Download PDF Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics uncovers a potent sense of American kinship towards Latin America’s nineteenth-century independence movements.

Review Essay

Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions

Caitlin Fitz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. $18.95. 384 pp.

Sometime in the 1820s, the brilliant, decorated Mexican general Manuel de Mier y Terán wrote of his deep worry about the ‘unceasing’ arrival of new Anglo-American settlers in Texas. America, he lamented, was ‘the most avid nation in the world. The North Americans have conquered whatever territory adjoins them’ (p. 240). On 3 July 1832, dressed in his most elegant service garb, the 43-year-old Mexican patriot stabbed himself. Penned the night before, his despondent suicide note ended with the words ‘En qué parará Texas?’ – what will become of Texas?

In her superb general history, Our Sister Republics, scholar Caitlin Fitz notes that observers of nineteenth-century US motives and policies towards Latin America, like Mier y Terán, frequently (and rightly) bemoaned the ‘expansion, aggression, and war’ of the Colossus of the North (p. 6). Yet, Fitz suggests that Washington’s increasingly violent predation of its southern neighbours is not the whole story. Instead, she uncovers a remarkably potent sense of kinship among US politicians, journalists, rank-and-file yeomen and city dwellers alike for Latin America’s independence movements against the region’s Iberian masters, Portugal and Brazil.

Fitz’s painstakingly considered story is infused with vivid storytelling. The reader is first reminded that revolutionary rhetoric in the United States had embraced universalist themes even before it had achieved the aim of wresting the American colonies from British control. Writing in 1776, for instance, Thomas Paine had declared that ‘Freedom hath been hunted round the globe’, and that Americans needed to ‘prepare in time an asylum for mankind’ (p. 2). Once they had consolidated their own revolutionary republic, the Americans turned their gaze to Latin America. Fitz acknowledges that this revolutionary spirit could be pro forma or self-serving at times, but insists that it was also ardent and true – that Americans had a ‘genuine affinity for their southern neighbors’ as they conducted an on-again, off-again war of independence starting in 1810 (p. 8). Even though the United States was ‘irrefutably and increasingly’ a republic for, and of, white males (p. 8) – men who were largely prevented by sheer geographic distance from taking much more than an intellectual interest in the region – many Americans saw in the Latin American revolts their own ‘egalitarian and universalist narrative of 1776’ (p. 8). They also, being Americans, were happy to take the credit for the Latins’ (apparent) political successes. That is, the upswing of republicanism in the region appeared to corroborate the attraction and success of America’s universal founding principles.

Independence for all

Fitz describes how American fits of Latin American-derived self-importance coincided with the more widely remembered variant of nationalism that emerged in the years after the inconsequential, polarising War of 1812 against Great Britain. While the nationalism on display in the War of 1812, according to Fitz, was ‘sectional and splintered’, Latin America offered a convenient ‘unifying language’ of American singularity (p. 121). That is why, she contends, American celebrations of Latin American independence ‘emerged with such frequency on the country’s most self-consciously patriotic of holidays’, the Fourth of July, newly established as a ‘sacrosanct national celebration’ by a people no longer fearful of losing their own republic (p. 121). Throngs of Americans, not just white males but also blacks and women, northerners and southerners, ‘literally rejoiced’ at the advance of Latin American independence, calling the rebels ‘brothers and countrymen and Americans’ (p. 155). ‘Appalachian farmers’, notes Fitz with characteristic eloquence, ‘read poetry about Andean independence; sailors wore cockades for revolutionary Montevideo; boozy partygoers sang in honor of Colombian freedom’ (p. 6). In taverns, inns and public squares, toasts that were novel before 1812 became commonplace. In Philadelphia, for example, US soldiers toasted the ‘Patriots of South America’, adding, somewhat curiously, ‘May Freedom be Ours’ (p. 121). Revellers in Virginia cheered roundly after crying out, ‘May our example excite them to imitation’ (p. 119). (The constitution, state rights and fellow Old Dominion natives such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, by contrast, received only a quick staccato of hoorays.) By the early 1830s, more than 200 American children had been named for Latin America’s ‘Great Liberator’, Simón Bolívar.

Meanwhile, rebel leaders worked hard to influence public opinion in the United States, telling stories that helped to shape the ‘tales that U.S. onlookers were beginning to tell themselves’ about the nature of the revolutions (p. 47). As Fitz explains:

If U.S. audiences narcissistically believed that the United States was responsible for everything good that seemed to happen elsewhere in the Americas, rebel agents – hoping that flattery would inspire support – encouraged the egotism. While U.S. observers displayed arrogance, insurgent leaders displayed agency, working hard to control their image in the United States and persuading their hosts that the latest American revolutions were a glorious tropical reprise of 1776. (p. 47)

While ordinary Americans appeared united by their joy at the outbreak of revolution in Latin America, American leaders were less sure about whether and how the United States should back the rebels, at least at first. For president James Monroe and his ‘notoriously stiff, calculating, and severe’ New Englander secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, restraint was in order, no matter how euphoric the pro-Latin mood at home (p. 158). One reason for a more cautious approach, they believed, was to avoid raising the ire of Spain – and by extension complicate commerce with Cuba and American plans for Spanish Florida and the Columbia River Basin.

By contrast, Kentucky congressman Henry Clay – who was left ‘equal parts embarrassed and irate’ after Monroe chose Adams over him for the administration’s top diplomatic spot – believed that the United States needed to serve as a ‘rallying point’ by offering prompt economic and diplomatic aid to republican dreamers around the world, and Latin America above all (pp. 175–6). US merchants, for their part, did not hesitate to sell arms and bullets to various rebel factions, supplying upwards of 150,000 guns, one million flints, hundreds of tonnes of gunpowder and ammunition, and ‘untold piles of swords, bayonets, uniforms, knapsacks, and canteens, all packed carefully into crates and stowed aboard ships’ (p. 163). In 1820, one committed American living in Venezuela urged his fellow citizens to become arms dealers for both liberty and profit. In a letter first published in Charleston’s City Gazette and then picked up by numerous other papers, he appealed to Americans ‘animated with the spirit of independence and generosity, who can be induced to dispatch 10 or 15,000 muskets for the shores of South Columbia, receive [their] Spanish milled dollars for them, and put into the hands of [their] compatriots of the southern continent … the weapons of retributive justice’ (p. 166).

In addition, many out-of-work American mariners (made redundant by the post-1812 peace dividend) decided to seek pay and adventure by joining rebel navies. More than 3,000 seafaring men eventually departed the United States, leaving the Spanish and Portuguese to wonder how Washington could maintain its supposed neutrality while ‘letting its citizens prey on royalist forces’ (pp. 170–1). Hoping to fend off a war with Madrid, Adams eventually moved to stamp out the privateering – supporters called the Neutrality Act of 1817 a ‘bill for making peace between His Catholic Majesty and the town of Baltimore’ – but the legislation failed to stop the enlistments (pp. 170–1).

Eventually, in 1822, Adams opted to recognise the newly declared republics of Latin America. By that time there was a growing sense that the European monarchies would not punish Washington for taking this diplomatic step. Moreover, as Florida was now in America’s hands, Monroe and Adams could use recognition as a way to, as Fitz puts it, ‘kick Spain while it was down’ (p. 188). Latin American solidarity was also, quite simply, good politics for Adams’s insatiable presidential ambitions. Congress also endorsed the move, with only one nay in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate (p. 189).

New World order

Diplomatic recognition, while popular domestically, did little to address the threat of European reconquest of the continent’s erstwhile New World possessions. Encouraged by the Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria, France quelled a constitutionalist rebellion in Spain in 1823, thus paving the way for the Spanish monarchy to punish its recalcitrant colonies. Meanwhile, Russian Tsar Alexander I was laying claim to Oregon, thereby challenging US continental ambitions. Fitz explains the high stakes in play: ‘If Tsar Alexander and his Holy Allies had their way, [Washington] might never control the Pacific coast, and its southern neighbors might become the puppets of Europe’s most formidable tyrants, prone to drag the United States into war and all that accompanied it’ (p. 157).

Itself a constitutional monarchy, Great Britain had little patience for the absolutism of the Holy Alliance. Like Washington, it coveted Oregon and wished to expand its commercial ties with the Latin republics. Despite the fact that the British had torched the White House only a decade earlier during the War of 1812, George Canning, the ‘balding and brilliant’ British foreign secretary, approached the Monroe administration with a proposal to devise a dual declaration against the anticipated interference by the Holy Alliance in the Western Hemisphere (p. 157). In Fitz’s apt description, Canning was offering the Americans a ‘marriage of convenience’ wrapped up in a ‘flattering and tempting proposal’ (p. 157). At that time, Great Britain was the global power, while the United States was little more than a ‘second ring show in the high strung Atlantic circus’, to use Fitz’s words (p. 157). Thomas Jefferson urged Monroe to add Britain’s ‘mighty weight into the scale of free government’, writing that ‘with her on our side we need not fear the whole world’ (p. 157). James Madison concurred, as did secretary of war John Calhoun, along with ‘nearly everyone Monroe asked for advice’ (p. 157).

Adams, however, was sceptical of the Europeans’ ability to reassert themselves in the New World, writing in his diary that ‘I no more believe that the holy Allies, will restore the Spanish Dominion, than that the Chimborazzo will sink beneath the Ocean’ (p. 158). If the threat was overstated, what would be the benefit of alliance with Britain, an actual rival in the region? Far better, Adams believed, to make a unilateral declaration against European forays into the hemisphere. Thus, Washington could build up its own credibility as a regional power while not appearing to be a ‘Cock-boat in the wake of the British man of war’ (p. 158). Even if his hunch was wrong and the Holy Alliance did intervene, Adams believed the British would still join with Washington to check this continental power grab, thus serving, as Fitz puts it, as the ‘bite behind America’s bark’ (p. 158). This cunning diplomatic logic ultimately led to the formulation of what would later become known as the Monroe Doctrine: three paragraphs added to Monroe’s December 1823 address to Congress calling for a hemisphere devoid of European hegemony, pledging US non-intervention in the Old World and affirming that the United States would view European attacks on its hemispheric neighbours as aggression against itself.

* * *

Fitz notes that American recognition for its new Latin American neighbours was forthcoming despite the fact that these were Catholic nations which, in the process of securing their independence, were emancipating their slaves. Americans had generally looked askance at radicalism in Haiti and France in the late 1790s, but were now responding with equanimity to the racial universalism of the Latin American rebellions. Fitz suggests that this contradiction was a consequence of an ‘unexamined, reflexive, and superficial’ interpretation of what was happening, which allowed many Americans to laud a revolutionary movement with goals that they would never tolerate at home (p. 114). Only American blacks and white abolitionists were consistent in arguing that the Latin rebels were achieving the ‘egalitarian promise’ as yet unrealised in America (p. 7).

Fitz thinks the ‘superficial but convenient’ agreement between the Americans and the Latin rebels not to disagree on slavery was doomed to fail (p. 155). Indeed, she contends that America’s backlash against universalism broke out as early as the 1830s, effectively ending a remarkable era of Bolívar mania. This is partly because several Latin American republics had by then descended into social and economic chaos, but also because many Americans, especially white southerners, were beginning to see the threat in Latin American-style universalism. As Fitz explains, ‘Rather than seeing slavery as a necessary evil, as they had long done, they began to assert that it was a positive good – good for the South, good for the United States, good even for the slaves themselves’ (pp. 9–10). Thanks to their influence, in the 1820s the United States was the only country in the Americas in which slavery was growing, not ebbing.

Nevertheless, Spanish American independence was for a time one of the most popular domestic topics in the United States. The rebel movements of Latin America, Fitz believes, served as the ‘intellectual scaffolding’ upon which Americans developed complicated, sometimes contradictory and even hypocritical ideas of republicanism and race. Impressive for a scholar of early American history, Fitz conducted research in Portuguese, Spanish, French and English in archives across the Americas to tell this inevitably inter-American story. What started out as Fitz’s doctoral thesis at Yale developed into a decade-long labour of love resulting in a work of serious scholarship that is nevertheless accessible to the general reader.

Fitz appears to be on solid ground in her assertion that Americans’ embrace of the Latin rebels was above all a reflection of the country’s still-budding self-identity. One question that she might have addressed more fully concerns the meaning of all this for our understanding of the United States’ outsized historical legacy in its geopolitical backyard. General Mier y Terán’s suicide note reminds us that the United States’ dealings with its southern neighbours have not always been positive. It might be that the country’s Bolívarian moment can help us to broaden our assumptions about the motivations and spirit of the United States’ controversial interactions with its one-time hemispheric allies.

Russell Crandall is a Professor of American foreign policy at Davidson College in North Carolina, and a contributing editor to Survival. His latest book is The Salvador Option: The United States in El Salvador, 1977–1992 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2017–January 2018

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