Saturday, June 23, 2012

American Imperialism: Born Hand-in-Hand with the Constitution

(Unless otherwise noted, quoted passages come from “American Imperialism in 1898,” edited by Richard Miller.)

Many look to the time 1898 as the beginning or commencement of the American drive for imperialism; empire.  The Spanish – American War, involving the United States in Cuba and the Philippines, is seen as this point – when America began on the road to empire (at least by those willing to recognize the imperial nature of the U.S.  Many are not.).   

The drive to empire began much earlier than 1898.  Justin Raimondo recently wrote an essay on the War of 1812, “1812: The War Party's First 'Success',” in which he describes the war in terms both neocon and imperial:

The two-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812 is upon us, and I’m shocked and surprised the War Party hasn’t planned a celebration: after all, as Jefferson Morley points out in Salon, this was the first neocon war, i.e. an unnecessary war of choice.

The warhawks, led by John Calhoun, were motivated less by outrage over British harassment of American persons and commerce than by the emerging delusion of Manifest Destiny that energized the earliest advocates of an international American empire. The Appalachian and southern states were the epicenter of this ultra-nationalistic agitation, and the editors of the Nashville Clarion gave voice to the imperialist impulse when they asked:

“Where is it written in the book of fate that the American Republic shall not stretch her limits from the Capes of the Chesapeake to Noorka Sound, from the isthmus of Panama to Hudson Bay?”

It should be noted that it was members of the Jeffersonian party that encouraged the war (again from Raimondo):

Much more important, as a factor in starting the war, was the agitation of the “warhawks,” a group of younger members of the Jeffersonian (or Democratic-Republican) party in Congress, who charged that His Majesty’s Government was encouraging attacks on American settlers by the Indians, and who dreamed of conquering Canada. Indeed, the latter motivation was underscored by the libertarian congressman John Randolph, who declared:

Sir, if you go to war it will not be for the protection of, or defense of your maritime rights. Gentlemen from the North have been taken up to some high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the earth; and Canada seems tempting to their sight.

The war of 1812 is not the first, or only, example of American dreams and actions taken toward the imperial aspirations of this nation, founded on the principle that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

From the beginning of the Republic, it seems the implementation of Jefferson’s sentiment was to be brought by the sword.  But the ground had to be made fertile first:

…there was a certain consistency in our continental outlook, regardless of party, sectional, or economic affiliation.  Whether it was Thomas Jefferson envisioning an “empire for liberty,” or John Quincy Adams advocating the Monroe Doctrine as an ideological weapon for thwarting Tsarist expansion, or Whig merchants dreaming of an “Empire On The Pacific, the common denominator for each was the conception of America as a continental colossus, unchallenged by the powers of Europe, or by weak neighbors to the north and south.

By the time of the Civil War, the United States had determined the skeletal outlines of its continental domains and had developed an ideology of expansion by which it could bridge the gap between its domestic achievements and it unfulfilled overseas ambitions.  These ambitions were not developed in the decade of the 1890s…it must be recalled that serious American interest in the acquisition of Cuba and Santa Domingo can be traced back to the days of the Jefferson Administration, while the writings of John Quincy Adams and the Clayton-Bulwer treaty clearly demonstrated our early and continued interest in the American development of an isthmian canal.  Likewise, in the Pacific, the desire to acquire the Hawaiian Islands certainly antedated the Civil War.

Let’s review a few of these:

Jefferson and “Empire for Liberty”:

Jefferson used this phrase "Empire of Liberty" in 1780, while the American revolution was still being fought. His goal was an empire dedicated to liberty that could stop the growth of the British Empire, which he hated and feared:

"We shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace [ending the American Revolution]...we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends." - Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, 25 December 1780

Jefferson envisaged this "Empire" extending Westwards over the American continent, expansion into which he saw as crucial to the American future. During his Presidency, this was in part achieved by his 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French, almost doubling the area of the Republic and removing the main barrier to Westward expansion, stating that "I confess I look to this duplication of area for the extending of a government so free and economical as ours, as a great achievement to the mass of happiness which is to ensue".

However, this was not necessarily a territorially unified Empire. "Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part."  Despite this, Jefferson on other occasions seemed to stress the territorial inviolability of the Union.

In 1809 Jefferson wrote his successor James Madison:

"we should then have only to include the North [Canada] in our confederacy...and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: & I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire & self government."

 - Jefferson to James Madison, 27 April 1809

Even in his later years, Jefferson saw no limit to the expansion of this Empire, writing "where this progress will stop no-one can say. Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration; and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth".

In this same letter to Madison, Jefferson writes of the possibility of securing Cuba as part of the expansion under this Constitution “so well calculated as ours for extensive empire…”

Regarding John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State and author of the Monroe Doctrine:

The full document of the Monroe Doctrine is long and couched in diplomatic language, but its essence is expressed in two key passages; the first is the introductory statement:

The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

The second key passage, a fuller statement of the Doctrine, is addressed to the "allied powers" of Europe (that is, the Holy Alliance); it clarifies that the United States remains neutral on existing European colonies in the Americas but is opposed to "interpositions" that would create new colonies among the newly independent Spanish American republics:

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

As Jefferson pointed out, the Constitution was apparently perfectly suited to cover the entirety of the Western Hemisphere.

In the meantime, James K. Polk was elected on a promise to resolve the Oregon boundary question and effect the acquisition of California.

As regards the Clayton-Bulwer treaty:

The Clayton–Bulwer Treaty was a treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom, negotiated in 1850 by John M. Clayton and Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer, later Lord Dalling. It was negotiated in response to attempts to build the Nicaragua Canal, a canal in Nicaragua that would connect the Pacific and the Atlantic.

Britain had large and indefinite territorial claims in three regions: British Honduras (present-day Belize), the Mosquito Coast (the region along the Atlantic coast of present-day Nicaragua and Honduras) and the Bay Islands (now part of Honduras). The United States, while not making any territorial claims, held in reserve, ready for ratification, treaties with Nicaragua and Honduras which gave the United States a certain diplomatic advantage with which to balance the de facto British dominion. Agreement on these points being impossible and agreement on the canal question possible, the latter was put in the foreground.

Back to the subject work:

It was William H. Seward who, as Secretary of State during the Lincoln and Johnson Administrations, coalesced the fragmented approaches of his predecessors into an expansionist master plan….(including Canada and Latin America)…the Caribbean [and by way of an isthmian canal and Hawaii] across the way stations of the Pacific.

All of these events preceded McKinley and the Spanish-American War.  The author notes that…

…the United States was politically, socially, and economically prepared to accept the blessings – and burdens – of imperialism….  Seen in this context, the unending Cuban resistance to Spanish colonialism…provided such a favorable opportunity for American intervention….

In other words, the groundwork had been done, the soil was made fertile.  First in words, then in relatively passive steps (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase), then in more aggressive steps (e.g. the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War) the country was moved to not only accept, but desire empire.  In this light, the sinking of the “second-class battleship” U.S.S. Maine, and the publishing by Hearst of the De Lôme Letter should be seen as contributing factors, but not causes of, the war. 

As demonstrated, the idea of “empire” was on the mind of political leaders almost from the beginning of the Republic.  Even Thomas Jefferson (well-known for the Louisiana Purchase) gave consideration to Canada and Cuba as part of this union.  The idea was nurtured through the decades, almost coming to a crashing halt in the period 1861 – 1865, and ultimately came to be what today is the commonly accepted date of 1898.

The one distinction some make for 1898 is that this marked the first overseas military expansion of empire.  I find the distinction academic.  Military aggression was used several times on the American continent.  That empire was first to be secured on land before it was to be taken to the seas perhaps marks a milestone, but not a change in objective.

As Raimondo points out, 1812 was also such a military attempt.  As he humorously notes, the only reason the U.S. is not celebrating this first-born child of the founding version of the neocons is because the U.S. lost the war, and in humiliating fashion:

Perhaps the reason for this shameful lack of hosannas [on the occasion of the 200th anniversary] is that it wasn’t particularly successful: the Brits burned Washington and routed our militias, while the glorious conquest of Canada – where, Americans were told, the inhabitants would shower us with rose petals at the moment of their “liberation” – was rudely repulsed by the ungrateful Canadians.

Texas was added in military fashion.  Add to this the military conquest of the American West, especially in the period after Lincoln’s war and the expansion of the railroads.

Altogether, one must conclude that the lust for empire was there from the beginning, and the Constitution was a document perfectly suited to achieve such an objective, as noted by Jefferson (and forgive my repetitive quoting of this passage):

"we should then have only to include the North [Canada] in our confederacy...and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: & I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire & self government."

 - Jefferson to James Madison, 27 April 1809

I find no better way to end this saga.


  1. What, no mention of Perry's "Black Ships?"

    He was partly financed by Lehman Brothers...

  2. Do not forget the various filibusters of the 1830s - 1850s, and even after Lincoln's war. And the incursions into the UMS in the 1870s.
    Now, the tough question for many - is "imperialism" really bad? Inherently bad, or bad only because of the common results.

    1. Edward, ever larger and centralizing institutions are always a detriment to liberty and are always prone to corruption.

      I believe this is an inherent characteristic of such institutions, so I would say "inherently bad." But I am OK if we just consider it a common (and even universal) result.