Barbarian Virtues: An Incomplete Critique of American Imperialism

barbarian-virtuesIn Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917, Mathew Frye Jacobson explored the American perception of ourselves and the foreign peoples we came into contact with at the turn of the last century, as empire building and immigration expanded our interaction with the outside world. The title comes from a quotation by Theodore Roosevelt calling on Americans to not abandon their hearty roots in the quest for civilization, and to “keep the barbarian virtues” in order to escape from decadence.

Anxiety over civilization and barbarity characterized American culture at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Jacobson, political culture during this period was “characterized by a paradoxical combination of supreme confidence in U.S. superiority and righteousness, with an anxiety driven by fierce parochialism.” The paradox stemmed from the United States’ economic dependence on an influx of labor from peoples that were considered to be inferior. Popular media characterized these people as barbarian others in need of the fatherly hand of the civilized United States. The labor and resources of the “barbarians” were invaluable in propelling this country to a position of power.

It is not the uniqueness of this relationship that Jacobson finds interesting. As he points out, these attitudes have long roots in American culture. The scale of these endeavors is what sets this period off from the past. Industrial production, mass population movements, expanding and active government, and a developing mass media characterized this time of explosive growth and involvement in the world. But in order to facilitate such involvement, the old attitude Americans had taken toward American Indians and, to a lesser extent, Mexicans, needed to be refashioned for use overseas. The people of Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Panama all had to be seen as “pawns in a vast geopolitical game.” This shift in perspective took a conscious cultural effort to accomplish.

33-4According to Jacobson, the worldwide search for markets drove American colonialism. “A whole range of forces… could unsettle people from their homelands,” he argued, “but the labor market and the laws of supply and demand dictated where they were likely to go.” This search for a marketplace, in turn, drove industrial demand for more and more labor, as new customers were found at home and abroad. This labor came in the form of immigration from diverse cultures, many of which were radically different from the Anglo-American culture that had been so dominant in the United States. Americans openly wondered if these new peoples could be assimilated, or whether they would ever be fit for self-government. This created an anxiety regarding our national identity, especially since the Civil War had raged only a few decades before.

Unfortunately, Jacobson never gives a voice to the “barbarians.” In a book about national character and identity, it seems unusual to not include the perspective of the immigrants themselves. After all, the immigrants of the 1870s became the Americans of the 1910s. The book portrays them and the overseas peoples as mere pawns (to use his term), subject to economic and cultural forces. Likewise, Jacobson focuses on and criticizes domestic images of foreigners, but he does not present an alternative view to show why those perspectives were incorrect.

With a knack for clear and concise explanation, Barbarian Virtues contributes to our understanding of the national character of the United States at the turn of the last century, but it takes a condescending and political tone. Jacobson does not shy away from promoting a social and political agenda. As he warns in his introduction, “it behooves us to ponder the continuities between [Teddy] Roosevelt’s day and our own,” because he fears that “the civilities of public discourse” might only be a veneer over the same kind of sinister perspectives and activities he thoroughly condemned. In other words, American society has always had this sickness, and Jacobson is the enlightened doctor who has diagnosed the problem.

The originality of Jacobson’s argument is undeniable, and Barbarian Virtues contains vivid descriptions and analysis drawn from a large volume of primary sources. The words of the principal actors in his narrative jump off of the page, and their motivations, hopes, and desires become clear. As to how Americans saw their place in the world, Jacobson provides a vivid tapestry. Overall, Barbarian Virtues is a worthwhile but intentionally provocative study of the dynamics of empire, economics, and immigration, and the national mentality that accompanies a young county in transition onto the world stage.

This 1899 cartoon from Puck Magazine lampoons the hypocrisy of U.S. colonial ambitions. The chalkboard reads, "The US must govern its new territories with or without their consent, until they can govern themselves."
This 1899 cartoon from Puck Magazine lampoons the hypocrisy of U.S. colonial ambitions. The chalkboard reads, “The US must govern its new territories with or without their consent, until they can govern themselves.”

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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