Marie-Jeanne Rossignol. The Nationalist Ferment: The Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1792-1812. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004. xxii + 274 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-0941-7.
Reviewed by John Harper (the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies)
Published on H-Diplo (February, 2005)
The Birth Pangs of American Nationalism
As the winner of the Organization of American Historians' 1994 foreign book prize, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol's Le ferment nationaliste (first published in 1994) has been translated into English with the help of the Ohio State University Press. Rossignol's is a "study of how American nationalism was enacted through the foreign policy of the early American republic" (p. xvii), and of how American nationalism acquired its "dual face": "union and exclusion" (exclusion, that is, of Native Americans and black slaves, and hostility toward the infant but threatening republic of Haiti) (p. 198). The argument is that the necessity of dealing with hostile Indians and European powers on the periphery helped to forge a sense of national unity and to define American nationality in narrow terms. By the same token, burgeoning feelings of nationalism helped to drive and shape foreign policy, especially during the years leading up to the War of 1812. As the author observes in the introduction, "Foreign crises, which certain leaders used to their advantage, exacerbated the nascent chauvinism of American citizens and led them to see their own country in an ever more idealized light and then to display their attachment to it.... Between 1789 and 1812 the American nation thus forged a geographic, political, economic, and racial identity through foreign policy conflicts and events" (p. xxi).
Let it be said, first of all, that this is an insightful and ambitious book. As is sometimes the case with such books, it raises questions that it never quite resolves. The author refers often, for example, to an American "elite" (pp. xii, xiv, 3, 24, 69, 139) united behind the goals of territorial and economic expansion, yet as she herself shows, this elite was riven by basic conflicts over the country's foreign policy orientation and the nature of the nascent American state. The unity of purpose that the presumed elite had achieved by the end of the War of 1812 was still a rather tenuous one, and destined to break down. It is not always clear from her account when members of the elite were consciously "enacting" a thought-out nationalist program or mainly reacting to outside events and pressure from below. She suggests, for example, that John Adams was eager to encourage and to direct the wave of "patriotism and xenophobia" (p. 101) that followed the news of the "XYZ" affair in 1798, but it is more plausible to argue that he allowed himself (for a time) to be swept along by the tide. It seems misleading to argue, as she does, that by "extolling America versus the former parent country, the young Republicans [i.e., the War Hawks of 1812] were the political heirs to George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, and John Adams" (p. 190). Washington, Morris, and Adams were nationalists, but they had supported the Jay Treaty (excoriated by Republicans) and favored a policy of peace vis-a-vis Britain. Morris, at least, did not support the War of 1812 and it is doubtful that Washington would have if he had been alive. While the War Hawks of 1812 believed (mistakenly) that Britain was responsible for the Indian troubles in the Indiana Territory, the British-Indian connection did not, as the author suggests, really imperil American expansion (p. 192). It may be true, as she says, that "only the War of 1812 could bring the new nation the recognition it sought before setting out to conquer the great domestic market that the American continent was to become" (p. 193). But it could be added that such expansion would have occurred with or without the war, and that anti-British feeling remained a factor in American foreign policy for years to come.
A less serious criticism is that the author is led astray, at times, by not always reliable secondary accounts (i.e., by Julian Boyd and Samuel Flagg Bemis). It is surprising that in preparing the English edition she did not consult Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (1993). Alexander Hamilton's contacts with the British in New York cannot be blamed for the failure of Morris's 1790 mission to London (p. 30). The British were not interested in a deal (in the absence of war with Spain) and were put off by Morris's demanding attitude and pro-French sympathies. Nor is there any evidence that the British would have offered better terms to John Jay in 1794 had Hamilton not informed the British minister in Philadelphia that the United States would not join the (anti-British) Armed Neutrality (p. 48). The U.S. demand that the British accept the principle that "free ships make free goods" was simply a non-starter as far as London was concerned. It does not clearly emerge from this book why, if Hamilton's bias against France was clear before he became treasury secretary, his bias in favor of Britain became stronger as a consequence of holding that position. The funding of the national debt depended on a steady flow of revenue to pay the interest on the debt. The most reliable source of revenue was the duty on imported goods, 90 percent of which were British. The simple fact was that a trade war, not to mention a real war, with Britain would have destroyed Hamilton's financial system.
Finally, the author has not always been well-served by the translation, and (as is always the case) minor errors have found their way into the text. A couple of examples include: "Domestic policy often seemed even subordinate to foreign policy debates, which had considerable influence on its very discourse and on the issues at stake" (p. xv). To what do "which" and "its" refer? Next, "The national territory had been won through a hard-fought struggle with the various neighboring powers as well as with the uncontrolled expansionist tendencies of groups of citizens in the West, and it was therefore the best symbol of true national sovereignty" (p. 24). What is "it"? The post-1783 Anglo-American controversy did not concern the failure of American states to pay their debts to British creditors, but the fact that some states created legal impediments to the payment of private debts (pp. 4, 7). Jay arrived in England in June (not May) 1794 (p. 18), and he was not a member of the cabinet (p. 37). Henry Knox was from Massachusetts, not New York (p. 28). In 1796, Jefferson returned to politics in Philadelphia, not Washington, D.C. (p. 63). Jefferson did not support the expansion of the Navy in 1794 (p. 114).
Problems aside, this book is a stimulating and valuable contribution to the study of the foreign relations of the early republic.
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John Harper. Review of Rossignol, Marie-Jeanne, The Nationalist Ferment: The Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1792-1812.
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