Anne G. Myles: The Striking Parallels Between the Way Bush Talks About Iraq and the Way Americans in the 1790's Talked About Algiers

Roundup: Historians' Take

Anne G. Myles, at (Oct. 2004):

[Anne G. Myles is assistant professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. She has published numerous articles on various aspects of dissent and gender in early America.]

About midway through my undergraduate seminar on American captivity narratives last fall, we were discussing one of the earliest American literary works to deploy this essential historic genre: Susanna Haswell Rowson’s 1794 play Slaves in Algiers, or, A Struggle for Freedom, a comedy-melodrama focusing on a group of Americans held captive in Algiers, one of the Barbary States of North Africa. The play is not distinguished by great literary excellence or readability, but it is fascinating in its complex mix of political agendas. On the surface level, the play was part of a wide public effort in the early 1790s to stir sympathy for the real white captives of the time. But it is equally dedicated to serving the ongoing commitment of Rowson (best known as the author of the wildly popular seduction novel Charlotte Temple) to advocate for women’s rights in the new republic and maintain the importance of female virtue. On other political levels, Slaves in Algiers reveals uncomfortable strains of xenophobia and anti-Semitism and–most conspicuously to readers in the present political era–it makes evident the deep roots of America’s imperial fantasies concerning the Islamic world.

The galvanizing moment in our class discussion came as we reread the play’s conclusion. Its closing words are shared by the young American hero and heroine, Henry and Olivia, separated by their respective captivities and now reunited following the Americans’ victory over their Muslim captors. Henry speaks of returning to the United States, "where liberty has established her court–where the warlike Eagle extends his glittering pinions in the sunshine of prosperity." And Olivia concludes, "Long, long may that prosperity continue–may Freedom spread her benign influence thro’ every nation, till the bright Eagle, united with the dove and the olive branch, waves high, the acknowledged standard of the world." "Hang on," I told my students, "Now listen to this–" and I read to them from the conclusion of President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech: "America is a strong nation and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers. Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation." Gratifyingly, I heard sucked-in breaths and exclamations at the echoes between early national and contemporary political rhetoric as we contemplated the continuing presence of the past. Bush’s speech was delivered less than two months before the tanks rolled into Iraq; Rowson’s dialogue, less than a decade before the United States’ invasion of Tripoli, the first war authorized under the U.S. Constitution and the country’s first military victory following the Revolution. What my students and I shook our heads over was how precisely for both Rowson’s characters and the current administration the dream is the same: that the world will become an empire of liberty under the leadership of the United States, a country that considers itself entitled to tell everyone else what freedom means and impose itself as "the standard of the world."...

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Vernon Clayson - 10/10/2004

Your study should have told you more than what you appear to have noticed considering similarities in words spoken about the circumstances then and now. That would be that
we have had to face down Muslims for nearly 300 years, it wasn't a niggling thing then and it still isn't. Perhaps you think if we ignore them they will not be a concern - you are wrong, they are and have been a war with infidels for even longer than that, time means nothing. Our descendants for centuries to come will continue to be a target for them. They have merely changed from spreading Islam with the sword to spreading it with high explosives - not that they have forgotten the sword, they still use them to behead infidels.