The trials and tribulations of early America.

Eliga H. Gould’s book, Among the Powers of the Earth, covers a multitude of topics regarding the “wider struggle to found” (pg. 2) the United States of America: how the law of nations affected the wording of our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and other legal documents; the situation of white and black slavery and how this was legally and/or illegally handled in Europe, Africa and the Americas; the events leading up to our war of independence; the problems facing the new nation after independence was won; and finally, how the United States gained maritime trading rights and developed commercially and industrially after 1783. As such, the new nation itself faced two difficult issues: “One involved the Union’s quest to be accepted as a free and independent nation in Europe; the other, the right of its citizens to pacify and control what, from a European standpoint, was still a colonial periphery.” (pg, 2) One step to becoming accepted as a free and independent nation in the eyes of Europe, and a member of the European circle, was to win its revolution against its sovereign nation, England; be granted “nation status” by the nations of Europe and excepted as one; be granted the customary privileges of war, and allowed trading concessions by the European nations.

Initially the colonists in America were regarded as rebels by Britain and thus were not accorded the customary privileges of war for their prisoners. Such disregard for customary practices of prisoners can be seen in the words of Benjamin Franklin when speaking to England’s emissary to the French court, Paul Wentworth in 1778, as he lectured Wentworth on the “Barbarities inflicted on his Country.…the burning of Towns, the neglect or ill-treatment of Prisoners… [and the] system of devastation and Cruelty.” (pg, 79) In addition, British officers saw Continental soldiers and those who supported independence “as lawless combatants, who were neither bound nor protected by the customs of European nations.” (pg, 115) Although considered a “little paltry colonel of militia at the head of a banditti [of] rebels,” according to Ambrose Serle, General Howe’s private secretary, General George Washington strongly threatened General Gage of the British Army, that “British officers [and soldiers] in American custody… would [also] be [treated as] “felons,” [housed] in “common gaol[s],” and “the sick and wounded [would be denied]  medical attention,” unless Continental soldiers were granted the privileges of war. (pg. 115-116) General Howe, General Gage’s replacement, mindful of Washington’s threat, “eventually instructed his forces to treat Continental officers as ordinary prisoners of war.” (pg, 116) However, and in spite of General Howes instructions, Continental prisoners still endured substantial mistreatment at the hands of the British, with many of them dying from malnutrition and lack of medical attention aboard derelict prison ships.

Prisoner mistreatment was only one of many problems facing the colonies as they fought for independence. Among the Powers of the Earth brilliantly covers every aspect of this process and America’s post-war status as a fledgling republic. The European nations may have acknowledged the United States as a nation, but that did not mean it was allowed to properly become one. “neither Britain nor Europe’s other powers accepted them [United States] as treaty-worthy equals.” (pg, 119) At every turn, the nations of Europe blocked or hampered the new republic’s position. Even the war-allies, France and Spain, saw the United States as a nobody and only used the war to take revenge against a common enemy…England. Trading with Europe and the West Indies was denied because the British refused to give the “security” that it extended to “the navigation of others.” (pg. 119) This meant that American foreign trade was at the discretion of the British Crown, even though Americans were no longer British subjects. All of these affronts were considered “a direct assault on the Republic’s sovereignty.” (pg, 121) These travesties and insults to the sovereignty of the United States would come to a head during the Napoleonic Wars when American ships would be stopped, boarded, and its crews forced into service on British vessels, in total defiance of the rules of maritime trade and treaties signed between England and the United States.

Similar to Taylor Dipoto and 20perez16’s posts, the Native American element was relatively absent from Gould’s book. They were mentioned when discussing the Seven Year’s War/French and Indian War, post-Revolutionary War, raiding and taking captives, and situations when the United States found British agents supplying the natives with arms and ammunition to attack American settlers, as in Florida and Canada. Outside of these circumstances, the Native American voice is absent especially when it came to politics and treaties. This is surprising considering Native Americans were a mainstay of the region since the earliest surviving British settlement at Jamestown in 1607. Again as Taylor said, those who opposed Andrew Jackson’s methods when it came to Native Americans, i.e., the Cherokee Trail of Tears, were also the first ones to say that the land gained from their removal was prime and would benefit the greater American Republic.

Any misgivings I may have of how this book treated the Native Americans, Gould made up for it in his highly detailed and researched finished product. Every chapter is jammed packed with information and examples of the tenuous relationship, the early American Republic had with the older, established Imperial nations of Europe. We are taught in school that once we became independent, everything was relatively peaceful between us and Europe, minus continual hostilities with England and the Native Americans. Apparently, that was not the case!