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How a new American identity was forged by immigration and expansion a century ago.

In Barbarian Virtues, Matthew Frye Jacobson offers a keenly argued and persuasive history of the close relationship between immigration and America's newly expansionist ambitions at the turn of the twentieth century. Jacobson draws upon political documents, novels, travelogues, academic treatises, and art as he recasts American political life. In so doing, he shows how today's attitudes about "Americanism" -- from Border Watch to the Gulf War -- were set in this crucial period, when the dynamics of industrialization rapidly accelerated the rate at which Americans were coming in contact with foreign peoples.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A thoughtful analysis of America's uneasy relationship with foreignness."--Kirkus Reviews

"An excellent look at an aspect of U.S. history not often discussed or studied."--Vanessa Bush, Booklist

Library Journal
Though the growth and prosperity of the United States was made possible by the labor of immigrants and the availability of external markets, foreigners have often been viewed by Americans with ambivalence. In this study, Jacobson (American studies, Yale), the author of Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (LJ 11/1/98) and other works exploring race and the immigrant experience, examines complex political and social views during a period of explosive immigration and overseas expansion. By considering a wide variety of contemporary sources such as newspapers, novels, academic treatises, and political writings, he discovers attitudes that offer striking similarities to those still voiced by politicians and political action groups in the latter part of the 20th century. Based upon a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, this readable and thoughtful work is recommended for large academic libraries.--Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
This is a paperbound reprint of a book published in 2000. Jacobson (American studies, Yale U.) considers how the current American attitudes toward foreigners evolved, and why. Drawing on a range of historical and cultural sources, he shows how policies and attitudes formed at the beginning of the 20th century continue to shape views common today. He argues that immigration and foreign policy are intimately linked, and that both are informed by the contradictory needs to exploit the world's peoples as consumers and to characterize them as inferior to Americans. Sixteen pages of black and white illustrations are featured. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
Jacobson (American Studies/Yale) deftly sketches the often-xenophobic US relationship with foreign peoples as it evolved through history, and the sense of a distinctive American nationhood as it developed during an age of massive immigration at home and empire-building abroad. Theodore Roosevelt was no sentimentalist about the decline of Native American `savages.` Yet, in 1899, he decried the disappearance of `barbarian virtues` in an American civilization he saw as increasingly effete. Jacobson takes this as his text, seeing Roosevelt's ironic blend of smug contempt for foreign cultures and self-doubt regarding his own as emblematic of the US approach to foreigners during its `age of empire.` The author first looks at the America's economic relationship to foreign peoples, both as markets for American goods abroad and as workers at home: Americans identified foreign consumers as inferior precisely because their dependence on them, while immigrants, needed for America's industrial labor force, were simultaneously wooed and resented. In both cases, Jacobson argues, America's very dependence on foreigners fueled resentment and contempt of them. He then turns to American perceptions of foreigners, both in popular literature and in the development of the nascent social sciences: literature reinforced notions of American cultural progress and foreign inferiority, while scientific work in psychology and anthropology, shaped and driven by chauvinist and nativist thinking, supplied theories that substantiated white Americans' sense of racial and cultural superiority. Finally, Jacobson shows the political consequences of this thinking: political controversy surrounded America'sacceptance of`un-American,` often politically radical foreigners as future citizens, and sanguinary imperialist wars ensued in Latin America and the Philippines. Jacobson sees enduring lessons in America's experience from this period, arguing that the US survived the diversity from immigration previously and will again, and that it should not forget its imperialist legacy when it intervenes in global affairs. A thoughtful analysis of America's uneasy relationship with foreignness.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809016280
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 324
  • Sales rank: 756,530
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew Frye Jacobson, a professor of American Studies at Yale, is the author of Whiteness of a Different Color and Special Sorrows. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Export Markets: The World's
Peoples as Consumers

A savage, having nothing, is perfectly contented so long as he wants nothing. The first step toward civilizing him is to create a want. Men rise in the scale of civilization only as their wants rise.

Josiah Strong, Our Country (1886)

    I am an exporter, I want the world.

Charles Lovering, textile manufacturer (1890)

We thank thee for national prosperity and progress," intoned Bishop Matthew Simpson in his convocation for Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition in 1876, "for valuable discoveries and multiplied inventions, for labor-saving machinery relieving the toiling masses." If progress had become an article of religious faith by 1876—discovery, invention, and machinery its miraculous manifestations—then the exposition in Philadelphia was its most magnificent temple. Here visitors could see the splendid Corliss engine, "that giant wonder ..., [propelling] an endless system of belts and wheels," as the centennial commissioner put it; "silent and irresistible," it seemed fully to realize "the fabled powers of genii and afrit in Arabian tales." Here they could thrill to the roar and the hum of all sorts of technical innovations in the processes of production—shingle-cutting machines, quartz mills, sugar mills, harvesting machinery, and printing presses. They could examine great slabs of crude metal, gaze upon the polish of a shiny new railwaycar, or wonder at the power and the workings of a hydraulic ram. They could look over a cornucopia of new consumer items—cutlery, felt hats, silverware, dentifrice, glassware, mince-meat, tobacco, sewing machines, and "show-cases filled with dresses that were enough to drive an ordinary woman crazy." They could view the new tools of commerce, innovative technologies of communication and shipping, including telegraphic equipment, lighthouse service and weather equipment, and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. And here at the fair, not incidentally, they could also become acquainted with what would turn out to be among the most important tools of all in the quest for worldwide markets—Gatling guns, projectiles, torpedoes, and twenty-inch Rodman guns.

    The idea of the world market was largely the point of this exposition. This national celebration took place, after all, in the midst of a rather severe depression cycle that had begun in 1873. And so, if over the course of 159 days the Centennial Exposition introduced nearly ten million visitors to America's wares, as it was meant to do, discussion all around the exposition also introduced new staples of American economic thought: the fear of domestic "overproduction" and the appetite for foreign markets to absorb the resulting surplus of American goods. "Unquestionably international trade and commerce will be promoted," declared one orator at the exposition's end. "The ingenuity and excellence of our mechanics and inventors will be made better known." Throughout the exposition, Philadelphia newspapers had repeatedly referred to the saturation of domestic markets and the importance of cultivating foreign—particularly Asian—markets for American manufactured goods in order "to prevent continued depression." Asia, as one newspaper had it, represented "an almost unlimited field for disposal of many articles of American manufacture, where up to this very moment, such goods are almost unknown."

    In the late eighteenth century, Adam Smith had cautioned against creating a great national empire "for the sole purpose of raising up a nation of customers who should be obliged to buy from the shops of our different producers." By the late nineteenth, Americans seemed to have created precisely such an empire; but even this "nation of customers" did not have the spending power to support its shopkeepers. If the attendant revolution of values had its liberating aspects at home, as Americans harvested the blossoming consumer culture for undreamed-of amusements and conveniences, so did it ironically enslave the United States to social forces abroad, as American producers felt themselves more and more dependent upon the spending habits of little-known consumers in distant lands.

    Thus the common perception of the nation's economic needs became entangled with a web of myths and stereotypes regarding the diverse peoples of the new global marketplace. Isolation is the mother of barbarism, wrote Josiah Strong in his popular tract of nationalism and Christianity, Our Country. For Strong, as for many of his compatriots, the notion of American grandeur entailed not only establishing a global presence by reaching out to other regions and peoples of the world, but fully transforming the ways in which those peoples lived. The transformation, rather loosely envisioned under the imprecise rubric of "civilization," would be both spiritual and material: conveniently, the export of Christian ideals would go hand in hand with the export of finished textiles and manufactured goods. "The mysteries of Africa are being opened," wrote Strong; "the pulse of her commerce is beginning to beat. South America is being quickened, and the dry bones of Asia are moving; the warm breath of the Nineteenth Century is breathing a living soul under her ribs of death. The world is to be Christianized and civilized." Lest the reader miss the crucial connection between the nation's roles as both spiritual savior and industrial supplier to these benighted nations, Strong went on to ask rhetorically, "What is the process of civilizing but the creating of more and higher wants?" Commerce, he concluded, would follow the missionary: "The millions of Africa and Asia are someday to have the wants of a Christian civilization." And "with these vast continents added to our market," surely the United States would become "the mighty workshop of the world, and our people `the hands of mankind.'"

    During this period, as transportation routes and communication lines became more extensive, not only did the nation's regional economies become more thoroughly integrated with one another, but the national economy itself became more thoroughly integrated into a world economic system. The United States went out into the world of international trade and empire-building in a complex ideological position: in terms of racial and cultural allegiances, the United States entered world arenas as a European offshoot with some fancied affinity to the Old World. In terms of nationalist propensities and economic necessities, on the other hand, the United States embarked on this ambitious program as the European powers' most menacing rival. The emergence of the United States on the world stage, then, was marked by both a bitter competition among the European and Euro-identified nations, and an articulated kinship among these same powers in their self-proclaimed civilizing mission among the savages, semisavages, and barbarians of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Industrial Production and "Terrible Surplus"

The United States' spectacular economic growth at the turn of the century was attended by an equally spectacular pattern of downturns and failures: nearly half of the years between the 1870s and World War I were depression years—1873-79, 1882-85, 1893-97, 1907-8, and 1913-15. The story of the nation's fantastic accumulation of wealth in this period is also a story of crushing poverty. In this context, social and economic remedies were at a premium; indeed, this was a time of frenetic activity in inventing, proposing, and debating solutions of all sorts—distributive innovations like the single tax; remonetizing plans like greenbacks and free silver; protectionist mechanisms like tariffs on international trade; or political programs like populism, socialism, and anarchism.

    One of the mainstays of economic discussion throughout these years was the fevered talk of "overproduction" and the need to secure foreign markets. Economic depression, in this formulation, was a sign not of capitalism's failure, but of its stunning and unabsorbed success: the wheels of industry were simply churning out more goods than Americans could hope to consume themselves, and so other markets would have to be sought and secured. In the 1870s, Commander Robert Shufeldt, long interested in opening the "Hermit Kingdom" of Korea to American interests, had put the matter most starkly: "At least one-third of our mechanical and agricultural products are now in excess of our wants, and we must export these products or deport the people who are creating them." "Our manufactures have outgrown or are outgrowing the home market," concurred the National Association of Manufacturers in an atmosphere of crisis in the mid-1890s; "expansion of our foreign trade is the only promise of relief."

    Not everyone subscribed to the "overproduction" thesis. Advocates of free silver and many labor leaders, notably, felt that the problem was best understood not as a case of overproduction but of "underconsumption": the domestic market could indeed absorb the nation's vast output, if only wage scales and reigning patterns of indebtedness were altered to allow it to do so. Among the sharpest—and funniest—critiques of the overproduction thesis was James Jeffrey Roche's parodic poem, "The Terrible Surplus," written amid vigorous national debate over free trade and tariff policy in the 1890s. Roche was the editor of the Boston Pilot, an Irish immigrant journal; and it was perhaps his Irish-nationalist sensibility, in which a keen sense of justice was derived from the mythic precedents of tenancy and famine on the Emerald Isle, that led him to question the premise of so much want amid plenty. His poem is an extreme extension of the logic by which, earlier, Senator John Kasson had warned that, if the United States failed to secure sufficient foreign markets, "our surplus will soon roll back from the Atlantic coast upon the interior, and the wheels of prosperity will be clogged by the very richness of the burden which they carry, but cannot deliver." Such an analysis, for Roche, was the stuff of apocalyptic comedy:

Abundance clutched, with ruthless hand, The nation's throat like an iron band; Silver rivers with golden sand Inundated the hapless land In the year of the Terrible Surplus.

Granaries groaned with weight of grain; Flocks and herds covered every plain; Oil wells flowed, and every vein Of mines and minerals swelled the gain In the year of the Terrible Surplus.

Other peoples, more blest than we, Joyed in their happy bankruptcy; Foreign paupers, whose trade was "free," Pitied our plethoric misery, In the year of the Terrible Surplus....

    But whether or not "overproduction" was the proper frame for understanding the boom and bust of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era economy (many economists today question it), whether or not foreign markets indeed held the key to national prosperity, it was true that this period marked a dramatic shift in the balance of U.S. trade. The years 1876 through 1880 represented the first time in U.S. history when the country had a positive balance of trade for five consecutive years. This was not an aberration, but a watershed: before 1876, there were only fourteen years in which the nation's exports exceeded its imports; between 1876 and the 1970s, there were only three years (1888, 1889, and 1893) in which they did not. As a quick measure of the rise in U.S. productivity in these years, the nation's Gross National Product for the five-year period 1869-73 was $9 billion; for the five-year period 1897-1901, over $37 billion. Gross farm product, too, nearly tripled between the Civil War and the turn of the century.

    Agricultural products and textiles led the way in the United States' significant shift toward becoming an exporting rather than an importing nation. New technologies of cultivation and harvest and the opening of new lands after the 1860s dramatically increased the nation's overall agricultural production. Cotton production nearly doubled between 1870 and 1890, for instance; wheat production increased by over 30 percent in the decade of the 1870s alone. Both crops accounted for a huge proportion of the nation's exports. But by the 1890s, even manufactured goods ran in this direction. In 1880, agricultural items accounted for 84 percent of all U.S. exports; just after the turn of the century, that figure had fallen to about 67 percent, as minerals, ore, and manufactured goods gained ground. Interest in the export market was especially sharp among oil producers: by the mid-1880s, Standard Oil shipped over 90 percent of its kerosene abroad (70 percent to Europe, and another 21 percent to Asia). U.S. exports overall climbed by fits and starts throughout this period, from $526 million in 1876 to over $1 billion per year by the late 1890s; exports continued to climb steadily, reaching $2 billion for the first time in 1911, and jumping to $5, $6, and $7 billion per year during the war years of 1916-19. Although the export market continued to receive only a fraction of the foodstuffs and goods that the domestic market absorbed, the trends were still impressive. As of 1893, only Great Britain's exports exceeded those of the United States.

    Earlier in the century, apostles of expansion and progress like William Seward had nourished precisely such a vision of export markets and America's capacity to exploit them. As early as the 1850s, Seward had proclaimed, "Multiply your ships, and send them forth to the east. The nation that draws most materials and provisions from the earth, and fabricates the most, and sells the most of productions and fabrics to foreign nations must be, and will be, the great power of the earth." Seward believed that political supremacy would follow commercial ascendancy; and commercial ascendancy depended, in the end, upon access to and control of foreign markets.

    Thus, as secretary of state (1861-69), Seward stressed the importance of international commerce and global reach, and he developed ambitious policies toward those ends: he obtained the Midway Islands and Alaska ("the drawbridge between America and Asia," as one enthusiastic observer put it); he had designs on Hawaii; he advocated construction of an isthmian canal; and he toyed with all manner of blueprints for Caribbean and Latin American expansion. Antiexpansionists were able to block many of Seward's plans in the 1860s; but their counterarguments steadily lost force in the 1870s and 1880s, as development of the interior effectively "closed" the frontier (at least in popular imagination), and as agricultural and industrial production threatened to outstrip the capacities of the nation's domestic market. Seward's expansive vision thus formed an important foundation for the later view, during the cycles of depression in the 1870s and after, that—global supremacy aside—the nation's economic survival itself would require an aggressive conquest of foreign markets.

    Notwithstanding the dissent of labor leaders or of parodists like Jeffrey Roche, over the latter decades of the nineteenth century a formidable consensus did develop on the overproduction thesis and the need for foreign markets. A series of articles by economist David Wells in 1887 and 1888 (later published under the title Recent Economic Changes and Their Effects on the Production and Distribution of Wealth and the Well-Being of Society) presented a cyclical economic theory and analysis whose chief solutions included market penetration abroad. Charles Arthur Conant, too, Washington correspondent for the New York Journal of Commerce and a financial editor of Banker Magazine, concluded that sustained domestic productivity and global expansion were the only means to maintain both labor's wages and capital's profits. Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie quickly agreed that export to foreign markets was the only feasible way of alleviating the surplus.

    The interpretation's popularity and the attendant calls for action on the part of policy-makers became particularly widespread during the harsh depression of 1893 (a year, not incidentally, of trade deficit), and a few years later, when the recovery of 1897-98 rather portentously coincided with a boom in the nation's exports. The domestic setting of the 1890s, and particularly the mounting labor radicalism of the decade, lent still more urgency to the question of markets, as labor disaffection came to be seen as a chief danger in the era of overproduction. "We must have new markets," Senator Henry Cabot Lodge argued, "unless we would be visited by declines in wages and by great industrial disturbances, of which signs have not been lacking."

    Business and financial organs and organizations like Banker Magazine, Bradstreet's, the American Banking Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers all became outspoken advocates of export trade as the new panacea for the nation's woes of overproduction. The constituency that coalesced around the overproduction thesis ultimately included not only business and finance, but the conservative press and importantly placed politicians and State Department figures. President Grover Cleveland emphasized the need to "find markets in every part of the habitable globe"; William Day, assistant secretary of state under McKinley, commented enthusiastically upon the "vast undeveloped fields of Africa and the Far East."

    As policy-making way back in the days of William Seward had suggested, a keen interest in foreign markets and a determination to conquer them for the good of the country carried wide-ranging implications for state-building and for the conduct of foreign policy. In his Report upon the Commercial Relations of the United States (1880), Secretary of State William Evarts articulated what would soon become a driving principle of American foreign policy: "The fostering, the developing, and the directing of our commerce by the government should be laid down as a necessity of the first importance." It was scarcely a leap from here to William Howard Taft's "dollar diplomacy" three decades later. "The diplomacy of the present administration," Taft explained, "has sought to respond to modern ideas of commercial intercourse.... It is an effort frankly directed to the increase of American trade upon the axiomatic principle that the government of the United States shall extend all proper support to every legitimate and beneficial American enterprise abroad."

    The policy implications of the overproduction thesis were clearly spelled out by military and economic theorists like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Brooks Adams.

    In The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), Mahan linked the nation's growing agricultural and industrial productivity to the need for a modern navy that could protect the commercial fleet and control the waterways. The only choices the United States faced, in his view, were to absorb American products at home through some "socialistic" mechanism, or to find new markets for American goods across the seas. Mahan anticipated Frederick Jackson Turner's notion of a new national order in the post-"frontier" era. The seas now constituted the frontier, a vast safety valve to drain off the nation's surplus production. In Mahan's view, production, shipping, and colonization (in that order) constituted the mainspring of historic activity among powerful, seagoing nations. Control of the seas was the key to controlling the nation's economic fate in a period of overproduction.

    Brooks Adams, too, started with the premise of overproduction, and, like Mahan, ended with a dramatic series of policy initiatives. As he put it in America's Economic Supremacy (1900), the United States "stands face to face with the gravest conjuncture that can confront a people. She must protect the outlets of her trade, or run the risk of suffocation." Without significant changes in economic and administrative arrangements, the United States could conceivably suffer gluts "more dangerous to her society than many panics such as 1873 and 1893." In a frankly Darwinian discussion under the subhead "The New Struggle for Life among Nations," Adams warned, "On the existence of this surplus hinges the future." He thus advocated a policy of territorial expansion and administrative concentration ("for governments are simply huge corporations in competition"), including the consolidation of the West Indies under U.S. control, vigorously maintaining "Asiatic markets," and building an isthmian canal as a key to traffic and communication within this emergent trade empire. "If America is destined to win this battle for life," he argued, "she must win because she is the fittest to survive under the conditions of the twentieth century."

    More pragmatic subscribers to the overproduction thesis were no less sweeping in their proposals for a more vigorous state policy. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), founded in 1895 in response to precisely the crisis of markets, advocated a strong, active role for the government in securing and protecting foreign commerce, including a comprehensive network of reciprocity treaties, government subsidies to build a merchant fleet, the construction of a Nicaraguan canal, and the improvement of internal waterways. By the time the NAM emerged in the 1890s, however, the state was already well oriented toward this general aim of securing the requisites of a seagoing commercial power. In the 1870s, the United States had concluded a reciprocity treaty with Hawaii with an eye toward securing "a resting spot in the midocean, between the Pacific coast and the vast domains of Asia," and a treaty with Samoa securing use of the harbor at Pago Pago in exchange for certain political protections. In the 1880s, Congress had set about building a modern navy, authorizing thirty-four steel vessels between 1883 and 1889; during this period, the nation had expanded and improved its consular service as well. The wars of 1898 and 1899 in Cuba and the Philippines, then, would both consolidate this expansive world-view and accelerate the trends in American state-building, as the modern administrative state began to take shape under McKinley and Roosevelt.

    The newly energetic quest for markets would not only cast American government in an increasingly active role, but would also have tremendous implications for those regions that represented the target of such economic aspiration. According to Africa enthusiast Henry Sanford, for instance, President Chester A. Arthur was "influenced by the idea of covering those unclad millions [in Africa] with our domestic cottons." In 1883, Sanford cultivated interest in Washington in the notion of an African International Association under the sponsorship of Belgium's King Leopold II, and the United States did participate in the Berlin Conference on the development of the Congo in 1884-85. Finally, the African market proved far less important for American exporters than either Latin America or Asia—or, indeed, than the cherished image of those naked millions might have promised—largely because the flurry of imperialist activity on the part of the European powers in the region left U.S. goods at a decided disadvantage. But, however insignificant the efforts of men like Sanford, Senator John Kasson, and Secretary of State Frederick Frelinghuysen to translate a vague American interest in Africa into active markets and actual trade practices, it is no small matter that, as early as the 1880s, the United States had joined the colonial powers of Europe at the conference table on the topic of "developing" the Congo. Increasingly, whether by informal means of economic penetration or by more overt methods of territorial aggrandizement by conquest or treaty, the American quest for new markets would lead down the road of empire.

    If the desired global reach never did extend across the south Atlantic to the "dark continent" of Africa, U.S. designs in other regions did take on a decidedly imperialistic cast, either in aspiration or in the actual conduct of policy. The United States looked with feasting eyes upon two regions in particular. China occupied a central place in American economic fantasies throughout the period, although it never did become an actual outlet for U.S. goods on the scale suggested by its enormous population. And Latin America and the Caribbean, if cutting a somewhat less spectacular figure in the American imagination, in fact became a significant market for U.S. exports and a significant proving-ground for those expeditionary forces associated with empire. One key architect of U.S. policy in the region was James Blaine, secretary of state during the assassination-shortened Garfield administration (1881) and then again under Benjamin Harrison (1889-92). Two principles guided his actions in Latin America, he explained: "to bring about peace" and "to cultivate such friendly commercial relations with all American countries as would lead to a large increase in the export trade of the United States." Bringing about peace, as it happened, surprisingly often meant war; and so Latin America became the site of numerous political and military interventions during this formative period in the cultivation of the export trade.

    Taken together, China and Latin America nicely demonstrate two distinct dimensions of the imperial imagination that necessarily attended the "overproduction" thesis of American economic health and stability. The story of the United States in China illumines the realm of imperialist fantasy, as the fondest hopes of exporters reduced the whole of Chinese history and culture to a series of "wants" whose particulars were as easily discerned by the Western eye as they were fulfilled by Western industry. The story of the United States in Latin America, on the other hand, illumines the realm of pure imperial power and its deployment, as policy-makers annexed entire nations, not only as consumers of North American goods but as elements in a strategic infrastructure for an export economy whose requirements included canals, harbors, coaling stations, and naval bases all beyond the proper borders of the nation itself.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Barbarism, Virtue, and Modern American Nationalism 3
Pt. I Markets
1 Export Markets: The World's Peoples as Consumers 15
2 Labor Markets: The World's Peoples as American Workers 59
Pt. II Images
3 Parables of Progress: Travelogues, Ghetto Sketches, and Fictions of the Foreigner 105
4 Theories of Development: Scholarly Disciplines and the Hierarchy of Peoples 139
Pt. III Politics
5 Accents of Menace: Immigrants in the Republic 179
6 Children of Barbarism: Republican Imperatives and Imperial Wards 221
Conclusion: The Temper of U.S. Nationalism - Coming of Age in the Philippines 261
Notes 267
Bibliographic Essay 301
Index 315
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2001

    Defining Other

    In light of recent national events, one question that has come into the national psyche is the conception of America, Americans and our foreign policy. It is difficult for most people to understand that America could possibly be vilified in the eyes other nations and cultures. Perhaps, though, to understand this disdain we must first look internally at American conceptions of 'other' and how, in the pursuit of capitalism, those conceptions are manipulated, changed, and exploited at will. This conception of other is rooted in the country's development as a world power and therefore it is necessary to analyze the initial attempts at conceptualizing foreign and different cultures as they affect our stereotypes and policies today. In a very thorough, interdisciplinary work, Matthew Frye Jacobson details America's encounters with foreign cultures both domestically and internationally. Barbarian Virtues is apt title for this piece that systematically shows how America dealt with these cultures from 1876 through 1917, a cornerstone in the foundation of American history. Perhaps what is most crucial to the work is the changing conception of 'other'. There is a consistent motif of the creation of this idea, particularly the molding of it to fit economic and political objectives. The formation of an alternative identity to the ever- changing American identity serves dual purposes: to alienate and diminish other cultures in the pursuit of capitalism and increased American expansion. Jacobson begins the work with descriptions of export markets and labor markets, which were politically fueled by the exploitation of non-American cultures and the creation of dominant ideologies that made it useful and profitable to develop ideas about many different groups of people. Chapter One focuses on export markets, and the discourse that was created to justify the sale of American products abroad. Jacobson painstakingly describes the 'theories' of overproduction that came about to explain the necessity for export markets. The basic idea was that, with the productive capacity of American workers, there was an ever-growing surplus that had to be sold. The idea of this surplus was, in various ways, turned into an entity that was to bring harm to America if left unchecked. Jacobson quotes a Senator from that time period: 'our surplus will soon roll back from the Atlantic coast upon the interior, and the wheels of prosperity will be clogged by the very richness of the burden which they carry, but cannot deliver' (19). Because of this logic, foreign markets had to be secured. But, what Jacobson so eloquently explains is that there was also a creation of whom these export market consumers were and why their need for American products was so great. The procession from savagery to civilization was internal to the discussion of bringing the surplus to foreign lands, referred to at various times as 'waste spaces.' The people who inhabited these faraway places were thought of as below American citizens and clearly devoid of 'culture'. Here, there is a clear development of the conception of other; in this case the other is physically removed in a different culture. What happens when the 'others' come to America to work in its labor markets? That is what Jacobson describes in Chapter Two. In this instance, we see the dominant discourses of racism, imperialism, and colonialism as filtered through local populations to form continuously changing perceptions of those that immigrate into the States to find employment. Beyond the alienation and stereotyping of foreign populations, we see the beginnings of the conception of whiteness as intrinsically American, as European immigrants, after initial waves of discrimination, are integrated into what comes to be the typical American and often were pitted against Asian immigrants. The most telling example that Jacobson uses is the alienation of the Chinese, who in many cases had been in Ameri

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