Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Revolutionary Negotiations: Indians, Empires, and Diplomats in the Founding of America • Leonard J. Sadosky • Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010 • xiv, 278 pp. • $40.00
Reviewed by Robert Parkinson, assistant professor of history at Shepherd University. His forthcoming book is The Common Cause: Race, Nation, and the Consequences of Unity in the American Revolution.
Many books begin by claiming that they will explain how America "came to be." This one does too—except it is more satisfying than most that make that statement. Revolutionary Negotiations is an "extended interpretative essay," a "hybrid" of traditional diplomatic and intellectual history, that seeks to explain how colonial rebels created a nation that not only was a recognized member of the international states system but also one that was eventually capable of projecting power across North America (p. 5).
What is new and exciting about this study is conceptual. Sadosky examines simultaneously how American leaders learned, performed, and reshaped the political culture of diplomacy both in European capitals and at Indian council fires. Although most scholars have cordoned off the international states system from the borderlands system as two entirely separate subjects, Sadosky boldly does not. Revolutionary Negotiations shows how European diplomats, colonial political elites, United States officials, and Indian leaders all grappled with the huge changes in diplomatic relations across the Atlantic from 1730 to 1830.
In 1730, Sadosky argues, the relationship between England and the people in its empire—whether Indian or colonist—was "nebulous" (p. 28). Confusion reigned throughout the mid-eighteenth century as the Native Americans gave land away that they did not really control, and colonial leaders demanded political rights that they had no authority to assume. By the 1770s this constitutional misunderstanding led to war and independence. But the real point of the Declaration of Independence, Sadosky argues, was about establishing the United States as a legitimate member of the international system. Therefore, real independence was not only in Jefferson's document but also in the "Model Treaty" and the Articles of Confederation that formalized the union. This "suite of documents" constitutes independence, Sadosky contends (p. 82). Those documents, moreover, had real consequences for people in the backcountry. They signaled the desire of American leaders to move toward a formal relationship with all foreign nations and away from the fluid negotiations that marked previous dealings with Indians.
But many people did not share this desire. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison wanted not only to enter the international system but also to reshape it on their own terms. European leaders, though, rejected this type of New World thinking in part because they were leery of the weakness of the federal relationship of American states and their capacity to deal with Indian peoples. Sadosky argues that diplomatic impotency on the frontier and in Europe was a key factor to make the union more perfect in 1787. The Constitution did not end the clashes between state officials, federal agents, and Native Americans over who had the authority to negotiate for land. Federalists and Republicans dissented over "who is in charge" (p. 171). That question fractured American responses to both Indian policy and the wars of the French Revolution. Finally, with the War of 1812, the United States moved formally into the international states system, not just with peace but also with the adoption of what Sadosky calls the "Jackson Doctrine," the isolation of all Indian peoples from engaging with any outside connection. With the "Jackson Doctrine" the United States exhibited its emergence as a modern nation-state because it had the power to "forcibly relocate an ethnic/racial minority against its will" (p. 215).
This is a thought-provoking book. Its turning points are surprising and fresh, and the narrative is well-crafted. It is an excellent choice for undergraduate classrooms. More importantly, it should be essential reading for cultural specialists who might have carelessly cast diplomatic history aside. For them, the question of how America came to be is especially germane. Sadosky's excellent answer to that question—though it comes from the realm of treaty conferences—should not be ignored.