire" (29). Instead of studying the outward imperial expansion of the United States that accelerates in the nineteenth century, Larkin demonstrates that the imperial logic of the nation was always already residing in its internal structure at the very moment of its inception. Outward empire, then, only required an extension of that internalized logic.

The American School of Empire also builds on the current recovery of Loyalism and Anglophilia in early America, most notably in work by Phillip Gould, Elisa Tamarkin, and Leonard Tennenhouse. By emphasizing the importance of transatlantic affiliations, Larkin rereads traditionally nationalist texts as ones that are more concerned with the logic of European empires and how the United States can appropriate and improve their structure. These insights into political philosophy are coupled with powerful close readings of literary texts and paintings that provide carefully structured evidence for his arguments. The first chapter moves through the writing of the Articles of Confederation (an often-overlooked period), The Federalist Papers, and the Constitution and shows how thinkers wanted to check the "nationalisms" of the states by containing them within a "confederate republic" of empire (27). These political texts complement his reading of Royall Tyler's The Algerine Captive, which figures less as a Federalist anthem and more as a comparative study of empire: volume 1 of the novel takes on the early Republic's "disjointed patchwork of places and peoples whose languages, cultures, and social mores are hopelessly incompatible" (35) and volume 2 considers the dangers of "an overly centralized and therefore despotic state" (34) through the example of Algiers. Tyler hopes to push past these options and see an imperial government that can "bring order to the allegedly chaotic state of American society" (38). For Larkin and Tyler, the question of the American future rests on the nature of its internal empire.

Larkin is at his strongest in his analysis of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer in chapter 2. Rather than take [End Page 982] Crèvecoeur as a sociologist studying what...