Manco Capac and the Global American Founding

Manco Capac Grosvenor PrintsEveryone’s thinking more globally these days, historians included. But constructing a historical imagination that encompasses the whole planet isn’t only a project of the twenty-first century. The American Revolution took place in an age of global exploration, commerce, and empire. When people wrote and thought about the new nation’s founding, they didn’t look just to Europe and the classical world for connections and comparisons, but to Asia and South America as well. Writers were eager to show that the context in which they understood American events was a global one. Take for example the career of Manco Capac, founding father of the Inca kingdom of Cuzco.

It was through the son of a conquistador and an Inca princess that Manco became familiar to learned Europeans in the early seventeenth century. The richness with which Garcilaso de la Vega could tell the tales of his own heritage soon led his 1609 work to supplant those of earlier Spanish historians. Over the following two centuries, Manco became a model of kingship and wisdom.[1] When, in 1772, Ralph Willett, an English gentleman born on his parents’ St Kitts plantation, set about decorating a new library at his country home in Dorset, he designed a series of bas-reliefs featuring not Jefferson’s trinity of Bacon, Newton, and Locke, but a decidedly more international trio: Confucius, Zoroaster, and Manco Capac. On the shelves, he kept a 1737 edition of Garcilaso’s Histoire des Yncas.[2]

To many globally-minded gentlemen in the age of enlightenment, Manco was a figure of admiration. But not everyone shared that attitude. For the rector of New York’s Trinity Church, Charles Inglis, he represented not enlightenment but superstition. For the loyalist Inglis, Manco’s authority was a sham because it was based on the “fabulous” claim that he was the child of the sun. The claims of Congress and its sympathisers were based on similar “palpable falsehoods.” The world over, Inglis implied, usurpers relied on artifice and credulity to establish false legitimacy.[3]

Manco’s artificial divinity was also emphasised by John Adams. Rather than dismissing him as a fraud, though, Adams ranked him alongside the mythic legislators of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, as well as “the rudest tribes of savages in North America.” Mankind had been “unanimous,” he said, in ascribing divinity to the founders of its governments: “yet nothing more can be inferred from it than this, that the multitude have always been credulous, and the few artful.” The United States, by contrast, was to be a government ‘erected on the simple principles of nature,’ a new departure in human history.[4]

Joel Barlow, the Connecticut poet, was Manco’s staunchest advocate in the new republic. In his 1787 poem, The Vision of Columbus, Barlow even included “A Dissertation on the Genius and Institutions of Manco Capac,” comparing him favourably to an international company of founding fathers – “Moses, Lycurgus, Numa, Mahomet, and Peter of Russia.” He even singled out Manco’s religious institutions for specific praise, at least in the context of “idolatrous nations.” Concluded Barlow, “on the whole, it is evident, that the system of Capac is the most surprising exertion of human genius to be found in the history of mankind.” Europe, in other words, was not the only cradle of global civilisation; America owed it nothing.[5]

The different ways writers in revolutionary America understood Manco Capac reflected, of course, their relationship to their own context: most importantly, to the problem of founding itself. How should authority and legitimacy be established, and how did it relate to other, competing, claims? These were questions that suited a world of overlapping and interconnected empires, a world in which the new republic was taking its first, uncertain steps. It made sense to try to think about these questions globally and comparatively. As Barlow put it, “the extensive and sublime objects opened to our view in a work which celebrates the discovery of one part of the globe, may well be thought worthy the contemplation of the writer, who endeavours to trace the consequences of a similar event in another.”[6]

The transmission of historical knowledge around the world was one effect of imperialist projects that were also destructive and brutal. What did it mean for Ralph Willett to decorate his library, bought with the profits of slavery and expropriation, with the images of luminaries from such distant cultures? Why did Barlow, Adams, and others bother to look beyond the European tradition for their historical models of founding? The truth is, their world was just as global as ours. To understand and control it, they knew they had to look beyond themselves.


[1] Neil Safier, “‘. . . To Collect and Abridge . . . Without Changing Anything Essential’: rewriting Inca history at the Parisian Jardin du Roi,” Book History 7 (2004)” 63-96.

[2] A Catalogue of Books in the Library of Ralph Willett (London, 1790).

[3] Charles Inglis, Letters of Papinian, in which the Conduct, Present State, and Prospects of the American Congress are Examined (New York: J. Wilkie, 1779), 45

[4] John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States (Philadelphia: Hall & Sellers, 1787), ix.

[5] Joel Barlow, The Vision of Columbus (Hartford: Hudson & Godwin, 1787), 56, 71, 77.

[6] Ibid., 46.

5 responses

  1. I have been reading A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman and this has been an interesting learning experience finding out the influence that America has had on Europe

    • You may like Eric Wertheimer’s Imagined Empires: Incas, Aztecs, and the New World of American Literature, 1771-1876, too.

  2. What was these author’s proximate source for Manca Capac? Were Adams, Barlow et al reading Garcilaso directly, or getting it via William Robertson’s History of America?

    • Thanks Jeremy!

      According to Barlow’s biographer Richard Buel, he had read a copy of Paul Rycaut’s 1688 translation of Garcilaso’s “Royal Commentaries” which was in Yale’s library (Joel Barlow, American Citizen in a Revolutionary World, p.89). There’s a long and interesting note on this in Steven Blakemore’s book “Columbiad: A Bicentennial Reading,” p.344 n.12.

      As for Inglis and Adams, I’m much more at a loss, though presumably Harvard had comparable holdings to Yale. Inglis’ reference is the slightest; leaving the fewest clues for this sort of detective work. I’d look to Wertheimer (which I have not read but is by all accounts excellent) for more.


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