Our Sister Republics

Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions by Caitlin Fitz
The historiological depiction of past, and even current debate between the Americas can often be rife with ideological rhetoric. However, Caitlin Fitz manages to avoid such a pitfall in her historical work, Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions. Fitz’s methods of interpreting history are composed as to be far-reaching, in terms of both accessibility to audiences and significance of subject matter. Her devotion to historical inquiry meshes quite effectively with an aptitude for vivid storytelling.
Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics seeks to examine the various shifts and complexities of the United States’ attitudes regarding Latin America, specifically such spanning a quarter of the early nineteenth century. The United States’ variety of perspectives regarding its southern neighbors can be divided, albeit somewhat roughly, into three phases defined by time period. The first phase being the era preceding the year 1810, the second spanning from 1810 to the mid-1820s, and the third from the mid-1820s to beyond the scope of Our Sister Republics. The latter two phases comprise the majority of the text. Possibly the most significant factor of the initial phase is the general lack of knowledge regarding Latin America held by the population of the United States, what with this period preceding certain Latin American revolutions. What little information regarding Latin America generally known to the United States’ public largely conformed with “black legends,” i.e. negative propaganda, about cruelty dealt by Spanish Catholics throughout the Americas over past centuries. However, in the early 1800s and 1810s the beginnings of social movements surrounding independence began to stir about Spanish America. In turn, the populace of the United States tended to be sympathetic to such movements. Howbeit, there were notable exceptions to this. For example, the Federalists of New England tended to provide half-hearted, if any support to independence movements in Latin America, in part due to their trading arrangements with Spain.
In the second phase, following the year 1810, agents from Latin America began arriving in the United States. Their goals largely revolved around obtaining arms and diplomatic recognition for emerging independent governments. Those advocating for Latin American independence often invoked the universalist values exalted by the United States’ Declaration of Independence, linking the budding wars over independence as an expansion of the political values commonly held across the United States. Indeed, a multitude of those in the United States who supported Latin American independence movements did so with the mindset that such movements would lionize the United States as a successful example of representative democracy.
One of the most prominent Latin American figures featured in Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics, particularly in terms of things such as legacy, is Simon Bolivar. The key to Bolivar’s significance lies within two somewhat contradictory views held by the United States about South America. The image of Bolivar as a liberator, or “El Libertador,” appealed to many, particularly those living on the frontier. Such image afforded him the status of a symbol of independence from European monarchal oppression. Bolivar’s advocation for the abolition of slavery obviously appealed to the abolitionists of the United States.
Slavery is one of the most prominent issues presented within the text. Initially, the populace of the United States did not largely associate the independence movements of Latin America with slavery. The sole exception to this was the Republic of Haiti. In the parts of Our Sister Republics detailing the 1810s and 1820s, Caitlin Fitz depicts the abolition debate as having a sort of spectrum between the pro- and anti- sides. Fitz posits Haiti on the abolitionist side, what with the Haitian Revolution concluding less than two decades prior, and the United States more towards the other, what with the U.S; slave trade still ongoing. Veering into the center of this spectrum was Spanish America, according to Fitz. Following disputes with the government of Cartagena, Colombia as well as an assassination attempt in Jamaica, Simon Bolivar sought refuge in Haiti, wherein he was welcomed president Alexandre Petion. Their association led to Bolivar returning to Venezuela with Haitian military support and intentions of abolishing slavery. Newspapers reporting such within the United States would emphasize this as necessary to the greater anti-colonial struggle.
The third phase marks a significantly lower level of enthusiasm within the United States about Latin America in general. With the topic of slavery becoming increasingly contentious, the people of the United states began to pivot away from the idealism of preceding years, in favor of a more cautious attitude. Despite Simon Bolivar’s pro-abolitionist attitudes, some United States residents who favored slavery admired him, to the point of joining in on the trend of naming children for him. “Other Americans named their new towns, their boats and even their livestock Bolivar, adopting the Spanish-speaking revolutionary as one of their own.” (Fitz) Bolivar’s popularity in such circles likely happened in tandem with the mindset that his views on slavery were peripheral to his contributions to Latin American independence—which was viewed as following the United States’ example. However, the 1820s proved a somewhat turbulent period. According to Fitz, the most defining facets of this decade include the Monroe Doctrine, the Missouri Compromise, skepticism regarding John Quincy Adams’ increasingly nationalistic politics, and race becoming a dominant diplomatic and political topic.
The United States’ interest in foreign wars over independence tends to shift in various ways, including geographically. Fitz examines the Haitian Revolution as a preceding example of the United States’ attitudes surrounding racial topics, which would carry over into the U.S.’s perspective on Latin America. In Our Sister Republics, Fitz asserts that various cultural activists and politicians cultivated a public perception of South America as significant enough to warrant attention, but distant enough as to avoid disrupting the U.S.’s way of life. She also notes that certain wars for independence drew different reactions than others. Social and military activities in areas geographically farther from the U.S.-Mexican border tended to draw more appeal to the United States populace, while such in areas such as Florida and Mexico—which the U.S. had designs on colonizing, themselves—tended to be met with dismay and brushing-off. In particular, Fitz notes that while there was enough public support of South American social revolutions that local United States political gatherings often included toasts to the leaders of such, only four percent of said toasts mentioned Mexico specifically.
Another cultural theme broached, albeit seldom engaged with, within the text is that of the prevalence of Catholicism throughout Latin America. Our Sister Republics mainly addresses this by positing a question: Is it possible for Catholics, bastions of an apostate prior era and lacking Protestant ideals about freedom, to establish an effective republic? Given the fact that more widespread religious fervor translated to the average person’s religious and political ideals of Our Sister Republics’ given time period were often closely aligned, this question would seem a particularly relevant one to address.
Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions serves as a prime example of the encyclopedic levels of research, as well as adept composition and provocative arguments, of which Caitlin Fitz is capable. The work is an exceptional contribution to erudition on the American republic during this period. It also establishes Fitz as one of the most adroit historians of this decade.
Works Cited:
Fitz, Caitlin. “What the Baby Bolivar Boom Tells Us about How We Used to View South America.” The Los Angeles Times. August 21, 2016. Accessed September 27, 2018. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-fitz-sister-republics-20160821-snap-story.html.