Many Americans tend to think of 1776 as the year when the United States began making history on its own terms. That is simply untrue. Building on recent scholarship that challenges this assumption is Eliga Gould’s Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire (Harvard University Press, 2012). Gould seeks to correct this anachronistic tendency by placing the nascent American state in the context of its time, artfully dissecting the rhetoric and writing of early American citizens and statesmen. Though many of the founding fathers wrote and spoke optimistically about the prospects and goals of the new nation, the success and future of the nation was far from certain. Gould acknowledges this and deftly couches such rhetoric in the reality that the only way for the United States to achieve these goals was to “conform to European norms and expectations.” That the Americans were trying to establish themselves as a nation among other nations, he contends, was no minor consideration. It was a necessity upon which the commercial and political future of the nation hinged. The founders understood this well, as Gould skillfully showcases via a scrupulous survey of contemporary sources. Thus, this quest for legitimacy––what Gould terms “treaty-worthiness”––had a profound influence on the creation of early American republic.
Placing the American Revolution in an Atlantic context makes this book a fun and informative read. Departing from the typical narrative of the thirteen colonies allows Gould to bring in a variety of characters and stories that do not often appear in traditional histories of the Revolution––from French Acadians and their forcible removal from Nova Scotia to African slaves in the Caribbean, maroon communities, and absentee sugar planters living in London––offering a more comprehensive view of the Revolution and its meaning across the entire British Empire. Gould’s masterful command of primary sources and his adroit ability as an author make this work enjoyable for both students of history and general readers alike.