Domesticating Foreign Struggles: The Italian Risorgimento and Antebellum American Identity

By Berthold, Dennis | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Domesticating Foreign Struggles: The Italian Risorgimento and Antebellum American Identity


Berthold, Dennis, The Catholic Historical Review


Domesticating Foreign Struggles: The Italian Risorgimento and Antebellum American Identity. By Paola Gemme. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press. 2005. Pp. xii, 204. $39.95.)

Until 1861, when King Victor Emmanuel II proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy, Italy was divided into six major states and several minor ones, most of them under Hapsburg or Bourbon rule. Not until Pope Pius IX lost his temporal authority over Rome in 1870 was the peninsula finally united under one government, a constitutional monarchy. This process, known as the Risorgimento or resurgence, began in 1814 and paralleled a similarly important period in the United States, the tumultuous years before the Civil War. Paola Gemme shows how Americans embraced the Risorgimento for its opposition to papal and foreign rule and identified with its quest for a unified constitutional republic. In so doing, Gemme argues, Americans reinvented Italian reality to suit their domestic needs, creating fictions of national identity that addressed their own political, racial, and religious conflicts and reinforced their self-constructed image as the world's exclusive center of republicanism and civic virtue. In contrast to scholars who find America turning inward to discover itself, Gemme finds that international events were essential to the discourse and construction of national identity.

Gemme musters powerful support from literary, economic, historical, journalistic, and government documents, and her fluency in Italian deepens her understanding of Italian culture. Writers as diverse as the journalist Margaret Fuller, the popular historian Joel Tyler Headley, the Roman Catholic convert Orestes Brownson, the former slave Frederick Douglass, the editors of the liberal journal Democratic Review, and the cultural nationalists in the Young America movement demonstrate American enthusiasm and ignorance as they appropriated Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, and other Risorgimento patriots. By identifying Italians as slaves, for example, abolitionists strengthened their arguments for liberating African-Americans at home. Meanwhile, official United States policy supported the Risorgimento for economic, not political, reasons, as Italy's struggle fed American commercialism, xenophobia, and anti-Catholicism. …

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