American Isolationism and the Monroe Doctrine in the Nineteenth Century


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Taylor Dipoto

 

16 December 2016

American Isolationism and the Monroe Doctrine in the Nineteenth Century

For a great deal of American history, the United States remained—or attempted to remain—independent from the political affairs of other nations. George Washington set this precedent with his Farewell Address, expressing hope that his country “may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected…Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour or Caprice?”[1] Although the United States did fight engage European powers in war, this germ of isolationism—a form of nonintervention that prized peace for Americans over any international involvement—presented by Washington, took root.

Despite the early origins of this idea, the bulk of scholarship on American isolationism specifically focuses on the period of the twentieth century that encompasses the World Wars, and often ignores any earlier manifestations of the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the major questions facing historians who tackle these prior incarnations of isolationism center around its origins. While these historians do not often directly engage in a debate, their ideas nevertheless fall into two different camps: one considers the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 as the official starting point, while the other looks to various earlier moments in American history. Most historians writing on the subject fall into the first category. Carl Becker wrote “The Monroe Doctrine and the War” shortly after the end of the First World War, making him the first historian to notice a connection between the Monroe Doctrine and the broader idea of isolationism, likely because isolationism was more prevalent than ever before in the years directly leading up to American involvement in the war. Several subsequent historians have shared his opinion; Gretchen Murphy (Hemispheric Imagining: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire), Jay Sexton (The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America), and John Kasson (“The Monroe Doctrine in 1881”) make the Monroe Doctrine the focus of their respective works on the American idea of empire in the nineteenth century. More recently however, several historians have come forward to suggest even earlier beginnings to isolationist practices. William Belko’s “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited” traces its development to a very specific event: the 1810 West Florida Revolt, which he proposes shaped the eventual “no transfer” policy of the Monroe Doctrine. Reaching even further back, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol looks to the 1790s as a period of early isolationism following George Washington’s suggestion to avoid entanglement in Europe in her article “Early Isolationism Revisited: Neutrality and Beyond in the 1790s.”

While the establishment of a concrete point of origin for isolationism is undoubtedly the most contested point within the historiography, other historians have established an ancillary debate centering around the dichotomy of internationalism and isolationism. Some see these two ideas as completely incompatible, and choose to focus their work on the arguments between “imperialists” and “anti-imperialists” within the American government. David Healy (U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s) and Berkeley Tompkins (Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate 1890-1920) both hold this view in their books dealing with both expansionism and anti-imperialism. On the other side of the debate, Marco Mariano’s “Isolationism, Internationalism and the Monroe Doctrine” and James Sofka’s “American Neutral Rights Reappraised” both point out the similarities between these two ideas, stressing the ways in which they could coexist. Both questions demonstrate the relative lack of consensus among the academic community when it comes to the history of American isolationism, making its study both useful and important in terms reaching new conclusions that may further the field.

Historical works relating to American isolationism vary quite greatly in their specific topics, because scholars do not agree on exactly what “isolationism” comprises in a specifically American sense. Twentieth century historians view it in a narrow sense, defining it as the United States’ reluctance to involve itself in the world wars. These historians rarely acknowledge the existence of isolationism, at least by their definition, before 1914. Understandably, this prevalent idea causes problems when it comes to defining isolationism as it existed in nineteenth century America. This historiography will view isolationism more broadly, as the desire for both distance from and non-intervention in European affairs, Therefore, the major problem in examining works relating to American foreign policy in the nineteenth century—regardless of the emphasis their individual works directly place on it—is discovering exactly how prevalent isolationism was during this period.

Until quite recently, many scholars avoided using the term isolationism at all, even when writing on American foreign policy. However, this does not mean earlier works ignored the possibility of its presence. Instead, a trend carrying from the end of the nineteenth century through the early twenty-first century appears to emphasize imperialism, while failing to acknowledge its connections to isolationist ideas. The implementation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 and mass territorial expansion throughout the nineteenth century split both politicians and American citizens into two factions: imperialists and anti-imperialists. Evident by their names, the first group supported territorial expansion outside of the continental United States and the establishment of what essentially amounted to a colonial empire. The second opposed this aim, arguing that imposing American rule upon a foreign group “represented a flagrant violation of the fundamental principles upon which the government of the United States was based.”[2]

Berkeley Tompkins and David Healy both published books on these factions in 1970, emphasizing the ways in which many anti-imperialists viewed colonialism/imperialism as a problem not only for the oppressed, but for the wellbeing of the United States as well. Neither author directly relates anti-imperialism to isolationism, but the two ideas are remarkably similar, as they respectively center on keeping the United States out of foreign territory and foreign affairs.[3] This suggests that in its broad definition, isolation did indeed exist during the nineteenth century. Earlier historians simply failed to make this evident. Their books remain useful in the context of imperialism specifically, but they obscure the prevalence of isolationism.

In recent years, scholars finally began to directly associate isolationist tendencies with nineteenth century American foreign policy. For this reason alone, their works more successfully demonstrate the influence of isolationism. Perhaps the most balanced study, Jay Sexton’s The Monroe Doctrine provides examples of isolationism’s successes and failures throughout the century.[4] Marco Mariano represents the watershed moment in acknowledging the pervasiveness of isolationism in nineteenth century America however, by directly associating it with the Monroe Doctrine, which shaped the majority of the century’s foreign policy positions. He points out “the Monroe doctrine embodied the relation between US identity and security through the creation of a Manichean world in which Europe was the negative Other,” which supports his argument that while the doctrine sanctioned expansion, it also set the groundwork for nonintervention/isolationism.[5] Other recent works successfully support Mariano’s findings, and even trace the presence of isolationism to earlier periods of the long nineteenth century, adding credence to the idea that isolationism did in fact play a major role in nineteenth century America, despite its seeming contradiction to expansionism, imperialism, and American involvement in international affairs such as the Spanish-American War.[6]

Given these explanations of the big questions surrounding the field, and its general trajectory, it is possible to examine the above-mentioned works in greater detail. As noted, authors writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not use the term isolationism at all. However, several of these historians examined the value and legacy of the Monroe Doctrine, connecting its clauses not only to the traditionally emphasized imperialistic expansion of the United States, but to ideas of keeping American affairs separate from Europe. The earliest example of this is John Kasson’s “The Monroe Doctrine in 1881,” published in the same year as the title suggests. While such an early publication date could very well make this a primary, rather than a secondary source, it acts as an important starting point for the historiography. His article is fairly straightforward, and aims to explain how the doctrine evolved in its first few decades of existence. Importantly, Kasson acknowledges that while the letter of the doctrine does indeed suggest the possibility of American expansion, but emphasizes the idea that the major issue at stake at the end of the nineteenth century was “that which touches our interests,” or the threat of European interference in not only the United States proper, but the entire continents of North and South America.[7] He draws from the wording of the doctrine itself, as well as speeches from several Senators and government officials, to make the importance of remaining removed from European affairs, and therefore European threats, explicit. That innovation, whether historians consciously subscribed to it or not, shaped the entire rest of the historiography.

Carl Becker published a very similar article in 1917, on the eve of America’s reluctant entrance to World War I. Becker’s work represents another important theoretical intervention that shaped understandings of anti-imperialism, the Monroe Doctrine, and their isolationist tendencies. He writes that “the Monroe Doctrine seems to mean that since we are isolated and provincial in a geographic sense, we will be so politically…we will ask no favors of Europe and will concede her none.”[8] He overtly connected what we now understand as the American isolationism that developed during the two World Wars—a desire to maintain a safe political distance from Europe in order to avoid involving the United States in events with potentially dangerous consequences—with the much earlier composition of the Monroe Doctrine. Like Kasson, Becker is not a professional historian, and his argument consists more of a list of points than a formal analysis, but his conclusion remains important to the discussion of nineteenth century American isolationism.

In the mid-twentieth century, studies of the nineteenth century focused on the debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists. When the Monroe Doctrine appeared in these works, it was only to acknowledge that both groups saw their positions reflected in its wording. The anti-imperialists saw the idea of non-intervention by Europeans in the Americas as something that bound the United States to respect the sovereignty of other nations in the area, such as Hawaii and the Philippines. Imperialists on the other hand, used the doctrine to validate “aggressive foreign policy” within the American sphere of influence.[9] David Healy’s and E. Berkeley Tompkins’ previously addressed books act as the perfect examples of this thought, and essentially mirror each other. Healy specifically addresses imperialism, situating the United States within a worldwide context of imperialist “urges” and addressing the specific reasons the push began in earnest during the 1890s. While this is an important contribution to understanding the politics of the era, Healy makes a mistake in presenting imperialism as the only impetus driving American foreign policy. He does acknowledge the anti-imperialist backlash in his final chapters, but comes to the overall conclusion that the United States was inherently imperialist during this period.[10] This is not necessarily wrong, as imperialism undoubtedly played a major role in nineteenth century American history. However, this book ignores the complexities of specifically American imperialism, which still exhibited some isolationist tendencies by limiting territorial acquisitions to areas outside of Europe and Africa.

In contrast, Tompkins’ book focuses on the anti-imperialists. His work is not very analytical, but remains important because it presents a non-binary way of looking at nineteenth century American foreign policy. He does improve on what Healy did by addressing the ideological ambiguities built into both the imperialist and anti-imperialist groups. Tompkins notes for instance, that Social Darwinism played a role in both groups’ opinions by the late 1890s, and that both groups drew inspiration from the Monroe Doctrine and the Constitution.[11] Despite these improvements over Healy’s work, neither author made explicit connections between anti-imperialism and isolationism, even though the former is essentially a less extreme version of the latter. Anti-imperialism only aimed to limit territorial expansion that would draw the United States into foreign conflicts, while isolationism targeted foreign entanglements altogether.

In 1995 historian Marie-Jeanne Rossignol finally connected the specific terminology of isolationism to pre-twentieth century periods. In her article, she laments that scholars too often view the idea of isolationism as avoiding foreign wars. She concludes, by examining the unrest of the 1790s following the end of the American Revolution, that isolationism in fact grew out of constant unrest and war on non-European fronts—she points to the American West and Atlantic—that led to the unofficial policy of isolation from European wars. [12] Rossignol supports these claims well, grounding them in the personal writings of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In theory, her work represented a turn in the historiography, that would allow historians to move past focusing on the Monroe Doctrine as strictly imperialist and introduce a more complex discussion of the early development of isolationist thought and policy.

Despite this, further discussions of isolationism did not emerge right away. Historian James Sofka for example, examines American neutrality, but strangely refuses to equate it with isolationism. He argues that during the Early Republic the government equated neutrality with power, or as Eliga Gould phrased it in Among the Powers of the Earth, with becoming a treaty-worthy nation.[13] Sofka merits praise for investigating foreign policy during this period, which he does in a unique way by addressing a variety of neutral rights acts, such as the 1807 Embargo Act. His decision to exclusively use the term “neutrality” to describe American aims in period is not incorrect, and in fact makes sense given the language of the documents he examines. Yet, in doing so he ignores the important fact that isolationism, as Rossignol proved five years earlier, did in fact exist during the Early Republic. In political terminology, neutrality is synonymous with isolationism.

Gretchen Murphy’s Hemispheric Imagining and Jay Sexton’s The Monroe Doctrine, which both cover the connections between the Monroe Doctrine and the idea of an American empire, represent the resiliency of early historiographical trends regarding the doctrine. They portray the nineteenth century United States as an empire, and therefore as fundamentally imperialist. It is true that American foreign policy during this period was indeed imperialist in many aspects, which Murphy demonstrates by examining American influence in Latin America, and Sexton by exploring a wide range of foreign policy issues ranging from the argument over annexing California to American involvement in the construction of the Panama Canal.[14] Sexton’s work is a general but comprehensive overview, while Murphy takes a particularly interesting and innovative methodological approach by choosing to read the doctrine and American expansion through a cultural lens.[15] Although each provides the field with new and interesting information, they nevertheless demonstrate just how little progress historians have made in understanding the complexities of the Monroe Doctrine. Nearly one hundred years after scholars first began to critique it, current academics continue to underemphasize its isolationist or noninterventionist aspects in favor of highlighting its imperialist connotations.

William Belko focuses on the origins of the doctrine itself, tracing the “no transfer” clause which aimed to prevent European powers from gaining former Spanish territories. Taking a much narrower approach than Sofka and Murphy, he isolates one specific example of this, and argues James Madison first developed this idea in 1810 during the West Florida Revolt that led the United States to extend its zone of occupation past the American-Spanish Florida border. He contends that this action “arguably set the standard for further American territorial acquisition” and Manifest Destiny.[16] Drawing from Madison’s personal papers, he makes the important point that the Monroe Doctrine developed out of preexisting ideas. Given Rossignol’s claims this same idea would support the connection between preexisting isolationist tendencies and the doctrine as well. Belko does not acknowledge the isolationist aspect of the doctrine, but his very specific focus on the “no transfer” policy perhaps prevents him from doing so.

Despite these longstanding problems within works in the field, one historian’s recent work may represent a turning point in the historiography. Marco Mariano synthesizes all the disparate ideas of the previously discussed historians, reconsidering the importance of the Monroe Doctrine by drawing out its tendencies towards the seemingly contradictory ideas of isolationism and internationalism.[17] His work is an abbreviated survey of all the ways in which American leaders have twisted and applied the doctrine, from its origins in 1823 to the Cold War and beyond. Due to this wide historical timeframe, he approaches the topic from a purely theoretical standpoint, using the writings of other historians—including Gretchen Murphy—to provide a template for understanding the Monroe Doctrine’s “long-term applications…[which are] extremely relevant to the discussion of ‘internationalism’ and ‘isolationism’ as cornerstones of US thinking on foreign policy.”[18] A lack of primary source analysis limits the impact of Mariano’s work, but his innovations in interconnecting all three ideas: the Monroe Doctrine, isolationism, and internationalism (which he describes throughout the article as being somewhat similar to imperialism/expansionism) represent an important point in this field of study that can be furthered by other scholars.

Recent scholarship undoubtedly demonstrates the need for further study of American isolationism in the nineteenth century, as the field as a whole remains disorganized. Historians’—and political scientists’ as well—debate in regards to the actual prevalence of isolationism during this time frame may be to blame. As previously noted, many historians choose to focus on “anti-imperialism” instead, refusing to acknowledge that isolationist tendencies were present at all despite the similarity between the two ideas. For this reason, the best way to advance the field further would be to examine official government documents in tandem with the personal documents of those involved in their composition, to determine how isolationist the government, and by extension the United States really was during the nineteenth century. While many of the previously addressed historians drew from similar source material, they almost never did so in regards to isolationism, instead preferring to focus on imperialism and the Monroe Doctrine.

A particularly interesting example is the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. Perhaps the most serious post-revolution challenge the United States faced, war broke out with the British over impressment, trade restrictions, and a variety of other issues.[19] While the act of going to war with a foreign power clearly conflicts with the strict definition of isolationism as an international nonintervention policy, it is possible to read the treaty in an isolationist manner. The writings of James Madison, president during the war, emphasizes the validity of this sort of reading. Other historians have utilized his papers to demonstrate imperialist/expansionist tendencies, but many of his letters contain isolationist ideas as well.

From the first article of the treaty, its authors—on the British side, James Lord Gambier, Henry Goulburn, and William Adams; on the American side, John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard, Henry Clay, Jonathan Russell, and Albert Gallatin—chose to portray it in a manner consistent with isolationist thought. They called for “a firm and universal Peace” between Britain and the United States.[20] This specific wording implied the two nations would never again engage in war, clearly supporting nonintervention. Of course, any peace treaty calls for a similar declaration. However, given the outcome of first the American Revolution, and then this war soon after, both countries likely intended for a longer-lasting and true peace this time. The Americans needed to rebuild their country, and the British were still embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars at the time of the treaty talks. Madison personally valued a lasting peace as well, detailing his struggles to suppress a publication on the causes of the war because of its potentially inflammatory language chosen before the negotiation of peace. He explained to Thomas Jefferson the necessity “to preserve the substantial vindication of our Country agst. prevailing calumnies, and avoid asperities of every sort unbecoming the change in the relations of the two Countries.” [21] Examined in tandem, these two documents demonstrate the importance of peace in this situation and identify isolationism as a potential motivator. Obviously, peace was important because it ended the war and brought safety to the country. More than that, however, it gave America the opportunity to “assume the role of a great nation in the lands and waters in its immediate vicinity.”[22] Eliga Gould suggests that this allowed the United States to focus on eventually becoming a world power, but for the remainder of the nineteenth century, it amounted to an unofficial policy of isolationism.

If this sentiment existed in the treaty alone, dismissing it as a mere formality inherent in a truce could be warranted, given the necessity of making peace to end the war. Nations also tend to break treaties; the Treaty of Paris for instance, which ended the American Revolution in 1783, lasted less than thirty years.[23] However, Madison continued to emphasize it several months after the major American victory at the Battle of New Orleans, which he acknowledged provided insurance against the possibility that “a new War from that quarter would have been opened upon us.” [24] His decision to block a negative portrayal of the British, even after victory in New Orleans increased America’s standing in global affairs, signified his adherence to a central tenet of isolationism as defined throughout this historiography: remaining removed from European affairs by maintaining peace with them at all costs.

Specific clauses of the Treaty of Ghent support this isolationist reading as well. Most the articles focused on returning relations between Britain and the United States to status quo antebellum. Boundary lines returned to those established in 1783 and prisoners of war on both sides returned home, the only new concession was the promise by both nations to work towards ending the slave trade.[25] None of these agreements benefitted the United States, which could be because at the time of treaty negotiations, the British held more military power. However, the British did not gain any notable advantages either. This acts as another suggestion that the negotiators’ ultimate goal was a lasting peace. For the Americans, specifically, it again demonstrates isolationist tendencies.

This brief example demonstrates that analysis of this kind uncovers expressions of of isolationism in nineteenth century government documents, and therefore establishes its existence in the period despite the mixed opinions of historians in the field. If research proves this point, the field will be able to move towards understanding the evolution of isolationism over the course of American history. This sort of research would also be quite useful in forwarding the ideas of Marco Mariano, who theorized about the connection between the Monroe Doctrine, isolationism, and internationalism in his 2011 article. Any historical work that addresses the complexities of American foreign policy and political thought in the nineteenth century, and takes the competing notions of isolationism and imperialism as cooperative rather than a binary system, will do a great deal to advance the field and provide a greater understanding of exactly how and why American isolationism developed.

 

 

Works Cited

Primary Sources:

Washington, George. “Washington’s Farewell Address.” 19 September 1796. George Washington Papers. University of Virginia. Accessed 10 November 2016.

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson. 12 March 1815. The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress. Accessed 10 November 2016. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mjm.17_0202_0204/?sp=3&st=text.

“Treaty of Peace and Amity Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America.” 24 December 1814. The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. Accessed 25 November 2016, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/ghent.asp.

Books:

Gould, Eliga. Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Healy, David J. U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.

Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1962.

Murphy, Gretchen. Hemispheric Imagining: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Sexton, Jay. The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.

Tompkins, E. Berkeley. Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890-1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970.

Articles:

Becker, Carl. “The Monroe Doctrine and the War.” Minnesota History Bulletin 2 no. 2 (May 1917): 61-68.

Belko, William S. “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited: The Madison Administration, the West Florida Revolt, and the No Transfer Policy.” Florida Historical Quarterly 2 (Fall 2011): 157-192.

Kasson, John A. “The Monroe Doctrine in 1881.” The North American Review 133 (December 1881): 523-533.

Mariano, Marco. “Isolationism, Internationalism and the Monroe Doctrine.” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 9 no. 1 (March 2011): 35-45.

Rossignol, Marie-Jeanne. “Early Isolationism Revisited: Neutrality and Beyond in the 1790s.” Journal of American Studies 29 no. 2 (1995): 215-227.

Sofka, James. “American Neutral Rights Reappraised: Identity or Interest in the Foreign Policy of the Early Republic?” Review of International Studies 26 (2000): 599-622.

 

 

[1] George Washington, “Washington’s Farewell Address,” 19 September 1796, George Washington Papers, University of Virginia, accessed 10 November 2016.

[2] E. Berkeley Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890-1920 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970), 2.

[3] Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States; David J. Healy, U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970).

[4] Jay Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

[5] Marco Mariano, “Isolationism, Internationalism and the Monroe Doctrine, Journal of Transatlantic Studies 9 no. 1 (March 2011): 43.

[6] William S. Belko, “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited: The Madison Administration, the West Florida Revolt, and the No Transfer Policy,” Florida Historical Quarterly 2 (Fall 2011): 157-192; Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, “Early Isolationism Revisited: Neutrality and Beyond in the 1790s,” Journal of American Studies 29 no. 2 (1995): 215-227.

[7] John A Kasson, “The Monroe Doctrine in 1881,” The North American Review 133 (December 1881): 525.

[8] Carl Becker, “The Monroe Doctrine and the War,” Minnesota History Bulletin 2 no. 2(May 1917): 61.

[9] Tompkins, 26.

[10] Healy, 250-300.

 [11] Tompkins, 5, 130.

[12] Rossignol, 227.

[13] James Sofka, “American Neutral Rights Reappraised: Identity or Interest in the Foreign Policy of the Early Republic?” Review of International Studies 26 (2000): 618-21; Eliga Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

 [14] Gretchen Murphy, Hemispheric Imagining: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine.

[15] Murphy, 17.

 [16] Belko, 192.

 [17] Mariano, 36-38.

[18] Ibid, 36.

 [19] Reginald Horsman, The Causes of the War of 1812 (New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1962).

[20] “Treaty of Peace and Amity Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America,” 24 December 1814, The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, accessed 25 November 2016, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/ghent.asp.

[21] James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 12 March 1815, The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress, accessed 10 November 2016, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mjm.17_0202_0204/?sp=3&st=text.

 [22] Gould, 215.

[23] Ibid, 180-202.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Treaty of Peace and Amity Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America.”

Primary Source Bibliography – 19th Century American Isolationism


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James Madison to Thomas Jefferson. 12 March 1815. The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress. Accessed 10 November 2016. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mjm.17_0202_0204/?sp=3&st=text.

The Library of Congress hold several of Madison’s letters concerning the negotiation of the Treaty of Ghent, and his seeming overarching concern to obtain peace and keep it at all costs. Analysis of these documents, perhaps in tandem with the treaty itself, would make an interesting study of how prevalent isolationist ideas were in terms of ending the War of 1812.

 

Monroe, James. “Monroe Doctrine; December 2 1823.” The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School. Accessed 10 November 2016. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/monroe.asp.

While the Monroe Doctrine is part of my general research questions, no historian has looked at the doctrine itself to make specific connections to the rise of isolationism. Given as part of President Monroe’s address to Congress, several sentences directly allude to isolationist ideas. Close analysis of the complete text could provide interesting insights into the rise of isolationism.

 

“Report of the Committee appointed to inquire into the causes and extent of the late commotions in Baltimore.”  The Maryland Gazette. 13 August 1812. Accessed 10 November 2016. http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/002200/002206/html/2206sources.html.

Most opposition during the War of 1812 stemmed from Federalists who feared extensive government control. The circumstances of this violent riot in Baltimore connect Federalist concerns to isolationism, by characterizing Democratic-Republicans as too pro-European. Examining the riot in detail could be an interesting way of getting at popular sentiment regarding isolationism.

 

Washington, George. “Washington’s Farewell Address.” 19 September 1796. George Washington Papers, University of Virginia. Accessed 10 November 2016. http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/washingtons-farewell-address/.

I would argue that George Washington’s Farewell Address as he left office served as the first important advance in the development of American isolationism. Incorporating it into research on the topic as a concrete starting point would make it much easier to reconstruct the trajectory this strain of thought took throughout the nineteenth century.

 

 

Polished Paragraph(s) – American Isolationism


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The bulk of scholarship on American isolationism specifically focuses on the period of the twentieth century that encompasses the World Wars, and often ignores any earlier manifestations of the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the major questions facing historians who tackle these earlier incarnations of isolationism center around its origins. While these historians do not often directly engage in a debate, their ideas nevertheless fall into two different camps: one considers the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1832 as the official starting point, while the other looks to various earlier moments in American history.

Most historians writing on the subject fall into the first category. Carl Becker wrote “The Monroe Doctrine and the War” shortly after the end of the First World War, making him the first historian to notice a connection between the Monroe Doctrine and the broader idea of isolationism, likely because isolationism was more prevalent than ever before in the years directly leading up to American involvement in the war. Several subsequent historians have shared his opinion; Gretchen Murphy (Hemispheric Imagining: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire), Jay Sexton (The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America), and John Kasson (“The Monroe Doctrine in 1881”) make the Monroe Doctrine the focus of their respective works on the American idea of empire in the nineteenth century. More recently however, several historians have come forward to suggest even earlier beginnings to isolationist practices. William Belko’s “The Origins of the Monroe Doctrine Revisited” traces its development to a very specific event: the 1810 West Florida Revolt, which he proposes shaped the eventual “no transfer” policy of the Monroe Doctrine. Reaching even further back, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol looks to the 1790s as a period of early isolationism following George Washington’s suggestion to avoid entanglement in Europe in her article “Early Isolationism Revisited: Neutrality and Beyond in the 1790s.”

While the establishment of a concrete point of origin for isolationism is undoubtedly the most contested point within the historiography, other historians have established an ancillary debate centering around the dichotomy of internationalism and isolationism. Some see these two ideas as completely incompatible, and choose to focus their work on the arguments between “imperialists” and “anti-imperialists” within the American government. David Healy (U.S. Expanisionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s) and Beverly Tompkins (Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate 1890-1920) both hold this view in their books dealing with both expansionism and anti-imperialism. On the other side of the debate, Mariano Marco’s “Isolationism, Internationalism and the Monroe Doctrine” and James Sofka’s “American Neutral Rights Reappraised” both point out the similarities between these two ideas, stressing the ways in which they could actually coexist. Both of these questions demonstrate the relative lack of consensus among the academic community when it comes to the history of American isolationism, making its study both useful and important in terms reaching new conclusions that may further the field.

This Republic of Suffering Response


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Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering is not only an examination of how death occurred during the Civil War. More broadly (and importantly), it is a fascinating look at the ways in which the Civil War fundamentally changed Americans’ relationship to death and its meaning. Faust structures her book in such a way that her major argument, which she states most succinctly as the fact that “death created the modern American union – not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments,” (6) is clearly proven in each chapter. Rather than moving chronologically or jumping between case studies, she focuses each chapter on a specific aspect of death. This allows her to demonstrate the ways in which each of those specific aspects transformed the nation.

Each of these chapters is quite strong, but the most impressive and unique spin on the traditional Civil War narrative is chapter 6: “Believing and Doubting.” The majority of the chapter focuses on the ways in which the carnage of the war inspired both renewed religious faith and questions regarding its validity. While interesting, this is not particularly revolutionary, as Faust notes that “religion remained the most readily available explanatory resource, even as it was challenged by rapid cultural and intellectual change.” (174)  So although the traditions of religion came into question, Fust seems to conclude little really changed in this regard. What is far more interesting, and what I believe to be the most innovative part of the book, is the end of the chapter’s focus on irony as a response to the war, and the more wide-reaching implication of doubt not only in regards to religion, but “a more profound doubt about human ability to know and to understand.” (210)

I see this discussion as important because in studying the Great War, it is so often pointed to by European historians as the first “modern” war, the first war to blur the lines between home front and front lines, the first war to cause mass disillusion. Faust does not overtly challenge these ideas as the bulk of the book progresses, but here in chapter 6 she draws a distinct parallel between the study of the Civil War and the World Wars, specifically quoting Paul Fussell’s work on the First World War (194), she seems to make the suggestion that the Civil War also encountered these “new” developments over fifty years prior. Perhaps due to this interest, I was excited to see that sbremer also took note of the WWI connections, looking at Faust’s methodological similarities to Jay Winter’s. I completely agree with sbremer’s assertion that Winter’s work on mourning and memorials as forms of memory work as a sort of continuation of Faust’s work. I see this (especially given her specific reference to Winter) as perhaps subtle acknowledgement of the importance of the American Civil War in terms of world history. It is interesting to see the similarities between disillusionment and reactions to death in Civil War and Great War scholarship.

Supplementary Reading for Beyond the Founders


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Wood, Kirsten E. “Join with Heart and Soul and Voice”: Music, Harmony, and Politics in the Early American Republic. American Historical Review 119, no. 4 (October 2014): 1083-1116.

            “Join with Heart and Soul and Voice” analyzes how the discourse of music, particularly as it appeared in political festivities, created what author Kirsten Wood terms a “harmonious republic” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She emphasizes the idea of harmony in terms of music as “a system in which internal variety meant delightful contrast,” which she then conflates with the idea of harmony as an essential component of the relatively new American Republic.[1] Rather than examining the ways in which the idea of harmony theoretically influenced politics, she argues that music itself provided a unifying way for Americans to express political ideas, celebrate their victories, and impart the burgeoning seeds of American virtues.

Wood claims that music’s unique ability to do such far-reaching work stemmed from two countering reasons. In one way, it reached the illiterate, by providing an easy and memorable way to internalize and emotionally connect to political ideas. She notes that the most popular and lasting songs “came easily to the tongue and voice and…summoned up the feelings many Americans believed important to their national union.”[2] Conversely, music permeated American society and became so important to political activity because printing them along with audience reactions to them at political or social gatherings gave newspapers a way to visually represent the ordinary man’s participation in political activity.[3]

This argument is well supported throughout the article, and draws from an interesting combination of primary sources. Wood mainly examines newspaper prints of songs, as they directly relate to one of the main premises she works to prove. Several prints are reproduced on full pages within the article, both making for an interesting visual, and giving the reader the rare opportunity to directly engage with the same primary source as the author. However, she also looks at letters from luminaries of the era, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams, as well as tracts or speeches relating to music. Wood uses these sources in two interesting ways that bolster her argument.

First, these letters and speeches give her article context, displaying the strong presence of music in daily life in the Early American Republic. This essentially proves the legitimacy of using music as a source, which is still relatively revolutionary in terms of academic history. Second, the letters in particular show an interesting aspect of music’s function. An interesting example is John Adams’ son-in-law William Smith, who claims the new American government could very well utilize music as a means of “captivating the mob.”[4] Wood does not pursue this line of thinking, instead choosing to portray music as a way for ordinary Americans to involve themselves in politics and express their opinions. She even emphasizes the malleability of songs, using “Hail Columbia” as an example that was often reworded or differently intoned in order to reflect specific events or appeal to certain groups.[5]

Several of the articles in Beyond the Founders similarly address the idea of mass political involvement through political festivities and ordinary means. Jeffrey Pasley’s “The Cheese and the Words” and Andrew Robertson’s “Voting Rights and Voting Acts” are the most overt examples of this parallel. Pasley argues that the strength of popular political culture during the same period discussed by Wood stemmed from the fact that arose from daily life, meaning that Americans participated in politics by “devising their own mean of building support…with their own local resources.”[6] He uses the humorous example of a group of Massachusetts women who sent President Jefferson a “mammoth” wheel of cheese to express their support as an example. This idea of ordinary actions as representations of political involvement is present in Wood’s word too, although she never explicitly states it as such. Her emphasis on music as popular and quite ordinary implies that those who engaged in music as a form of political activity, were doing exactly the same thing as Pasley’s cheesemakers: they focused their preexisting abilities or passions on political expression.

Robertson also examines the political involvement of ordinary Americans, although in a much different way. His article in Beyond the Founders makes the ultimate argument that deferential political rituals served the purpose of establishing an identity and providing citizens with an image of “egalitarian inclusiveness.”[7] This too, connects to Wood’s work on music in the Early American Republic. While Wood’s work focuses on political celebrations and festivals, rather than the more formal electioneering rituals detailed by Robertson, both authors seem to be making the broad point that ritual was quite important to mass involvement in politics (even if, as Robertson acknowledges, that involvement is largely imagined).

Beyond the Founders as a whole focuses on portraying the Early American Republic in a different way from the norm, whether “from the top down, from the bottom up, and perhaps especially from the middle out in every direction.” [8] The articles within the book demonstrate the ways in which public involvement, rather than the actions of a few important men, effected American government and history. Wood’s excellent and thought provoking article could quite easily fit into this volume just as well as the articles the editors originally chose.

 

[1] Kirsten E. Wood, “Join with Heart and Soul and Voice”: Music, Harmony, and Politics in the Early American Republic, American Historical Review 119, no. 4 (October 2014): 1087.

[2] Wood, 1107.

[3] Wood, 1102.

[4] Wood, 1098.

[5] Wood, 11111-1113.

[6] Jeffrey L. Pasley, “The Cheese and the Words” in Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic, ed. Jeffrey L. Pasley, Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 49.

[7] Andrew W. Robertson, “Voting Rights and Voting Acts” in Beyond the Founders, 75.

[8] Beyond the Founders, 18.

Fugitive Landscapes Response


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Like dshanebeck and suzanna.melendez, I was immediately struck by the similarities between Samuel Truett’s Fugitive Landscapes and Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire. This was especially evident to me in the first section of Fugitive Landscapes. While this section was mostly comprised of background information, the ways in which it described migration patterns within the borderlands were very similar to the first chapters of Comanche Empire that detailed the rise and movement of the Comanches. Truett’s major aim in writing his book was to “understand how the best-laid plans…repeatedly ran aground in fugitive landscapes of subaltern power” (9), which seems nearly identical to Hämäläinen’s push to demonstrate Comanche agency.

Related to this, I appreciate that despite the subtitle “the forgotten history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands,” Truett paid a surprising amount of attention to Native Americans throughout the text. He brought up American and Mexican relations with Apaches in the Sonora area, giving them equal importance to the main focus of American-Mexican relations. At one point, he even wrote “as tense as border relations between Anglos and Mexicans were, more unsettling was the decay of the fragile Anglo-Apache peace.” (47)

Another reason the first section of Truett’s book was particularly effective, was the amount of background information he provided. A common critique our class leveled against last week’s A Union Forever was the lack of attention paid to background information that would have contributed to a better understanding of the topics Sim discussed. Truett, in contrast, did a very effective job of this. The first two chapters recount initial colonial conquests of Mexico, taking place centuries before the main time frame (focused on in the remaining two sections of the book) of the 19th century. In doing this, Truett is able to do something important that gives added importance to his work. He is able to portray the U.S./Mexico borderlands as a “meeting place of two opposing narratives: the history of Spanish and Mexican decline and a prophecy of U.S. expansion.” (15) This makes the argument of the book more compelling than if Truett had chosen to jump into the narrative after the United States had already begun its push toward Manifest Destiny, because it helps to explain exactly why the borderlands became a place of “subaltern power” (9) in the first place. This gives strength to an argument he highlights in the conclusion: seemingly small or unimportant people and places can still impact history. (184)

Overall, Fugitive Landscapes is an impressive work. Although Comanche Empire already exposed us to borderlands history, Truett’s work puts a spin on it that differentiates his work from Hämäläinen’s. While Hämäläinen’s goal in writing seemed to be limited to proving Comanche agency and power, using borderlands history as a tool, Truett makes the argument that the borderlands have been completely erased from historical memory, and aims to “reconstitute the historical tissue that connects the U.S. and Mexican past.” (9) Although this seems like an impossibly large task, I think Truett did a commendable job of supporting these ideas.

Final Paper Proposal


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I plan to use my paper, tentatively titled “A Nation Alone: The Origins of American Isolationism,” to historiographically trace the development of American isolationism. Discussion of isolationism in popular history regularly focuses on the years leading up to both World War I and World War II as official times of “isolation” and “nonintervention.” I myself have become interested in the topic as I prepare for a comprehensive exam on the First World War, because it played such a major role in the trajectory of American involvement. Literature relating to isolationism in this regard often presents the bare facts, including little analysis. However, isolationist ideas hardly came from out of the blue as these works would suggest. Like all political ideas, cultural norms and social shifts likely informed them. In short, isolationism needs to be placed within its historical context, to determine exactly how and why it developed.

I plan to use this paper to look for that broader context, by examining the ways in which historians have viewed isolationism as a political and social force. By focusing on this context rather than simply looking at positive or negative perceptions of isolationism, I hope to discover whether the historic portrayal of isolationism has changed at all since its inception. My major research questions at this moment are: Is there a discernible shift in historians’ conceptions of the major forces shaping isolationism? and, does this shift parallel or diverge from advances in historical theory and methodology? I hope to develop more as my research continues.

While I have not done enough secondary source reading to provide specific sources that would be valuable to the further academic analysis of American isolationism, I do have general ideas. Because broader context (social, political, etc.) is a focus of my research, I believe newspaper and media sources, as well as personal letters or journals would be a valuable and unique set of sources. Politically driven ideas tend to be analyzed through government or legal documents, but tracing the popularity of isolationism and isolationist ideas in the writings of ordinary Americans could provide a wholly new perspective on the subject. CSUF has a fairly extensive collection of archived microfilm news articles, which would make a great starting point. Relevant personal writings may be more difficult to come by, at least in regards to the limited time frame (19th Century) of this paper. However, if I were to expand my research to cover the beginning of the 20th century and the lead-up to American involvement in WWI, I could easily mine letters at Chapman University’s Center for American War Letters for expressions of isolationist ideas and rhetoric.

A Union Forever Response


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David Sim’s A Union Forever takes a unique approach to history: choosing to detail a failure rather than a success. He writes that examining both the methods and repercussions of Irish and Irish-American nationalist attempts to foster a relationship with the United States that would ideally help gain Irish sovereignty is valuable because this “[illustrates] the openness of U.S. foreign policy to the influence of nonstate actors,…[highlight] a fundamental ambivalence about the prospect of other peoples emulating the U.S. model of republican revolution…[and] details the process by which British and American statesmen built stronger transatlantic ties through the marginalization of revolutionary Irish nationalism.” (2) This outline of Sim’s major points is refreshingly straightforward, leaving his reader little room to misinterpret his ideas. It is a major strength of the book.

The rest of Sim’s introduction however, shows weak points. His historiography, while cleverly divided into three subsections that organize the material quite well, presents a great deal of information that goes uncited. Page 4-5 of the introduction has two full paragraphs of concrete statements about American thoughts on Ireland, without a single work cited. This might be nit-picking, but I tend to question the validity and extensiveness of an historian’s research when this occurs.

Despite that minor problem, I did enjoy the body of the book. Like sbremer, I found chapter four particularly interesting, and probably for the same reason – he relates this chapter in his blog post to the idea of Ireland’s ultimate failure to make anything happen. As noted above, this idea of examining a failure is not the norm in history because history tends to remember the victors. Despite this, Sim does a good job of noting what the Irish nationalists were successfully able to do, even if their strides forward ultimately hurt their cause. He notes at the end of the chapter that in calling attention to British arrests of American citizens, nationalists were able to “gain great leverage with U.S. public opinion” and were instrumental in the U.S.’s improvement in terms of protecting American citizens abroad, even though this did inadvertently cause peaceful negotiations between the Americans and British.

I agree with 20perez16 that this chapter also had the strongest use of primary sources. Sim notes in the introduction that the “elevated status” of certain notable figures (his in this book are Daniel O’Connell and Charles Steward Parnell) can come at the cost of glossing over the agency and activity of the average Irish and Irish-American nationalists. (10) This makes it sound like the ensuing chapters will come from a bottom-up perspective, but only chapter four seems to successfully do this by mixing political sources with the letters and accounts of incarcerated Irish-Americans such as William Nagle and John Warren. (112-13) This is not necessarily a failing on Sim’s part, as the book is quite definitely a political history for the most part. However, it did make chapter four the strongest section in the book in my opinion.

Closer to Freedom Response


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Stephanie Camp’s work in Closer to Freedom is important and unique, because in a field of slave narratives largely aimed solely at eliciting sympathy and horror (Camp notes the prevalence of this leading up to the civil war, citing Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimke’s American Slavery As It Is, but I would argue it remains prevalent today). Unlike authors and historians who wish to either atone for wrongs or induce guilt, Camp appears to have a simple goal: to restore agency to a people who for so long have been robbed of it in the historical narrative.

Andrew points out in his response that Camp shies away from using the word “slave,” preferring the terms enslaved people or bondsmen/women because those terms grant more agency than the static idea of a slave. This is a very deliberate choice Camp makes, and she clearly explains in a footnote to the introduction that the term slave “risks flattening the complex history of slavery and essentializing the personhood of bondspeople” (143). In this way Camp perceives an important point that lends credibility to her entire goal – it would be quite difficult to demonstrate the agency of a marginalized population while using the language of their oppressors; a word that connotes complete lack of freedom.

Camp’s decision to focus on women is also unique, and serves as an effort to fill in some of the gaps in the historiography of American slavery. I will freely admit that I am no expert in this field, but the books I have read (and even the movies I have seen) tend to largely, if not completely, focus on the experience of enslaved men. Camp’s work led me to realize that this imbalance likely stemmed from the fact that men were much more frequently able to successfully and permanently escape. Women, hampered by more familial and social responsibility than men, made do with smaller bursts of resistance through absenteeism and secret gatherings (37). She even notes at several points that even this seemingly small form of resistance proved quite dangerous for women in particular, because they were rarely granted passes to move outside the plantation boundaries (72).

A particularly interesting section of the book, especially in regards to women, is the discussion of slaveholding women and their treatment of enslaved people. Camp asserts that slaveholding women were more violent and impulsive than male slaveholders and overseers, due to the strange idea that “true manly mastery exhibited control, not passion; honor was not satisfied by the meting out of vindictive beatings to social inferiors” (132). This idea does make sense, but I think it is interesting to point out that this idea of mastery through levelheaded control is almost completely discredited in any popular media portrayal of slaveholders, in favor of “masters” who seem irrational and governed by strong emotions. If this was indeed the disposition of most male slaveholders, why is there such a disconnect between history and popular culture?

Potential Paper Topics


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  1. The Battle of New Orleans (War of 1812) and its consequences.
  2. Development of the American women’s suffrage movement in the 19th century.
  3.  American isolationism and non-intervention foreign policy.