This article is adapted from AQ‘s print issue on youth in Latin America
Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions sheds light on the ardent kinship that U.S. politicians, journalists and everyday folks felt toward Latin America’s independence movements in the 19th century.
Even before the British crown’s colonial subjects wrote the Declaration of Independence, Americans were embracing universalist notions of self-government. For Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe” and Americans needed to “prepare in time an asylum for mankind.” Once the colonists had consolidated their own revolutionary republic in the years after 1776, Fitz writes, the universalism of revolution turned its sights to Latin America. Fitz acknowledges that this spirit could be at times pro forma or self-serving, but that it was more regularly heartfelt — a “genuine affinity for their southern neighbors” fighting wars of independence off and on for a decade and a half after 1810.
This affinity was all the more surprising for the geographical and demographic distance between and among the Americas at the time. Fitz, a historian at Northwestern University, reminds readers that the United States was then “irrefutably and increasingly a white man’s republic.” And it was this white republic that — despite the real and perceived remove of places like Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru — saw in the Latin American revolts their “egalitarian and universalist narrative of 1776.” The United States felt that they, well, mattered. And Yankees, being Yankees, took credit for the Latins’ (apparent) political successes vis-à-vis their Iberian controllers. The upswing of republicanism in the region appeared to corroborate the attraction and success of the U.S.’s universal founding principles.
Fitz reckons that Latin America offered a convenient “unifying language” of American singularity. That’s why myriad celebrations of Latin American independence “emerged with such frequency on (the U.S.’s) most self-consciously patriotic of holidays.” The Fourth of July became cause to celebrate American independence writ large — this in an era, after the War of 1812, when the holiday was a “sacrosanct celebration.” Fitz’s conclusion is that the throngs of citizens yelping hoorays for Latin American independence or naming their babies for the “Great Liberator” of Latin America, Simón Bolívar (by the early 1830s, upwards of 200 tykes had been so named), transcended U.S. regional factions and even, at times, gender and race.
Fitz portrays the “popular hemisphere ardor” that motivated thousands of U.S. patriots to carry the mantel of Latin American revolution and independence. U.S. merchants readily sold arms and bullets to rebel factions. The author is therefore on solid footing when she concludes that American diplomacy happened not just in official clubby offices in Washington, but also “barnacled and brackish harbors and the manure-covered heartland.” Merchants might have sent southward to rebel hands upwards of 150,000 guns, a million flints, and hundreds of tons of gunpowder and ammunition. In 1820, one committed American living in Venezuela pushed his fellow citizens to sell weapons — both for liberty and profit — in a letter published initially in Charleston’s City Gazette. The ex-pat’s letter called on “the American animated with the spirit of independence and generosity to put into the hands of his compatriots of the southern continent of his sister America, the weapons of retributive justice.”
Fitz’s history is accessible yet serious, and her painstaking research is infused with vivid storytelling. Ironically, it might be Fitz’s expertise as a scholar of early American history that allows her to give a refreshingly disinterested, factual account of a decidedly inter-American episode — one that in less objective hands might have missed nuances in the relationships contained on her pages. For those seeking an antidote to the too-often ideological rhetoric of past and current inter-American debate, Our Sister Republics is a great place to start.
Our Siter Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions
By Caitlin Fitz
Liveright, Hardcover, 368 pages
Crandall is a professor of American foreign policy and international politics at Davidson College in North Carolina, and the author of America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror (Cambridge, 2014) and The Salvador Option (Cambridge, 2016). He is writing a history of the war on drugs and is a member of AQ’s editorial board.