David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Cartography: Geographic Education in Service of Expansion

In The Geographic Revolution in Early America, Martin Bruckner looks at the meanings that maps and geographic knowledge took, from surveys of the land in the 1690s to school textbooks promoting and naturalizing U.S. national expansion in the 1820s. While this book has tons of aspects about which I could comment, I’d like to focus on Bruckner’s related discussions of a continental, “American” vision during the U.S.-American Revolution (chapter 2) and visions of continental empire (chapter 7).

What is America?

As friends can tell you, I bristle at use of the term “American” to refer to the United States. So, I was particularly intrigued by Bruckner’s discussion of British colonials’ uses of the term American, and their visions of themselves as inhabitants of an American continent, in chapter 2. What Bruckner doesn’t answer, and what I’d like to know, is just how expansive was this idea of America and American-ness? He offers some hints that seem to indicate an exclusion of Spanish America from their vision of a continent (and future empire?) in the 1760s and 1770s. Did this sense of unity as Americans only mean British America, or Spanish America as well? I’m guessing the former, but am curious. To what extent was some notion of Pan-Americanism influential in this era, as Caitlin Fitz is showing it was through U.S.-American support of Latin American revolutions the early 19th century? Did the revolutionary-era vision of America include either unity with or conquest of Spanish areas, or simply the non-Spanish parts of the North American continent? Bruckner doesn’t expound on this as much, showing attention focused west but not discussing attention focused south.

Visions of a Continental Empire

I also found chapter 7, about 1810s and 1820s geographic textbooks that presupposed national expansion, fascinating. I found his argument, grounded in the books themselves, interesting. But I am curious about the effect of those books. Was the United States’s subsequent continental expansion, and its accompanying rhetoric (Manifest Destiny and all that) a direct result? Bruckner suggests such–after all, the generation that revolted in Texas, elected a dark horse candidate who promised 54 40 or fight, and stormed to the Halls of the Montezumas was raised on these textbooks. But Bruckner, situated in the cultural turn in history (and an English professor, for that matter), falls into the trap that some cultural histories do: not then answering the question of direct effect. I’d like to see more direct evidence than simply that these textbooks existed and the next generation engaged in expansionism. Does such evidence exist? Perhaps a good follow-on to Bruckner’s study would be someone answering that question. For example, did writers and political leaders who later supported expansionism use these textbooks? Did they ever write of their influence? Or is it enough that these textbooks were part of a broader culture that supported expansionism?

Addendum: I commented on Michael’s blog post.

1 Comment

  1. “What Bruckner doesn’t answer, and what I’d like to know, is just how expansive was this idea of America and American-ness? He offers some hints that seem to indicate an exclusion of Spanish America from their vision of a continent (and future empire?) in the 1760s and 1770s. Did this sense of unity as Americans only mean British America, or Spanish America as well? I’m guessing the former, but am curious.”

    My impression of this is similar to yours, I think. I understand Brueckner’s point as these British American colonists envisioned associated themselves with the entire continent. Brueckner wasn’t talking about all British Americans, either, the ones he’s looking at are actively looking for ways to distinguish themselves from Britain. Brueckner is saying, I think, that they create the idea of the American continent and identify with it as a response to British assumptions that they are simply part of Britain. It’s hard to figure, at least among the persons that Brueckner is talking about, that the Spanish figure into their imagination much at all.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: