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  • National Identity and American Foreign Policy in the Early Republic
  • Paul A. Gilje
Our Suffering Brethren: Foreign Captivity and Nationalism in the Early United States. By David J. Dzurec III. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019. 250 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.
The Genesis of America: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Formation of National Identity, 1793–1815. By Jasper M. Trautsch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 328 pages. Cloth, ebook.

“What, then, is the American, this new man?” So asked the Frenchman turned British colonist, turned Loyalist, turned Frenchman again, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in 1782.1 Scholars continue to ponder this question. Influenced by the work of Benedict Anderson and Linda Colley, historians today often rely on the concept of an imagined community and see the development of national identity as a process centered not only on shared connections between individuals but also in contrast to external “others.”2 Following this lead, David J. Dzurec III, in Our Suffering Brethren, and Jasper M. Trautsch, in The Genesis of America, examine foreign affairs during the early history of the United States to trace how perceptions of external societies helped to define American nationality.

Identifying who was an American was an important problem in the wake of the American Revolution, one which raised many questions. Were people from different regions and states within the United States all American? Were people with opposing political views American? How should individuals within the new United States differentiate themselves from others elsewhere in the world? Both books address these questions and thereby contribute to our understanding of the development of a new American nationality while adding to the revitalized field of American diplomacy in the early republic. [End Page 311]

Both Dzurec and Trautsch agree on the importance of public debate on foreign policy in the new American republic. Dzurec argues that the capture of Americans by foreign powers shaped politics and the gradual coalescence of nationalism in the early United States, as concern for these captives “helped unite the American people to push their government to protect their fellow countrymen abroad” (4). He sees the origins of American nationality in the concern over British treatment of captured sailors and soldiers during the American Revolution. As the nation went from vulnerability to security in the years from 1776 to 1816, he claims, political debates over how to address diplomatic weakness—especially when faced with the treatment of American captives—stimulated the development of a nationalist rhetoric used by both Federalists and Republicans. By contrast, Trautsch believes that no sense of national identity emerged out of the revolution. Instead, he claims, during the 1790s and early 1800s, debate in the newspapers over foreign policy forced Americans to increasingly identify with their nation. “In other words,” he contends, “by arguing over U.S. National identity, they created it in the first place” (29).

Both books represent a renewed academic interest in foreign policy. But unlike traditional diplomatic historians, Dzurec and Trautsch do not write about the complex details of negotiations and treaties. Nor are they concerned with how ideological issues influenced policy decisions. Rather, they focus on the political and cultural implications of foreign affairs. Influenced by the studies of David Waldstreicher, Joanne B. Freeman, and Jeffrey L. Pasley, they center their analysis on the expressions of public opinion in articles, essays, and toasts as they appeared in newspapers.3

What we get, as a result, are not narratives tracing lines of diplomatic developments. Rather, the authors each bring together a series of diplomatic episodes to explore the political culture of the early republic. This approach makes sense for Dzurec; by definition, an examination of the foreign policy of captivity revolves around specific moments when foreign powers seized Americans. Hence, Dzurec begins with the popular concern over prisoners of war in the revolution, discusses the public debate triggered by the enslavement of sailors by Algiers and Tripoli, and then moves on to the political controversy over British impressment of American seamen before concluding with the uproar over the treatment of American prisoners during the War of 1812 and the threat posed to American nationality by the conflict with Algiers in...


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pp. 311-315
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