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From Captives to Consuls

Three Sailors in Barbary and Their Self-Making across the Early American Republic, 1770-1840

From 1784 to 1815, hundreds of American sailors were held as "white slaves" in the North African Barbary States. In From Captives to Consuls, Brett Goodin vividly traces the lives of three of these men—Richard O'Brien, James Cathcart, and James Riley—from the Atlantic coast during the American Revolution to North Africa, from Philadelphia to the Louisiana Territories, and finally to the western frontier. This first scholarly biography of American captives in Barbary sifts through their highly curated writings to reveal how ordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances could maneuver through and contribute to nation building in early America, all the while advancing their own interests.

The three subjects of this collective biography both reflected and helped refine evolving American concepts of liberty, identity, race, masculinity, and nationhood. Time and again, Goodin reveals, O'Brien, Cathcart, and Riley uncovered opportunities in their adversity. They variously found advantage first in the Revolution as privateers, then in captivity by writing bestselling captivity narratives and successfully framing their ordeal as a qualification for coveted government employment. They even used their modest fame as ex-captives to become diplomats, get elected to state legislatures, and survey the nation's territorial expansions in the South and West. Their successful self-interested pursuit of opportunities offered by the expanding American empire, Goodin argues, constitutes what he calls "the invisible hand of American nation building."

Goodin shows how these ordinary men, lacking the genius of a Benjamin Franklin or Alexander Hamilton, depended on sheer luck and adaptability in their quest for financial independence and public recognition. Drawing on archival collections, newspapers, private correspondence, and government documents, From Captives to Consuls sheds new light on the significance of ordinary individuals in guiding early American ideas of science, international relations, and what it meant to be a self-made man.

About the Author

Brett Goodin is a Global Perspectives on Society Teaching Fellow at New York University Shanghai.

Endorsements

"From Captives to Consuls is full of fascinating detail and insight. I admire the book's imaginativeness, as well as its thorough approach, expression, coherence, and readability."

- Donald Ratcliffe, Oxford University, author of The One-Party Presidential Contest: Adams, Jackson, and 1824's Five-Horse Race

"Brilliantly researched and accessibly written, From Captives to Consuls examines the extraordinary careers of three ordinary Americans to provide an illuminating meditation on the limits and possibilities of self-making in the early American republic."

- Lawrence Peskin, Morgan State University, author of Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785–1816

"Perhaps the best book on the American encounter with the Barbary States—but that is selling it short. Goodin has with clarity and skill reshaped our understanding of early American history. This superbly researched and written exploration of the creation of American identity examines the lives of three extraordinary figures to illuminate their world, and ours."

- Robert J. Allison, Suffolk University, author of The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815

"From Captives to Consuls is simultaneously a rousing tale of three mariners captured by corsairs and held to ransom and a thoughtful and innovative study of how national identity was forged through personal experience. An ambitious addition to the growing literature on the United States in the Atlantic World and to our understanding of how personal, national, and transnational histories connect."

- Ian Tyrrell, University of New South Wales, author of Reforming the World: The Creation of America's Moral Empire

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October 13, 2020
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