Review of A Great and Rising Nation

Benjamin Guterman Discussion

Reposted from H-Sci-Med-Tech  January 10, 2023

Michael A. Verney.  A Great and Rising Nation: Naval Exploration and
Global Empire in the Early US Republic.  American Beginnings,
1500-1900 Series. Chicago  University of Chicago Press, 2022.  320
pp.  $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-81838-2; $35.00 (paper), ISBN
Reviewed by Laurie Dickmeyer (Angelo State University)
Published on H-Water (May, 2023)
Commissioned by Yan Gao
In the early nineteenth century, the United States, a postcolonial
nation separated from Great Britain for only a few decades, faced a
daunting challenge--earning the respect and approval of the "great
powers" in Europe. Many white US citizens wondered how they could
repay their perceived intellectual and cultural debt to Europe and
raise the status of the United States. In _A Great and Rising Nation:
Naval Exploration and Global Empire in the Early US Republic_,
Michael A. Verney considers how US antebellum "explorationists" from
the late 1820s to the 1850s sought to court European regard by
encouraging and persuading the US public and the federal government
to support grand European-style missions of naval exploration.
For this study, Verney carefully selected seven out of seventeen
antebellum US naval expeditions, each chosen to highlight different
goals: "knowledge, commerce, religion, slavery, and diplomatic
prestige" (p. 6). These missions also happened to be the most popular
since Verney wanted to study the role of domestic politics in empire
building. To craft this study, Verney makes excellent use of the
official and unofficial accounts of the expeditions, newspaper
articles, government records, and letters. Each chapter deftly
profiles explorationists, investigating how they converted various
interest groups or learned from their failures. Although each chapter
could be read in isolation, the entire book is bound together by
clear through lines and the overarching theme of coalition building.
Chapter 1 introduces readers to the ambitious newspaper editor,
lecturer, and explorer Jeremiah Reynolds, who spent years attempting
to convince Americans to support a national exploring and
cartographic expedition to the South Pacific. Reynolds gained
powerful allies such as President John Quincy Adams, Secretary of the
Navy Samuel Southard, and other elites--primarily congressmen, naval
officers, scientists, and sea captains. However, the lure of
scientific advancement was insufficient to attract the support
needed. In the late 1820s, an era dominated by factionalism, many US
citizens opposed national expeditions of exploration, perceiving them
as expensive, elitist, imperial projects that would put too much
power in the hands of the federal government. From this failure,
explorationists learned to make broader appeals.
Chapter 2 explains how resistant Jacksonian Democrats embraced a
voyage of discovery to the Pacific with the United States Exploring
Expedition of 1838-42 (popularly known as the "Ex Ex").
Explorationists reframed the proposed expedition as a solution to the
problems and anxieties faced by US merchants and captains traversing
the Pacific. For antebellum Americans, Pacific economic activities
appeared to be threatened by incomplete maps, unruly sailors, and
Oceanic Islanders, and an exploring expedition promised to counter
these threats.
Chapter 3 tells the story of the Ex Ex following its return to the
United States as the commander of the expedition, Lieutenant Charles
Wilkes, and others crafted publications, popularizing global
imperialism with white middle- and upper-class citizens. This
approach was tremendously successful, and many enthusiastically
devoured Wilkes's account and visited the mission's specimens at the
National Gallery. Both experiences "shifted public opinion in favor
of federally directed global imperialism" in the 1840s and 1850s (p.
Chapters 4 and 5 explore the addition of conservative Protestant
Christians and pro-slavery expansionists to the explorationist
coalition. In the mid-nineteenth century, conservative Protestant
Christians felt that the United States faced a spiritual crisis
caused by multiple threats: an influx of Catholic immigrants,
intemperance, westward expansion, and the biblical skepticism of
liberal Unitarians. The US Expedition to the River Jordan and the
Dead Sea of 1847-48 offered an unusual solution. The expedition's
commander, Lieutenant William Francis Lynch, motivated primarily by
the defense of his faith and national honor, sought to prove that the
Bible was "an infallible historical text" and bolster Protestant
Christianity (p. 114). Ironically, this overtly Christian expedition
relied upon the aid and guidance of Islamic actors, both urban
Ottomans and Bedouin Arabs. Chapter 5 moves to 1850s pro-slavery
expansionists' support of South American expeditions as a means to
expand Southern slaveholding territory. For these individuals, US
settlement in South America promised to resolve multiple issues by
opening up fertile land for planting, providing a "safety valve" for
the growing enslaved Black population, and skirting the sectional
divide caused by westward US expansion. US imperial ambitions in
South America were clear to all parties involved.
Chapter 6 sees the culmination of explorationists' wildest dreams
with US-UK rapprochement. In the late 1840s, the famous British
explorer Sir John Franklin and his expedition went missing in the
Arctic. His wife, Lady Jane Franklin, tirelessly advocated for the
organization of rescue missions both by the British Admiralty and
foreign powers. Two expeditions were joint private-public ventures
combining the financial resources of merchant Henry Grinnell and the
personnel of the US Navy. The publications, newspaper articles, and
lectures about the expeditions cultivated a sense of Anglo-Saxon
racial unity and camaraderie between the United States and Great
Britain. For explorationists, the expedition finally garnered much
sought-after British praise for US efforts in the Arctic.
A concise, satisfying conclusion, the epilogue considers the fate of
explorationism. Verney traces the fracturing of the explorationist
coalition down the middle as the Civil War redirected naval personnel
and resources. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, there
was less of a need for federal naval exploration as European powers
increasingly considered the United States a "great power."
_A Great and Rising Nation_ carefully examines explorationists and
their accounts, integrating key analysis of gender, race, and
socioeconomic status. For example, many explorationists obsessed over
the masculinity of explorers and their expeditions. Verney argues
that Reynolds acquired an appreciation for the brawny masculinity he
encountered during his childhood in Ohio, then part of the US
frontier. This perhaps translated to his later respect for
working-class mariners. Lynch, the commanding officer of the Dead Sea
expedition, recruited men that matched his nativist, masculine, and
martial vision, shipping "only 'young, muscular, native-born
Americans of sober habits'" (p. 120). Explorer Elisha Kent Kane, who
led the second Grinnell expedition to the Arctic, similarly wrote
about the masculinity of Sir John Franklin's would-be rescuers.
Verney suggests that Kane's cultivation of a heroic masculinity
perfectly complemented Lady Jane Franklin's gendered, medievalist
appeal to the British Admiralty, the press, and foreign leaders and
explorers for chivalric aid to locate her lost husband. Such points
of analysis, simply put, are persuasive and integrally tied to
Verney's central arguments.
Verney also weighs in on a historiographical debate concerning US
national identity and where it was forged. His answer is, everywhere:
"It was the product of the entire national experience, which was
unfolding simultaneously" in the United States, at sea, and abroad
(p. 8). Historians such as Dane Morrison, Dael Norwood, Kariann
Yokota, and others have similarly probed the ways that US activities
abroad were informed domestic experiences (and vice versa), impacted
domestic politics, and reflected anxieties about the postcolonial
status of the United States.[1] Verney builds upon and makes a
valuable contribution to this recent series of interpretations by
taking a critical approach to the rich topic of antebellum naval
_A Great and Rising Nation_ showcases thorough research, up-to-date
historiography, and well-written prose. As a strong work of
scholarship with no notable weaknesses, it should easily find a place
on the shelves of scholars of maritime history and the early
republic. The transnational nature and goals of the expeditions means
that scholars in diverse fields may also find individual chapters
useful. With compelling prose, gripping anecdotes, and clear ties to
the broader themes and narrative of US history, the book could be
assigned to students and be read by a broader audience.
[1]. Dane A. Morrison, _True Yankees: The South Seas and the
Discovery of American Identity_ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 2014); Dane A. Morrison, _Eastward of Good Hope: Early America
in a Dangerous World_ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
2021); Dael A. Norwood, _Trading Freedom: How Trade with China
Defined Early America_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022);
and Kariann Akemi Yokota, _Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary
America Became a Postcolonial Nation_ (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2010).
Citation: Laurie Dickmeyer. Review of Verney, Michael A., _A Great
and Rising Nation: Naval Exploration and Global Empire in the Early
US Republic_. H-Water, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023.