by Michael A. Verney
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. Pp. xii, 300.
Illus., maps, notes, index. $35.00 paper. ISBN: 0226819922
The Earl Republic Reaches Out
A Great and Rising Nation covers U.S. naval explorations between the War of 1812 and the Civil War commonly referred to as the antebellum period. The motives for these expeditions were varied but according to Michael Verney, they can all be viewed as extensions of the young nation’s desire to build an empire. Exactly what type of empire is envisioned varies such that the reader is introduced to empires of Knowledge, Commerce, Faith and Slavery. It’s the nexus of these unique and sometimes competing interests that make this book so fascinating.
While Verney doesn’t explicitly rank the various motivations for these naval expeditions, it’s clear from the first page of the introduction that gaining the respect of the European nations, particularly as it relates to scientific exploration, is never far from top of mind. “By launching a national voyage of discovery, the United States would pay its cultural debt to European powers, establish valuable lines of trades with Pacific Islanders, enlarge the bounds of science,” and contribute “to the knowledge of men, and to the fame of the Nation.” As one character frames the argument to President Madison, “it’s time to put the United States on an eminence with others.” The U.S. Navy, occasionally in concert with private enterprise, would be the primary vehicle for bolstering the nation’s reputation as an empire worthy of respect for its scientific contributions. However, to fund and gain support for these expeditions at home, its promoters would also have to frame the benefits in terms of commerce, slavery and even religion.
The book opens with the story of newspaper editor and author Jeremiah Reynolds, who attempts to mount an expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas motivated by a sense of adventure. (Reynold’s short story, “Mocha-Dick”, would serve as the inspiration for Moby Dick.) Despite his limited scientific background, Reynolds viewed the German explorer and polymath Alexander von Humboldt as his model. Alas, political machinations and infighting would stymie his quest to pursue an Empire of Knowledge. However, Reynolds would play a pivotal role in the launch of the Exploring Expedition in 1836 (abbreviated Ex. Ex.) during Andrew Jackson’s administration. Whereas appeals to scientific advancement fell short, promises of trade and commerce won the day as Verney labels this expedition an example of the Empire of Commerce, and rightly so. Prior to the Ex. Ex., merchants and sailors were dependent on anecdotal commentary and unreliable evidence to navigate this area. The charts which the Ex. Ex. returned with made sailing in the Pacific and South Seas safer than ever. Unfortunately for the expedition’s leader, Charles Wilkes, his accomplishments were mired by an overbearing disposition as reflected in five separate courts-martial. However, he would seek and find redemption in the publication of the expedition’s exploits, which was warmly received at home and abroad to such an extent that the lavishly engraved first editions were given as diplomatic gifts.
By far the most unique expedition is William Lynch’s voyage to the Dead Sea, which sought to verify the Bible as a historically accurate document. Moreover, his primary motivation for launching the expedition was to refute the beliefs of certain Christian sects such as the Unitarians, Catholics and Orthodox in favor of the Protestant Evangelical biblical interpretation. (The fact that the expedition would be dependent on Muslims for its safety and passage is more than a bit ironic.) While the results of the expedition are debatable, it does seem to have made some diplomatic in-roads.
As for the Empire of Slavery, the United States’ attempt to conquer South America in order to extend slavery would be impressive in its ambitions if it was not so tragic in its motivations. Nowhere is this dichotomy better reflected than in the person of the brilliant cartographer Matthew Maury. While naval explorers returned to Washington with the belief that the Amazon River Valley was perfect for colonization, the Brazilians were wise to the game after watching the U.S. annex Texas. Likewise, internal politics at home and arrogance aboard prevented the U.S. from mapping the Rio de la Plata.
The final chapter returns to the theme of the young nation seeking and gaining respect from its European cousins as it participates in the search for the explorer Sir John Franklin. In particular, it offers a lovely insight into the special relationship that seems so one-sided today.
If there is any quibble with this work, it’s that the cameos are in danger of overshadowing the main players. From Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville to the creation of the Smithsonian Institution to encroaching tremors of war, the reader can’t help but want to pursue these tangents further than the brief context the author provides. Regardless, A Great and Rising Nation is a fine piece of scholarship on the U.S.’s attempt to balance a desire to pursue imperial ambitions abroad while managing increasingly unmanageable tensions at home.
Our Reviewer: Greg McNiff works in the finance industry. He has a BA in Classical Languages from Columbia University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. Executive Director of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, he and is addicted to books to the point of requiring professional help. He previously reviewed Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny.
Note: A Great and Rising Nation, a volume in the Chicago series "American Beginnings, 1500-1900", is also available in hard cover and e-editions.
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