Digital

Exclusive online content

America, and the Americas

By: Michael Taube
September 30, 2016

he United States was born in an age of revolution, the colonies rising up valiantly and driving out their British masters. In turn, the Declaration of Independence animated the quest for democracy, liberty, and freedom for all citizens of this fledging Republic.

In the decades between its successful revolt and civil war, America began to take a closer look at the independence movements and transformations in Latin and South America. Doing so affected every nation in the Western Hemisphere. Caitlin Fitz acknowledges in Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions, that her book is “less a history of early U.S. relations with Latin America than it is a U.S. history that uses Latin America to cast new light on the United States.” The Northwestern University historian believes that as “U.S. audiences crowed about rights and revolution...Latin America became a mirror that crystallized and clarified what was at stake.”

Prominent individuals reacted negatively from the very beginning. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1811, “I fear the degrading ignorance into which their priests and kings have sunk them, has disqualified them from the maintenance of even knowledge of their rights.” This great U.S. defender of liberty even went as far to ask, “How much liberty can they bear without intoxication?”

John Adams took an even harsher view of the Americas. Concerned about the short-lived Republic of Pernambuco, he reportedly told a correspondent in 1815, “The people of South America are the most ignorant the most biggoted the most Superstitious of all the Roman Catholicks in Christendom.” He also wrote that Latin America wouldn’t be able to sustain a “free Government,” and it “appeared to me as absurd as Similar plans would be to establish Democracies among the Beasts Birds or Fishes.”

Notwithstanding such piercing assessments, the sister republics had a surprising impact on the American republic. For years, many U.S. patriots “had looked proudly to Latin America and seen themselves: republicans, revolutionaries, Americans.” James Monroe’s presidency, particularly the introduction of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, also had a direct effect on Spanish America and this nation’s deliberations about extending diplomatic recognition to these new countries. With U.S. adventurers beginning to “take up arms for Latin American independence,” and U.S. merchants becoming “one of the rebels’ main suppliers of arms and ammunition,” relations with our sister republics became a vital topic for average Americans—and potential voters. John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and other political figures of the day were all drawn into the debates.

The impact went much further than mere politics, however. “Poets and politicians, outcasts and emissaries, sergeants and servants and secretaries,” Fitz wrote, “left their war-torn homes and pursued political support as well as personal security in the sprawling northern republic.” Their descendants had various origins, including European nations and African tribes, and spoke French, Portuguese and other international dialects. The South Americans found “an eager and inviting audience” for their stories in the U.S. As the author points out, this group “convinced editors and writers to replicate those stories for curious readers the nation over, framing and fueling the tales that U.S. onlookers were beginning to tell themselves about the waves of revolutions that churned the southern part of the globe.”

In short order, Americans began to learn more about Pernambuco, the Haitian Revolution, Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar, and so on. Many people were immediately spellbound by the revolutionary spirit. In May 1817, for example, John Adams received  Antonio Goncalves da Cruz at his home. He was a “wealthy and well-traveled Pernambucian,” a strong supporter of the rebellion who, although most likely mulatto by heritage, “was able to pass for white when he wanted to.” He was seen, therefore, as “an obvious pick for ambassador” during his already-scheduled trip to the U.S., and evidently charmed the former president to some degree, as indicated by a personal note from Adams to Jefferson.

But Cruz’s influence went much further. The editor of Boston’s Yankee newspaper wrote on May 30, “The republican citizens of this country cannot fail to feel gratified by the arrival of a Minister from the new republic of Pernambuco.” In his view, the “influence of the American Revolution on the moral destinies of mankind is a subject too vast to be comprehended by the most enlightened statesmen.” 

Bolivar’s exploits also had a profound effect on some Americans. George P. Morris, a wordsmith who “at heart...was a songsmith,” wrote a ditty to the “Immortal, Immortal BOLIVAR.” There was the “Bolivar baby boom,” which was a “grassroots development,” which led to a few hundred children, including some born to slaves, receiving this name. Harvey Cobb of Albany, N.Y. named his cargo ship the Bolivar. Several U.S. communities changed their names to honor the Venezuelan revolutionary.

“By 1823 and 1824,” wrote Fitz, this “kind of inter-American interest had helped inspire a new fashion trend.” Merchants in cities like Boston and Savannah sold “Bolivar hats,” which had a particular style—“ornamental, broad brimmed, lots of feathers.” They became “an effective marketing tool,” viewed in some locations as a type of “patriotic headgear” for ladies and young girls.

The sister republics’ influence eventually waned. As “the heat of emergent party politics started to warp that international looking-glass” in 1826, Latin American revolutionaries began to resemble “something more like a funhouse mirror that reflected different images back to different people depending on where those people stood and how they carried themselves.” Many Americans gradually concluded “they were different people with different goals and different values” than their cousins (of sorts) in the Americas.

Bolivar warned that the U.S. was “destined by Providence to plague America with miseries in the name of Liberty.” As Fitz pointed out, his language “foreshadowed expansionist talk of manifest destiny in the 1840s and 1850s.” She wonders on that basis if we can “locate seeds of antebellum territorial aggression in the casual arrogance displayed by U.S. onlookers of the 1810s and 1820s, individuals who blithely assumed that their own revolution was responsible for everything good that seemed to be happening overseas, and who concluded that what worked for the United States would work for everybody else.”

Undeniably, the American Revolution led to many positive changes and reforms, and helped inspire other countries to build their own free and democratic societies. There’s no question, however, that the course and success of the first revolution in our hemisphere has proven to be extremely difficult to duplicate in other American nations.