From the beginning, Americans were interested in cultural themes in their foreign affairs. For one thing, at the time of the American Revolution the political and intellectual leaders were fond of stressing the multiethnic nature of the new republic. In most instances, to be sure, multiethnicity consisted of diverse European nationalities rather than distinctive racial groups. Compared with western European countries, the United States seemed unique in that no nationality constituted a majority of the nation, even though those of English stock represented nearly half the population. There were Welsh, Irish, Germans, French, Scandinavians, and others whose admixture with, and adoption of the language of, the English-speaking Americans impressed European visitors for decades after the Revolution. This was as much a cultural as a political undertaking; to establish a republic made up of people from many countries who imagined themselves to belong to the same community required some shared memory, a sense of Americanness, to distinguish the new nation from all others. How such a republic could survive in a world consisting of sovereign states, on one hand, and of large empires, on the other, was the key question.
One way for the American people to assure themselves that this could be done was through developing a fairly precise image of themselves. The idea of the "city on a hill," and the idealized self-perception that the Americans had struggled for the "rights of man," not simply the rights of Englishmen, implied the coming into existence of a new kind of nation and assumed that others, too, would look to the United States as a land of freedom and opportunity. Conversely, Americans would carry out their mission to spread the blessings of civilization and liberty to the less fortunate in distant countries. If, as so many writers asserted, America was the most progressive land in the world, it was because it was a country without archaic encumbrances, where men and women from many countries would come and work together to build a new, ideal community. Anybody, theoretically, could join the undertaking. By the same token, what happened here would be of universal applicability. If various races and groups could join together in the United States to realize an earthly paradise, there was no reason why they could not do so elsewhere in the world. It was in this sense that America was called humankind's best hope.
Such universalism implied a view of other peoples that was monolithic and an idea of history that was unilinear. Just as divergent groups who came to the United States would create one unified people, so the rest of the world would ultimately tend to that goal. The American dream would be realized globally, and the American experience would become a world experience. America would cease to be unique only when its ideals and institutions were firmly implanted in all parts of the globe. The entire world would become one great America.
This type of teleological idealism was quite obviously a cultural product and provided one basic framework in which Americans developed their cultural relations with other countries. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, this, the cultural framework, was probably the only way the majority of Americans knew how to relate themselves to others. Cultural relations in that sense were thus a vital aspect of national self-definition.
This can be seen in the ways in which Americans viewed non-European people. Europeans, of course, comprised the bulk of the population of the United States, and cultural ties across the Atlantic were quite important. At the same time, however, it was when Americans dealt, either directly or indirectly, with people outside Western civilization that their cultural self-awareness became most clearly articulated. For instance, they viewed Arabs, Hindus, or Chinese in the framework of their own self-definition. These people, in other words, would be judged in terms of their distance from the American ideals and of their capacity to approximate them—if not immediately, then in the future. It is not surprising that observers of non-European societies frequently argued about whether these societies would ever transform themselves and become more like America. The basic assumption was, of course, that at the moment they lacked most of the ingredients that made the United States so progressive. Native populations in the Middle East, South Asia, or East Asia were almost invariably described as ignorant, indolent, and oppressed by arbitrary despots. They were the exact opposite of the Americans. Joel Barlow, poet and diplomat, described Hassan Pasha, dey of Algiers, as "a man of a most ungovernable temper; passionate, changeable, and unjust to such a degree that there is no calculating his policy from one moment to the next." William Eaton, appointed consul at Tunis by President John Adams, wrote of the "continual altercations, contentions and delays among the Arabs." "Poverty makes them thieves," he reported, "and practice renders them adroit in stealing." Similar expressions can be found at random in American writings on Turks, Chinese, Japanese, and other non-European nationalities throughout the nineteenth century.
A key question, given such an image of non-Europeans, was whether they had some redeeming qualities. On this point American universalism decreed that no people was so inherently depraved as to be totally incapable of attaining a higher level of civilization. The basic credo of American democracy was that any individual had certain abilities that could be developed to their potential if artificial restrictions were removed. Even those suffering under poverty and despotism were not entirely hopeless creatures. Given external stimuli to make them aware of alternative possibilities, and under favorable institutional conditions, they were certain to transform themselves. For, as the Democratic Review put it in 1839, "The same nature is common to all men … they have equal and sacred claims … they have high and holy faculties." It followed that Americans, having developed these faculties and made good their claims to progress, had a unique obligation to the rest of humankind. It was up to them, declared the Knickerbocker in 1840, "whether our fellow men shall reach the elevation whereof they are capable, and … whether or not [we shall] confer on them the most inestimable of all earthly boons, the boon of civilization."
It might be thought that in such a situation, there could be no genuine, equal cultural relations, especially with non-Europeans; Americans would interact with other societies and cultures through the cultural vocabulary of their own. Other peoples would merely be at the receiving end of American civilization without anything to give in return. Such, however, was not always the case. Even in the first half of the nineteenth century, when optimism regarding American values was most notable, appreciation of different cultural standards and achievements was not lacking. One has only to recall the great interest in porcelain, silks, paintings, and other objects brought back from China. Curiosity about other societies coexisted with a disdain for despotic institutions or alien religions. Samuel Goodrich's A History of All Nations, a popular textbook published in 1851, explained that while Asians on the whole were "slavish … superstitious … [and] treacherous," their arts compared favorably with those of Europe. "All the efforts of European art and capital," Goodrich wrote, "have been unequal fully to imitate the carpets of Persia, the muslins of India, the porcelain of China, and the lacquered ware of Japan." When the first Japanese embassy arrived at San Francisco in 1860, a correspondent for the New York Times recorded, "It makes a white man blush to see how much more simple, tasteful and sensible they were in their uniforms than our grandees were in theirs."
Such observations revealed a fascination with the strange and the exotic that appeared lacking in Western civilization. Some went a step further and found positive significance in things Oriental. No group was more interested in them than the Transcendentalists. As they grew dissatisfied with the Christian religion as it was practiced in the 1830s and the 1840s, they turned to Hinduism and Buddhism with a sense of fresh discovery. Their understanding of these Asian religions may have been superficial, but they were the first group of Americans who seriously viewed the non-West not as an object of their mission but as a good in itself, as something that might be relevant to their own life. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, was struck by the pantheism of the Hindu religion, which perceived godliness in all beings and all things. The pervading sense of serenity and the absence of a rigid demarcation between self and nature appealed to one who found modern life increasingly distasteful. As he remarked in his celebrated Harvard Divinity School address of 1838, "moral sentiment" had "dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East … Europe has always owed to oriental genius its divine impulses."
Only a handful of Americans went as far as the Transcendentalists in embracing the spirit of another civilization, but the appreciation of distinctive values and ways of life sustaining the Orient seems to have produced in many observers an awareness of cultural pluralism in the world. The East was much more than the negation of the West, an object of the latter's contempt or pity, something whose only hope lay in wholesale transformation. For example, in 1854 the New York Quarterly reported the longing of a traveler for the life, manners, and climate of the Orient, which "all our comfort and all our facilities for travelling by steamers and railroads cannot satisfy or dispel." Three years later, dissatisfaction with the "matter-of-fact, work-a-day age" prompted James P. Walker to publish the Oriental Annual, an anthology of Eastern folklore and poetry.
Such expressions approach cultural relativism, the feeling that each culture has its own autonomous tradition and inherent characteristics that cannot be artificially changed by external stimuli. In nineteenth-century America, thoroughgoing cultural relativism was a rare phenomenon; but to the extent that some thought about the question, it became inexorably linked with the idea of human progress. If a distinct cultural tradition was a product of centuries of history, could it ever be significantly altered from without? Would it ever be possible to change peoples' ways of life? If they lived in abject poverty and suffered from despotic rule, was it not because they were so conditioned by tradition, and by their collective traits? In short, were they not living as they were simply because they were made to be that way?
These questions were of particular interest to Americans because they had obvious implications for the slavery dispute. Just as they debated among themselves whether black men and women were capable of education and progress, and if they would be better off in an industrial than in a plantation economy, Americans discussed colors other than white and black. According to a popular view, humankind was divided into white, black, yellow, brown, and red races, each with distinctive traits that were often considered immutable. Almost invariably, the black people were placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of races. Samuel Morton's Crania Americana (1839) asserted that the Caucasian race was characterized by "the highest intellectual endowments" and that the Mongolian race was "ingenious, imitative, and highly susceptible of cultivation," whereas the "Ethiopian" was "joyous, flexible, and indolent—the lowest grade of humanity." The bulk of humanity, being neither white nor black, thus belonged to the gray area between the highest and the lowest categories. It is not surprising that there were considerable ambiguities in American attitudes toward them. They had unique features, some of which could be readily appreciated by Americans, but this did not mean that they were the equal of Westerners.
United States cultural relations before the Civil War, then, were of particular significance when Americans dealt with cultures and societies outside Western civilization. Their responses combined the prevailing sense of Western superiority with some appreciation of the strange. Confidence in the universality of certain values was coupled with more rigid racialist thinking. The overwhelmingly European-centered cultural framework was undermined by some individuals who looked to the East as a fascinating alternative. On the whole, however, it would seem that non-Western cultures and peoples had not yet made a strong impact on American society. If there were intercultural relations between them, they were not equal but basically unidirectional.