Q&A with Dane Morrison, Author of True Yankees


The following is an interview with Dane A. Morrison, about his recently-released book, True Yankees: The South Seas & the Discovery of American Identity (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Morrison is Professor of History at Salem State University (MA).

JUNTO: I could not help but note that tea was a key item of Canton trade—it seemed a bit of an irony, given the political implications of tea during the American Revolution. Can I then ask, why tea?

MORRISON: For early Americans, tea was both a refreshing beverage and a signifier of gentility. Scholars, including Ben Carp, observe that in the period of resistance leading up to the Revolution, the problem wasn’t tea, but the British insistence on monopolizing the tea trade. With independence, Americans were now free to sail to the source and trade in it themselves. In effect, they Americanized the tea trade.

JUNTO: As I read, I was struck by how your book seems to dovetail nicely with themes in Eliga Gould’s Among the Powers of the Earth, a contender in the The Junto‘s March Madness tournament this past year. I’m thinking specifically about the discussion of Commerce in chapter 8 of de Vattel’s Law of Nations, wherein de Vattel notes the obligation of a nation to carry on a foreign trade (as one part of “treaty worthiness,” as Gould calls it). That’s implicit in Gould’s book, and I would think yours, given that these trade missions were about creating American legitimacy as a sovereign nation in a period where more than a few European powers were skeptical. Could you speak more to that?

DM: Well, there was no “America” in 1784, when the first American vessels sailed to China and Indianot as a unified nation. The US was divided into thirteen separate republics organized into a loose alliance called the Confederation, and Europe’s capitals gave the nascent country only grudging regard. In the book, I quote Fisher Ames’s eulogy of Washington: “Until that contest, a great part of the civilized world had been surprisingly ignorant of the force and character, and almost the existence, of the British colonies . . . They did not view the colonists so much as a people, as a race of fugitives, whom want, solitude, and intermixture with the savages had made barbarians.” The Americans were concerned with how they would be received both by the Chinese and Europeans. The early voyagers wanted to secure their legitimacy, in Shaw’s words, “personally and nationally.” The journals they kept and books they published amply document every sign of what they called “politeness” and “civility.”

JUNTO: One of the notable things about True Yankees is that there’s a clear shift between the first “generation” of merchants, and the second group, who seem to be less tolerant/open-minded about the cultures they encounter. Was this the result of the United States becoming more confident in its national identity, and prowess as a trading power, or are there other things to which we could ascribe this change in mindset?

DM: Certainly, over the 60 years of the Old China Trade, they gained the national and personal legitimacy they desired. I think we want to consider two other factors at play here. For one thing, their experiences changed. The first generation had fought in the Revolution. Many of the mariners had served in the Continental Army or Navy, and had lost friends and relations. A number suffered in British prisons. The consciousness of the second generation was post-revolutionary. R.B. Forbes was born in 1804, and Harriett Low in 1809. Their America was a different country from the rebellious states that Shaw, Delano, and Fanning had inhabited in their youth. This American had largely achieved Shaw’s purpose, to be accepted among the community of civilized nations. A second consideration is the waning of Enlightenment principles. This second generation had left behind the spirit of curious observation and tolerance of the Enlightenment. They did not feel they had much to learn from the peoples of the Great South Sea. [1]

JUNTO: You noted at several points, skepticism as to the long-term potential of the United States by a number of European powers. Did the success (if sometimes modest) of the China project alleviate some of that skepticism? Did they expect it to?

DM: Sure. The ability of Americans to sail “eastward of Good Hope” proved they could do what the great European EICs could do, and that they belonged in the community of nations. True Yankees emphasizes the ways in which their writing demonstrated this success, a neglected element of the print culture of the early republic . . . what I am calling a China Trade literature. I make the point that they formed a national identity through their reflections on their experiences, especially in writing about their experiences. Their writing reached the eyes of influential thinkers in the republic of letters. The accounts of Delano (1817) and Fanning (1833) were reviewed in The North American Review. Fanning was published the next year in London and Paris. Their America was, as Benedict Anderson writes, very much an “imagined community,” and their American was an invented figure.

JUNTO: Richard L Bushman’s classic Puritan to Yankee describes the role of an expanding New England economy that’s increasingly connected to that of the greater Atlantic as a factor in the fading of Puritan influence (or what Mark Noll calls “the Puritan Canopy”) by the early 18th century. “Yankee” becomes a way of describing a more commercial, individualistic, and arguably less “pious” New Englander. Although not all of the players in the China trade were New Englanders—you mention Philadelphia financier Robert Morris, among othersthe merchants you chronicle are. Do you see a distinction between a “Yankee” and an “American” (a la, Jon Butler or perhaps Joyce Appleby), or are they one and the same?

DM: In the early republic, “Yankee” became a charged and protean term. We can see this expressed nicely in a book like Travels in America, Thomas Twining’s travelogue. What it meant depended on who was using it and where he/she sat. For someone using the term in Charleston, or even Philadelphia, a Yankee was a New Englander, and the term was often used disparagingly. But, global encounters affected how Americans understood the term. In Canton or Calcutta, they were Yankees, whether they were from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston. When Edmund Fanning called himself a “true Yankee,” he did so in the British port of Falmouth, and he meant to distinguish himself from the British, as an American and not as a New Englander. And, so, this form of writingin ships’ logs, journals, letters written from the far side of the worldare situating Yankees as Americans generally.


[1] It’s worth noting that Morrison’s book ends in 1844, right as China’s role as (arguably) the economic power of Asia starts to decline. Meanwhile, the power of rival Japan, which mainly kept the influence of foreigners at bay, starts to rise.

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  1. Pingback: Wednesday Link Roundup #78: Interesting History Links from the End of 2014 - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart


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