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"Since the revolution which assured the sovereignty of the United States," noted one European journal in 1786, "European observers have painted of conditions there pictures which are sometimes enthusiastic and sometimes lamentable." That much is undeniable. As Americans expanded their borders through conquest and commerce, they touched off a global debate over the virtue and practicality of their defining attribute: freedom from monarchy. Some considered the United States the last best hope for humankind and thus drew "enthusiastic" pictures of America. For others, life in the American Republic was "lamentable," confirming the need for and wisdom of monarchical government. These conflicting views—products of the tumultuous Age of Revolution—helped to shape American foreign policy and national identity through much of the nineteenth century.

expansion of the united states

During the 1770s, American Revolutionaries portrayed Britain as "corrupt" and "luxurious," a decadent

relic of a glorious past. They urged their countrymen and women to forgo British consumer goods and to reject the comfortable bonds of empire in favor of republican "virtue." Although Americans rushed to buy British manufactures as soon as the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the image of Britain as the declining parent and America as the vigorous youth endured. "Unshackle your minds and act like independent beings," Noah Webster challenged his countrymen in 1790. "You have been children long enough." Bitter memories of wartime atrocities fed a popular hatred for British power, and stories of marauding British troops filled young Americans with a powerful sense of distance—both geographical and cultural—from the Old World in general.

The continuing influence of British culture in American life complicated this widespread Anglo-phobia—or, perhaps, intensified it. British books, magazines, and sermons left their mark at every level of American society and culture. Wealthy merchants in seaports read gentlemen's magazines published in London; well-educated women read novels by English authors like Jane Austen. British culture permeated American life in more popular and pedestrian ways, too. Newspapers sometimes favored European over local or national events. Children read allegories and morals written by British authors and intended for British youth. And British Evangelicals and moral reformers helped to lead or inspire antislavery and missionary efforts in the United States. In 1800 as in 1750, one measured cosmopolitanism in the English-speaking world by counting the miles from London, not from New York, Boston, or Philadelphia.

But if America remained something of a cultural colony, it quickly emerged as an economic power in its own right. From 1793, when the wars of the French Revolution began, to 1801, when they momentarily halted, the value of American exports surged fivefold. American farmers produced grain surpluses for sale across the Atlantic, where war had disrupted harvests. American merchants kept tobacco, sugar, barrel staves, and hemp circulating throughout the Atlantic basin. In the South, meanwhile, a new staple crop emerged that would make planters immensely powerful in Europe as well as America: cotton. Harvested by enslaved Africans, raw cotton was processed by the newly invented cotton gin and then funneled through American ports to British textile cities. American ships sailed south and west as well, weaving a thin but thickening web of global business. Whalers from New England regularly pursued their quarry into Pacific waters after 1800, making contact with Polynesian peoples and establishing trading posts from the Galápagos Islands to Hawaii. Pious missionaries followed the hard-drinking whalers, leaving native peoples with a most confusing picture of the American character.

The most spectacular advances out of the original thirteen states, however, were made in wagons rather than ships. At the time of the Revolution, only about twelve thousand of the roughly three million Americans lived west of the Appalachians. But the westward trickle became a flood after the 1780s, as young families who were pressed by a shortage of land along the seaboard sought their own piece of earth, their own "independence," within the new territories. Americans also headed west in the wake of military victories over Indian peoples; in 1795, one year after federal troops defeated the Miami Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, settlers surged into the Ohio region. And the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 encouraged tens of thousands of Americans to head west. Others came against their will—in slave coffles. From 1810 to 1820 alone, some 137,000 slaves were marched from the old tobacco lands in North Carolina and the Chesapeake to Alabama and Mississippi. The "Empire of Liberty" that President Thomas Jefferson envisioned was also a dominion of slavery, a place for white masters to wring labor and profits out of black bodies.

But no matter if they arrived as slaves or free citizens, in Ohio or Alabama, western settlers transformed the Republic and its place in the world. A massive internal economy developed, reorienting American commerce from trade with Europe to trade with other states. By 1830, a middle-class family in Connecticut might eat pork taken from an upstate New York farm, or even from an Ohio family whose surplus goods sailed east over the new Erie Canal, which was finished in 1825. Along with the conversion of millions of acres of grassland and forest into farms and townships came rapid population growth: by 1810, the United States had more than seven million inhabitants, nearly as many as Britain. "Old America," noted one migrant in 1817, "seems to be breaking up and moving westward."

european views of america

Generally speaking, European judgments of America had been few and unkind before the Revolution. Although Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and a handful of other philosophes celebrated America as a place of natural simplicity, the prevailing view was of America as a place of moral and natural degeneration. In the 1760s the French scientist Comte de Buffon and the Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm synthesized these notions into a scientific theory. Because North America had emerged from the sea more recently than Europe, they reasoned, the indigenous flora and fauna of America had not developed as long or as well as Old World species. European settlers in the colonies had regressed within this primitive environment, which explained why they lagged behind Europeans in wealth, learning, and artistic accomplishment. The lowly status of European immigrants to the colonies reinforced these unflattering portraits of American life. During the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century, three out of four immigrants to British North America were unfree: slaves, bound laborers, or convicts. North America seemed like little more than a dumping ground for the unwanted or exploited.

America's image abroad improved dramatically in the period of the Revolution. The political philosophy of republicanism, which pictured a society based on popular rule and citizens' autonomy, had resonated with western intellectuals and radicals since the Renaissance. During the eighteenth century, it merged with Enlightenment values of human reason and progress to become a powerful logic for social and political change. Rather than a dependent child—a subject of God or king—republicans insisted that the human being was, or should be, an independent adult. When American radicals defied their parent country, therefore, European liberals cheered. Some joined the fray. Thomas Paine, an English-born radical, helped start the Revolutionary War with his pamphlet Common Sense (1776); the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman, and Thaddeus Kosciusko, a Polish general, helped to win it for the Americans. Also, over eight thousand Frenchmen served in the war, and they carried the dangerous vision of an independent citizenry back to Louis XVI's France.

As revolution swept over France in 1789, America briefly seemed like the vanguard of a brave new world—a remarkable turnaround in national repute since the late colonial period. The Legislative Assembly of the new French republic conveyed honorary citizenship on George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—"foreign philosophers who have with courage upheld the cause of liberty and have deserved well of humanity." Its leadership aside, the American Republic appeared to offer a new kind of liberty and autonomy to ordinary people. The continent itself, once thought to have degenerative effects, now seemed like the foundation of Americans' liberty and virtue. On his own piece of ground, an American farmer was beholden to no manor lord or religious dogma and could think and reason and create. The everyday reality for America's struggling farmers, tenants, and tradesmen was far less rosy, of course. But from the European perspective, American soil became liberty's garden, the cradle of enlightenment and progress. In his 1782 work, Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur celebrated the new world: "This continent will become one day the theater on which the liberated forces of the human mind will acquire all the energy of which they are susceptible—the theater on which human nature, so long confined … will achieve perhaps, its final and greatest honors." For this Frenchman, the American Republic was destined to lead the world out of the darkness that priests and kings had so long cast over the globe.

Yet, European conservatives decried the very qualities that Crèvecoeur celebrated. To them, American "democracy" (the word became more and more common in the 1780s) was little better than mob rule or demagoguery. Caring only for personal gain, an American politician flattered common people but cared nothing for them; far better, aristocrats declared, to preserve a deferential society in which "disinterested" gentlefolk (like them) looked after a grateful public. Moreover, the character of the American populace itself unsettled and often revolted Europeans. Visiting gentlemen found common people in America to be impertinent and crude. Americans ate too quickly, drank too much, and spit too often. They refused to show deference to their social betters, yet they themselves drove their servants and slaves mercilessly. They seemed too immersed in wealth-getting to live like civilized people. One émigré from France lamented that the pursuit of profit weakened every social bond and genteel sentiment in America: "Grab everything, hang on to everything, everything for yourself and nothing for the other fellow, that is the great principle of this nation."

These voices grew louder and more convincing as the French Revolution devolved into anarchy, and then terror, and then tyranny. In 1790 the English philosopher Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France, which not only defended the English system of constitutional monarchy but also attacked the basic premises of revolutionary republicanism. The accumulated wisdom of the past, Burke argued, offered a better guide to politics than any slogans about liberty, equality, and the rights of man. Republican ideas upset the "principles of natural subordination" on which society rested. Such conservative principles found a ready audience among Britain's commercial and landed gentry as well as its Anglican elite. Across Europe, the ruling classes began to rally against the threat of worldwide rebellion against monarchy.

The massacre of French priests and nobles in September 1792 and the execution of Louis XVI four months later convinced the European powers to close ranks against radical republicanism. After Thomas Paine published The Rights of Man (1791–1792), for example, the British government tried him in absentia for seditious libel. (Paine initially escaped to France, where he had been elected to sit in the new National Convention.) In 1795 Parliament passed the infamous Two Acts: one outlawed large public gatherings, while the other made prosecution for treason easier to prove. No longer able to control their restive populations through outright censorship or personal patronage, monarchies increasingly turned to professional bureaucracies and police powers to keep order. War with revolutionary France catalyzed this effort. In 1793 Britain joined Prussia, Austria, Sardinia, Holland, and Spain to make war on the French republic. Thus began the series of European conflicts that benefited American commerce but also recast the United States as a global oddity—a republic in a world of monarchies.

foreign policy and national identity

In his Farewell Address in 1796, President George Washington warned Americans to steer clear of European entanglements. The United States, he counseled, should cultivate commercial and economic ties to Europe but avoid political alliances or military conflicts. Shortly after Washington's successor, John Adams, took office, however, the new leaders of the French republic allowed their navy to prey on American shipping. When Adams sent three emissaries to Paris, French officials demanded bribes before any negotiations began. This XYZ affair—Adams called his three agents X, Y, and Z to protect their identities—sparked war fever among many Americans in 1798. Adams's own Federalist Party called for war to uphold the honor and defend the commerce of the Republic; meanwhile, American naval vessels fought an undeclared Quasi-War (1798–1800) with French privateers in Caribbean waters. Wisely, Adams broke with his party and dispatched more peace emissaries to France, heading off war. Two years later, Adams and the Federalists were defeated by Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans, who sought to preserve peace with Europe while American commerce and internal trade burgeoned.

When Napoleon Bonaparte, who had seized power in France after a coup in 1799, set out to conquer the European world, the United States tried to stay neutral. In a bold attempt to counter British hostility on the high seas, President Jefferson pushed through Congress the Embargo Act of 1807. By prohibiting American vessels from sailing to ports abroad and foreign ships from taking cargo in the United States, this measure was designed to force the British into changing their policies without resort to war. It also echoed some of the Revolutionary idealism of the 1770s, when American Revolutionaries had agreed to cease importation of certain British goods. The republican dream endured: complete independence, not only from the British Crown, but also from European warfare and corruption. But the embargo brought more hardship to the United States than to Britain, and it collapsed in 1809. Three years later Jefferson's successor, James Madison, led the nation to war against Britain.

In many respects, the War of 1812 (1812–1815) was catastrophic for the United States. American campaigns against British Canada failed; redcoats burned much of Washington, D.C., in 1814; New England Federalists considered secession and spoke bitterly of "Mr. Madison's War." Only Andrew Jackson's triumph at New Orleans in January 1815 allowed the Americans to claim a measure of victory. This battle had no bearing on the diplomatic settlement of the war—a treaty ending the conflict had been signed two weeks before—but it vaulted Jackson into heroic status. In 1818 he capitalized on his fame by invading Spanish Florida and rampaging through native lands in the Southeast. With his hostility towards both European powers and Indian tribes, Jackson personified a new, more aggressive, and more isolationist form of American nationalism.

The final defeat of Napoleon in Europe followed soon after the end of this second Anglo-American war, and with peace came a new world order and a new role for the United States. The victorious monarchies of Europe could not push the genie of republicanism back into the ancien régime bottle. But they tried. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the European powers redrew national borders to their pre-Napoleonic status and placed Louis XVIII on the restored throne of France. These allies also considered ways to strengthen the Spanish Crown and its hold over Central and South America. (Napoleon's conquest of Spain had sparked independence movements in much of Latin America starting in 1808.) The British government wanted no part of this effort, but in Britain, as well, revolutionary ideas fell on hard times. Republicans and working-class activists in London and the new industrial cities won piecemeal reforms, nothing more. In this conservative age, the United States became a political anomaly, a relic from the bygone and defeated Age of Revolution. In any case, it was a second-rate power with a small army and navy. Although tied to the United States through trade, especially in cotton, the European powers after 1815 did not place the Republic high on their priority lists.

In 1823 President James Monroe formalized this general tendency in world affairs by issuing the famous doctrine that bears his name. In response to fears of European intervention in Latin America, Monroe proclaimed the Western Hemisphere off limits for European colonization. (European governments denounced or disdained the Monroe Doctrine; former President Jefferson applauded it.) By and large, Americans seemed to agree with the president: the United States did not need to meddle with Europe, and so Europe should not meddle with the United States. Increasingly, Americans told themselves that they lived in "a world within ourselves," a vast Republic that looked west rather than east. Isolation from European affairs and European culture became a key source of American nationalism, a way for the citizens of a pluralistic society to relate to one another.

Yet the soaring image of America as a land of liberty and enlightenment did not die in Europe. It simply became more sober, more practical, more in keeping with the emerging culture of the Republic itself. The Revolutionary period had halted European immigration to North America, and after the 1780s the immigrant pool took on an entirely new character. Unfree and unwanted people from Europe no longer boarded ships for America; they went instead to European cities or to the new penal colony of Australia. In 1808, moreover, the U.S. Congress halted the direct importation of African slaves to American shores. In their place came artisans and farm laborers from England, Scotland, Ireland, and German states, all looking for land and freedom, which meshed together in people's minds. This early version of the American Dream was not so much a dream for fabulous wealth as it was for modest improvements in one's life situation and family resources. And, in many respects, the United States did offer a better chance at economic survival than did the more tightly stratified societies of Europe. Even as it became an imperial power abroad and an industrial, class-based society at home during the nineteenth century, America upheld this image and attracted millions of people to its shores.

See alsoChina Trade; Embargo; European Responses to America; European Influences; Foreign Investment and Trade; French; Missionary and Bible Tract Societies; Monroe Doctrine; Presidency, The: Overview; Quasi-War with France; Spain; War of 1812; XYZ Affair .


Cremin, Lawrence A. American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.

Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Age of Napoleon: A History of European Civilization from 1789 to 1815. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Echeverria, Duran. Mirage in the West: A History of the French Image of American Society to 1815. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Fugleman, Aaron S. "From Slaves, Convicts, and Servants to Free Passengers: The Transformation of Immigration in the Era of the American Revolution." Journal of American History, 85 (1998): 43–76.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1991.

J. M. Opal

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America and the World

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