Confronting the world, shaping national identity

Guest Post by Dane A. Morrison

morrisonISIS, Ebola, globalization, the Ukraine. State-sponsored terrorism, globally transmitted disease, worldwide economic disruption, fraught relations with overseas powers. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and FOX News shout this constellation of dangers to even the casual, cowering observer. In response, we imagine better times and think of these troubles as symptomatic of a modern world that is more complex, more chaotic, more existentially fraught than anything our early American ancestors would have confronted. Today’s global problems challenge us as well to reflect on questions that are more deeply practical and philosophical, concerns that get to the crux of our national culture. How should we respond the array of challenges that confront us? And, what do our responses say about us as a people?

Those of us who read the past regularly, especially we who take America’s early encounters on the world stage as their subject, know that these are the same questions that confronted Americans at the birth of their new nation. Americans who had called themselves Virginians and Carolinians and New Yorkers were perplexed when confronted with the question, “What then is this new man, the American?” It is intriguing to read their words, recover their voices, and realize that they sought answers from abroad. From inception, we have been concerned with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” as the Second Continental Congress described in its Declaration of Independence. As Samuel Shaw, one of these early travelers observed, they wanted to know what other peoples thought of Americans, both “nationally and personally.”

This concern—and its solution—were manifested in Americans’ first voyages round the world. As I write in True Yankees:

In the years between the Treaty of Paris (1783) and the Treat of Wangxi (1844), that is, between the end of the War for Independence and the Mexican War, Americans’ first contacts in the Great South Sea—the term that early Americans used to describe the expanse of oceans, lands, and peoples situated between the Cape of Good Hope and the coasts of North and South America—contributed to the economic recovery of their new nation and to the consciousness of their countrymen. Hundreds of merchants, shipmasters, and expatriates shared their experiences in published books and private journals, logs, letters, and newspaper reports. Yankee travelers introduced their countrymen to the ports of Algiers and the bazaars of Arabia, the markets of India and the beaches of Sumatra, the villages of Vietnam and the factories of Canton. But, it was also the particular opportunity, and especial burden, of American travelers in the East to defend their nation’s honor and to define its character. And, in this forgotten aspect of the American experience was a paradox: Their encounters with other peoples in what they called the Great South Sea, depicted in the letters, journals, books, and newspaper reports that they sent home, offered their countrymen the most salient means of understanding their own national identity.

And, so, Yankee voyagers charted their ways through the terrors of the Great South Sea, surviving tropical fever in Batavia and typhoons off Macao; they learned how to adapt to the global economy, negotiating prices with rajahs in Qualla Batoo, compradores in Canton, and banyans in Bombay; and they defended their ships and crews from the ravages of world-wide conflicts, fighting pirates in the South China Sea and European men-of-war in the Indian Ocean.

Encounters with the wider world, enhanced awareness of the experiences of other peoples, and a deeper understanding of who they were as a people gave early Americans a new national confidence and enabled them to better deal with the struggles the world presented. As the Congress toasted two months later at its Independence Day banquet, “May the Simplicity of Manners, Industry and Frugality distinguish the Character of an American” and bring “Liberty, Peace and Happiness to all Nations.” It is surprising that the nation ,so often disparaged today for high-handed imperialism, for foisting its web of culture, commerce, and geopolitical strategies onto the disadvantaged peoples of the globe, should have entered an age of globalism with such self-doubt. Perhaps a greater awareness of their experiences might empower us to situate the complexities of the modern world within a broader, more reflective context.

Dane A. Morrison is the author of True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a professor of early American history at Salem State University.

Dane Morrison will be speaking and signing copies of True Yankees at these events this fall:

November 6
, 7:30 p.m.
Salem Maritime National Park Service, Salem, MA
Salem Visitor Center, 2 New Liberty Street, Salem
Free and open to the public, seating limited.
Information: Call 978-542-6286
 or visit the website.

December 11, 7:00 p.m.
Lynn Museum, Lynn, MA
Author talk & book signing
Information: Visit the website.

December 18, 5:30 p.m.
Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH
Festive book launch, talk & book signing
Information: Visit the website.