Saturday, July 24, 2004

 

My dissertation, put briefly

Put briefly, my dissertation is about how antebellum American abolitionists wrestled intellectually with the ideals of cosmopolitanism and patriotism, and about how these ideals were entangled with their actual experiences as transnational activists. It is both a transnational history of American abolitionism, and a history of abolitionist transnationalism. I focus mainly on the radical acolytes of William Lloyd Garrison, who for over thirty years published the same motto on the masthead of his antislavery newspaper, the Liberator: "Our Country is the World -- Our Countrymen are All Mankind."

In a four-volume biography of their father, Garrisons' sons later identified this as their father's favorite slogan. The Garrisonians thought of themselves as pretty cosmopolitan people, and to a greater extent than many realize, they were. They often traveled overseas, both literally and imaginatively. They corresponded voluminously with friends abroad. They read and talked extensively about foreign affairs: the European revolutions of 1848, the Irish Repeal movement, British abolitionism, and other international issues ricocheted in their rhetoric. I want to know, in a general way, why abolitionists paid attention to such things and how they understood them.

But I'm even more concerned with the issues contained in the phrase: "Our Country is the World." The motto begs the questions: how did abolitionists think about their "country," how did they think about the "world," and how were these related? To put it in our contemporary argot, how did they weigh the comparative merits of patriotism and cosmopolitanism?

On the one hand, "Our Country is the World" was a way of expressing their antislavery principles, an imaginative expression of solidarity with the enslaved everywhere. And such principles were opposed to the facile patriotism that many Americans used to excuse slavery for the sake of national unity. (Another popular political slogan in antebellum political culture was "Our Country, Right or Wrong," which despite sharing the first two words with Garrison's favorite motto, swerved dramatically away from it in its final three.) Yet as I will also show, the Garrisonians did not repudiate patriotism altogether. They engaged in complex debates about when patriotism was justified, and when cosmopolitanism was more justified--debates which were informed by their own encounters with people and ideas outside the borders of the United States.

I think that's as much as I want to say now; it's a springboard more than a complete statement. Rather than giving a complete outline of my dissertation in one post, I've decided to start with this brief and hopefully suggestive summary of a few of its themes. This will preserve what I hope will be the exploratory character of this blog; instead of putting all my cards on the table, I want to learn gradually what cards might be up my sleeve.

Later posts will show that these historical interests are reflective of my contemporary political concerns. Scholars often insist that academic scholarship should keep these things separate; this blog, I hope, will be a more flexible space. I might as well say that I see something not just of historical value in "Our Country is the World," but also something of moral value that is worth recovering and preserving today. Even now, Americans are engaged in complex debates about the value of thinking and feeling beyond the nation, as one collection of academic essays puts it. Is it possible to be both a cosmopolitan and a patriot? Are those who criticize America unpatriotic? And are those who are patriotic therefore less cosmopolitan?

Debates among political theorists about cosmopolitanism, globalization, and patriotism have spilled into the public sphere, especially since September 11, 2001. In the last week Linda Ronstadt has been hounded for calling Michael Moore a "great American patriot," and our current political climate has made defining love of country an important subject of debate. Garrison's contemporaries debated the same questions; some accused him of hating his country and others defended him as the only true patriot. I point this out not to equate Moore with Garrison, but to demonstrate that the possibility of a progressive patriotism is not something you can only read about in dusty books. Nor, conversely, is it something that you can only read about on a world-wide web; there is a longer history here that needs to be retold and understood.

At the root of my dissertation is a cluster of questions that has relevance still. What does it mean to love one's country? What does it mean to be a "citizen of the world"? I hope to historicize these questions as they entered the minds and lives of abolitionists, but I hope that by doing so I can understand something about ourselves and our world too.


Collective Improvisation:
Intriguing dissertation and I really like hwat you have to say about progressive patriotism. Drop me an email sometime. As Carlos just noted on his blog, historians have to stick together!  

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