National Comfort Zones and Entangled Economies

Edward P. Pompeian

While teaching the U.S. history survey I have thought about how a college student might study the early U.S. republic and its national economy in a wider global or hemispheric context.  I wrestle with designing a curriculum that exposes my students to the transnational nature of capitalism while also encouraging them to reexamine the national historical narratives they bring into and still encounter in my classroom.  Admittedly, I have not puzzled out that pedagogy.

My students enroll in U.S. History 101 because they want to study a place that is familiar to them in the present, and they expect to learn a history they think they already know.  The history of the United States of America is a national comfort zone for them just as, I suspect, it is for many of us.  And yet in U.S. History 101, economic history vividly tells students that the early United States was affected significantly by the world outside its national borders.

Henry Popple, A Map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish Settlements Adjacent Thereto. London: 1733.

Henry Popple, A Map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish Settlements Adjacent Thereto. London: 1733.; Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Their textbook already informs them that the merchants of the United States enriched themselves by carrying the transatlantic trade of the revolutionized and war-torn European empires for nearly two decades after 1793.  It already tells them about how the nation’s foreign commerce influenced relations with Europe and sparked diplomatic conflicts that helped precipitate the War of 1812.  Most notably and for good reason, the global connections their textbook highlights are between the United States and Great Britain and France.  It does not tell them that trade had long entangled the histories of the Americas together, however, or that the economic growth of the early United States was tied to the political and economic crises of the Spanish Empire in South America.[1]

I am a historian of the Americas who looks at the United States from the historical perspective of Latin America; therefore, my students do too.  I emphasize the economic importance of the other America to the infant U.S. republic.  My students learn that while South America’s tropical agriculture, mineral wealth, and vast colonial populations had long been the object of Anglo Americans’ golden dreams, those fantasies materialized for some during the Napoleonic era.  Trade with the Spanish colonies made a coterie of U.S. merchants rich and helped them finance their infant nation’s Market Revolution with South American bullion after 1815.[2]

To appreciate these developments, my students read the words of Luis de Onís, who observed disapprovingly that Anglo American merchants were simply greedy bastards profiting from the blood of Europe.  Many at the time wondered what would become of the United States’ commercial wealth and national prosperity when its merchants and traders were no longer nearly the only shippers on the seas, or once “the political volcanoes of Europe ceased vomiting lava,” as Onís’s predecessor put it.[3]  Despite optimism in American progress, economic anxiety unleashed by the Vienna Congress was palpable in Timothy Pitkin, who noted afterward that Europe’s wars had greatly benefited the United States by turning its merchants into the transporters of South America’s riches.

The fine point I encourage my students to grasp from a hemispheric perspective is this: Had it not been for the frequency of their commerce and exchange, the citizens of the early U.S. republic might not have otherwise looked southward and seen themselves reflected in freedom’s mirror while Spanish Americans struggled for independence after 1808.  Incipient economic ties connected the fortune and destiny of the Americas together for better or worse, even before President James Monroe made it manifest in 1822.[4]

The broader points I want my students to take away from studying the entangled economies of the Americas are more important to me, however.  I use economic history to teach my students that people in the past navigated a daily life that was inherently and deeply local in nature but still influenced by transactions that took place across oceanic and territorial expanses.  That first lesson also implies that people could not control the effects of foreign transactions on their own local and national communities.  They still tried to manage them, nonetheless.

Charles Le Brun's La libertad de los mares (Philadelphia, 1820; Madrid, 1833)

Charles Le Brun, La Libertad de los Mares (Philadelphia, 1820; Madrid, 1833)

I encourage my students to think about these dynamics from multiple angles. They read and analyze the wonderfully rich petition of the citizens of Providence, Rhode Island, who while protesting the Embargo of 1807 requested that they be permitted to trade with the colonies of Spain and Portugal.  “The inhabitants of those vast regions look to the citizens of the United States as their neighbors, as the inhabitants of a sister continent,” the town’s inhabitants reasoned, “and if we readily meet their wishes, all the benefits of a great and reciprocal commerce may be realized by us, until the incalculable treasures of the South shall enrich the merchants and farmers of North America.”[5]  Hoping one day to declare their economic independence from the war-torn shores of Europe, the citizens of the early republic looked expectantly to South America for their future prosperity.

From the perspective of Spanish Americans, the connections between the agricultural and commercial economies of the Americas could look very different.  Coincidental with the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, the Embargo of 1807 worsened an already difficult situation in the provinces of Venezuela.  There, an economic crisis caused from without, rather than within, had numerous ripple effects.  Among them was a creative effort to overcome the scarcity of cheap U.S. foodstuffs.  “The American nation expected to do us an injury by depriving us of its commerce,” the Governor of Caracas observed defiantly, “but they will now know that this prohibition has only served to acquaint us with our own [re]sources.”[6] The prohibition of trade had terminated a customarily steady intercourse and thereby decoupled peoples already separated by language, culture, distance, and time.  How then did Americans in the United States know that the Embargo had affected people living in far-off Venezuela, thousands of miles from France or Great Britain?  Some of them read about it in the newspaper, although that news arrived months after the commercial ban was finally ended by the Non-Intercourse Act of March 1, 1809.

Such trans-local connections were material, but I think economic history offers a second useful lesson: Global trade simultaneously detached people from other parts of the world just as much as it tied them together.  Provenance mattered for marketing merchandise.  Nevertheless, a good’s origin, production, and distribution was often obscured, muddled by the translocal and multitransactional nature of transatlantic and global trade during the Age of Revolutions.

John Cary, Map of the Western Hemisphere ( North America and South America ) - Geographicus - America. London: 1806.

John Cary, A New Map of America, from the Latest Authorities, 1806.  The map is rotated so as to invert and disorient its perspective on the western hemisphere (evoking the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García).  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This economic reality was significant for cross-cultural relations more broadly—a fact amply illustrated by one of the early U.S. republic’s most important export commodities, wheat flour.  For example, the inhabitants of a U.S. port town might have known that superfine North American flour fetched good prices at La Guaira, Venezuela, or Santiago de Cuba in a given month.  Most of the early republic’s farmers, mechanics, merchants, or even politicians, for that matter, would not have known when their nation’s direct trade in cheap, fresh milled wheat exacerbated political disputes and economic tensions abroad in Caracas or Havana, however.  How could they be expected to? Despite the optimistic faith of liberal political economists at the time, freer trade and intercourse did not necessarily advance a more enlightened cross-cultural understanding.  Nor did it diminish conflict and war.

We teach students who have questions about the past.  Even if they just “need the credit” or their lone goal is simply to pass the final exam, those who confess a brazen or timid indifference to history are still seeking ways to understand it.  If you decide to readjust your research and teaching to global contexts, your students will probably wonder why Haiti, Venezuela, India, Sierra Leone, or some other place matters in a survey of the history of the United States.  They might ask why U.S. history should be told through a transnational lens, despite the way they learn the history of the other regions of the world by using that same method.  Their questions are worth wrestling with, in part because they reflect our own.

I find that placing the United States’ “early national” economic developments in a global context can be another effective means to encourage our students to venture outside their national comfort zone.  It offers them another map for thinking beyond the inherited ways they see the past and national history.  And in these times, seeing both global connections and disconnections is immensely important.


[1] For entangled histories, see Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmerman, “Beyond Comparison: Histoire Croisée and the Challenge of Reflexivity,” History and Theory 45 (Feb., 2006), 30‒50; Eliga H. Gould, “Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds: The English-Speaking Atlantic as a Spanish Periphery,” American Historical Review 112 (June 2007), 764‒86; Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra and Benjamin Breen, “Hybrid Atlantics: Future Directions for the History of the Atlantic World,” History Compass 11, no. 8 (2013), 597‒609.

[2] Take for example, just two cases, Robert Oliver of Baltimore or David Parish of New York.  See Stuart Weems Bruchey, Robert Oliver Robert Oliver, Merchant of Baltimore, 1783‒1819, in The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Ser. 74, no. 1 (1956); Raymond Walters, Jr. and Philip G. Walters, “The American Career of David Parish,” Journal of Economic History 4 (Nov. 1944), 149‒66; Walters and Walters, “David Parish: New York State Land Promoter,” New York History 26 (Apr. 1945), 146‒61.  For general overviews of these connections, see Barbara H. Stein and Stanley J. Stein, Edge of Crisis: War and Trade in the Spanish Atlantic, 1789‒1808 (Baltimore, 2009); and Alejandra Irigoin, “The End of a Silver Era: The Consequences of the Breakdown of the Spanish Peso Standard in China and the United States, 1780s‒1850s,” Journal of World History 20 (June 2009), 207‒43.

[3] Onís, Memoir upon the Negotiations between Spain and the United States of America, which led to the Treaty of 1819, trans. Tobias Watkins (Baltimore, 1821), 76‒77 and also 103‒104; Valentín Foronda, “Apuntos ligeros sobre los Estados Unidos de la America Septentrional (1804),” Obadiah Rich Collection, New York Public Library, microfilm; Timothy Pitkin, A Statistical View of the Commerce of the United States… (Washington, 1817).

[4] Jay Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 2012); Caitlin Fitz, Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (New York, 2016).

[5]  Petition of the Town of Providence to James Madison, Aug. 10, 1808, printed in the Providence Gazette, Aug. 20, 1808.

[6] “From the Philadelphia Gazette,” New York Herald, July 22, 1809.

10 April 2017

About the Author

Edward P. Pompeian is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at St. Olaf College.

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