Manifest Destinations: Contesting Catholicism in Early American Travelogues

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 12:10 PM
Tremont Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Dane A. Morrison , Salem State College, Salem, MA
Historians have long recognized the construction of American national identity in the years following the Revolution as problematic. Unappreciated, however, has been the influence of the China Trade in the formation of national character. During the era of the early Republic, Americans who sailed beyond the Atlantic were in a unique position to contribute to the project. Their travels to the “exotic” East brought them into contact with a broad palette of peoples and gave them the clearest appreciation of the elements that distinguished other cultures, as well as their own. From their recollections emerged a genre of China Trade literature that filled the public sphere and, coming at the moment of the nation's emergence, influenced the development of Americans' earliest ideas of who they were as a people and of the values they saw in their new country. Surprisingly, American travelers who sailed to the East directed their harshest criticisms at European institutions rather than those of Asia. An especially useful foil for constructing republican values was the Catholic Church that dominated the Iberian Pacific. Well before the conventional periodization of Manifest Destiny, two complementary currents of thought contested Protestant republicanism against a popular view of “popish cruelty” “universally established in all its Terrors.” One drew on the mythology of the Inquisition and la leyenda negra—the Black Legend—to continue the colonial tradition of anti-Papist thought against “the designing and interested priests,” now bringing “fanaticism, and cocoanut wine” to “a barbarous people.” Another strain complicated this conventional view, representing the American as a tolerant, cosmopolitan citizen of the world who found Catholic priests “very good companions,” who heard rumors of the Inquisition but “never heard of their punishing any person” and recognized “that the people of all countries are governed more or less by some species of priestcraft.”
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