Accounts of relations between the United States and Latin America in the 19th century usually emphasize expansion, aggression and war. All three were certainly major aspects of the relationship. But from the founding of the U.S. until 1825, many people here cheered the anti-colonial revolutions to the South, viewing them as a continuation of what happened in the colonies in 1776. Newspaper editors, officeholders and people of all kinds cheered and toasted the victories of the revolutionaries and even named their children and communities after Simon Bolivar.
At the same time, however, many observers in the U.S. either ignored or looked positively on antislavery actions in the Southern Hemisphere while failing to take antislavery measures that would put our founders’ words about equality for all people into practice here at home. By 1825, the U.S. was the only American republic where slavery was expanding rather than receding. In her consistently enlightening and stimulating Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions, historian Caitlin Fitz explores this complex and rarely noted aspect of a turbulent era. Her insightful narrative is not so much a history of early U.S. relations with Latin America as it an exploration of how former colonists in our revolutionary republic viewed our neighbors to the south favorably for years but eventually came to conclude that there were differences in goals and values.
By 1825 virtually all of the Western Hemisphere was independent of Europe. Contrary to what many people in the U.S. believed about their central role in inspiring change in the Southern Hemisphere, the truth was that violent warfare within the French, Spanish and Portuguese empires was much more important. Individual agents of revolution, a small and disparate group, some of them colorful characters, from those emerging republics did come to the United States to tell their stories and to ask for help. The most influential visitors were those who asked for weapons, ships and diplomatic recognition. They courted the press and were successful in flattering the populace but less so in shaping government policy. Probably a plurality of those who came, though, were victims of circumstance, exiles and fugitives, people who had to flee for their lives as rival political leaders assumed power.
Spanish America was so far away to people here that antislavery tactics there seemed more like an abstraction than a reality. Then, in 1819, divisive debates over allowing the Missouri Territory to enter the Union as a slave state became a major concern. Even then, prominent politician and Kentucky slaveholder Henry Clay noted that “In some particulars . . . the people of South America were in advance of us. . . . Grenada (Colombia), Venezuela and Buenos Aires had all emancipated their slaves.” Clay, keenly aware of American enthusiasm for events in Latin America and with his own political motives, became the nation’s leading congressional advocate of Latin-American independence. But slave owners began to press their case more vociferously, and public opinion eventually shifted against the emerging republics.
Fitz takes us to a place in our history where many of us have not been before and does it in an engaging and compelling way.