Review of This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg University of North Carolina Press

This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg.  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.  ISBN:  9780807872710

It should have become abundantly clear in the years since 9/11 that the imperialist violence highly characteristic of the Bush era – from preemptive war to torture – was not a shameful exception to American forms of power and history-making, but the rule.  And yet, whether one takes a critical and historical look at Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (2008), or, on the other side of the Atlantic, Philippe Sands’ Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values (2008), a number of otherwise thoughtful liberal commentators have embraced an anti-historical narrative in which the military adventurism and torture of terror suspects after 9/11 marks a fundamental departure from America’s civilizational mission.  Up until Bush’s punishing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are told, America fought its wars according to the Geneva conventions and the international rule of law.  For these liberal critics, the interrogation techniques used in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay are sadistic acts of betrayal.  Evidently, the fact that such “enhanced interrogation” methods were developed by American behavioral social science during the Cold War, and used by the CIA in the “Phoenix Program” in South Vietnam and in a series of brutal counterinsurgency wars in Central America during the Reagan era, makes no difference.  In her astute article on the torture debate in post-9/11 America, journalist Naomi Klein wittily summarized this way of thinking with the phrase: “never before!” (See Naomi Klein, “‘Never Before!’ The Amnesiac Torture Debate,” The Nation, December 9, 2005).

To be sure, precisely: in these, the twilight years of American empire, it would seem that the myth of America’s “original sinlessness” – in Gary Wills’ memorable phrase – is alive and well in the liberal imagination.  However, as feminist historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg argues in her lucid and provocative new book, This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity, the “shock and awe” display of imperialist power we have witnessed since 9/11, and indeed are witnessing today in the form of President Obama’s extrajudicial use of kill lists and predator drone assassinations, is nothing new.  According to Smith-Rosenberg, the cultural politics of fear and paranoia long predates the Bush administration’s sinister embrace of “the dark side.”  In fact, she contends in a series of powerful readings, violence is at the very heart of the American sense of self from the earliest days of the republic.  As she bluntly puts it in the book’s opening pages: “The fear of alien attacks, the need to violently exclude Others seen as dangerous or polluting has formed a critical component of the United States’ national identity from the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s through Joseph McCarthy’s war on domestic Communists to the present.  To fear and dehumanize alien Others, to ruthlessly hunt them down, is truly American” (p. x).

Each of these fears is located in a history.   Smith-Rosenberg meticulously traces the “origin of these fears and the violent responses they provoke to the very beginnings of U.S. history – to the founding moments of the new nation and the debates over the ratification of the Constitution” (p. x).  In this view of things, “the roots of American paranoia, racism, and violence lie in the instability of Americans’ national sense of self,” shaped as it was by a far from united and “uncertain amalgam of diverse peoples, religions, cultures, and languages” (p. x).  Indeed, given the rather dubious set of post-revolutionary social and cultural conditions for a uniquely American “imagined community” to form, she concludes, “only a murderous usurpation” (p. x) of the continent could keep the early republic together.  Her wide-ranging historical project is thus to extend visibility to the link between this radically unstable sense of self and violence against a host of Others, “between the pleasures of being included within a nation and the drive to violently exclude others” (p. 1).  For this reason alone, This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity is well worth reading.  It may be understood not only as a necessary corrective to the amnesiac liberal critique of Bush era paranoia about “Islamic terrorism,” but also as a powerful reminder of anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani’s perceptive point in 2004 that “America is a multicultural and multireligious political community that has yet to come to grips with its settler origins” (Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, 2004, p. 244).

Smith-Rosenberg’s cultural history of the complex social processes by which a specifically American national identity first emerged focuses on the new print culture developed by the merchant classes and commercial republican elite in New England, New York, and Philadelphia after the American Revolution.  She argues that this print culture – from novels and poems about frontier life and Indian captivity narratives to a wide variety of republican political magazines such as Noah Webster’s American Magazine and Mathew Carey’s American Museum – played a crucial role in the cultural formation of a stable national identity, one that could absorb a wide variety of contradictory discourses and political interests, from commercial republicanism and liberalism to puritanism.  Literary representations of the new sense of national collectivity filled the pages of the political magazines and literature that flourished in the early republic, for “the new nation’s founding generation not only had to create a mythic heritage of bravery and love of liberty for those residing in the new republic to embrace.”  More urgently, they “had to imagine themselves arrayed against an expanding series of threatening Others whose differences from the settlers overshadowed the divisions that distinguished the settlers from one another” (p. x).

Toward this end, post-revolutionary print culture engaged in a dual process of bourgeois republican soul-searching and imperialist culture-talk about those to be violently excluded from the new republic’s body politic – from the insurgent farmers in western Massachusetts who took part in “Shays’ Rebellion” to indigenous Americans, African slaves, the rural poor, and, last but not least, women.  In the turbulent decades after the Revolution, cultural representations of what America’s national identity was – and was not – thus set in motion a series of class, racial, and gender differentiations.  However, this discursive process of cultural self-definition – in which what it means to be an American is defined against the limits of Others – was doomed from the very start by any number of contradictions, fears, and anxious desires that characterize early republican America: “Dread and desire, the need to exclude and the inability to exclude, lie at the heart of our national identity” (p. xi).  As a result, 18th century European Americans “embodied a complex form of postcoloniality.  Existing between, and thus outside of, the Enlightenment’s stabilizing categories of metropole and native, European and savage, they could claim but an uncertain sense of self” (p. 6).  Nevertheless, it was upon the pages of the bourgeois print culture that the founders’ vision of the ideal American materialized, not least “his gendered, racial, and class characteristics” (p. 38).  At the center of this vision “was a commitment to rapid western expansion, racial separation and removal, and, when it seemed necessary, the extirpation of Native American peoples” (p. 239).

Informed by a generation of cutting-edge research in performance studies and the history of sexuality and gender, Smith-Rosenberg’s study is divided into three sections, each exploring a different aspect of the new American the bourgeois print culture imagined and labored to produce.  The first section focuses on the figure of the new American as republican citizen, and how this idealized figure was simultaneously constituted and destabilized by two Others – first rebellious farmers from western Massachusetts, and then women.  The second section engages in close readings of literary representations of Native/European American relations and encounters, from the imperialist nostalgia of accounts of the vanishing “noble savage” to undeniably racist Indian captivity narratives such as Mary Rowlandson’s best-selling Soveraignty and Goodness of God, first published in 1682, and revived in numerous editions until well into the 19th century.  Finally, the particularly lively third section traces the figure of the new American as bourgeois gentlemen, in which the choreography and performance of masculine gentility is fatally undermined by the disruptive presence of slaves, free blacks, and – once again – irrational and seductive women perceived to be incapable of civic virtue and political judgment.

Throughout her book, Smith-Rosenberg underscores what she calls “the performative nature of national identities” (p. 42), in which post-revolutionary bourgeois print culture effectively produced that which it claimed merely to represent – the mythical figure of the new American as republican citizen and cosmopolitan gentlemen.  By rhetorically analyzing the contradictions and “discursive dissonance” (p. 83) of this print culture, its mythical claims as well as its strategic silences, she is able to demonstrate that cultural representations of the new American self were not as unifying and stabilizing as many U.S. historians like Rogers Smith and Isaac Kramnick seem to think.  Indeed, the received dogma that the founders were comfortable with ideological “confusion” and “lived easily” with the discursive “clatter” of post-revolutionary America may “slide too quickly over the bitter ideological conflicts that rent the new nation and destabilized its national identity” (p. 83).

At any rate, “the discordant civic discourses and fractured political subjectivities” (p. 82) at play in the early republic that many U.S. historians ignore, and which Smith-Rosenberg’s book so remarkably describes, will be difficult to avoid in future scholarship on the subject.  For not only does This Violent Empire render traditional “consensus” accounts of the new American nation deeply problematic; it also opens up new lines of inquiry in cultural history itself, making it particularly helpful in both undergraduate and graduate courses on early American history, politics, and culture.  In exposing the founding contradiction at the heart of what has been called “the American Creed” – namely, that the world of universal rights and liberties imagined by the founders crucially depended on the denial of such rights to “the dark and polluting figures existing at the borders of the new American self” (p. 43) – Smith-Rosenberg reminds us that “what was true in the nation’s beginning remains true today” (p. xi).  Since this is a message that bears repeating in an America that has once again gone mad on war, kill lists, and the politics of everyday fear in general, This Violent Empire deserves a wide readership, for it is only through a critique of the history of American violence that we stand a ghost of a chance of understanding the historical present.


Reviewed by C. Neal Keye, The College of St. Scholastica
Edited by Andrae M. Marak

(c) 2012 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]