"Making Roads for Other People": The Latin American Trade and the Origins of Development in the United States, 1808-1830

Karen D. Caplan

In 1808, Napoleon’s invasion of Spain provoked a series of insurrections in its American colonies. These events prompted public debate in the United States about the opportunities or threats that the opening of commerce with any new nations might present for the U.S. economy. This paper examines early interest in commerce and the developing narrative about the potential new nations. Observers in the United States celebrated the potential of Spanish and Portuguese America and of its new citizens as producers and consumers while simultaneously proposing a hierarchy of national economic types in which the U.S. and the new nations occupied different positions. At the same time, a growing awareness of an enormous chasm between what promoters of trade believed would be possible and the willingness and ability of the citizens of the new countries to do their part in making it happen created a dilemma. To become a reality, the imagined relationship between the U.S. and the countries of what would later be called Latin America required some kind of intervention. The question of whose intervention and what kind would set the stage for merchants, promoters, and government officials as they built commerce over the course of the nineteenth century.