Booked: Our Fellow American Revolutionaries

Booked: Our Fellow American Revolutionaries

Simón Bolívar and a wounded comrade on the battlefield in the the Colombian war of independence, 1819 (Francisco Antonio Cano / Wikimedia Commons)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this interview, he spoke with Caitlin Fitz about Our Sister Republics (W. W. Norton, 2016).

“America is therefore the land of the future,” G. W. F. Hegel told his students early in the nineteenth century. But which America? Through an act of linguistic imperialism, citizens of the United States have claimed for themselves a title—“American”—that belongs to most of the other inhabitants of the Western hemisphere. There are Cubans, Brazilians, and Peruvians, but no United Statesians. Unlike so many later commenters, Hegel was precise with his language: “a contest between North and South America,” he speculated, might provide a stage where “the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself.”

Caitlin Fitz avoids Hegel’s prophesying, but she suggests the German philosopher might have been onto something. Our Sister Republics exhumes a forgotten moment in the history of the Americas, a time when residents of the newly formed United States came to see Latin Americans as partners in a shared revolutionary experiment. In the half century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, she argues, faith in the egalitarian principles outlined by Thomas Jefferson trumped concerns about racial difference below the equator. That ecumenical attitude gave way in the 1820s to a rival interpretation of American exceptionalism grounded not in a common hemispheric project but in the dream of a white man’s republic. With another Independence Day around the corner, the legacies of both visions are more present than ever.

Timothy Shenk: Drunken revelry plays a larger part in this book than in any other work of history I’ve come across. Toasts, in particular, supply you with a considerable amount of material. What were people in the United States saying while they were drinking?

Caitlin Fitz: If it’s true that people are more honest when they’re drunk, then my book certainly speaks the truth! (But kidding aside, I worked from printed transcripts of toasts, which were drafted and edited in more sober moments.) I studied July Fourth toasts in particular, because newspaper editors widely reprinted them. People said lots of what you’d expect—they toasted the founding fathers, the Declaration, their favorite political candidates and governing principles. But I was stunned to find how often they also talked about South Americans, who were in the throes of their own independence wars between about 1808 and 1825. I sampled almost 900 July Fourth party transcripts, and I found that in the decade after the War of 1812, more than half of the celebrations recorded toasts to Latin America. The reason was that even though Latin American independence stemmed more from the Napoleonic Wars than from the spirit of 1776, July Fourth patriots gave themselves credit. They saw their neighbors south of the border as fellow American revolutionaries, and they were proud to imagine that they had inspired it all.

Shenk: Most of Our Sister Republics focuses on what changing perceptions of Latin America in the United States tell us about U.S. history, but the book also reveals the existence of an underground network in the United States connecting what you call “agents of revolution” largely hailing from Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. What did these men hope to accomplish in the United States, and how successful were they once they arrived?

Fitz: Many came as exiles and refugees—castaways thrown from the turbulent ship of revolution. But I’m most interested in those who came as agents and emissaries to secure aid and shape public opinion. Many agents believed that popular support would be crucial in pressuring federal policymakers for things like diplomatic recognition and looser neutrality laws.

Were they successful? Yes and no. They purchased tens of thousands of firearms from U.S. merchants, recruited boatloads of armed adventurers, and saturated the press with laudatory coverage. Some rebel agents even became minor celebrities, and there’s reason to think that the resulting grassroots enthusiasm did help push federal policymakers to extend formal recognition, once certain political, geostrategic, and diplomatic conditions were met. But at the same time, many rebel agents were disappointed to find that U.S. support was more about emotional kinship than actual aid. Rebel visitors could rarely purchase as many firearms as they wanted, the government cracked down against armed adventuring, and diplomatic recognition took years despite all the popular fervor. In the end, the United States never did for Latin America what France had done for the United States two generations before.

I should also add that while my book emphasizes the more than 200 visitors who came from South America, there were also lots of Mexican insurgents in the United States, especially along the Gulf Coast. But unlike most of the popular hemispheric enthusiasts—who emphasized South America over Mexico and who rarely linked Latin American independence to U.S. expansion—Mexican agents concentrated more frequently on filibustering and armed adventuring.

Shenk: Although you argue that when it came to Latin America there was a “color-blind consensus” in the United States, even at its most popular this disposition was still not universal—or, at least, it was held with different degrees of enthusiasm by different groups. Who were the strongest supporters of inter-American harmony? Who were the most skeptical?

Fitz: New Englanders were the biggest skeptics, partly because their economy drew more on trade with Cuba and the rest of the loyal Spanish Empire, and also because of the Federalist Party’s influence. Dating back to the French Revolution, Federalists had worried about revolutionary social change and the violence that inevitably accompanied it. That outlook lingered even after the Federalist Party’s collapse following the War of 1812, and it dampened the inter-American enthusiasm. Still, South American independence was far less divisive than the French Revolution had been. Federalists weren’t as optimistic about Latin Americans’ prospects, and (like many Republicans) they didn’t want the United States to get mixed up in the conflict, but they usually wished Latin Americans well and supported them in theory.

The biggest enthusiasts were in the trans-Appalachian West—partly because anti-Spanish sentiment abounded there, partly because Federalist influence was weaker, and perhaps also because the West was less tied to trade with Cuba and Spain. In some western regions, territorial expansion fueled the ardor as well—some argued, for example, that an independent Mexico might quickly cede Texas—but that was a surprisingly minor factor nationwide.

Shenk: For much of the book, slavery is most noticeable for its absence. Of course, you’re aware that it was a crucial subject throughout the Americas, but you also push against the tendency to see the discussion about Latin America—especially in the states that later made up the Confederacy—as centered around that issue. Why could some of the same people who grew apoplectic at the prospect of emancipation in Haiti overlook antislavery politics further south? And what did African Americans think about all this?

Fitz: Spanish-American abolition was very different from Haitian abolition. It took decades, and it resembled the gradual process many northern U.S. states were pursuing. Haiti’s proximity to the U.S. South meant that it posed a greater threat to U.S. slaveholders than a faraway place like Venezuela. That’s why the same white people who were unnerved by events in Haiti remained unfazed by Spanish-American antislavery efforts; some were even expressly supportive. Remember, this is a time when most southern whites still saw slavery as a necessary evil, not a positive good. So while they certainly weren’t ready to end it themselves, they seemed to believe that gradual abolition in Spanish America was a rational and even honorable thing. Their excitement for Spanish-American anticolonialism offset whatever concerns they might have had about Spanish-American antislavery. So you could say that the ardor for Spanish-American independence reveals the longevity of egalitarian thinking in the early U.S., while the panic about Haiti reveals its limits.

African Americans, meanwhile, watched Spanish-American independence with fascination. The nation’s first black-owned-and-operated newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, referenced Latin America in over half the issues in its first year (including in the inaugural column of the inaugural issue). It cited people of color’s accomplishments elsewhere in the Americas as evidence of what black people could achieve if given a chance. Other African Americans toasted Spanish-American antislavery sentiment at dinner parties. A few former slaves even seem to have chosen the last name Bolivar when they won their freedom. White antislavery activists made the case as well—Benjamin Lundy repeatedly pointed out that the United States was the only republic in the hemisphere that still endorsed slavery’s expansion. It was a way of embarrassing readers into reform (and an especially potent charge in the aftermath of the Missouri crisis).

Shenk: Continuing with the subject of abolitionism, a book that kept popping into my head while I was reading was David Brion Davis’s classic The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770­–1823. Davis’s preoccupation in that book is with a basic shift in moral reasoning that took place in these decades, where for the first time major social movements emerged that viewed slavery not as a necessary evil but as a disgrace that needed to be eliminated as quickly as possible. Your book is also concerned with a transformation in values that took place over this period, and you even share a few of the same characters. Is there a deeper sense in which your book fits with—or challenges—Davis’s?

Fitz: My book focuses on similar trends among a different group of actors. Davis and I are both interested in people who saw slavery as an unnecessary evil and in people who saw it as a necessary evil. (In part given my slightly later chronological focus, I also explore those who started to see it as something more like a positive good.) But Our Sister Republics draws more on the methods of social and political history—I counted baby names, tallied toasts, quantified congressional votes and tested the numbers for correlations—to develop something like an intellectual history of ordinary people, a history of how those people understood republicanism, slavery, and equality, and a history of how they did and didn’t act on those beliefs. You’re absolutely right that Davis and I share certain “characters,” especially insofar as we’re both interested in politicians, editors, and leading activists. But my goal is to explore how such leaders interacted with ordinary people. Davis’s foundation helped me do that.

Shenk: Around the time Davis was writing, one of the most exciting movements among historians of the early United States was the search for republicanism. The definition of republicanism varied from author to author, but the overall project was animated by the desire to find a political tradition that was more concerned with the public good than self-interest. Republicanism hasn’t been a fashionable subject with the last generation of scholars, but you spend a good amount of time on it here. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, you write, people in the United States “focused on republicanism, not race” and welcomed the prospect “of a united republican hemisphere.” What does bringing republicanism back in do for your argument?

Fitz: That older debate came to focus on republicanism as a public and civic culture—it emphasized what a republican society looked like, and historians in that debate contrasted republicanism with liberalism. I’m interested in the related but narrower question of what republican government looked like, and I’d probably contrast republicanism with monarchy—a distinction that received far more attention from hemispheric enthusiasts. With Europe’s absolutist Holy Alliance gaining steam just as Spanish-Americans moved toward kingless government in the early and mid-1820s, U.S. observers grew increasingly convinced that the Old World was mired in monarchical tyranny while the New World was rallying around a shared anticolonial and republican vision. That overpowering conviction is one key reason that U.S. observers were able to overlook the insurgents’ racial and religious differences. Two caveats, though. First, the crisp geographic distinction between the republican Americas and monarchical Europe was clearly overblown—witness Canada, Brazil, or Greece, for example. Second, republicanism and monarchy existed along a spectrum, not in dichotomous opposition. Bolivia’s controversial 1826 constitution was nominally republican—it had no monarch—but presidents served for life and appointed their own successors.

Shenk: Our Sister Republics ends right before Andrew Jackson takes office, but the argument you make has clear relevance for how we think about what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called the Age of Jackson. Since he coined that phrase, historians have been debating whether it’s an appropriate title for the period. Even today, scholarship often breaks along partisan lines, with one group celebrating the democratizing achievements of the Jacksonians and others more inclined to highlight the limits of an egalitarianism dedicated to advancing equality among white men. Although closing the book with the administration of Jackson’s predecessor—and rival—John Quincy Adams lets you sidestep this debate, it definitely seems to have been on your mind. What do you think Our Sister Republics reveals about democracy in the United States under Jackson?

Fitz: My book approaches this issue through the lens of the 1826 Panama debates, when the freshly inaugurated Adams administration accepted an invitation to send delegates to an upcoming inter-American meeting in Panama. Adams didn’t expect much of a battle, especially given the previous decade of hemispheric enthusiasm. But his opponents—who would eventually coalesce into the Democratic Party—rallied against the mission and made it their first partisan stand. They raised many concerns—about neutrality, constitutional procedure, big government, and so forth. But the coalition’s southern wing also pointed to slavery, saying that the United States would be crazy to send delegates to a potentially interracial antislavery convention; as a white republic, they proclaimed, the United States was special and superior. That exceptionalism wasn’t new, nor was the racism; both predated the United States. What was new was how emerging southern Democrats prominently linked the two in a proud celebration of white U.S. superiority.

The Panama debates weren’t directly concerned with democratic equality for white men, so the things that scholars like Schlesinger admire about the Democrats weren’t on display. But the debates were ominous because they showed how southern slaveholders were getting more politically assertive. Most earlier congressional battles over slavery had come at the initiative of antislavery northerners, but in 1826 rising southern Democrats went more on the offensive. In that increasingly forceful and confident posturing, we can see emerging southern Democrats inching towards a more proslavery position. Going forward, of course, the party usually tried to suppress the issue, and Jackson had to walk a fine line between harnessing slaveholders’ electoral power and reining it in lest northern Democrats jump ship. Whigs walked a similar tightrope, although I agree with those who argue that the Whigs were nominally less bad on slavery.

Shenk: One of my favorite parts of this book is the caution with which you handle its central argument. It’s easy to push too hard with a big, counterintuitive discovery, but you strike a balanced tone. The universalizing impulse in U.S. democracy, you write, was “perfunctory but sincere.” Can you explain that tension? You could imagine a skeptic replying that if American egalitarians were really sincere they couldn’t have been that perfunctory. Hiding behind that question is the related issue of why the enthusiasm for Latin America could dissipate so quickly—by your account, a process that took place over just a couple years.

Fitz: It was sincere in that Americans used universalist language to define who they were and who they aspired to be. Before the Panama debates in 1826, the few people who did portray South American antislavery tendencies and race relations as a problem stirred up way more criticism than support—people called the race-based critiques unrepublican and un-American. At the same time, the universalist thinking was obviously perfunctory, as evidenced above all by slavery’s dramatic southwestern spread. It was one thing to celebrate antislavery republicans who were relatively moderate, who lived far away, and who didn’t directly threaten the status quo in the United States. It was another thing to act on those convictions. Few white Americans thought very deeply about what Spanish-American race relations might actually suggest for the United States, and fewer still were ready to commit to the kind of wholesale change that nationwide abolition required.

The key here is that as Latin America’s independence wars raged, the United States was experiencing a growing rift between its universalist rhetoric and its unequal reality. Would people change the reality to match the rhetoric? Or would they change the rhetoric to match the reality? It’s obviously easier to do the latter. That’s what some emerging southern Democrats began to do in the Panama debates, when they disavowed the Declaration’s egalitarian language. The avowedly unequal rhetoric gradually caught on because it explained many southern whites to themselves in a way that better matched reality; it affirmed the inequality that already structured their lives. And as long as we’re talking about why the enthusiasm cooled so quickly: an even bigger factor was that Latin Americans were entering a period of political instability as they transitioned from revolution to nation-building. People in the United States were hugely disappointed.

Shenk: What did the shift in U.S. rhetoric look like from the perspective of political leaders in Latin America? You note that naming babies after the Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar was something of a trend in the early nineteenth century, but that Bolívar himself cautioned, “There is at the head of this great continent a very powerful country, very rich, very warlike, and capable of anything.”

Fitz: I haven’t studied Latin American reactions to the Panama debates in great detail, but Venezuelan and Mexican (and probably other) newspapers reprinted some of the most egregious invective. What’s so interesting is that over time, just as the United States was defining itself in opposition to the republics of Spanish America, some of those same republics were defining themselves in opposition to the United States. As Karl Jacoby’s compelling new book notes, Mexico’s 1857 constitution opened by endorsing the rights of man and emphasizing that in Mexico there was no slavery (an implied rebuke not only of Mexico’s less-than-neighborly northern vanquisher, but also of Spanish Cuba, which some southern whites had begun to depict as part of an inter-American slaveholding family). As Greg Grandin has argued, the nations of the Americas confronted similar and high-stakes questions—about slavery, expansion, colonialism, republicanism, equality, and immigration, to name just a few—and they were locked in constant debate over the answers.

Shenk: Some political theorists have contended that the tension you explore here between universalism and particularism has always been at the heart of liberalism. Looking at the world today, it seems like some of the issues you examine here are more alive than ever. Do you think we’re still living with the ramifications of this history?

Fitz: The inter-American universalism of the 1810s and early 1820s simultaneously fueled patriotic arrogance (or “particularism,” as you call it). When white people in the United States celebrated Latin American insurgents, there was often a sense that they’re following us, that we’re the center and they’re our satellites. That tension persists today: the United States often presents itself as defending freedom around the world, but we simultaneously prioritize our own particular interests, to a degree that sometimes alienates our allies. What most concerns me about our current moment, however, is the degree to which Donald Trump is actually spurning universalism with his “America First” foreign policy and his critique of “the false song of globalism.” It will be fascinating to see how his belligerent isolationism fares in our pluralistic electorate.


Caitlin Fitz lives in Evanston, Illinois, where she is assistant professor of history at Northwestern University. She has received numerous honors, including a Fulbright Fellowship, an Andrew Mellon Fellowship, and Yale University’s Egleston Historical Prize.

Timothy Shenk is a graduate student in history at Columbia University and a Dissent contributing editor. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.