Review - Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire

Eliga H. Gould. Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of A New World Empire, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2012 1 + 301 pp. $40.00. Notes, bibliography, and index.
            Eliga H. Gould’s Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of A New World Empire is less about the revolution itself than it is about the external forces that influenced the early United States and its foreign and domestic policy. For Gould, these external forces came largely in the form of Europe’s power and influence. Indeed, early in the book he notes how, while “the revolution enabled the Union’s citizens to begin making their own history...the history that they made was often the history that others were willing to let them make” (2). In other words, the revolution did not so much mark the entrance of the United States as an influential nation on the world stage as it did signify the desire of U.S. political leaders to create a European inspired nation that might eventually be worthy of having a place “among the powers of the earth.” This meant, according to Gould, integrating the United States into the legal geography established by Europe’s law of nations, a set of “neither coherent nor binding” treaties that governed everything from war to commerce between countries in Europe (5). Among the Powers of the Earth thus borrows from one of Gould’s earlier articles, which demonstrated how the thirteen colonies and the early United States were entangled in a web of European customs and traditions. In Gould’s mind, the American Revolution was not complete until the United States could be accepted as a nation in the eyes of Europeans.  

            Gould wrote this book to be in conversation with the historiography of the American Revolution established by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, authors of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and The Creation of the American Republic. Bailyn and Wood argue that the revolution came as a result of internal developments regarding changing conceptions of liberalism and republicanism, whereas Gould contends that “the American Revolution had its origins, not in the growing distinctiveness of the colonies that became the United States or their sense of being places apart from Britain, but in the bonds that tied them as never before to Europe’s diplomatic republic” (42). One wonders if there might be a kind of middle ground to the claims made by Bailyn, Wood, and Gould, as it seems rather limiting to believe that it was only internal forces or only external forces that influenced the American Revolution.

            Gould’s strongest argument in proving that the law of nations impacted the development of the early United States comes in his chapter on slavery. He demonstrates how the law of nations regulated slave policy in the United States, stating that “Americans were well aware of the strength of antislavery sentiment in Britain and Europe,” and that if they remained complacent on the question of slavery, Britain would continue to have “a potent weapon with which to chastise the former colonies, and in so doing to complicate the Union’s quest to be accepted as a treaty-worthy nation in Europe” (158-159). How the United States handled this potential problem would, in part, determine whether it could become a nation worthy of competing with Europe on equal footing. Slaveholders in the U.S. realized that ignoring the law of nations entirely would threaten their ability to continue profiting from slavery, and so they came up with a clever compromise, which entailed supporting “the movement to abolish the African slave trade” (160). The banning of the slave trade granted the United States legitimacy under the law of nations, giving them the diplomatic authority to maintain slavery within their borders for several more decades regardless of the fact that European leaders disapproved.  

            Though Among the Powers of the Earth presents a compelling argument, it was not without flaws. The primary one being that it did not read like an Atlantic World history, something that may come as a surprise to those who have read Gould’s earlier work on entangled histories. Indeed, this book reads more like a traditional history of the United States in regard to its overarching narrative, one that shows how, in becoming fully incorporated within the legal geography of the law of nations, the U.S. evolved from a collection of former colonies to an emerging world power (218). There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of framework, but in many ways, the argument that the United States was born as an “entangled” nation loses some of its significance if it was able to limit the effect of these entanglements, and ultimately evolved past having to worry about them at all (10). I am unsure of how Gould could have remedied this issue, other than in focusing on citing a more diverse range of entanglements throughout the book, which he himself suggested he would do when highlighting in his introduction how “the American republic’s entangled history [was not only] limited to Europe” (11). Unfortunately, this was not explored enough. But in the end, this is a minor criticism, as Gould’s more traditional analytical framework does not take away from his overall argument that the early United States was shaped by the European law of nations. And that contention, in and of itself, represents a substantial contribution to the historiography of the American Revolution.