In his compelling new book, historian Eliga H. Gould argues that the United States at its founding faced a paradox that’s now rarely acknowledged. As Gould explains in Among the Powers of the Earth, the young Union’s desired state of independence could only actually be achieved by claiming—and being granted—full membership in the community of nations. “We think of the American Revolution as the moment when Americans began to make their own history,” Gould notes in the video below. “It actually would be much more accurate to say it’s the moment when we began to make the history that others were prepared to let us make.”
Gould makes the case that the Declaration of Independence and many of the other founding documents from the American Revolutionary period demonstrate that what Americans actually sought was independence under the law of nations, rather than some sort of complete freedom from external obligations. So, even in that moment when a budding nation was determined to free itself from the constraints of colonial rule, the American founders were conscious of the need to conform to what other nations deemed legal.
To Gould, even the United States Constitution should be understood as an attempt to secure international recognition, rather than just a document outlining American liberties and rights. And one of the fascinating implications of Gould’s argument is what this American conformity meant for the spread of what was previously a particularly European law of nations. In the course of staking its independence in the New World, then, the United States also served as a new outpost for and exporter of a distinctly European sense of sovereignty, which had tremendous global and local implications.
It says a lot about the United States as a nation that this early need for approval and membership is largely absent from the stories we tell ourselves about the country’s founding. It’s not surprising, of course, given the still-thriving streak of American exceptionalism that’s always characterized America’s conception of itself.
To Gould, though, Among the Powers of the Earth doesn’t simply force us to reconceive American origin stories. The book should also help to assuage some of the concerns of those made uneasy by the prospect of a world in which the United States is but a member nation, no longer a singular leader, master of its own destiny. “I think it’s comforting to know that the founders faced a very similar set of problems and that even though there were moments when they made missteps, that they also came through it. And certainly the hope is that we too, today, will find our way through it as they did then.”