Imagining a Hemispheric Greater America

Imagining a Hemispheric Greater America

Here we share the editor’s note for our special issue in December 2017, by guest editor William Blair. The issue includes groundbreaking and insightful work by five scholars studying continental connections across the nineteenth century.

In the summer of 2015, sixty-some scholars from at least four countries gathered in the breathtakingly beautiful town of Banff, Canada, to explore the common struggles over sovereignty that shook North America during the 1860s. Featured were the crises faced by the countries of Canada, Mexico, the United States, and the indigenous populations within them. The five articles in this special issue represent a fraction of the rich ideas offered about the struggles over which ruling and economic structures should prevail and which people should determine them. Both Mexico and the United States, of course, endured civil wars. Canadians, meanwhile— partly prompted by the disorder south of their border—in 1867 moved to create the Confederation that allowed for local autonomy under the protection of Great Britain. The outcome of these struggles affected economic, labor, and political systems around the globe.

The conference, “Remaking North American Sovereignty: Towards a Continental History of State Transformation in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” grew out of discussions between Frank Towers at the University of Calgary and me, we think, in 2013. Frank had been looking for some way to connect the Canadian and U.S. crises with broader transitions in the world. Ever since starting the journal in 2011, I had been looking to encourage a hemispheric approach to Civil War studies. We both were convinced that the U.S. Civil War, while certainly having its unique aspects, just as certainly was not exceptional. The assumption was that we were missing interconnections that existed among the nations that constituted the Western Hemisphere and perhaps could find either commonalities or unique situations that furnished new insights into the structuring of power in the nineteenth century. While the Richards Civil War Era Center supplied seed money and staff support to make such a project possible, Frank did much of the heavy lifting of organizing the conference by presiding over the program committee and bringing into the fold as cosponsors the University of Calgary, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech University. It seemed time to shift the usual way of conceiving the Civil War in international terms—primarily a story of the diplomatic relations between England and the United States.[1]

Fortunately, the field was moving in that direction, too, as witnessed by not only articles published in the Journal of the Civil War Era but also in monographs. When we launched the journal, we featured a review essay by Douglas Egerton that posited how the Atlantic World framework was applicable to the U.S. Civil War. It was an attempt to push beyond national borders and see if the approach that had enriched studies of colonial settlement and conquest could inform scholarship in the later nineteenth century. Egerton borrowed from the work of Sven Beckert to show how world cotton production shifted to India and how states developed new forms of coercion to regulate labor. Later came an essay by Patrick J. Kelly on “the American Crisis of the 1860s,” in which he explicitly argued for a hemispheric approach and for examining the influences on each other of France, Mexico, and the United States. There was, as he put it, an illiberal alliance between the Confederacy and France against sister republics of Mexico and the U.S. that had consequences for how conflicts in both nations played out. Some in the United States, in fact, did not think that their war was over until the French troops and the Emperor Maximillian had been forced out of Mexico.[2]

As mentioned, the monograph literature has been exploring similarly expansive ground. Already cited is the pioneering work of Beckert on the changes in the world cotton markets. Don H. Doyle contributed by situating the U.S. Civil War within the larger context of a fight for validity between republican and monarchical systems of government. Disorder in the United States gave European expansionists hope for gaining a toehold in the Western Hemisphere and for gaining proof for the argument that republican/democratic societies could not hold themselves together. Recently, Doyle has expanded the analysis more deeply into Latin America as he presided over a collection of essays by various scholars published on the subject this year. We should add to the list the work of Matthew Karp, who argued that southern planters cared deeply about abolition’s impact in the Caribbean and Latin America on their own peculiar system, and that of Steven Hahn, one of the scholars who gave a keynote address in Banff and whose own major study of the U.S. struggles in the broader world came out last year.[3]

Ironically, much of this work finally answers the call of a historian who advocated such an approach more than eighty years ago. In an article published in 1933, Herbert E. Bolton argued for considering a “Greater America,” by examining the transformations shared by the emerging nations in the Western Hemisphere. Bolton rejected the term “Original Thirteen” for the colonies that would constitute the United States, which ignored the fact that England had nearly thirty colonies in the islands and Atlantic seaboard. For more than three hundred years the hemisphere underwent conquest and organization as colonies. Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, and Holland all tried to establish a presence. At least five world wars were fought primarily for mercantilist domination. Then, between 1776 and 1826, came a series of ongoing revolutions that created independent, new nations, many proclaiming to be republics. Mexico abolished slavery, but the peculiar institution remained entrenched in the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. Most of the new, major nations displayed expansion impulses and desires to establish a presence in western lands, which sparked collisions with native populations. Common ingredients Bolton cited in this imperial advance were boundless natural resources, foreign immigration, foreign capital investments, and expanding markets.[4]

Specialists in Latin American history have engaged more with Bolton’s concept than historians of the United States, although not all of the attention has been praiseworthy. The more positive reception has come in the area of borderlands studies, where Bolton had an enormous influence, which ebbed and flowed over nearly the past century but remains important today. The hemispheric approach contained less appeal for a while, but Latin Americanists—including scholars from archeological and literary disciplines—have both adopted and questioned his basic assumptions. The most vigorous critique came in a collection of essays edited by Lewis Hanke published in 1964. Mexican historian and philosopher Edmundo O’Gorman was particularly vitriolic in an essay originally published in 1939 in which he criticized Bolton for failing to recognize the importance of culture and religion in Latin America. O’Gorman called the hemispheric approach nothing more than academic imperialism. Others have noticed Bolton’s lack of attention to racial analysis, including the perspectives of indigenous peoples in favor of broad material and governmental transformations. Despite this, his impact can be noticed in a three-volume work produced during the quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and, more recently, in the work of Felipe Fernández-Armesto who has written a hemispheric history of the Americas. Although contested, Bolton’s ideas continue to inform a number of scholars of Latin America across disciplines.[5]

The articles in this issue build on the recent historiography and show the potential Bolton saw so many years ago. Phillip Buckner provides an in-depth overview of the scholarly debate over the influence of the U.S. Civil War on confederation in Canada. Between 1864 and 1873, seven colonies and an area in between, which was overseen by the Hudson’s Bay Company, became a new transcontinental nation created out of fragments of the British Empire. While not the only factor, the U.S conflict with the southern Confederacy gave additional impetus to the confederation movement as success by the northern United States left Canada and Mexico vulnerable to U.S. pressure. Meanwhile, Marise Bachand looks at the “Disunited Daughters of the Confederation” in a piece that compares the process of female Creoles in Louisiana with that of Canadians in Canada in becoming integrated in newly forming national states. Bachand argues that the comparison reveals “how the personal was the political and how conflicted were their relationships to the politics of belonging.”

Shifting to Mexico, Erika Pani does marvelous work in providing analysis and overview of the conflict that wracked the country between 1857 and 1867. The decade opened with the passage of a new, reform constitution that did not quite settle all differences within the nation. Internal strife had an impact on exposing the nation to the subsequent invasion by European powers, which was taken over by the French. With the victory by Republican armies in 1867 (the same year as Confederation in Canada), the monarchists were defeated and liberalism became a unifying myth for the country. Also looking at Mexico, Andrés Reséndez traces the prevalence of debt peonage in Mexico. This labor system was absorbed and retained as the United States conquered the Mexican lands in the Southwest, which anticipated the coerced labor systems that became more prevalent in the U.S. South after the Civil War.

Finally, Jay Sexton provides a rich empirical study of the steam revolution that transformed countries between 1850 and 1885. While focusing predominantly on the United States, Sexton’s article shows the interrelationships of Canadian railroad building and British finance with Panama. He links the developments of steamships and railroads to national formation and sovereignty, indicating that these technological advances destabilized as well as fostered nation-building projects.

Although the presumption underlying these studies is that there were common challenges facing the nations that took shape in the middle of the nineteenth century, there are of course unique elements. Canada, for instance, was perhaps the only country in the hemisphere not to have a revolutionary past. Tensions inside Mexico featured Catholic clergy who, despite having their political power constricted by the Constitution of 1857, nonetheless played prominent roles in encouraging the monarchists against the Juaristas. The United States, as others have observed else- where, underwent a violent revolution that ended slavery, similar to the upheaval in Haiti. But these articles do reveal new ways of seeing connections among these countries. They are not necessarily a final word, but they provide examples of fruitful new ways to think about connections among the crises facing the countries in the hemisphere.

[1] The conference website is Remaking North American Sovereignty: Towards a Continental History of State Transformation in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, accessed May 27, 2017,

[2] Douglas R. Egerton, “Rethinking Atlantic Historiography in a Postcolonial Era: The Civil War in a Global Perspective,” Journal of the Civil War Era 1 (March 2011): 79–95; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton; A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014); Patrick Kelly, “The North American Crisis of the 1860s,” Journal of the Civil War Era 2 (September 2012): 337–68.

[3] Don Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2015); Don H. Doyle, ed., American Civil Wars: The United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Crisis of the 1860s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016); Steven Hahn, A Nation without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830–1910 (New York: Viking, 2016).

[4] Herbert E. Bolton, “The Epic of Greater America,” American Historical Review 38 (April 1933): 448–74. Bolton also was a pioneer in establishing the concept of borderlands.

[5] For borderlands, see John Francis Bannon, ed., Bolton and the Spanish Borderlands (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964). For various assessments of Bolton’s work, see Lewis Hanke, ed., Do the Americas Have a Common History? A Critique of the Bolton Theory (New York: Knopf, 1964); Antonio Barrenechea, “Good Neighbor/Bad Neighbor: Boltonian Americanism and Hemispheric Studies,” Comparative Literature, vol. 61, no. 3 (2009): 231–43; Light Cummins, “Getting beyond Bolton: Columbian Consequences and the Spanish Borderland, A Review Essay,” New Mexico Historical Review, vol. 70 (April 1995): 201–15. For his continued influence, see David Hurst Thomas, Columbian Consequences, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989–91); Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Americas: A Hemispheric History (New York: Modern Library, 2003).


William Blair

William Blair is the Ferree Professor of Middle American History at Pennsylvania State University and director of the Richards Civil War Era Center. He is also the founding editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era. His research focuses primarily on the home front and political culture in the middle nineteenth century. His current research project concerns the atrocities in the post-Civil War South compiled by the Freedmen's Bureau in a collection called Records Relating to Murders and Outrages.

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