Barbarian Virtues – Matthew Frye Jacobson

Matthew Frye Jacobson’s aim is to examine “American conceptions of peoplehood, citizenship, and national identity” between 1876 and the First World War when growing American economic, industrial, and military strength led to increased contact with foreigners at home and abroad. (4) Jacobson argues that immigration and expansion are “two sides of the same coin;” that America’s growing economic and industrial power allowed for increased contact with foreigners at home and abroad which created public discussions that shaped and developed American’s national identity. At its most fundamental, this book examines how increased economic power shaped American discourse and culture during the Progressive Era and the Gilded Age which Jacobson suggests is similar to contemporary American discourse on immigration and foreign policy.
What Jacobson finds in examining this discourse is a series of paradoxes: Americans yearned to open foreign markets and increase economic power in Asia and Latin American but developed and implemented legal practices to prevent immigration to America; a desire to civilize those in uncivilized savage wastelands but the utilization of “scientific” racism to prevent their immigration into the United States; the fear that immigrants were not capable of republican values but refusing republican practices and values to colonized regions that sought independence. For Jacobson, these paradoxes demonstrate that proper notions of white Americanism and national identity were formed by contact with foreign peoples abroad through business, travel, and trade and that these experience informed cultural and political discourse at home. This discourse created strict immigration laws based on scientific racism to encourage Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic immigrants and denied immigration to those “scientifically” unfit to participate in American Republicanism. After discussing the incongruities of American culture during this period, Jacobson contends that these contradictions have re-emerged in the current debates concerning immigration and foreign policy and thus his work is to serve as a corrective to national memory.
I find the arguments posited by Jacobson persuasive and believe that Barbarian Virtues presents a useful analysis for understanding how Americans form(ed) their national identity. I find the underlying argument that economic expansion drove American’s foreign policy and increased American contact with foreigners to especially convincing. With this increased contact, Jacobson presents a plausible argument that contact with foreigners helped white Americans create and form an ethnocentric national identity. This ethnocentric national identity thus reveals the paradoxical nature of American Republicanism and its continuity into today’s political and cultural debates. The narration and the organization of the study accentuate the arguments and show how markets drove expansion and contact with foreigners, how these contacts shaped American perceptions of themselves and others, and how these perceptions manifested into the political arena. One negative aspect of the work in general is that Jacobson gives very little voice to the immigrants. There is only one small section in which the immigrants are able to defend themselves from the ethnocentrism of the white elite. While the immigrants’ beliefs and opinions are not the focus of the work, their interpretations of the nativist opinions may have shown how they attempted to place themselves within the nativists’ ideal of the white American. Another negative aspect is the failure to engage in anti-nativists thoughts and arguments – what were those native white Americans who argued for the merits of immigration thinking and discussing and how did they position themselves against the nativists.

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