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Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign People at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917
by Claywoman   

Last edited: Sunday, November 03, 2002
Posted: Sunday, November 03, 2002

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A review of a social history and American Imperialism...

Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign People at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917, (New York, Hill and Wang, 2002)

Matthew Frye Jacobson has written a four part, social historical synthesis of the treatment of the immigrants and the foreign policies that followed. His premise is you cannot discuss economic development without discussing foreign policy because they are both intertwined and both played a large part of our history between Reconstruction and World War I. Throughout this book, he shows the correlation between what happens historically in the United States and abroad with the U.S. showing one face diplomatically strong and friendly abroad while within its borders, showing contempt for what they deemed to be inferior ethnic workers. Jacobson pulls into these treatises into the treatment of the original inhabitants and shows the same treatment happening.

Jacobson takes us step by step through this book building the foundations of his treatise building first on the markets with the world’s consumers and the influx of workers that came here to help make those goods sold overseas. He then takes us to the images and does just that; he shows us the images of travelogues and the fictionalizations of foreigners and into theories of development. Then his focus changes to politics and what he terms “the accents of Menace” or how politicians use immigrants both negatively and in certain respects, positively. He then talks about the children of immigrants and how they change the face of politics. Jacobson then concludes this book with what he terms, “The Temper of U.S. Nationalism” and the Philippines.

Jacobson weaves anti-Chinese sentiments of the American public in business and in White America. He relates the romanticism felt throughout the U.S. for the unknown Africa and yet, he shows us the ethnocentrism of the U.S. people when speaking of people of color. He speaks at great length, of eugenics in part II of the book, mapping out the beginning as a suggested area of study to prove the inferiority of some races and the superiority of others, namely the white race and how this study by biologist, Charles Davenport in 1903 and funded by Carnegie foundation. Jacobson then shows how the results of this study helped frame anti-immigration laws passed in 1924. In an interview on PBS quotes Jacobson,

“[For] Davenport, immigration represents the importation into the country of genetic material that is unalterable, and it's also readable. You can read racial character. You can see it. You can measure it. You can define it. And ultimately, if you understand it well enough, you can use those ideas for breeding a better society or, you know, keeping procreation down among certain elements of the population who aren't desirable. And ultimately, of course, you can also use it in deciding who should be able to come into the country and become a naturalized citizen.”#

Jacobson points out studies like this eased the conscience of the nation and allowed them to pass laws limiting the influx of immigrants from some nations while opening immigration further to those nationals the collective conscience deemed worthy of entry. This study also eased the conscience of the masses to deny rights voting rights and the passage of Jim Crow laws because the study showed Blacks were inferior to Whites because of genetic laws.

Throughout this book, Jacobson shows how Americans viewed immigrants from the end of the Civil War, to the Centennial Exposition, to World War I and beyond. He also weaves in the collective forgetfulness of the American people during the war in the Philippines. Jacobson defines how the U.S. sees those not of the narrow vision of what an American is, a White-Anglo Saxon protestant, and pulls the reader through this view in politics, post Civil War economics, racial and labor policies, as well as overseas imperialism. He shows how this awakening of nationalism leads to the conclusion concerning our national imperialism and the Philippine-American war. Jacobson starts with the Exposition in 1876 with the arm of the Statue of Liberty proclaiming to the world a nation willing to accept without reservations, the “tired and poor” of the world to the same country willing to accept the prejudicial study of racial superiority used to exclude those refugees not deemed not worthy of ever becoming Americans. Through the pages of this book, Jacobson shows how this change occurred with the refusal of these countries to see the benefits of both religion and civilization. He also shows us how “current renditions of U.S. history thoroughly expunges the Philippine-American war and related engagements in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the extent that these warrant not even a paragraph in many high-school textbooks, and scarcely that in many college texts. Not only do most Americans know nothing about the conduct of the Philippine-American war; many do not even know that such a war took place”(263). Thus, it is Jacobson’s contention and the contention of many others that this country became a world power “blindly, unintentionally, accidentally, and …in spite of ourselves” (264).

Matthew Frye Jacobson is an associated professor of American studies at Yale and wrote another book dealing with race relations in the U.S. entitled, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. That book helps to define what Americans define as the white race. Both books read together give a better understanding of what is America.

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Reviewed by 12/17/2002
You did a great job with this review.

'Anglo-Saxon' - was that not a British fiction in response to the German's
'Teutonic' racial myth? Let's see, I think Emperor William II described the coming war as the 'last battle' of the Teutons vs. the Slavs, the latter to be supported by the Gauls and Anglo-Saxons.

That brings to mind how black American soldiers who returned to the South from the Great War were persecuted by the KKK and other white racists.

Some 'melting pot' we have here, to this very day.

I enjoy your reviews.

Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 11/4/2002
this was quite a thought-provoking write, claywoman, and one that was well researched! glad to see you back here; we've missed you! love, your friend, karen lynn. ((((HUGS)))) :)
Reviewed by Lawrance Lux 11/4/2002
A fine exposition. I agree with Kearney in many respects, especially the understanding such racial discrimination was Worldwide throughout the Period. Great Britain was the motivating Power to eliminate Slavery, but still to allow Blacks into restaruants and bars up to five years ago.
Reviewed by J Michael Kearney 11/4/2002
You write very well and passionately on this, though there are a few things we all need to remember. America was the first and until the late 20th century, only nation open to immigrants. The earlier one looks at American history, the worse the immigrant groups were treated. Through the middle of the 20th Century Jews, Italians, Irish and Eastern Europeans were seen as "the refuse of Europe" and weren't wanted here. Through the fifties my father's Dad (my grandfather) wasn't allowed to rise above the level of dispatcher for the private bus lines in NYC. The reason stated, was "you have to be a Mason (freemason) to move up." That meant no Catholics (Irish or Italian)...almost no Jews or anyone other than WASP either. Today people look back on that as barbaric, but America was and is ahead of its time. Even today most other nations don't allow other groups to immigrate. Most Asians see all other races as inferior, Africa is rife with almost perpetual racial strife - Asians and Indians (from India) are often violently driven out of various African nations. The Islamic Middle-East is perhaps the most repressive region on earth where, in many of those countries a person can be put to death for merely carrying a Bible or a Rosary. Even Europe has a very poor track record - the French and Spanish routinely turn away African starving immigrants from war-torn nations and Germans chase out their Turkish workers as soon as the economy falters in the slightest. /// All this is as natural as self-preservation. No one wants to lose their culture, their country to outsiders and that is a natural fear among all humans. America is currently alone in experimenting in a "multi-racial, diversity-based" society. Personally, I think the undergirding idea for it is a very flawed one. Humans are tribal in nature and that's that. It isn't a "bad part of human nature" because there is no "bad part" of human nature...just as there is no "bad part" of nature herself. Yes, as humans, we naturally divide ourselves up - by religion, race, geographic origin, etc. There is both good and bad in that and in the end, we have to take the good with the bad. /// America was and is no different than the rest of the world when it comes to human nature. The people who are here resent and fear the gains made by newcomers. The only difference between America and the rest of the world has been that America hasn't pogrommed or chased out any groups (even though it was proposed to resettle freed blacks after the Civil War). When you look around at the rest of the world's tremendous amount of racial and religious strife, America has always been far more tolerant. I'd dare say that America circa 1890 - 1910 (perhaps the height of anti-immigrant sentiment in this country) was far more tolerant than most of Asia, Africa and the Mid-East...even more tolerant than much of Europe is today. /// As I said, fine writing, despite our apparent disagreements.
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