Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Geography as Power: The Political Economy of Matthew Fontaine Maury

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Geography as Power: The Political Economy of Matthew Fontaine Maury

Article excerpt

In the nineteenth century, nationalism and geography grew in tandem. A large theoretical literature has shown how various facets of geography helped nation-states appear as a "natural" part of the inevitable march of progress. Indeed, geographers (particularly those specializing in cartography) provided some of the most potent symbols of the nation. Maps, atlases, gazetteers, and surveys symbolized political control of a territory or region; boundaries and demarcations on such documents elegantly denoted the "we" and the "other" so essential to nationalism.1 In the United States, widely circulated maps (often reprinted in books, atlases, spellers, and ceramics) became the "logo" of the nation. In the words of Martin Bruckner, maps taught a wide variety of Americans in the early nineteenth century "not only to imagine but to 'read' themselves as parts of the national whole."2 Even lines representing rivers, canals, and railroads fused together economic imagination and nationalistic ambitions, as they indicated "bands of commerce" that united disparate regions and locales into a coherent national economy.3

Southerners were no different than other nineteenth-century Americans. They used geography to create differing, and often competing, versions of nationalism. The seemingly shared experience of a distinctive southern climate and topography helped knit together millions of different individuals into an "imagined community." In the antebellum period, nationalistic southerners used the nation's river system as powerful symbolism of the economic interdependence of the North, South, and West.4 Once outside the union, Confederate secessionists believed the Souths unique climate and geography helped provide a basis for nationhood. The frequent Confederate invocation of "King Cotton," for example, not only emphasized the importance of cotton to the world economy but also underscored how geography and climate contributed to southern exceptionalism.5 Geography also provided secessionists with a template for spreading slavery throughout the western hemisphere; southern intellectuals conceived of the Gulf of Mexico as the Souths Mediterranean, which would become the center of both slavery and world commerce. Once the Confederacy's bid for independence failed, southerners viewed the Gulf of Mexico as a geographical laboratory of how unfree labor could survive the death of slavery.6

Historians are certainly aware of how geography functioned in tandem with slavery and unfree labor to create and reinforce a unique (if flexible) southern identity, but there has been as yet no systematic attempt to analyze how geographic thinking developed within the antebellum South. This article begins that task with a detailed examination of the economic geography of Matthew Fontaine Maury - perhaps the most renowned geographer of nineteenth-century America.

Born in 1806 near Fredericksburg, Maury spent most of his childhood on a farm near Franklin, Tennessee, before entering the U.S. Navy at age nineteen. He soon distinguished himself as a brilliant navigator and scientific writer. When appointed as head of the navy's Depot of Charts and Instruments in 1842, Maury used discarded log books to chart carefully water temperatures, currents, wind direction, and whale migrations. In 1853, he spearheaded international efforts to collect and analyze data from standardized logs kept on ships from around the world. Maury's detailed charts and voluminous navigation books significantly decreased sailing times and earned him the title "Pathfinder of the Seas."7 His contributions to the fields of oceanography, astronomy, and meteorology led to international acclaim; he received medals and awards from across Europe.

Maury's work extended far beyond oceanography. For almost fifty years, he analyzed the South's relationship with the rest of the world. He wrote extensively about the potential of trade with China and the Far East, the importance of a transcontinental railroad, the commercial development of the Amazon Basin, and the creation of direct trade between Europe and the South. …

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