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Response to Review of A Union Forever: The Irish Question and U.S. Foreign Relations in the Victorian Age

I would like thank Andre Fleche for his very kind review of A Union Forever. He offers a fine, attentive summary of the book’s arguments, and it’s exciting to see another historian tease out new and interesting implications from them. In particular, I welcome his suggestion that we might reflect on the relationship between Irish nationalism, United States politics, and a transnational ‘Age of Revolution’ in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In recent years a number of scholars have complicated our understanding of the connections between imperialism and nationalism, suggesting that the two are not the antitheses that we might once have supposed.(1) For Daniel O’Connell, as for Charles Stewart Parnell later in the century, the two might coexist in the political imaginary. As historians, I think we should be wary of the flattening, even teleological, implications of thinking in terms of an ‘Age of Revolution’. That said, the concept itself has an intellectual history that sheds light on the development of nationalism in this period. For contemporary Americans, their national Revolution was both a lens through which to view foreign politics and, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s phrasing, ‘modular’ and worthy of emulation.(2) This, in turn, shaped the narratives Americans constructed to make sense of Irish politics.

Professor Fleche’s comments also raise questions about the role of idealism in American foreign policy during the 19th century. Prior to the Civil War, republicanism, nationalism and expansionism formed an unstable (and often unholy) trinity at the heart of American foreign relations.(3) After 1865, perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans were less attracted to secessionist nationalism and more inclined to talk a language of anglophone federation, for which the restored American Union might provide a model. We can therefore ask whether internationalism, so conceived, was a means of reconciling a commitment to self-governance to the apparent virtues of stability and ‘civilization’ that came with a liberal imperialist order.

I’d like to thank Professor Fleche once again for his thoughtful review, and Reviews in History for affording me the opportunity to respond to it.

Notes

  1. See, for instance, Krishnan Kumar, ‘Nation-states as empires, empires as nation-states: two principles, one practice?’, Theory and Society, 39, 2 (2010), 119–43; and Jeremy Adelman. ‘An age of imperial revolutions’, American Historical Review, 113, 2 (2008), 319–40.Back to (1)
  2. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 1982, rev. ed. 2006).Back to (2)
  3. Jay Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, NY, 2011), ch. 2–4; David C. Hendrickson, Union, Nation, or Empire: the American Debate Over International Relations, 1789–1941 (Lawrence, KS, 2009), part 5.Back to (3)