The Author’s Corner With Caitlin Fitz

FitzCaitlin Fitz is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Northwestern University.  This interview is based on her new book, Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (Liverlight/W.W. Norton, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Our Sister Republics?

CF: The summer before my senior year of college, I was holed up in a dark corner of the Tennessee State Library and Archives, shivering from the air conditioning and dizzy from the microfilm reader.   I had stumbled into a last-minute summer job as a research assistant for a biographer of the celebrated lawyer Felix Grundy, and it had been a slow day reeling through the early nineteenth century newspapers: no big finds, no surprises, mostly just the usual articles on horse races and land sales.  Maybe it was the musty books I had read on “frontier” life in Tennessee, or maybe it was the rudimentary appearance of the newspapers—the long “s,” the simple four-column layout, the uniformity of the fonts—but for whatever reason, my mental image of early Tennessee featured tobacco-spitting, whiskey-swilling, gun-toting rustics, a pugnacious assembly of David Crocketts and their hardscrabble wives.  I had learned from the papers that these people read about Europe, and about other parts of the United States.  But mostly I assumed that they were consumed with their own local affairs: felling trees, fighting Indians, trading slaves, counting votes, planting tobacco.

I still remember when a new headline finally jolted me to attention: an article on “the Brazils.”  Another followed, and then another.  Soon I was seeing articles on “Caraccas,” “Buenos Ayres,” and “Carthagena.”  I couldn’t explain it.  These people had a taxing, hazardous journey just to get to New Orleans and Natchez, not to mention the pulsing ports of the East.  I could understand their interest in neighboring Mexico.  But South America?  It seemed so exotic.  Maybe these people were less insular than I had assumed.

Still, I was researching Felix Grundy, and Grundy didn’t appear in the South American news reports.  I moved on, but the discovery lingered in my memory.  When I got to graduate school several years later—having just returned, in fact, from a year in Brazil—it resurfaced, and I slowly realized there was a bigger story to tell about early U.S. relations with Latin America.  Those cosmopolitan Tennessee clodhoppers were just the beginning.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Our Sister Republics?

CF: In the 1810s and early 1820s, the United States teemed with grassroots excitement for Latin American independence, despite well-known racial and religious differences.  Our Sister Republics brings that inter-American ardor to life, showing how the early United States took shape in an age of hemisphere-wide, American revolutions and why that matters.

JF: Why do we need to read Our Sister Republics?

CF: Some of the most exciting recent work on the early United States has illuminated the young republic’s connections to Europe and, increasingly, the Caribbean.  But that North Atlantic focus has simultaneously overshadowed a rich and complementary history of interaction between North and South America.  By the United States’ fiftieth anniversary in 1826, most of the Western Hemisphere was politically independent from Europe, and most of the new nations were republics.  Looking below the equator rather than across the Atlantic, Our Sister Republics shows how Latin America’s independence wars shaped U.S. nationalism and distilled popular U.S. thinking about race, equality, revolution, and republicanism.

There were many surprises for me along the way.  First, I was surprised that people in the United States followed events in South America so closely—that ordinary farmers, for example, named their firstborn sons after Spanish-speaking generals, and that July Fourth patriots routinely toasted Latin America.  Second, given what we know about white U.S. audiences’ widespread contempt for Haiti, I was astonished that the popular excitement for republicanism’s spread in Spanish America usually overshadowed concerns about the insurgents’ Catholicism and about their antislavery sympathies; white people’s sanguine optimism about Spanish American independence suggests that plain folk throughout the nation were more receptive to the abstract ideals of equality and abolition than we often assume.  Third, if the standard story of U.S.-Latin American relations emphasizes conquest, aggression, and political puppetry, Our Sister Republics recalls a time when people in the United States hailed their southern neighbors as fellow American revolutionaries, and it shows how that earlier optimism arguably helped to fuel antebellum aggression.  Fourth, it complements more traditional diplomatic histories with a bottom-up view of how ordinary people understood (and sometimes influenced) foreign relations, from privateering and weapon trafficking to newspapers and the ballot box.  Fifth, it shows an important moment in the evolution of American exceptionalism.  By the United States’ fiftieth year—which coincided with the end of the inter-American revolutionary age—the United States was the only republic in the Western Hemisphere that endorsed slavery’s expansion.  That broader context helps explain how ideas about national superiority fused to ideas about white superiority with greater force and assurance, forming a stronger public rhetoric of white U.S. exceptionalism.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CFIn retrospect, I could tell a pleasantly linear story about how I was destined to be a historian.  By the middle of elementary school, I had devoured all of the historical fiction in my school’s little library: Johnny Tremain; Caddie Woodlawn; Sarah, Plain and Tall; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; the Little House books.  Around the same time, my indulging parents happened upon a set of Fisher-Price “Spellbinder” cassette tapes that narrated stories of the American Revolution, Gulliver’s Travels, Rip Van Winkle, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn.  Rip and Gulliver gave me nightmares, but I spent years falling asleep to the sound of Benjamin Franklin debating Lord North over imperial tax policy.

It sounds so predetermined that I’m a little embarrassed to write it down.  But it’s not as though I always planned to be a historian.  Does anyone?  In my central Pennsylvania high school, I imagined myself a future biologist, a public servant, a nonprofit maven.  Even when I decided to become a history major at the end of my freshman year of college—are you out there, Suzanne Marchand?  Your European history survey did me in!—I didn’t plan to make a career out of it.  If I had scored higher on my LSAT practice tests, I may well have defaulted to law school.  I finally realized how much I wanted to be a historian during my senior year, as I wrote a 150-page thesis on the Tennessee antislavery movement.  I loved every minute, and I still had more to say, more to find out.  I was hooked.

JF: What is your next project?

CFI’m working on a few things, including a biography of John Calhoun and his wife Floride Calhoun.  I’m also digging more deeply into the life of someone I discuss in Our Sister Republics: a pardo (or “mulatto”) revolutionary from northeastern Brazil named Emiliano Mundrucu.  Inspired by the Haitian Revolution, Mundrucu helped to lead an 1824 uprising against the independent Brazilian monarchy.  When that failed, he fled to Boston, where (after voyages to Haiti and Colombia) he became an important figure in Boston’s abolitionist community and waged an early battle to desegregate transportation.  Born the same year that the Haitian Revolution began, Mundrucu died just months after celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation alongside Boston’s leading black abolitionists, and his story sheds light on inter-American connections within African-American and abolitionist communities.

JF:  Thanks, Caitlin.  Great stuff!