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Maxwell School
Maxwell / Department of History
Searing, Robert J.

Robert J.  Searing  ABD  

Field of Study

Early America Republic

Advisor

James Roger Sharp

Dissertation Title

The Union Imperiled: Foreign Affairs and the Struggles Over American Sovereignty 1787-1823

Dissertation Description

In September 1783, the United States and Great Britain formally ended the American Revolution after eight grueling years of war. While the Treaty of Paris legally established and recognized the independence of the nascent American republic, the prospects for the preservation of their newly won status were tenuous at best. After the Revolution, the United States under the Confederation government was surrounded by potentially hostile enemies. To the north, the British held Canada as well as forts technically located on American territory; moreover, the British Navy controlled the seas; On its western and southern borders, the republic was flanked by the Spanish; and thousands of Native American tribes scattered throughout its territory and on the frontier. I would argue that the concerted effort on the part of nationalist leaders like Washington, Madison, and Hamilton to radically transform the continental government of the thirteen United States, which is what the Constitution did, was driven primarily by concerns for the survival of the Union in the midst of these geo-political realities. Wielding the rhetoric of popular sovereignty, the nationalists secured the ratification of the Constitution and proceeded to, under the direction of Hamilton, construct the type of national institutions necessary to maintain and legitimize sovereignty of the new nation. Under pacific conditions, this would be a daunting task. Yet, the American Republic did not have this luxury. War, or the threat of war, became a nearly ubiquitous presence in the early national period. The specter of British and Spanish machinations gave way to real conflict, first with Native Americans, followed by the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon which waged around the United States nearly uninterrupted from 1793 until 1815. My dissertation seeks to examine the myriad of problems these geo-political realities created for the American Union, both in terms of the national governments response and policies and in regards to popular political discourse these developments engendered. How did the threat and reality of war shape national policy? How did the “American people,” the concept itself a very recent one, react and contextualize international developments? To what extent did these debates effect the development of and contestations over how the population defined itself and their republican institutions?