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Matthew Frye Jacobson, in the Barbarian Virtues, examines how immigration and expansionist ambitions defined the American identity in the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Jacobson offers a compelling argument about America’s interest and commitment to expansion and territorial domination, which claimed regions like Samoa, the Philippines and Guam.
He argues that this approach, which involved using “entire peoples as pawns” underscored America’s “heightened degree of imperialist vision in the twentieth century” (7). The book identifies industrial revolution and expansion of foreign policies as the two developments that led to increased the interaction with non-Americans, which defined the attitudes and perceptions about “Americanism”.
How the Author did It
In his own words, Jacobson argues that the country’s “trumpeted greatness” during the Reconstruction and World War I periods was influenced by “the dollars, the labor, and, not least, the very image, of the many people with whom Americans increasingly came into contact” (8). The theme of American superiority is explored throughout the book with the author concluding that, during this time, the U.S. “chose imperial power” and non-populist policies as “many Americans liked them” (34).
Jacobson describes the dramatic post-Civil War events that transformed the social and political landscape and brought a new meaning to “Americanism” in the twentieth century. He articulates his thesis through three approaches. First, Jacobson traces the changing faces of ‘Americanism’ from the 1876’s Centennial International Exhibition to World War I, when America proclaimed its military might to the world.
An expansionist foreign policy and influx of immigrants were the two main developments that led to America’s tendency towards world domination in the 20th Century. But, according to Jacobson, the renewed sense of superiority that dominated the expansionist movement was meant to conceal a “plaguing and the quieter sense of self-doubt” (3).
The book uses political documents, treatises, travelogues and drawings as evidence for the strained racial relations during this period. The immigrant labor and overseas markets played a role in America’s industrialization and international trade.
Second, Jacobson describes the political rhetoric behind the foreign expansion and the influx of immigrants that dominated public discourses and helped shape the American identity. Jacobson describes immigration and expansion as “two sides of the same coin” (12), implying that the expansion led to a rapid influx of foreigners into America.
The entry of “problematic aliens” raised the question of their ability to govern themselves, which motivated the economic expansion efforts. The expansion policy was meant to protect America’s target markets in China. To cross the Pacific Ocean to China, America had to acquire Guam, the Philippines and Hawaiian Islands as temporary docking sites for its naval ships.
The colonization was justified on grounds that America was spreading civilization, a noble enterprise that characterized the “Great White Burdens” (104). The foreigners were perceived as “primitives” who should be civilized and therefore, the American intervention was necessary.
Third, Jacobson shows how the European migrants characterized the earlier immigrants as the “nativists” (9). Thus, cultural representations of foreigners and earlier immigrants combined with the changing attitudes towards the influx of immigrants defined “Americanism” at the start of the twentieth century.
What the author was trying to do
The nineteenth century and early twentieth century saw a rapid influx of immigrants to America. As the U.S. was expanding to far areas, people from other nations were migrating to America in large numbers. Jacobson attributes the warm receptions that the migrants received to the high demand of labor (barbarian virtues) to drive the rapidly growing economy. This led to the emergence of labor unions, which, however, were meant to protect the whites while excluding Asian immigrants.
The labor policies favored racial exclusion and inferiority, which, according to Jacobson, served to exclude the non-white immigrants from mainstream local political and economic development, and justified America’s invasion to overseas lands inhabited by the “primitives” (7). Jacobson excels in associating the domestic racial exclusion campaigns with the justification for the colonization of foreign lands.
The United States’ place in global economics and geopolitics in the 19th century is well described in this book. Jacobson points out how this position was misunderstood and this shaped the current racial relations. The illustrations and pictures in the book reinforce Jacobson’s argument and convey the actual patterns of “Americanism”. It shows the “barbarian virtues” that the migrants had for America and the problems occasioned by the military expansion to foreign lands.
The broad range of evidence provided help to support the central argument of the book. Jacobson excels in describing how the American identity was developed through a domestic “crucible of immigration” and “empire-building” and domination of overseas lands.
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America’s imperial power was achieved through racial differentiation and fueled by “the dollar, the labor, and, not least, the very image, of the many people with whom Americans came into contact”, who, however, “they blithely identified as inferiors” (85). Thus, America’s expansionist ambitions in the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century were mired in racial differentiation at home and imperial civilization in overseas lands.
Jacobson, M. F. (2000). Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. New York: Hill and Wang.