The West Indies and the Formation of Literature and Culture in the New Republic
Sean X. Goudie
2006 | 288 pages | Cloth $59.95
Literature | Latin American/Caribbean Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction: "Our nation is a Caribbean Nation": The West Indies and Early U.S. America
PART 1: PARACOLONIALISM AND THE NEW REPUBLIC'S CREOLE COMPLEX
1. Locating the Prenational Origins of Paracolonialism and the Creole Complex: Benjamin Franklin's Late Colonial Encounters with the West Indies
2. Alexander Hamilton and a U.S. Empire for Commerce
PART 2: WRITING THE CREOLE REPUBLIC
3. Paracolonial Ambivalence in the Poetics of Philip Freneau
4. The West Indies, Commerce, and a Play for U.S. Empire: Recovering J. Robinson's The Yorker's Stratagem (1792)
5. Charles Brockden Brown's West Indian Specie(s)
Afterword: The Afterlife of Cora Munro
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
"Our nation is a Caribbean nation": The West Indies and Early US America
In 1993, Caribbean leaders at the White House stood in a rim around President Clinton as he delivered a speech entitled, "US Interests in the Caribbean: Building a Hemispheric Community of Democracies." His guests' presence visually reinforced the President's claim for the U.S. Republic's Caribbean lineage:
Our concern for the region is firmly rooted in geographic proximity[:]By foregrounding the nation's Caribbean lineage and by claiming "Caribbean" status for the United States, Clinton attempts to mitigate the grave concerns of the Caribbean leaders around him about the perpetual underdevelopment of their island economies as a result of the unequal "flow," as Clinton euphemistically puts it, "of people, of commodities, and of culture" between the United States and the Caribbean. An imbalance in trade and human capital, they fear, will almost certainly be exacerbated by the implementation of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico. Regardless of how one interprets the President's words—as sincere and/or motivated by political and economic expedience—Clinton speaks from a position of unqualified hegemony in the hemisphere. Nowhere present are the fraught tensions marking Federalist and Republican debates in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries over the U.S.'s volatile commercial relations with the West Indian plantation economies and the European empires administering them that I examine in this study. As the political leader of a global superpower, the President two centuries later is able to a great extent to dictate the terms of relation between the Caribbean "Community of Democracies" that he extols in his speech and a sprawling U.S. commercial empire.
the resultant flows of people, of commodities, and of culture. . . . US-Caribbean relations dramatically demonstrate the absolute inseparability of foreign and domestic issues. More than ever before, our nation is a Caribbean nation.
In sharp contrast, the U.S. was anything but a vast commercial empire in the late eighteenth century as it sought in essence to negotiate the country's first free trade agreements, specifically between the US and the West Indian colonies of Europe's powerful mercantile empires. If President Clinton, speaking at the end of the twentieth century, celebrates "our nation [as] a Caribbean nation," Creole America: The West Indies and the Formation of US Literature and Culture in the New Republic demonstrates that in previous centuries, the dynamic between rhetoric and ideology has contributed alternately to parallel, obverse, opposing, and even cryptic versions of the speech's governing metaphor. As we shall see, there was not anything resembling unanimity of opinion among the nation's political leaders regarding the effects on the national character of a commingling of West Indian and US goods, peoples and cultures, whatever the two regions' "geographic proximity." Even so, there was a near consensus in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution about the need to reestablish vigorous trade relations between the United States and the West Indies in order to insure the Republic's survival and future economic prosperity.
"Thoughts on the West India Trade" (1782), notwithstanding its relative obscurity, is an important document for how it illustrates the urgency of the U.S.-West Indian trade issue to US political leaders in the late eighteenth century. Produced at the request of the Continental Congress by Robert Morris's Office of Finance, "Thoughts" lays bare the ways in which competing visions for the future course of the nation and national character formed themselves in relation not only to U.S. expansionist designs on the continent, what scholars have come to term internal colonialism, but also the push for commercial empire in the hemisphere via the roots and routes of the West Indian trades. The document presented a template of arguments that could be deployed by U.S. ministers plenipotentiary at the peace negotiations in Europe to secure for the Republic the most advantageous commercial treaties possible in relation to the West Indian colonies. In short, the text submits that free trade between the United States and West Indies is essential in order to restore the prewar levels of commercial prosperity that the former North American colonies had enjoyed. Concomitantly, "Thoughts" insists that the most profitable West Indian plantations in the post-Revolutionary era will be those administered by the European empire that resists imposing barriers to "American" trade with its West Indian possessions.
"Thoughts" was amended and adopted for various occasions depending on the exigencies of ongoing trade negotiations between the United States and the British, French, and Spanish empires. Perhaps the most intriguing version of the document, one marked by its shift from a confidential policy paper to an explicit letter of proposal, was sent to Francisco Rendón, Spain's agent to Congress at Philadelphia and delivered by Rendón subsequently to José de Gálvez, Spanish minister of the Indies. The letter largely repeats the various arguments contained in the source document even as it tailors them to appeal to the colonial needs and desires of its Spanish audience. Especially revealing, however, is a new argument, one that responds to concerns across Europe about the potentially catastrophic consequences of affording the Americans free trade with the West Indies: namely, that the US would infect those colonies with its liberal commercial practices and republican values, catalyzing a successive series of democratic insurgencies:
When the colonies are unable to free themselves from dependence on the Metropolis, as is the case with the [Spanish] American Islands, there is no need to fear enriching them, for these same riches pass on to the Mother Country, which does not have to fear that they may wish to be independent. It did not happen thus with the continental colonies. If England had not granted to the United States the commerce of her Islands they would still be without doubt under her dependence. Spain can commit the same fault, if it allows the inhabitants of her Islands to go looking for provisions in New Spain instead of allowing them to draw them from the United States. In truth, by that means she will be able perhaps to enrich her islands and colonies at the same time, but who will be responsible for the consequences? (Untitled Letter to Francisco Rendón 476)Thus the Rendón letter—very possibly penned by Morris himself given his mercantile firm's longstanding investments in trade with Cuba—goes well beyond attempting to allay Spanish fears about a U.S.-inspired creole revolution in its American colonies. If European empires worried about the inter-American domino effect of the United States on would-be independent nation states in the West Indies looking to throw off their colonial status like their creole cousins in North America, what this text provides is a blueprint for how Spain might avoid such a contingency precisely by opening West Indian ports to U.S. commerce.
As such, the Rendón letter ably demonstrates the kind of diplomatic maneuvering many US leaders undertook in the first decades of the nation's existence in order to establish the United States as a commercial power in the hemisphere. The anonymous U.S. politician engages in machinations that, however desperate given that notification had arrived previously from Europe regarding Britain's fateful decision to exclude the United States from direct legal trade with its West Indian colonies, are counter the Republic's foundational values. The letter argues that the U.S. drive for independence began precisely as England granted North American colonial merchants and traders access to the British West Indian trades and plantation economies. Had the Mother Country not afforded its Northern and Middle Atlantic colonies a mercantile—as opposed to an exclusively agricultural—responsibility in building the empire, the United States would "without doubt" still be colonized by the British. In other words, the "fault" of West Indian trade access did more than create a commercial role for the North American colonists in the administration of the empire's West Indian colonies. Once created, such a role could never be withdrawn or mitigated—despite Parliament's efforts to do so by passing successive navigation restrictions in the 1760s and '70s. In essence, the writer credits intercolonial commerce with inspiring the anticolonial, or in the terms of this study creolizing, values that led to armed Revolution and the overthrow of British empire.
By granting the United States unrestricted trade access to the West Indies, Spain, rather than fear that the "Sons of Liberty" would spark revolution there, would on the contrary be guaranteeing those colonies' ongoing colonization. Steady supplies of U.S. fish, grains, flour, timber and other commodities essential for a smooth-running plantation economy will enable Spanish West Indian planters to focus exclusively on the business of planting, leading to unprecedented growth and expansion of their plantations and a sizeable financial windfall for the "Metropolis." Without U.S. imports, planters will of necessity, the letter warns, forge ever-stronger trading relationships with creole merchants and traders on the Spanish mainland. In the former case, U.S. commerce will warrant the independence of the Spanish colonies in the West Indies and elsewhere from one another, whereas the latter scenario will hasten the moment when a New Spanish Republic in the Americas, inspired by the U.S. Revolution and an emergent spirit of independence from the Mother Country, revolts into being.
Underpinning the not-so-subtle threat of insurrection and rebellion should the United States be denied commercial access to the West Indies is the nervous recognition that the letter's governing logic might be used against itself. Should England, France and/or Spain proscribe direct trading relations between the United States and the West Indies, the new nation, whatever its independent status, would in functional terms remain dependent on the whims and mercies of Europe's powerful mercantilist empires. Indeed, "Thoughts," the source document for the Rendón letter, stresses in anxious tones to U.S. diplomats negotiating the terms of peace overseas the reciprocal importance of the West Indies and the United States to one another's prosperity: "Every commercial man in America knows how great the consequence of the West Indian Trade is to this Country. The situation and the products of it are peculiarly crafted to an intercourse with the former. At present it must be most proper to view that America is as necessary to the West Indies as they are to us" (282). In correspondence to other U.S. governmental officials, John Adams, minister plenipotentiary to the British, characterized the situation in a remarkably similar manner. Such rhetorical overlap suggests that Adams was, as Congress intended, drawing on the talking points of "Thoughts" as he formulated his position on a future U.S. presence in the West Indian trades: "The commerce of the West India Islands falls necessarily into the natural system of the commerce of the United States. We are necessary to them, and they to us; and there will be commerce between us" (LWJA 8:79; emphasis added).
Adams' edict serves as a warning: should his European counterparts fail to accede to U.S. demands for free and unrestricted trade to the West Indies as outlined in "Thoughts," U.S. Americans—and West Indians reliant on American goods for their own and their slaves' survival—will defy such trade bans, raising the specter of an expansion of the U.S. Revolution into the West Indies in ways otherwise not desired, according to Adams, by either U.S. Americans or Britain's West Indian colonists. What Adams, in terms that I define below and use across this study, desires for the United States in the peace settlement is not so much direct colonial governance of, but legal and unrestricted paracolonial access to, Europe's West Indian colonies. Rather than engaging in unwinnable commercial wars against powerful European navies for control of their West Indian colonies, the new nation wants Europe to persist in administering the colonies but simultaneously to allow the United States a paracolonial benefit. Without licit access to Europe's West Indian colonies, Adams presciently predicts an ever receding horizon in regards to his fellow patriots' utopic vision for the United States as a nation of "happiness and prosperity" (LWJA 8:102). In ways like and unlike many West Indian planters in Cuba, Jamaica, and Saint-Domingue desiring of free and direct commercial intercourse with the Americans in opposition to restrictions on such inter-American exchanges imposed by the European mercantile centers of empire, the United States could find itself mired in what is tantamount to a prolonged colonial condition.
Tellingly, not a single European empire would in the early 1780s grant the U.S. free trade access to its West Indian colonies. On the contrary, each severely limited direct commerce between the islands and the upstart North American nation for reasons which are perhaps by now apparent: to punish the creole revolutionaries and thereby set an example to other would-be revolutionary creoles in their colonies across the Americas; to guard specifically against the corruption of their West Indian colonies by the liberalizing republican values, institutions, and antimercantilist commercial practices that spawned the US revolution against England; and to defend the European mercantilist system itself against incursions by a free-trading, "neutral" U.S. on its markets. In that regard, despite reassurances from Morris's Office of Finance and U.S. diplomats that what the United States ultimately desired in the final terms of peace was unfettered trade between the United States and the West Indies only, Europe's metropolitan centers of empire suspected otherwise. They believed the United States was bent on domination of all the lucrative West Indian "carrying" trades: not just those to and from the West Indies and the United States, but also routes between the West Indies and Europe and Africa.
Perhaps not so ironically, it would be left to the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton, the one-time West Indian merchant clerk who according to the dictates of European natural history discourse about the New World was a "degenerate" West Indian creole, to mastermind a bold strategy for defying the hold of Europe's empires over the destiny of not just the nation's political economy, but the hemisphere itself. How might Hamilton accomplish this overwhelming challenge that he set for himself and his adopted nation without the US ultimately compromising its foundational ideals by repeating European empires' oppressive political and military policies and reproducing colonialism's exploitative economic practices? Creole America argues that the tensions, contradictions, and instabilities informing much literature and culture produced in the New Republic alternately forms, and is in turn formed by, Hamilton's controversial and aggressively procommerce expansionist vision for addressing that formidable task. If Hamilton by law could not be the nation's first President, he would arguably first articulate the future vision for U.S. commercial hegemony in a hemisphere of burgeoning democracies, the exact location from which the 42nd President of the United States, whose namesake was Hamilton's political nemesis, speaks. Yet as for William Jefferson Clinton's ecumenical notion of the United States as "a Caribbean nation," Hamilton during the New Republic period in his very person came to embody the great uneasiness many white U.S. Americans—including fellow Federalist John Adams—across the political spectrum expressed about the unpredictable, and potentially disastrous, effects on the "Anglo-American" national character of extensive political, economic and cross-cultural relations between the slave colonies of the West Indies and the democratic states of the New Republic.
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Creole America begins the work of assessing the literary culture's multiple styles and forms for enacting and engaging such a phenomenon by reading a variety of texts produced by West Indian immigrants to the United States as well as North American-born writers "gone creole" in the West Indies. Perhaps no such figure inspires the focus and ambitions of this project more than Alexander Hamilton. When one examines writings by and about Hamilton, one of the nation's foremost founding "fathers" and an important intellectual and cultural icon, a paradoxical portrait emerges. A West Indian creole, Hamilton felt he might achieve his aspirations for glory and fame in the budding American republic by allowing himself to be regenerated in the crucible of an appropriated republican virtue and ennobled creole self. Key to such pursuits was Hamilton's bold design for the United States as an "empire for commerce," a plan he advanced as the most powerful—and controversial—member of Washington's cabinet. Ironically, Hamilton's vision reveals his and the emerging United States empire's indebtedness to their actual and imagined West Indian origins—Hamilton worked until age 18 as a West Indian merchant clerk on behalf of New York shipping conglomerates, an occupation that prepared him for his later role as the new nation's chief economic strategist. At once sacred and profane, the contradictory figures of Alexander Hamilton as abject West Indian creole and heroic American statesman make manifest the mutually transformative encounters between the West Indies and the United States in the turbulent commercial cross-currents of the Americas in the 1790s.
Uneasiness about Hamilton's fame registered by bitter rivals like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson pivots, chapter two reveals, on uneasiness U.S. Americans themselves felt about their ongoing relation to "creole" discourses generated by the various European empires in the last half of the eighteenth century for purposes of colonial and imperial control, discourses that deemed inhabitants of the "New World" as inferior and "degenerated" from European Western norms. As Corneille De Pauw notoriously put the case in Recherches philosophiques sur les Américans (1770), "Americans" are "a race of men who have all the faults of children . . . a degenerate species of the human race, cowardly, impotent, without physical strength, without vitality, [and] without elevation of the mind . . ." (qtd. in Commager and Giordanetti 79-80). In turn, creole discourses became internalized, resisted, and/or transformed by the colonists themselves in the New World. Anglo-Americans living in North America, for example, were acutely aware of the dominant perception in England about their intellectual inferiority, and of the view—which they themselves had helped create—that their contacts with Native Americans, the wilderness, and slavery had caused them to degenerate. During the Revolutionary period, Anglo-Americans began to resist the colonial hierarchy that depended upon such discourse for legitimization. On political levels they asserted their "natural rights," economically they disregarded oppressive tariffs, and culturally they embraced some of the very "creole" characteristics that had been used to define their inferiority. For instance, the term "yankee" in song and literature came to signify their resistance and independence, where in Europe it denoted their backwardness.
Yet once North American creoles gained their independence, it became obvious that in the process of "un-becoming creole," Anglo-Americans had appropriated many of the same oppressive features of creole discourse that the British had used to oppress them. In that regard, the Naturalization Law of 1790 made explicit what had been implicit all along according to the racialized language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: citizenship was equivalent to "whiteness." In 1798, alarmed by the presence of thousands of Saint-Dominguan and other "alien" refugees in the nation's capital, and ongoing skirmishes with Napoleon's forces in the West Indies, John Adams urged Congress to increase the period of residence required for admission to full citizenship from five to fourteen years. The passage of the Naturalization Act was accompanied by the implementation of the Alien Act and Alien Enemies Act, which were designed to intimidate "foreigners," including many of the same West Indian refugees, into leaving the country. These legislative acts targeting West Indians—and their slaves—reflect the ways in which newly independent U.S. "American" creoles imagined themselves to a significant extent through and against West Indians and creole discourse about the West Indies.
As the above discussion suggests, "creole" is a term with multiple and overlapping genealogies. Like creoles themselves, discourses about "the creole" migrated throughout the Atlantic world. Etymologically derived from the Latin verb "creare," to create, "creole" was first deployed in its Spanish colonial version—perhaps deriving from the Spanish "criollo"—before migrating into French and British colonial lexicons as a term of New World identity. More precisely, colonists of European descent, as well as black and mulatto slaves and freed men born and raised in the New World, were identified as "creoles" by the British, French and Spanish empires. Yet the term denoted much more than the birth of a colonial subject or slave outside the "borders" of national origin (Europe or Africa). Most significantly, the term "creole" was used to account for admixtures, or syncretisms, between Old and New World "races" and cultures. Indeed, a European not born and raised in the West Indies, but who had spent many consecutive years there, might be thought to have "become" creole-like, or degenerate, on cultural and racial levels according to the rhetorical operations of some European creole discourses.
Of course, creole cultures, races, and identities did not always signify in the same ways in their Spanish, French, and British manifestations. Spanish and French colonists, for example, although sensitive to how the term creole denoted inferiority in European discursive constructions, openly identified themselves and their cultures as creole by the late eighteenth century in their writings. Thus while sometimes the term denoted inferiority in Latin America and the West Indies, other times it was used in more neutral tones and at still other moments creole identities and cultures were embraced as a sign of political resistance against the European "center," or by blacks and mulattos against white creoles and Europeans. In the British New World colonies, the term was deployed variously as well. If colonists in the British West Indies who lived in highly exploitative plantation economy societies accepted, however ambivalently, the appellation "creole," this was never really so in the settlement colonies of North America. Even as they understood their creole status, the British colonists in North America, both before and after Independence, were highly anxious about being contaminated by the cultural and racial associations of the term creole as deployed in discourses of creole degeneracy about the New World. Many North American colonists—particularly in the Northern colonies—recoiled from the prospect that they had "degenerated" from the European "norm" like West Indians in the "torrid zone" or their fellow North American colonists in the South. They were sensitive to the ways in which the creolization of New World cultures, languages, peoples, races and so on were viewed by European societies and intellectuals. Thus central to political propaganda during the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary periods was an effort to renounce any affiliation with the pejorative classification "creole." Ultimately U.S. Anglo-Americans suppressed their associations with the term "creole" in favor of a specific creole identity designating their liberation from Europe: "American."
In this way, the process of (un)becoming US American in the late eighteenth century was oftentimes dependent on (un)becoming creole, something Alexander Hamilton came to appreciate upon emigrating from the West Indies to North America on the eve of the United States declaring itself "independent." The Declaration of Independence, like so many utopian documents of its kind, was an unclean break from the past. Instead, U.S. claims to a pure, uncorrupted white creole identity were illuminating for how they labored to repress the inter-American cosmopolitanisms of many of its leading citizen-subjects. As the United States sought to substitute a liberating creole identity for an oppressive colonial one, creole uplift, whether undertaken by Hamilton or Jefferson, required ever-increasing sleights of hand in order to repress, through actual and epistemological violence, the formation of inter-American, cross-cultural identities inside and outside the nation's borders. Creole America argues that the shadowy presence of creole American identities underlies anxious efforts to construct exceptional U.S. "American" identities and literary and cultural traditions.
In arriving at such a focus, I have been guided, in part, by Kamau (Edward) Brathwaite's foundational notion of creolization as "a creation of attitudes which in their evolution . . . alter the very nature of colonial dependence" (101). Yet unlike Brathwaite, I do not take for granted that this was a fully realized process for post-Revolutionary U.S. American creoles as contrasted with their British West Indian counterparts. That is, I pose to North American and West Indian creoles alike, frequently in the context of one another, the set of questions that Brathwaite uses to gauge the development of creole society in Jamaica at the end of the eighteenth century: "Can 'creole' . . . be identified with stability, with change, or with both? If with both, did this result in some kind of creative friction, or merely in the kind of ambivalence . . . [that is] a cultural attribute of 'colonial'?" (101). I ask as well another question: what is the relation between (un)becoming (U.S.) American and (un)becoming creole in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries?
Creole America surveys responses to that question across a range of genres, including state papers, empire tracts and pamphleteering; natural histories, autobiography and lyric poetry; and drama and prose fiction. Treatments of United States-West Indian relations by recognizable writers like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Brockden Brown and lesser known figures such as immigrant playwright J. Robinson or Leonora Sansay, author of two novels set in revolutionary Haiti, are quite diverse across the early national period. In these writings, West Indian bodies and "commodities" figure prominently in competing constructions of U.S. national culture and character. The archipelago proves alternately threatening and alluring, abject and desired, entombed and fetishized across geographic, epistemic, and generic borders. As such, the West Indies function as a surrogate, a monstrous double for urgent political, cultural and economic crises, not least among these slavery. By excavating intertextual modes of figuring the West Indies, I show how U.S. American writers have formulated competing meta-West Indian notions of themselves as well as their artistic and literary traditions. Creole America limns an intertextual, transcolonial, and ultimately transnational cartography of West Indian representations that demonstrates how the new nation as aspiring commercial empire and its writers define themselves through and against the New Republic's profoundly unstable investments in Europe's West Indian colonies.
As I proceed, I press against the limits of "negative" West Indian creole stereotypes and "positive" U.S. American ones to expose the motivations and desires of the writers who wield them. Indeed, as the case of Hamilton demonstrates, in many instances authors' identities are formed by overlapping and shifting U.S. and West Indian affiliations that themselves contradict hierarchical distinctions between a creole regenerate U.S. America and a creole degenerate West Indies that their texts seek to reinforce, challenge, and/or reconcile. Further, the West Indies in the context of this study are not treated as mere representational effect; on the contrary, crucial to my argument about the formative presence of the West Indies in the early national period is the recognition of an actual, felt West Indies—including West Indian creole peoples and cultures, and the archipelago's natural resources—that alternately inform, de-form, and re-form notions of the "West Indies" and U.S. "America" espoused by early US writers.
Thus chapters two and three examine the little-known role played by the "neutral" Dutch and Danish West Indian islands in providing for the commercial well-being of the United States before, during, and after the Revolution, and in shaping the inter-American identities and texts of Alexander Hamilton and poet-journalist Philip Freneau; the third and fourth chapters on Freneau and J. Robinson, as well as parts of the fifth chapter on the writings of Charles Brockden Brown, treat the long-standing commercial and cultural ties between the United States and Jamaica, the British empire's most lucrative sugar island, in their assessments of the West Indian influence on early U.S. poetry, drama, and fiction respectively; finally, several chapters and the Afterword evaluate the overbearing revolutionary presence of Haiti as "shadow" Black republic to the would-be exceptional—and exceptionally "white"—U.S. nation. In that regard, the Brown family trading business was severely harmed when one of its vessels was boarded and seized by the British Navy off the coast of Saint-Domingue in the 1790s, an incident stunningly reimagined in Brown's novel Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800), whereas Leonora Sansay's autobiographical works of fiction recount her experiences upon relocating from Philadelphia to Saint-Domingue with her French West Indian husband at the height of the Haitian Revolution. In both authors' texts—and across the study's chapters—hierarchical distinctions between U.S. and West Indian bodies, races and cultures blend and blur in the wake of the Haitian Revolution and amidst ongoing U.S. participation in the treacherous West Indian trades.
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In order to gauge the ways in which the early Republic's hemispheric relations with the West Indies produce meaning within and across texts, Creole America provides two interpretive lenses—paracolonialism and the creole complex—that in their formulation mark the interrelation between history, politics, economics, culture and aesthetics in the early U.S. literary imagination. The first paradigm builds on recent developments in the fields of early American studies, postcolonial theory, and Caribbean studies in arguing that the emergent Republic, beneficiary of an ongoing client relationship both pre- and post-Revolution with Europe's West Indian colonies, can best be described as operating paracolonially. The prefix "para"—meaning "alongside," "near or beside," "resembling," or "subsidiary to"—aptly describes the United States's relationship to European colonialisms in the Western Hemisphere during the early decades of its existence and even today in many respects. If not a "colonialist" nation (and clearly it would eventually become one in relationship to parts of the future Caribbean and the Pacific, though this would never become a dominant state-sponsored ideological enterprise), the United States according to its strong economic and cultural relations with Europe's West Indian colonies functioned in a way that was similarly, though not precisely, colonialist. As such, the elusive nature of the U.S.'s paracolonial relationship to sites like the West Indies has ironically tended to mystify for scholars the U.S'.s reliance and dependency on European colonialism, thus causing some to argue either that the United States is and always has been a "colonialist"—or "neocolonial" or "imperial"—nation or, instead, that the United States has never been "colonialist" but operates as a democratic republic of states and territories whose citizens and resident aliens enjoy certain fundamental rights as established by the Constitution.
In arriving at the term paracolonial, I suggest that the United States's actual relationship to European colonialism during the New Republic period is not an either/or, but a both/and: the United States is both colonialist and not colonialist, but in such a way that exceeds (another of the prefix "para"'s multiple meanings) the ability of that term to account for the United States's hemispheric and global conduct in many arenas, but especially in the area of political economy. Received terms like "postcolonial" and "neocolonial," or "imperial" and "neoimperial," are wholly inadequate to account for the exact (and vulnerable) location of the U.S. in relationship to the hemisphere's dominant political economies, specifically European colonialisms in the West Indies and elsewhere. More precisely, under the leadership of George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the United States operated to a considerable extent as a paracolonial nation. Because the U.S.'s paracolonial relationship to European colonialism predates Independence, it would be inaccurate to classify its behavior as "neocolonial," for there was nothing "new" about it. Also, twentieth-century notions of the United States as an "imperialist" nation anachronistically applied to the New Republic context do not jibe with the reality of ongoing European colonial and military hegemony in the West Indies and elsewhere. Nor would it be correct to categorize the United States's hemispheric conduct as strictly "postcolonial," for clearly the nation was continuing post-Independence in a paracolonialist economic arrangement with Europe's still-dependent West Indian colonies that preceded the Revolution, even as the United States's arrival at independent status rendered it a "postcolonial," if still vulnerable, nation in relationship to England and the rest of Europe. As a result of its paracolonial political economy, then, including a visible mercantile presence on many West Indian islands, the United States emerges as a para[-]site on the scene of European colonialism in the Caribbean, a complicit client nation-state that aims to benefit economically from the scene of European colonialism without ever having to messy itself—or its foundational principles—with overt political sponsorship of those colonies.
Creole America argues that a considerable amount of literary and cultural production in the New Republic forms itself in relation to the little-examined or -understood phenomenon of U.S. paracolonialism in the West Indies. As such, these authors and texts evince a richly varied paracolonial aesthetics. To the extent that they treat U.S. paracolonialism as inconsistent with, or counter-productive to, a given view of national or regional character and culture, or a preferred course of U.S. empire building, such authors structure their texts formally and thematically by negating U.S. paracolonialism in the West Indies—alternately obscuring, mystifying, abstracting, displacing, or altogether denying U.S. participation in the West Indian trades and the Republic's complicity in perpetuating the plantation economies there. Authors also write from the point of view of paracolonial affirmation, embracing U.S. paracolonialism as consistent with the nation's character, spirit, and founding values and principles. They understand paracolonialism in the West Indies as a necessary, if precarious, transitional mercantile economy, one to be adopted until a not-too-future moment when the United States might emerge as the dominant military and commercial power in the hemisphere. Finally, whether engaging in paracolonial negation or affirmation, almost all writers who respond to or evaluate U.S. paracolonialism in the West Indies evidence a more or less ambivalent posture towards that liminal and, as the end of the century nears, increasingly volatile political economy. They betray varying measures of anxiety about the potential contradiction between U.S. republican values and principles and paracolonial involvement in the West Indian plantation economies and trades; about the not-quite-free Republic's inability to determine its own commercial destiny in the West Indies owing to ongoing European military and colonial dominance there; and about the dangerous social and cultural intersections between a putatively regenerate U.S. American Republic and the still degenerate West Indies.
The second paradigm I employ in Creole America centers on the dual nature of what I term—drawing on theories of creolization devised by Brathwaite (Barbados) and Édouard Glissant (Martinique), as well as influential scholarship authored by historians of United States-Caribbean relations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the New Republic's creole complex. Such a creole complex operates on several mutually related levels. The first concerns the nation's postcolonial relationship with Britain. Despite the nation's independent status, U.S. commerce remained highly vulnerable to British (and French) attack. Such a paradox manifests itself in Federalist leaders' ambivalent attitudes—alternately apologetic and resentful—towards the ways in which Britain persists in dictating the terms of U.S. commercial relations with the West Indies and Europe. It also precipitates Republican charges that Federalists are conspiring to sacrifice republican principles and the national character by effectively returning the nation to a state of colonial dependency on Britain wherein West Indian and Southern planters are beholden to not one, but two "metropolitan centers": the urban North and Middle Atlantic controlled and governed by paracolonialist Federalist elites, and London on whose behalf Federalist colonial mimic men like Hamilton are said to function.
The second aspect of the creole complex centers on charged debates about the strategies of resistance paracolonial U.S. traders must employ to evade British imperial dominance in the West Indies, including dangerous trading practices that Hamilton advocated US merchantmen might rely on in order to subvert the predatory practices of the powerful British and French navies while the nation attempted to amass a respectable Navy. Yet given the vulnerable status of U.S. merchants plying the West Indian trades to British and French attack and spoliation, such parasitic practices tend to make the United States look like, rather than distinct from, the "debased" European empires and West Indian colonies that it relied on for its economic well being.
The final feature of the creole complex militates against the notion that the U.S. Revolution marked an absolute break in the creole condition and character of U.S. Americans. More precisely, ongoing mercantile participation in the West Indian plantation economies, upon which the U.S. political economy remains reliant for its economic and social prosperity, undermines the would-be model Republic's claims to hemispheric exceptionalism and contradicts the notion that the nation has, in the New World's embrace, redeemed the degenerated political, economic and cultural institutions of Europe. Such a reality mitigates, too, Federalist claims in relation to plantation-owning Southern Republican adversaries to be occupying the moral high ground in their procommerce ideological orientation towards matters involving the national character and republican values and institutions.
What I have termed the New Republic's creole complex, then, exposes the multiple contradictions inherent in a Hamiltonian empire for commerce that espouses the civilizing benefit of disseminating US "American" enlightenment values throughout the hemisphere via a rapidly expanding commercial sphere on the one hand, while exploiting for purposes of expansion and material gain the plantation economies of the "creole" West Indies and the U.S. South on the other. In such a way, Federalists themselves, many of whom, including Hamilton, were avowed abolitionists, might be said to perpetuate hemispheric slavery, despite their impulse to charge Southern Republican adversaries with the primary responsibility for doing so. As these definitions of the New Republic's creole complex imply, far from realizing Hamilton's utopic vision for the United States as an empire for commerce, the United States remained a commercial dystopia in perpetual crisis throughout the 1790s and early 1800s. In almost every instance, these crises pivot in crucial ways on the US government's persistent efforts to persuade the British or French to enter into, and abide by, financial and/or military pacts or trade agreements granting the United States more substantial, unfettered access to the West Indian trades.
Such a crisis is intensified and deepened by a revolution undertaken by Black West Indian creoles and Africans in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1789, a revolt that ultimately led to Haitian Independence in 1804. That revolution demonstrated in graphic terms the ways in which creolizing republican values like liberty and freedom were not, as had been argued, the sole purview of white creole U.S. Americans alone. In such a way, the Haitian Revolution—and other major slave rebellions on the islands of Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and elsewhere—would have powerful implications at "home." White U.S. Americans across regions cited the Haitian Revolution as evidence for why abolition must be forestalled in order to preserve the New Republic's character and culture from being "Blackened" or "West Indian-ized." Conversely, free and enslaved Blacks, like Gabriel Posser in Virginia in 1800 and Denmark Vesey in South Carolina in 1823, drew on the "West Indian" example in their own rebellions, whereas others like Absalom Jones and Richard Allen in Philadelphia urged abolition, emancipation, and full integration of Black slaves—a multi-directional creolizing of creoles, as it were—in their incursions into the white-dominated public sphere and literary marketplace. All of these responses occurred within the context of substantial commercial relations between Northern and Middle Atlantic mercantilists' and the plantation economies of the Middle Atlantic and Southern states, as well as licit and illicit networks of trade and exchange between the putatively free and independent United States and the slave colonies of the West Indies.
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Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their influential study Empire (2000) glimpse the significance of the New Republic to the present postmodern moment of U.S. global hegemony. It is useful to recall their distinction between European and U.S. modes of empire building so as to gauge more fully than the ambitious scope of their project allows how the embryonic moment of U.S. empire in the late eighteenth century predicts its present-day incarnation that is the focus of Hardt and Negri's study. In contrast to European mercantile empires, whose "territorial boundaries of the nation delimited the center of power from which rule was exerted over external foreign territories through a system of channels and barriers that alternately facilitated and obstructed flows of production and circulation" (xii), U.S. American empire relies for its prestige and power on "a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus or rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers" (xii-xiii; authors' emphasis). Such centrifugal attributes of U.S. empire find their impetus in the politico-legal principles of the U.S. Constitution and their portability across territorial boundaries, as well as the socioeconomic values that provide for sprawling free trade zones and global marketplaces. In such a way, U.S. empire forms itself in relation to, and circulates through, an ever-proliferating space or "frontier," which Hardt and Negri understand to be expansion across the continent prior to the twentieth century and thereafter throughout the globe.
Yet in reconsidering the temporal and spatial axes of their genealogy of U.S. empire formation, Hardt and Negri, as well as scholars of the early national period, would do well to consider not only how Thomas Jefferson's distinctly agrarian empire for liberty ideology provides for a shift between European and Euro-American forms of empire, but also the ways in which Hamilton's decentered, extracontinental empire for commerce ideology does so as well, albeit in different terms. If Jefferson endeavored to inscribe the Constitution's republican values in free and open spaces of land-based agricultural economies on the continent, Hamilton, well before the twentieth century, sought to inject global markets with an acquisitive, liberalizing U.S. commercial "spirit" under the guise of spreading freedom and liberty to the hemisphere's still colonized spaces—not only on land, but in the trading "spaces" of the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea. For Hamilton, the "frontier" of U.S. empire, as today, flowed south and north as well as east and west, beyond the nation's ever expanding borders on the North American continent into the West Indies and the commercial chaos of the West Indian trades.
Notwithstanding the fascinating continuities between Hamilton's empire vision and the reality of US empire today, the discontinuities between the earliest and most recent epochs of U.S. empire-building are as pronounced and important. The New Republic period marks a profoundly unstable moment in the cataclysmic shift from European to Euro-American forms of empire. As my readings of "Thoughts" and the Rendón letter demonstrate, European mercantilists were sensitive to insurgent creole American energies motivating the U.S. push for commercial empire. What such documents seek to reassure is that which they are least capable of reassuring: namely, that revolutionary U.S. political and economic structures will not compromise and ultimately displace the long-standing, direct lines of power between the mercantile centers of Europe and their creole colonial peripheries. Conversely, according to its precarious paracolonial posture and resultant creole complex, the U.S. found it necessary to exploit the extant power dynamics of European empire in the Americas, and in the process reproduced many of their oppressive tendencies. By so doing, they actively contained the most radical potentialities of the Revolution and the Constitution for freeing all creoles (and noncreoles) regardless of race from European dominance and oppression. Such contradictions lend the emergent moment of U.S. empire, and the literary culture that it produces and to which it responds, simultaneous creolizing and colonizing tendencies: the early US nation as "empire" is at once static and dynamic, ambivalent and resistant, in relation to preexisting European empires.
If as twenty-first-century global superpower the US depends upon on an unprecedented ability to manage "hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command" (Hardt and Negri xii-xiii), the contradictions and tensions adhering to the United States as paracolonial nation mired in a creole complex are reflective of its inability to regulate successfully such identities, hierarchies and exchanges. As implied by this study's title, "hybridity" is far too imprecise a construct to account for the (frequently violent) ways in which U.S. American white creoles sought to define themselves in relation to Europeans across the Atlantic, Native Americans and Blacks on the continent, and West Indian creoles—white, mixed-race, and black—within and without the nation's borders. Across Creole America's chapters, we shall see Anglo-American creoles in the United States and the West Indies strive for the retention of root European cultural traditions, and in other instances endeavor to imitate and borrow from non-European ones emanating from Africa, Native America, and elsewhere. Likewise, non-white creole identities and cultures exhibit both preservationist and assimilationist tendencies. Grammars of creole identification, not only in the United States but throughout the Americas, form and reform themselves in dominant, residual and emergent ways, just as the literature, art and culture that this study treats evinces conventional and innovative aesthetic attributes.
If white U.S. Americans display moments of "creative friction" in their resistance to European impositions on their freedoms, they simultaneously prove to be "creole ambivalents" to the extent that they erect new borders, boundaries and hierarchies of power in relation to Native Americans, Blacks, and creoles elsewhere in the Americas, particularly the West Indies. Accordingly, Creole America examines how U.S. American creoles are at once creolizing and colonizing in their relations with other creoles, exceptional and unexceptional in the formation of their institutions and literary and cultural forms. As Amy Kaplan remarks concerning the "anarchic" foundations of US culture and empire, "If the fantasy of American imperialism aspires to a borderless world where it finds its own reflection everywhere, then the fruition of this dream shatters the coherence of national identity, as the boundaries that distinguish it from the outside world promise to collapse". Amidst the paracolonial chaos of the late eighteenth century, such borderlessness and incoherence are always already collapsing in on "exceptional" U.S. dreams for a coherent national identity and a rapid rise to commercial dominance in the hemisphere. If the creative tendencies that sustain the emergent empire persistently threaten to overthrow it, early US authors and artists, from distinct vantagepoints, routinely figure the specter of such a possibility. Their creole poetics infuses Creole America's chapters and Afterword, which are written by a Caribbeanist who has quite purposefully chosen to spy out spaces of creolization in early US American literature and culture, and by so doing claim a new space for the study of creolization in American Studies.
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Part One of Creole America, "Paracolonialism and the New Republic's Creole Complex," consists of two chapters. Chapter One, "Locating the Pre-National Origins of Paracolonialism and the Creole Complex: Benjamin Franklin's Late Colonial Encounters with the West Indies," foregrounds the paracolonial origins of early U.S. American literature and culture by locating them in the late colonial and early national writings of Benjamin Franklin. The chapter begins by examining an intriguing rhetorical strategy in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography (1818): Franklin's attempt to "figure in" the West Indies as a way of "figuring" them out of his text. By reading Olaudah Equiano's slave narrative (1789) against Franklin's Autobiography, I map an intertextual, transcolonial, and ultimately transnational cartography of West Indian representations that demonstrate how Franklin and other writers of the new nation (retrospectively) assert their independence and self-reliance by dis-figuring their respective investments in the West Indian slave colonies. As the chapter proceeds, it reveals how Franklin's impulse towards West Indian negation in the Autobiography gives way to a rhetoric of paracolonial ambivalence regarding U.S. participation in the West Indian trades. In a series of important empire tracts authored during the late colonial and early national periods, Franklin urges the continental expansion of Anglo-America westward while simultaneously trying to reconcile how such expansionism depends upon a proliferating Anglo-American paracolonial presence in the West Indies. The chapter's conclusion thus examines Franklin's attempts as cultural critic under the pseudonym "Richard Saunders" and as minister plenipotentiary negotiating commercial treaties in the wake of the Revolution alongside John Adams to disentangle U.S. relations with the West Indies.
Preoccupied with examining the significance of U.S. continental expansionism—the so-called Jeffersonian empire for liberty—on literary and cultural formation, scholars of the early national period have long overlooked, or otherwise misestimated, the importance of a coterminous effort in the New Republic era under the direction of Alexander Hamilton to establish the United States as the preeminent commercial empire in the hemisphere. By revisiting the charged political debate over Hamilton's empire for commerce ideology and practice, Chapter Two, "Alexander Hamilton and the New Republic's Creole Complex," demonstrates how the creole complex defies any univocal, triumphant, or stable understanding of the national character. Against claims for U.S. exceptionalism, the creole complex highlights the ways in which the Revolution marks not so much a break from as an ongoing process of refiguring creole conditions in the former North American British colonies with far-reaching psychic and material consequences. In its treatment of a substantial number of texts including correspondence, natural histories, state papers, essays, speeches, poems, and biographies, the chapter argues that in charting a course for U.S. commercial empire, Hamilton challenged received assumptions about republican virtue and national character. His sweeping political and economic reforms sparked widespread discussion about Hamilton's and the nation's own "West Indian" origins that pivoted, predictably, on repressed fears about creole degeneracy.
Part Two, "Writing the Creole Republic," suggests the potential benefits awaiting scholars willing to situate literary and cultural production in the New Republic in relation to Hamilton's and his opponents' persistent anxieties about their creole origins. In Chapter Three, "Paracolonial Ambivalence in the Poetics of Philip Freneau," I treat Philip Freneau's "West Indies" poems, works that respond to his experiences while living on the island of St. Croix—the same stage, ironically, where Freneau's chief political adversary, Alexander Hamilton, spent his early life—and then as he sailed the West Indian trades in the last decades of the eighteenth century. These poems, including several conceived while Freneau was stranded for two months on the island of Jamaica as a result of a commercial voyage gone awry, reveal the unique paracolonial tensions and properties attaining to not only Freneau's poetry, but to art and literature across the New Republic period. As such, Freneau is an especially apt figure for foregrounding the central aesthetic and thematic concerns of the literature and culture of U.S. paracolonialism. If in transparent ways Freneau's "West Indies" poems indict the tyranny of European colonialism in the West Indies at the end of the eighteenth century, less understood by readers are the complex ways in which they register, albeit ambivalently, the licit and illicit energies and profits stemming from the New Republic's own exploitative relationship to the scene of European colonialism and imperialism in the West Indies and the Caribbean Sea. The chapter shows how Freneau's paracolonial unconscious, as it were, thwarts the poet-journalist's efforts to arrive at a unifying, triumphal account of the national character according to an agricultural ethos and continental expansionism in his "Empire" poems. Across these would-be encomiastic lyrics, the ostensibly "regenerate" and "rising" U.S. empire increasingly comes to resemble the "degenerate" scene of European colonialism that it is defined against in Freneau's "West Indies" poems.
Unlike Republican Party advocate Freneau, many poets, writers and artists were staunch supporters of Hamilton and his Federalist vision of the US as a hemispheric power, an inter-American "empire for commerce." When Republicans like James Madison called for embargoes on trade with the British in retaliation for the Royal Navy's seizure of U.S. merchant vessels plying the West Indian trades, Federalist statesman Fisher Ames urged caution, mocking the self-centeredness of Virginia tobacco planters and what he perceived to be Madison's rashness and duplicity:
But the people have been led to expect an exclusion of the British rivalry, that we may force or frighten them into an allowance of a free trade to the West Indies, etc.; and the people of Virginia (whose murmurs, if louder than a whisper, make Mr. Madison's heart quake) are said to be very strenuous for a law to restrict British trade. They owe them money, [and] perhaps would be glad to quarrel with their creditors . . . But is it not a risky measure, exposing a feeble trade, as the American is, to the shock of experiment? Will the people forbear murmuring, if the West India trade should be cut off?" (Works 1:680-81)Chapter Four, "The West Indies, Commerce, and a Play for US Empire: Recovering J. Robinson's The Yorker's Stratagem (1792)," shows how immigrant playwright J. Robinson in The Yorker's Stratagem; or, Banana's Wedding intervenes in this escalating debate between Federalists and Republicans about the proper course for US commerce in the West Indies by endorsing Hamilton's empire for commerce ideology, which by the 1790s involved a pragmatic forbearance of British spoliation of US commerce in the Caribbean. As Ames makes the case, "Had we not better wait till [our] government had gained strength? And then, if we can extend our own trade, by retaliating upon foreign nations their own restrictions, I would do it; but I am afraid of taking an intemperate zeal for reformation of commerce for my guide" (Works 1:681). Robinson's zeal is not for the reformation of commerce by embargo, but for the unbridled expansion of commerce according to deft "stratagems" perpetrated by the "Sons of Columbia" masquerading as Yankee bumpkins in the Caribbean. Such stratagems include the manipulation of devices like creole dialect and imposture, and blackface and miscegenation, that project onto the West Indies evolving U.S. crises centered on race, slavery, and unscrupulous commercial conduct. Robinson's play is especially notable, the chapter demonstrates, for the ways in which it evinces the substantial though little remarked upon effect of West Indian performance culture on an emerging U.S. dramatic tradition.
In contrast to Robinson, novelist Charles Brockden Brown in Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800) focuses on the ways in which increasingly democratic, creolized, and fractious West Indian societies and cultures from Saint-Domingue/Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Jamaica function as perhaps the most significant threats to U.S. ambitions for commercial empire and "pure" notions of national character and culture. Chapter Five, "Charles Brockden Brown's West Indies Specie(s)," shows how Brown's narrative creole complex ingeniously exposes the multiple contradictions inherent in a Hamiltonian empire for commerce that espouses the civilizing benefit of disseminating U.S. "American" enlightenment values throughout the hemisphere via a rapidly expanding commercial sphere on the one hand, while exploiting for purposes of expansionism and material gain the slave colonies of the creole West Indies on the other. Within and without the borders of Brown's novel, West Indian and Anglo-American cultures and commodities clash and cohere in ways that resist hegemonic attempts to domesticate West Indian figures within discursive constructions of a resolutely white empire. By limning the contours of US-West Indian relations, Brown's work dares us to come face-to-face with disturbing affiliations between U.S. and West Indian creole characters and cultures at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Across Creole America's several chapters, the West Indies emerge as an extra-continental site binding mutually constitutive regional and national issues of the early United States. Raced, gendered, and sexualized West Indian characters and bodies exist in anterior and posterior relation to Northern, Middle Atlantic, and Southern ones. As such, the West Indies are a screen upon which important regional and national conflicts are reified, refracted, and/or worked through. Also, in addition to treating more established authors and texts, critical to Creole America's project of constructing an innovative inter-American literary and cultural cartography is the recognition of previously untreated or lesser examined figures and writings, such as Robinson and his play, originating in the United States and the West Indies. Such recognition reflects ongoing efforts by critics to expand our notion of what ultimately constitutes "American" literature and culture. Finally, in accord with recently published scholarship that endeavors to locate nineteenth-century U.S. literary production in an "inter-American" or "trans-American" context, Creole America redirects our attention to the ways in which early U.S. literature and culture from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries forms itself not only according to an East-West transatlantic axis, but also a North-South hemispheric one.
Ultimately Creole America has three main preoccupations: to demonstrate the shaping influence of the "West Indies" in early U.S. America; to reveal how inter-American "creole" energies inflect the New Republic's literary, cultural and artistic traditions; and to devise paradigms for understanding the intricate ways in which discrete circum-Atlantic forces related to U.S. involvement in the West Indian trades confound estimations of regional and national character in the Republic's first decades of existence. Significantly, such paradigms—paracolonialism and the creole complex—rather than being imposed by me from without emerged in remarkably organic ways from the authors and texts themselves. In excavating interdisciplinary, intertextual modes of figuring the West Indies and the creole origins of U.S. American literature, Creole America aims to unsettle scholarly perceptions about how early U.S. writers and artists conceived of themselves and others, their society and culture, and the structures and forms in which they write. It accomplishes this ambition by confronting the reader with the precise antagonisms that generated the creole complex and proved so disconcerting, albeit in remarkably productive ways, to the New Republic's writers, artists, and political and economic leaders.