- Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812 ed. by Nicole Eustace and Fredrika J. Teute
Warring for America assesses how Americans of various origins understood themselves, the United States, and the idea of nationhood in the early republic. This is not a book about the War of 1812; instead it presents a war over culture and identity that complicates what it meant to be American and challenges the veneer of post-Revolution unity. Originating from a 2011 conference and edited by Nicole Eustace (who is among the finest scholars of cultural/patriotic ideals) and Fredrika Teute (long-time Omohundro editor), the collection of fourteen essays presents an 1812-era cultural history dominated by the uncertainty of "an unsettled and unsettling period" (p. v). As summarized by the book jacket, "the United States did not emerge from war in 1815 having resolved the Revolution's fundamental challenges or achieved a stable national identity." These essays illuminate "vast and unabridged" "cultural rifts" often overshadowed by the Revolution and the Civil War.
Preceded by Teute's preface, Eustace's insightful introduction presents a nation in transition and features dictionary author Noah Webster's attempts to create "American" words. She offers the 1812-era as a "struggle to define the physical and cultural parameters of [End Page 388] the nation" based on "divergent values and customs"—for Eustace, it extends beyond the political (p. 2). Thematically divided into three parts ("Slavery, Nation, and the Ongoing Revolution," "Representing the Republic," and "Expansion and the Intimacy of Borders,"), the book explores "the malleable boundaries, subjective and geopolitical, of the nation" (p. 12).
Part I is the most cohesive, with David Waldstreicher's and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's sections standing out. Examining the origins of black face and minstrel shows, particularly the popular song "Backside Albany," Waldstreicher convincingly links national anxiety with a dual perception of black sailors as heroes and rebels (reminiscent of Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy). He states, "The black sailor is thus acknowledged as American while contained as a racialized subject" (p. 46). Similarly, Smith-Rosenberg uses accounts of Barbary pirates and enslaved whites to present "citizenship and whiteness" as "defined in opposition to slavery and blackness." Most strikingly, this chapter grapples with the national belief of "America as a beacon of freedom around the globe" against the fear of comparing North African and U.S. slavery (p. 69). Despite being hindered by a lack of sources and slave ships' literal false flags, Christian Mucher originally and successfully explains how the definition of "traffic" versus "trade" allowed for the hypocrisy of vilifying Atlantic slave trafficking while condoning the domestic slave trade. Duncan Faherty's interdisciplinary use of the novel Margaretta explores the threat of excess democracy highlighted by France and Haiti, but it may delve too far into a literary framework for some historians. Nathaniel Millett boldly links the Seminole War to the Haitian Revolution, but the connection rests predominantly on Royal Marine Edward Nicolls' participation in both.
Engaging with 1812's martial elements, the initial several chapters of Part II connect exceptionally well and are particularly strong. Matthew Rainbow Hale deserves special attention for being refreshingly contrary to the recent historiography, as he "invites historians of the early United States to take seriously the concept of glory" (pp. 206–07). Examining the impact of Napoleon on America, Hale links [End Page 389] the French leader's aura to a heightened masculinity that "held martial values were superior to civilian ones." (p. 208). His assessment of 1812-era glory (and honor) is suggestive of a striving to match the Revolutionary generation. Still, Hale's conception of honor as synonymous with glory (and his charts and their search terms) can be contested, as there are varying definitions of honor. Despite their historical inaccuracies, James M. Greene uses veterans James Roberts' and Isaac Hubbell's narratives as indicative of "the concern that the later war represented a compromise in national virtue" (p. 251). Here...