Current Issue Article Abstracts

Fall 2020, Vol. 18.4

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English Designs on Central America: Geographic Knowledge and Imaginative Geographies in the Seventeenth Century
Karl Offen

This study explores the relationship between geographic knowledge and imaginative geographies in the early modern English Atlantic. As is exemplified by English efforts to colonize Providence Island, the Western Design and the economic activities it set in motion, and English and Scottish plans to colonize the Darien region of Panama, everyday geographic knowledge contributed to and was informed by English imaginative geographies in ways that shaped English plans to occupy or attack Central America. Despite a maturation of governing institutions, scientific practices, and commercial networks that gathered geographic information by the last quarter of the seventeenth century, imaginative geographies obscured a more sober assessment of Central America's complex social and physical realities—especially in spaces controlled by indigenous peoples living outside colonial control. That greater geographic experience did not contribute to improved designs presents a paradox for a model that expects knowledge accumulation to advance its utility. Instead, geographic knowledge in the seventeenth century informed imperial designs via imaginative geographies built on myths, perceptions, and desires, blurring distinctions between the two.

 

Security, Taxation, and the Imperial System in Jamaica, 1721–1782
Trevor Burnard, Aaron Graham

White Jamaicans paid relatively high rates of taxation to support a powerful and assertive imperial state in schemes of settlement and security. They paid such taxes willingly because they were satisfied with what they got from the state. Furthermore, they believed they had a significant stake in the processes by which taxes were collected and spent. The power of the colonial state depended on the empire being a loose fraternal alliance. Nevertheless, what worked for imperial and colonial Jamaica did not necessarily work elsewhere. Jamaica provides a case study of how the imperial state worked satisfactorily for imperial rulers and those colonists whom they ruled when both the state and colonial settlers shared common beliefs and when negotiations made it clear that the interests of all parties coincided.

 

The Constitutional Consequences of Commercial Crisis: The Role of Trade Reconsidered in the "Critical Period"
Dael A. Norwood

This essay argues that commerce, and concerns about commerce, played a significant role in driving U.S. elites to define the 1780s as a period of "crisis," shaping both the drive toward constitutional reform and the postconstitutional order. At the outset of independence, American Revolutionaries had grand ambitions for their international trade. They imagined that commerce would be the lifeblood of their new nation's prosperity and security. When the postwar economic situation failed to live up to these great expectations, many Revolutionaries felt that their entire national project was threatened. Commercial crisis provided Americans with a reason to reexamine government under the Articles of Confederation, and then a motive to reform it—a process culminating in the U.S. Constitution and the framing of a new commercial system in the First Federal Congress. Examining the role of trade in the "Critical Period" reveals how the "private" world of commerce intertwined closely with the "public" work of nation-building, contributing more to the dynamics of U.S. political development than historians have at times acknowledged. Reflecting American leaders' theoretical, moral, and practical investment in international trade, the consequences of the commercial crisis of the 1780s are usefully understood as constitutional.

 

Remembering Napoleon: Americans and the French Emperor in the 1820s and 1830s
Nadine Klopfer

In the 1820s and 1830s, many Americans were fascinated by Napoleon. After his death in 1821, biographies of the French emperor circulated widely in the United States and Jacques-Louis David's painting of his coronation attracted visitors throughout the country. Conduct books lauded the emperor's character, and travelers to France enthusiastically recounted viewing the fallen hero's robes. Against the backdrop of an age that saw both the much-lauded rise of the common man and endeavors to culturally disentangle the United States from Europe, this fascination with a foreign emperor is intriguing. Telling the story of Napoleon as a success story of self-making, however, allowed Americans across party lines to ease tensions between the ongoing appeal of courtly glamour and republican ideals. Acknowledging that this emperor was a self-made man seemed to legitimize the enthrallment with imperial pomp. At the same time, in the context of American westward expansion, the rise of an entertainment culture, and the emerging culture of selffashioning, the French emperor became a lens through which to view contemporary questions of revolution and empire, glamour and spectacle, upward mobility, and the structure of the young nation's social fabric.