Author Interview--Mark Power Smith (Young America) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Mark Power Smith to talk about his new book, Young America: The Transformation of Nationalism before the Civil War, published by the University of Virginia Press in September 2022.

Part 1

Related to this question, you already mention that this was a movement to advance the interest of white people, I did wonder about expansionism, did Young America look at people in Latin America of Spanish descent as white? Or did they label people in those countries' target for expansion as something else to justify their expansionist impulses? 

MPS: I was surprised to see that Young Americans often mused about this question themselves. The writer Maturin Ballou, for example, explicitly wondered whether the creoles in Cuba were “white” – and by extension, desirous of democratic government. His conclusion was that they were, and others agreed. Irish migrants like Thomas D. Reilly – who briefly edited the Democratic Review – sympathized with the plight of the creoles, explicitly drawing connections between their uprisings against Spanish rule, and that of Ireland and France in 1848. Others like Pierre Soulé, a Democrat and exile from France, conceded the “Castilian” blood of the creoles made them more impulsive than northern Europeans, but he was still committed to their independence and never doubted they were on a trajectory towards democratic government, like the rest of the white race.

The difference was really in Mexico. Here, Young Americans did not believe the population was suited to democracy, and predicted they would die out, much like Native Americans who were supposedly receding before the advance of white civilization. The goal, in this case, was to clear the land, and make way for white man’s democracy through emigration from the eastern United States.

I want to change direction a little bit and take our conversation into overseas territory. I noticed you had a mention to Garibaldi in the book, but I wanted to ask about the influence of that far more important Italian with the same first name--Giuseppe Mazzini. He creates the Young Italy movement well before all these other Young movements--what impact did his writings have on Young America, if any? 

MPS: It is true the book concentrates a little more on Hungarian nationalists like Lajos Kossuth, who corresponded with George Sanders, as well as British liberals like Richard Cobden. In general, Young Americans engaged in a more substantive dialogue with these figures. But Mazzini and Garibaldi were part of the story. When he was a diplomat in London, George Sanders famously hosted a dinner with some of the most notable European revolutionaries – including both Mazzini and Garibaldi. James Buchanan, who was in England at the time, fretted about attending, but concluded that he would be ashamed to call himself an American citizen if he missed the occasion. Buchanan wrote home to Secretary of State William Marcy afterwards, joking he had been worried that so many “combustible” elements in the same room might explode.   

At the broadest level, the idea of a “young” nationalist movement in the U.S. was obviously filtered through European politics and Italy in particular. But, more than that, the Democratic Review supported and tracked the progress of Italian unification. It also published articles by Mazzini – for example, condemning Napoleon III's alliance with Pope Pius IX to suppress the Italian insurrection in 1849. That said, Young America’s view of the 1848 Revolutions, including the situation in Italy, was not particularly sophisticated. They generally mistook complex regional, national and ethnic conflicts for a struggle between the forces of democracy and despotism - a dynamic not unknown in U.S. foreign policy. But this misunderstanding still tells us something really important about the Democratic Party’s view of historical progress at this particular moment in time.  

From a comparative perspective, Mazzini’s view of nationalism had much in common with Young America: both were rooted in Romanticism, committed to liberal ideas about “humanity” and “progress,” and used literature as a source of political authority. But perhaps Young America placed less emphasis on history to create a sense of national belonging. One day, I would like to do a collaborative project on generational movements in the mid-nineteenth-century Atlantic World: one that not only tracks networks of ideas and political figures but adopts a genuinely comparative approach.   

It seemed Young America was well aware of international events that could have benefitted their cause--which event do you see as the crucial turning point, where they could have achieved their agenda? 

MPS: I want to push back on the premise of the question a little there. I don’t think the Young Americans could ever have achieved their agenda. I hope – and don’t expect – we will ever see anything like it in any part of the world. This is just as well. Democracy is not a natural right for white men and cannot take root irrespective of historical and cultural conditions. The problem was these Democrats never doubted the trajectory of historical progress. We might ask, however, ask related questions: When were Young Americans most influential in U.S. politics? When were they most optimistic about their vision of the world? Both answers lie not in an international event, but a domestic one: the Democrats’ dramatic election victory in 1852.  

That year, Pennsylvania Democrat, Charles Goepp, and German émigré, Theodor Poesche, dedicated their book, The New Rome, to the “spirit” in which President Franklin Pierce was elected. Although Pierce did not - personally – have much in the way of a political program, Young Americans shaped the Democratic platform, particularly its commitments on foreign policy, which garnered significant support on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. In office, Pierce appointed important writers and politicians associated with Young America to diplomatic posts – for example, John O’Sullivan was sent to Lisbon and George Sanders to London. Young Americans really believed these men would play a significant role in propagating self-government abroad. At the same time, they argued for the U.S. to actively intervene in European affairs since the time was ripe for democratic government. Collapsing political dynamics on both sides of the Atlantic, Young America Democrats argued that counter-revolution after 1848 had found its parallel in four years of Whig rule within the United States. Progress could now resume.  

Of course, the Revolutions of 1848 were hardly resuscitated after 1852, while the Union descended into political breakdown and then the Civil War. But historians should not overlook the optimism with which Democrats ushered in the start of the decade. The ideological battlegrounds within the Second Party System continued to rage over foreign policy, while party politics were framed in transnational terms. For Americans at the time, this more unsettling vision of progress was a large part of what the Age of Revolutions was all about.

I want to throw you one curveball that really intrigues me from your book. You talk about how contemporaries in the Young America movements viewed members of other parties as members of another nation. That seems very dangerous to alienate your fellow citizens as outsiders and reminds a little of current political tribalism and struggles in the United States. Was this restricted to a small group or could we see this as an important and underexplored cause for the coming of the Civil War?

MPS: Curveballs are welcome - this is a really great question. Delegitimizing opposition parties was, I quite agree, one of the really dangerous elements in the political culture of Young America: something I try to address in the book, especially the conclusion. But how did such a polarized climate take shape? I argue that it was the fusion of natural and political rights at the heart of Young America’s nationalist vision. Traditionally, Americans saw the nation – the political and social order of the United States – as a product of historical and cultural development, bound together by positive laws. Many took seriously the idea of natural rights, but these were limited to life, liberty and property, not democracy per se. Communities had to be formed before people could vote, and cultures created that would sustain self-government. This fostered a sense of loyalty to the Union as a particular place - on which the very existence of democracy depended - where compromise could be achieved for the sake of national stability.  

By contrast, Young Americans collapsed the different categories of rights into one great bundle, mediated only by racial distinctions. In other words, the social, political and economic order functioned according to natural law. The Democrats’ political program was not simply one set of policies among many but an inherently just foundation for the national, and even international, order – it was nothing less than democracy, properly understood. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Young Americans framed their opponents as fundamentally corrupt, illegitimate and anti-democratic. When you have this political vision right at the heart of national politics – as you do with Franklin Pierce’s election victory in 1852 – other parties are forced to respond. The Republicans in the North, and the Southern wing of the Democracy, both demand the nation conform to their own vision of natural rights, while the Whigs’ older view of national compromise, which played down natural rights altogether, is destroyed.  

We end up with this strange situation where liberal ideology of natural rights transforms the meaning of nationalism and undermines its capacity to preserve order. Is it too much to say Young America's variety of “natural rights nationalism” caused the Civil War? Almost certainly. But I do think it explains why the political order could no longer contain conflicts over slavery by the middle decade of the nineteenth century. 

As much as I enjoy chatting about international Civil War era topics, we should draw to a close. Therefore, do you have any new projects in mind yet?

MPS: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Niels. Yes, I am working on two projects. One examines competing ideas about household government during the Civil War era, while the other looks at the way Americans understood the revolutionary politics of the Atlantic world from 1865 to 1877, especially as self-consciously "conservative" figures tried to bring this era of upheaval to a close.