"Our Sister Republics"

“Our Sister Republics” chronicles the history of the United States and its ties with Central and South America from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. During the early years there was widespread public sentiment in United States supporting revolutions against Spanish, French and Portuguese control in Latin America.

U.S. citizens were enthusiastic about their neighbors south of the Rio Grande securing their own independence from colonial overlords. Fitz focuses in detail on this identification of U.S. citizens with their southern neighbors and notes that, ironically, this fervor for independence in Latin America was concomitant with the United States’ oppression of African slaves.

The book’s opening pages include an 1825 map of the Americas that serves as a helpful tool for the reader throughout the narrative. Fitz’s first chapter explains that U.S. leaders and citizens initially looked kindly upon South America because of a shared love of liberty.

This affable relationship developed rapidly. Spain and Portugal were distracted by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and imposed fewer trade restrictions between the United States and Spanish America. This frequent trading led to a flow of money and a feeling of kinship between the U.S. and Latin America. This camaraderie peaked in 1812 as the United States fought its second war for independence and South Americans fought their first.

South American representatives came to the United States seeking support and matériel for the rebel armies. These visiting agents won the favor of the U.S. press, which often manipulated public opinion in their favor.

Firebrand Simon Bolivar was one such South American leader who gained much respect in the United States. Fitz cites the countless U.S. babies who were given the name “Bolivar” and the fashionable “Bolivar hats” American women treasured as indications of his popularity. White people admired him for his efforts at nation building. Black people liked him for his abolitionist leadership.

Fitz discusses the attitudes of important U.S. politicians: Henry Clay, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams. Clay, for example, was Latin America’s most zealous proponent in Congress. He convinced his colleagues that the revolutions there were an affirmation of United States’ ideals. He also pointed out that these free peoples would soon become markets for American manufacturers; their money would infuse the U.S. financial system.

The author also describes the rise of William Smith, an earnest defender of racism and slavery in the U.S. She notes the absurd contradictions of U.S. slavers’ enthusiasm for South American revolutions when the rebel armies included mulattos and blacks, many of them former slaves.

By the 1830s, U.S. ties with our sister republics began to fray. In the wake of antislavery revolts in Latin America, U.S. industrialists began to have a change of heart. When the cotton industry boomed across the Deep South, slavery became very profitable. Slavery’s advocates declared it was a positive factor for the country’s economy. They defended slavery with scientific and biblical statements asserting that blacks are an inferior species to whom inalienable rights were never meant to pertain. The U.S. government withdrew interest for any nations that liberated their slaves and armed them. Southern members of Congress began warning that Latin American emancipation jeopardized the United States by setting a poor example for restless North American slaves. As the official opinion toward slavery shifted, so did public attitudes. Expressions of American exceptionalism, based on slavery and white supremacy, became common. Almost overnight the United States opposed Latin American revolutions because of their threat to slavery and the U.S. economy.

Fitz provides a unique and oft-neglected view of U.S. history. I found her reinterpretation to be an engaging record of the 19th century, quite different from the typical Eurocentric account of issues and events in our past.