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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

April 3, 2012: Seward’s Folly

[This week, in honor of April Fool’s Day, I’ll be highlighting various American Studies connections to the holiday—not just to foolishness, but to pranks, jokes, and humor. This is the second in the series. As always, suggestions and guest posts welcome—no fooling!]

A few examples of why it’s not at all foolish to consider the specifics of how, when, and why America’s territory expanded.

Let me get this out of the way at the start: despite having had the singular dishonor of vaulting Sarah Palin, and her erroneous and destructive visions of American identity and history, onto the national stage, Alaska is a very welcome part of our 21st century American community. Everything I wrote about Sitka in this post on complex and instructive American places is equally true of the state overall; it opens up landscapes, histories, and communities without which we’d be a less rich and diverse nation. Yet we can’t fully appreciate much of what Alaska brings and means if we don’t better understand the contexts of its addition to our nation: the complex history of Russian imperialism in the region; the pre-Civil War arguments over international expansion that led to the first consideration of buying Alaska, under the Buchanan Administration; and the very divided Reconstruction-era moment and Johnson Administration during which Seward finally gained approval for that purchase in 1867 (and received the funds in 1868), and which produced the very vocal and famous critiques of the acquisition.

At least as complex, and far more explicitly dark and tragic, is the history surrounding the American “acquisition” of Hawai’i a few decades later. My January 25th Memory Day nominee, Charles Reed Bishop, illustrates some of the powerful and inspiring sides to American connections to Hawai’i in the mid-19th century; yet at the same time, Bishop’s struggles to hold onto his late wife’s ancestral lands (on which they had started their school) in the face of pressures from subsequent settlers and big business to acquire that land exemplify the kinds of forces that led directly to America’s annexation of Hawai’i. There are few historical figures whose stories reflect more poorly on the US’s actions than Queen Liliuokalani (although she has plenty of competition, of course), and we can’t possibly understand the place’s history or meaning outside of a much fuller inclusion of her in our national histories and narratives. Such an inclusion wouldn’t make it impossible to appreciate the state’s natural beauties, nor its most famous contribution to 21st century America—but it would force us to recognize at which price those beauties, and the resources they include, were bought, and what that reveals about late 19th century American imperialisms.

If Hawai’i’s history is one of the nation’s most dramatic and tragic, the evolving story of Maine would seem to be one of the quietest and most diplomatic. Although the area had been part of the United States (and specifically of Massachusetts) since the Revolution, and had gained its own statehood in 1820, it had throughout those years served as a flashpoint for continuing conflicts between the US and England. Those conflicts turned into the so-called “Aroostook War” of 1839, a bloodless struggle over the state’s borders and resources that was resolved through diplomacy three years later with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Besides revealing how tense relations between the US and its former mother country remained throughout the first half of the 19th century, that Treaty also illustrates some of the many other issues to which that relationship connected—besides settling the Maine/New Brunswick border, the treaty also stipulated the creation of a joint American and British naval force for the sole purpose of patrolling the African coast and “suppressing the Slave Trade,” enforcing laws that had been on the books in both nations for decades but which clearly remained an issue. Engaging with the history of Maine, then, allows us to better understand multiple complex and crucial, Early Republic international influences and relationships.

Next in the series tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? And any other foolish (in the best sense) topics I should consider, or you’d like to write about?

4/3 Memory Day nominee: Washington Irving, one of America’s first professional writers, a hugely talented satirist, travel writer, and biographer, and, in his creation of distinctly American folk tales, one of the most enduring contributors to our national mythology.

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