The US Drive To Expand Across North America And Beyond
The expansionist impulse in the United States, the US drive to expand across North America and beyond, with roots in the colonial era, enjoyed its greatest phase in the 1840s, during the administration of President James K. Polk. It was that era that gave rise to the philosophical rationalization for continental and, later, imperial expansion known as Manifest Destiny. Writers and politicians seized upon the phrase, coined by a now obscure New York journalist, and fleshed it out into a justification for national aggrandizement. The reasons for Manifest Destiny's popularity were varied, especially given the sectionalism of the US at that time. The biggest reason was economic, of course, but racial reasons abounded, as did philosophical ones: Expansionism, it was believed, would check the United States' growing trend toward urbanization. There was also an evangelical belief that the US would be in the vanguard of spreading democracy and freedom throughout the world.
The stroke of Thomas Jefferson's pen aside, many historians believe expansionism as US policy was given impetus by John Quincy Adams during his tenure as secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe. At that time, Adams envisioned the US extending to the Pacific, but by the end of his life, that is, the 1840s when the expansionists were gearing up, he virtually renounced his earlier stance, fearing the extension of slavery into the territories.
The most notable expansionist of the 1840s was President Polk. Elected over Henry Clay and James G. Birney in 1844 with just a 49.6 percent plurality (though a comfortable majority in the Electoral College), Polk saw his victory as a mandate for expansionism, and the first tests of that so-called mandate came soon after his inauguration. Texas, which nine years earlier had gained its independence from Mexico, applied to be admitted into the union as a state. Outgoing president John Tyler had already set the annexation wheels in motion, but Polk immediately voided Tyler's proclamation so as to examine the situation further. After having done so, he reversed himself and sent the application to Congress. By then, the rabble rousing had begun.
Chief among the expansionist propagandists was John L. O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan was a Jacksonian Democrat to the core who, in 1837, founded the literary journal United States Magazine and Democratic Review. Among its contributors were Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Coincidentally, that same year, Boston preacher and founder of the Unitarian Church in the US, William Ellery Channing, in a letter to Henry Clay pessimistically wrote: "There is no necessity for crime. There is no Fate to justify rapacious nations.... We are destined (that is the word) to overspread North America; and intoxicated with the idea, it matters little to us how we accomplish our fate." Although Channing condemned the policy of expansion, he understood it as inevitable. O'Sullivan, on the other hand, viewed expansion not only as a right, but as a purpose for the US which, in an 1839 essay he had dubbed "the great nation of futurity." With Polk's election, he and others began to push their program.
In addition to the Texas annexation question, another problem Polk faced early in his administration was the boundary of the Oregon territory Both matters involved Britain as a potential adversary, though the idea of Britain imposing its influence on a sovereign nation (Texas) against that nation's will seemed more like expansionist bugaboo, especially in light of the Monroe Doctrine. Nevertheless, O'Sullivan used the issue as a pretext to lay out his views, and in doing so, he unwittingly coined a phrase. In an essay appropriately titled "Annexation" in the July-August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review, O'Sullivan chastised other nations (primarily Britain) "for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." O'Sullivan thereby linked administrative policy to a divine plan.
For all practical purposes, Americans, in the eyes of expansionists and even nonexpansion ists, were a chosen people. It was to them that Providence had bestowed the great destiny of "overspreading the continent" and bringing an enlightened society and government to the world. Racial theorists in the US adopting from European colleagues, had been setting the tone for such thinking that would contribute to refining the notion of Manifest Destiny. Various proponents of racialism invented and then defined their theories, stratifying different groups, while always placing their race, Caucasian, at the top of the development ladder. Simply put, within the Caucasian race, the Germanic group was the most developed and among the Germanics, the so-called AngloSaxon group was the creme de la creme. Rebuttals of racial theories were given short shrift, as they have been in Western culture ever since. Ironically, racial theory would come to play a role in checking Manifest Destiny.
Meanwhile, O'Sullivan continued to hammer home his point. In December 1845, with the Texas question decided once and for all with that territory's admission into the Union, O'Sullivan tackled the Oregon boundary problem with an article in the New York Morning News (which he also co-founded). In addition to arguing the legal right of the United States to the territory, O'Sullivan again invoked "the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us." The phrase, manifest destiny, was quickly repeated, and debated, in Congress and soon after taken up by both sides in the expansionist question. As for Oregon, the extremists had their own slogan: "54-40 or fight," referring to the parallel of latitude at which they wanted the boundary drawn. Polk, however, settled with Britain at the 49th parallel.
As the US began to feel more comfortable with the notion of Manifest Destiny, expansionists offered differing interpretations of how to apply it to American policy. Some saw it merely as a means of reaching the Pacific; others took O'Sullivan literally and wanted to expand over the entire mass of North America, while the most extreme interpreters pushed for eventual US sovereignty over the Western Hemisphere.
The expansionist's quest for all of North America really began in the late 1830s when Texas, largely populated by American immigrants, declared itself independent of Mexican rule following a successful revolution. While it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Texas would join the Union, given the makeup and culture of its population, especially the ruling class, signs certainly pointed that way.
But the real prize for expansionists, one that had remained elusive since the Revolutionary War, was Canada. This reached its apex during the brief rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada against British rule during 1837 and 1838. In fact, the leader of the Upper Canada rebellion, William Lyon Mackenzie, even traveled to Buffalo to seek support. He received it in the form of 24 filibusters who were soon reinforced by another 500 men. (The term "filibuster" is used here in its 19th-century sense of a person engaged in fomenting insurrection in a foreign country.) Not only did the filibusters and their American supporters greatly overestimate Canadian disloyalty to the Union Jack and desire, if it ever existed, to become part of the US, but they failed to take into account the foreign policy of President Martin Van Buren. Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott to maintain order along the border. Though Mackenzie was eventually arrested by American authorities for violating the neutrality laws (he served 11 months in prison), American filibusters continued their incursions to no avail after Scott's forces withdrew. The dream of Canadian annexation died hard in the US.
Martin Van Buren did not wish to engage in a third war with Britain and, ultimately, neither did James Polk, which was why the Oregon boundary was settled peacefully. Mexico was a different story. After the success of the Texas Revolution, Americans viewed Mexico as a weak country. Expansionist lust for California increased exponentially - although some were content to annex only the port of San Francisco - and American settlers began to repeat the "Texas pattern". In this they were aided by John C. Fremont, the Pathfinder and future Republican presidential candidate (in 1856). Although there was a short-lived Bear Flag Republic in California, it never achieved the status of the Texas Republic, overshadowed as it was by the Mexican War.
The Mexican War is the event in American history most associated with Manifest Destiny. The war began in 1846 over another border dispute - between Mexico and the new state of Texas. The US claimed that Mexican troops' crossing over the Rio Grande was an incursion onto American soil. Mexico, as well as anti-war proponents in Congress, claimed the boundary was actually further north at the Neuces River. In a maneuver future war hawk presidents would emulate, President Polk managed to steamroll a declaration of war through Congress. The conflict unleashed the forces of Manifest Destiny; to the delight of the expansionists, the rhetoric was finally backed by military action. The army's early successes allowed the expansionists to take the rhetoric up a notch or two. Not only was California a prize to be taken but so was New Mexico and the whole of what is now the southwestern US. Furthermore, the decisive victories of Scott and, especially, General Zachary Taylor prompted a call among expansionists to claim all of Mexico.
The All-Mexico movement gained momentum because the territorial acquisition would include the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, across which the American government had dreams of building a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This would thwart British ambitions of building and controlling their own canal across the isthmus. Furthermore, if Mexico were to become a US territory, then the Gulf of Mexico would be firmly in American hands - not a small matter, especially in light of a future canal. A third reason for acquiring the entire country was a so-called humanitarian one. Many simply felt that the Mexican people were in need of uplifting by the more advanced "Anglo-Saxon" culture. However, racism, even of this sort, had a double edge to it.
Even the most ardent expansionists supported the notion of federalism, which at the time meant that territories would eventually be allowed admission into the Union as states. It was just this system, the expansionists claimed, that made the US superior to empires of the past. The problem, as some saw it, was that Mexico was not like previous US territories-turned-states where US culture was transplanted by Americans who quickly became the majority group. Mexico had a long established culture that was Roman Catholic and deemed hard to assimilate. Caucasians were a very small minority of the population, and the thought of incorporating non-Caucasians as full citizens frightened even abolitionists. Another question, much debated, was if the various Mexican states would eventually join the Union as free or slave states?
All of these questions became moot when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican War was secretly hammered out and later ratified by Congress in 1848. The treaty gave the US nearly all the Mexican territory from the Rio Grande to the Pacific Ocean for $15 million plus the cost of indemnity to American citizens. (In 1853, James Gadsden negotiated the purchase from Mexico of approximately 30,000 square miles in what is now southern New Mexico and Arizona for $10 million. The purchase ensured right of way for a rail line to the Pacific Ocean.) In just 30 years, from the time John Quincy Adams had first enunciated a US stretching to the Pacific, expansionists had realized their dream. But with the cry for all of Mexico, Manifest Destiny had begun to take on a new form.
The desire for Canada notwithstanding, US expansionists began to turn toward the more extreme interpretations of Manifest Destiny when they floated the All-Mexico idea. The notion of empire began to take root. In 1848, the Polk administration secretly tried to purchase Cuba from Spain for $100 million but was turned down. Over the next six years, filibusters attempted to cause insurrection in Cuba, among them was O'Sullivan, who had relinquished control of both his magazine and newspaper in 1846.
In 1854, during the administration of Franklin Pierce, the US again tried to purchase Cuba, increasing the offer to $120 million. When Spain refused again, Pierce ordered his ministers (ambassadors) to Britain, France and Spain to confer on the Cuba matter at Ostend, Belgium. Out of this came the Ostend Manifesto, which declared that if Spain refused to sell Cuba, then the US "by every law human and divine... shall be justified in wresting it from Spain." Unlike Mexico, Cuba was a slaveholding territory, and its annexation by the US would have increased the economic and political power of the southern states. Naturally, the North was opposed to Cuban annexation. Since both North and South were opposed to granting Cubans citizenship, the attempt to "wrest" Cuba from Spain never really got off the ground. What's more, in the years prior to the Civil War, domestic problems, especially the territorial "wars" between free soilers and slavery proponents, dominated the US political scene.
With the Pacific coast secured, Americans began gazing further west. By the early 1850s, expan sionists had begun to fix their attention on the Hawaiian Islands. In its 26 November 1853 issue, the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, talking about the islands, opined; "Their manifest destiny is to become a part of the American domain." Over the better part of the next half century, Hawaii would follow the Texas paradigm. By 1893, the year historian Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the US frontier closed, Hawaii had a whitecontrolled legislature and Supreme Court, but the monarchy clung to power. That year the islands' wealthy sugar interests engineered the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and named Sanford Ballard Dole as president of the provisional government of Hawaii. Dole had been leader of the committee that sought the queen's removal. The real intent of the leadership was annexation by the US, but their plan backfired when President Grover Cleveland withdrew the annexation treaty from consideration by the Senate and called for Liliuokalani s restoration. The next year (1894), the leaders of the coup established the Republic of Hawaii with Dole again as president.
What many perceive as Manifest Destiny in its second, imperialist stage, historian Frederick Merk has termed mission, arguing that the imperialists of the late 19th century differed in their aims from what O'Sullivan had professed. However, many of O'Sullivan's contemporaries, especially those advocating the annexation of Mexico, were themselves imperialists. Perhaps chief among these protoimperialists was Mississippi senator Robert J. Walker, who became Polk's secretary of the treasury. A virulent racist and one of the most ardent expansionists in the federal government, the Pennsylvaniaborn Walker called for the annexation of the entire Western Hemisphere, as well as Greenland and Iceland. Furthermore, the United States' westward advancement was itself an imperialist movement toward the Native Americans for whom America's destiny was anything but manifest.
The irony of the imperialists of the 1890s was that they were Republicans, political descendants of the Whigs, who had opposed Manifest Destiny 50 years earlier. The most notable imperialists of the time were Alfred Mahan, Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt. They, and others of like mind, argued for a greater US presence in world affairs - Mahan, a captain in the navy and a noted naval historian, especially favored Hawaiian annexation, as the islands would give the US a strategic advantage in the Pacific. Cuba, always on the minds of Congress and the executive, became the flashpoint of US imperialist aims, and when the SpanishAmerican War - the "splendid little war" as Secretary of State John Hay famously characterized it - ended, the island became a client of US economic interests until 1959.
The Spanish-American War effected a fundamental change to the US, which as a result of conquest became an empire, even if, as some argue, an accidental one. The US now ruled people as far away as the Philippines and as close as Puerto Rico; and while the Philippines has been granted independence, none of the other territories captured from Spain in the war have been admitted into the Union. Hawaii being more than 2,500 miles closer to the Philippines than San Francisco, the islands' planters and Alfred Mahan finally got their wish for annexation in 1900.
There is little doubt that the spirit that moved Americans onward, decades before the now obscure O'Sullivan coined the term Manifest Destiny, continued to motivate the US government and its citizens in the 20th century, and still does so in the 21st. The difference being that in the 1840s, expansionists had claimed that federalism had created a new type of empire, one that gradually incorporated territories into the Union as equal states, while in the 20th century, American imperialism concentrated on economic aspects, divorcing them from direct land acquisition.
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