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Reviewed by:
  • Our Suffering Brethren: Foreign Captivity and Nationalism in the Early United States by David J. Dzurec III.
  • Nicholas P. Wood (bio)
Keywords (Lang: English)

Foreign captivity, Barbary, Slavery, Prisoners of war, War of 1812, Algeria

Our Suffering Brethren: Foreign Captivity and Nationalism in the Early United States. By David J. Dzurec III. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019. Pp. 256. Cloth, $90.00; paper, $27.95.)

As the literature on domestic slavery grows, it is important to remember that whites in the early republic were generally more concerned with dangers to American liberty abroad. In Our Suffering Brethren, David J. Dzurec III examines how various forms of foreign captivity—ranging from prisoners of war though Barbary slavery—revealed government [End Page 760] weakness and shaped political culture and national identity in the early republic. During the nation’s first three decades, the “continued failure of the federal government to secure the liberty of its captive citizens overseas repeatedly drew the nation into public discussions of how to better secure the legacy of the American Revolution” (14). Dzurec does a nice job of narrating these various conflicts and captivity experiences and analyzing domestic responses, explaining that they “simultaneously served to bring the American people together in defense of their fellow countrymen while dividing them along partisan lines” (15). This context shifted decisively by 1816, ushering in the “era of free security” (4).

During the War for Independence, stories of the brutal treatment that patriot prisoners of war experienced served as useful propaganda, portraying the British as savage and helping to unify Americans. Foreign captivity remained a problem after independence; in 1785 Algerian corsairs captured two American vessels in the Mediterranean and demanded ransom payments for the crews and annual tribute for permission to trade in the area. The inability of the Confederation Congress to resolve this crisis through either payments or military force helped strengthen the calls for government reform that eventually led to the Constitutional Convention. By 1797, after the capture of more vessels in 1793, the federal government finally redeemed the surviving captives and established tribute-paying treaties with Algiers and the other Barbary States. When Tripoli demanded increased annual tribute in 1801, the United States responded with military force under President Jefferson, and the 1805 peace treaty ended annual tribute payments. Yet Americans’ sense of collective insecurity persisted as a result of British and French trade blockades and British naval impressment. After Jefferson’s attempt to use economic pressure failed, President James Madison eventually resorted to war, which again led to American POWs suffering at the hands of British captors. Dzurec argues that the “Era of Good Feelings,” which followed the end of the War of 1812, was initially challenged by reports of the deaths of American POWs at Dartmoor Prison along with renewed conflict with Algerian corsairs.

Historians have examined these various topics separately, but Dzurec’s contribution is to link them in a continuous narrative while focusing on how they shaped domestic politics.1 Throughout this era, “both Federalists [End Page 761] and Republicans worked to turn concerns about American security abroad to their political advantage,” and Dzurec emphasizes the ways in which their political positions shifted over time (4). During the 1790s, for example, the Federalist majority in Congress voted to keep most debates on the Algerian crisis secret, reflecting their traditional view that the public should have little to do with politics outside of elections. Republicans exploited the Algerian crisis to “discredit Federalist rule” (72), encouraging public pressure on Congress and promoting fundraising efforts to ransom captives through private means. When President Jefferson later faced his own Barbary crisis, Federalists hoped to “paint the Jefferson administration as weak on American security” (87). Jefferson’s resort to war caught Federalists off guard, but they were quick to critique him for hypocritically taking executive action without congressional approval. They also emphasized that Jefferson’s use of force was possible only because Federalists had previously built up the Navy, and argued that Republican budget cuts lengthened the war and endangered American servicemen. During the subsequent controversy over British impressment, Federalists went on the offensive against Jefferson’s Embargo, which hurt the nation’s economy while...


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pp. 760-763
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