9780809069996

The Monroe Doctrine Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America

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  • ISBN13:

    9780809069996

  • ISBN10:

    0809069997

  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2/28/2012
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang
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Summary

President James Monroe's 1823 message to Congress declaring opposition to European colonization in the Western Hemisphere became the cornerstone of nineteenth-century American statecraft. Monroe's message proclaimed anticolonial principles, yet it rapidly became the myth and means for subsequent generations of politicians to pursue expansionist foreign policies. Time and again, debates on the key issues of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foreign relationsexpansion in the 1840s, Civil War diplomacy, the imperialism of 1898, entrance into World War I, and the establishment of the League of Nationswere framed in relation to the Monroe Doctrine. In Jay Sexton's adroit hands, the Monroe Doctrine provides a new lens through which to view the paradox at the center of American diplomatic history: the nation's interdependent traditions of anticolonialism and imperialism.

Author Biography

Fay Sexton is Univerrsity Lecturer in American history at Oxford University. He is the author of many works in the field of foreign relations, including Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era 1837-1873.

Table of Contents

 
1
Independence
The American Revolution was the first of what would be many struggles for independence from colonial rule in the Western Hemisphere. This “age of revolutions,” as it has been called, witnessed the gradual breakdown of the colonial empires that Old World powers had constructed in the preceding centuries. This process lasted throughout the nineteenth century (and, in some places, deep into the twentieth). It not only entailed the achievement of political independence from a colonial master, but also concerned the political arrangements that would replace centuries of colonial rule, which often were born out of the struggle for independence. In a broad sense, the dissolution of colonial rule in the Western Hemisphere also involved the much slower erosion of economic structures and cultural forms that had upheld colonial regimes, as well as their neocolonial successors. The multifaceted and protracted process of decolonization dominated the Western Hemisphere in the nineteenth century.1
The origins of what later became the “Monroe Doctrine” lay not just in the deliberations of the Monroe cabinet in 1823, but in this larger geopolitical context. The message of 1823 was rooted in the policies and principles of statecraft that early American statesmen formulated to guide their young republic through the rocky waters of the dissolution of the European colonial order. These principles and policies looked both inward and outward. American statesmen aimed to bind together the various states, sections, and factions of their union that had been established during the era of the American Revolution. They also looked beyond their borders, seeking to consolidate their independence from an increasingly powerful British Empire, as well as to advance their interests in regions of the crumbling Spanish Empire. The interrelated processes that defined the Monroe Doctrine all shaped American statecraft long before 1823: the ongoing struggle of the United States against persistent British power, the nation-building process within the American union, and the projection of American power over peoples excluded from their constitutional arrangements.
The Rising British Empire
Early Americans were not bashful about proclaiming their ambitions for their fledgling republic. George Washington spoke of “our rising empire”; Thomas Jefferson boasted of the expanding American “empire of liberty”; and Tom Paine predicted that American principles “will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot; it will succeed where diplomatic management would fail … it will march on the horizon of the world and it will conquer.” In the twentieth century, American power would transform global politics, though perhaps not in the ways foreseen a century and more before. The global preeminence of the United States in our own time has given early American statesmen an aura of clairvoyance for predicting what one historian has called the “rising American empire.” Yet there was nothing preordained about the global rise of the United States. Though Americans predicted future greatness for themselves, they also were consumed with their vulnerabilities in an era in which their young and untested union faced challenges from within and without.2
The empire that was most dramatically rising in the nineteenth century was not the American but the British. Despite having lost her most important North American colonies in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, the height of the British Empire lay in the future. The British Empire was larger and more powerful in 1820 than it had been in 1776. During the intervening decades, it tightened its grip on India; its resources and people poured into its settler colonies in Canada and Australasia; it acquired strategic way stations such as the African cape and Singapore; it increased its commercial and naval presence in distant markets in East Asia and in Latin America; its naval power became unrivaled; industrialization at home fueled economic growth and the expansion of overseas commerce; it developed a sophisticated and flexible financial system capable of both underwriting international trade and funding wars of unprecedented cost; and its political system weathered the ideological storm unleashed by the American and French revolutions. Even within North America, the British retained a position of great strength, holding Canada and the strategically important Caribbean islands of the British West Indies and maintaining relations with Native American tribes. Following the defeat of Napoleon’s France after nearly a quarter of a century of conflict (1793–1815), Britain stood atop the global hierarchy, a position of preeminence that it would consolidate as the nineteenth century progressed. By the early twentieth century, the British governed two-thirds of the world’s colonial territories and three-quarters of its colonial population. To be sure, Britain’s position of strength brought with it great anxiety stemming from the need to secure its many interests scattered around the globe, particularly as rivals emerged later in the century. This anxiety could serve as the rationale for retrenchment (as would be the case in North America) or could fuel further expansion (as would occur in Africa in the late nineteenth century).
The nineteenth-century British Empire was a multifaceted and dynamic entity. It included formal colonial possessions such as India and, in the late nineteenth century, large portions of Africa, governed through governmental structures originating in London. Settler colonies in Canada and Australasia functioned as a virtual “British West,” as the historian James Belich has recently put it, attracting capital and migrants from the home country much like the American West of the same period. The inhabitants of the settler colonies enjoyed increased self-government during the nineteenth century, though they increasingly viewed themselves as members of a “Greater Britain.”3 In Latin America and East Asia, the British largely refrained from formal colonial rule, instead pursuing their interests through the informal projection of commercial and cultural power. Central to the British Empire in both its formal and informal manifestations were so-called collaborating elites, the native peoples whose self-interest led them to associate with the British. Recent historians have emphasized the interconnectivity and dynamism of the British Empire, arguing that its power rested on the fusion of its component parts. The integration of formal colonial possessions, settler colonies, and a global commercial empire constituted an expansive and adaptable “British world-system,” as it has recently been called.4 The decentralization of the British Empire contributed to its power and, as the nineteenth century progressed, paradoxically fueled its integration. Far from being the product of simple military might, the nineteenth-century British Empire rested upon the interconnected foundations of commercial and financial power, naval supremacy, communication networks, technological innovation, and political cooperation with indigenous elites.
The expanding British Empire cast a long shadow over nineteenth-century America. The young United States remained entrapped in the webs of the British world-system long after achieving its political independence during the Revolution. “In the year of grace 1776, we published to the world our Declaration of Independence. Six years later, England assented to the separation,” wrote the American nationalist Henry Cabot Lodge in 1883. “These are tolerably familiar facts,” Lodge continued. “That we have been striving ever since to make that independence real and complete, and that the work is not yet entirely finished, are not perhaps, equally obvious truisms.” The persistence of “colonialism in the United States,” as Lodge called it, threatened to keep the United States in a position of subordination to its former colonial master.5
The forms of British power in nineteenth-century America were as pervasive as they were enduring. When American statesmen consulted world maps, they found ever more territories colored red (the traditional color of British possessions); the national ledger books showed increasing indebtedness to British banks; English novels took up most of the space on American bookshelves; schoolchildren in the United States continued to be taught with British textbooks deep into the nineteenth century; popular songs—even Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” which later would become the national anthem—were set to old British tunes. It would not be until 1828 that Noah Webster formalized the spellings of “American English,” and even then his dictionary served as much as a reminder of the links as of the differences between the two peoples. Nineteenth-century Americans were consumed by the question of how best to consolidate their independence from the British. The ongoing struggle to free themselves from the yoke of British imperialism united the disparate sections and peoples of the United States. It also created political divisions that endangered the union itself. British power was an inescapable reality that paradoxically threatened and benefited the young American republic.
Nowhere did British power exert itself more in the United States than in the material world of economics. If anything, independence brought with it a closer economic relationship than had existed before 1776. British merchants and financiers quickly recovered their leading position in the American economy, elbowing aside their opportunistic Dutch and French rivals who had sought to replace them during the Revolution. For most of the nineteenth century, Britain would be the United States’ greatest source of foreign investment, its largest source of imports, and its most important foreign market. To be sure, this economic connection was symbiotic; just as Britain was central to the American economy, the United States was important to the British. But there is little doubt that the United States was the subordinate partner in the relationship. The young republic was a classic “developing economy” with vast resources at its disposal but lacking the means of exploiting them. The majority of American exports to Britain were raw materials and agricultural goods (especially, as the nineteenth century progressed, cotton), whereas most of Britain’s exports to the United States were finished goods. Moreover, as Americans would discover in the run-up to the War of 1812, Britain’s diplomatic and naval might could be turned against their republic, closing off the international connections upon which their economy relied.
In the eyes of many Americans, this unequal economic arrangement threatened the very independence of the United States. As the Kentucky statesman Henry Clay put it in 1820, the United States was in danger of remaining a “sort of independent colonies of England—politically free, commercially slaves.”6 The frequent financial panics that originated in London rippled through the American economy; banks in London had a habit of recalling loans when credit was tight in the United States; British manufacturers, exploiting the cheap labor at their disposal, undercut upstart American rivals; reliance on British capital necessitated unpopular compromises in foreign policy to reassure foreign bondholders. The American economy, in short, drifted in winds that originated across the Atlantic. As the Virginian John Taylor put it, “The English who could not conquer us, may buy us.”7
Yet for all the potential dangers of economic dependence upon Britain, the United States greatly benefited from this relationship. The British market provided the chief outlet for America’s farmers and cotton planters. If the period of international instability in the early nineteenth century demonstrated the dangers of reliance upon the British market, the ensuing century of Pax Britannica and unilateral British tariff reductions revealed the advantage. Even as the British lowered their tariffs, the United States remained free to protect its industries, an option it would take full advantage of later in the nineteenth century. British capital played an important role in the dramatic economic takeoff of the United States in the nineteenth century. Investment channeled to the United States by London banks, such as the powerful Baring Brothers firm, kept down interest rates in the capital-starved republic. British investment underwrote important aspects of the “transportation revolution” of canals and railroads, as well as financing the debts of municipalities, state governments, and the federal government itself. By the mid-nineteenth century, nearly half of the United States’ national debt was held abroad, chiefly in Britain. Funds provided to the federal government by Baring Brothers also underwrote American territorial expansion. Both the 1803 Louisiana Purchase (which acquired extensive territory in the interior of North America from France) and the Mexican indemnity payment of 1848 (which compensated Mexico for lands conquered by the United States) were made possible by loans from the English bank.
These benefits notwithstanding, how to break the cycle of economic subordination to the British was a principal issue in early American politics. Though Americans in the early republic agreed that the status quo was undesirable, they disagreed over the means that would best establish their economic independence. From this debate emerged the political coalitions of the first party system of Republicans and Federalists. Led by Thomas Jefferson, Republicans sought to construct a liberal international order cleared of preferential trading systems. This commercial vision, which aimed to entrench republicanism at home and advance the interests of agricultural exporters, challenged the structures of the British Empire. When Britain would not acquiesce to American demands for open trade and the respect of neutral rights, Jeffersonian Republicans advocated economic retaliation (either in the form of tariffs, which Jefferson advocated as a temporary measure at various points in the 1790s, or, as in 1807–1809, in the form of an all-out embargo). In opposition were the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, who viewed Britain as an indispensable economic partner as well as a model to emulate. The Hamiltonian program called for the consolidation of the union’s finances through the creation of a national bank and the federal assumption of state debts. The Federalists were prepared to make diplomatic compromises with their former colonial master to achieve their objectives, thus further widening the partisan divide at home. Most notable was the 1795 Jay Treaty, which averted war with Britain in the short term by addressing several leftover issues from the Revolutionary period, but outraged Republicans for aligning the United States with its old nemesis and for its failure to protect neutral rights on the high seas.
If Republicans and Federalists disagreed on the means of establishing their independence, they were of one voice in identifying Britain as their greatest economic rival in the long term. For all their differences, both parties agreed on the fundamental objective of establishing American economic independence. Though the Federalists were pro-British elites, they differed from “collaborating elites” in Britain’s empire by rejecting associations with the old country that infringed upon American sovereignty. Economic and political exigencies at times blurred the lines between the two parties. For all their heated rhetoric, when in power, both parties found it difficult to implement their policy visions. Federalists and Republicans were also united by the ironic fact that both parties advocated policies that perpetuated short-term British economic hegemony. The Federalist policy of federal assumption of state debts increased American dependence on British credit; likewise, Jeffersonian opposition to barriers to international commerce furthered reliance on British manufactured goods. It would not be the last time that American politicians used British power as a means of achieving their nationalist objectives.
In the arena of diplomacy, British power similarly presented the United States with both threats and opportunities. The young United States remained vulnerable to its former colonial master. The Union Jack continued to be raised each morning in the years following 1783 in seven British posts within U.S. territory that would not be relinquished until 1796. British traders maintained links with Native American tribes, who were understandably hostile to the expansionist republic that had seized their land in the 1783 treaty, in which they were unrepresented. British statesmen pursued policies detrimental to the United States when necessary, as often was the case during their protracted conflict with France, which would not be resolved until 1815. The War of 1812, which arose from the clash between British control of the seas and the American demand for the respect of neutral rights, proved that though the United States could maintain its independence militarily, it remained vulnerable to British power (indeed, most government buildings in Washington lay in ashes at the war’s end).
But as much as Britain threatened the young republic, its power also provided opportunities for American statesmen. At points during the European turmoil of 1789–1815, the chief threat to the United States was its former ally France. The Federalists of the 1790s concluded that aligning themselves with the British was preferable to strengthening ties with the French, with whom they soon engaged in the naval “Quasi-War” of 1798–1800. Even a stalwart Anglophobe like Thomas Jefferson conceded that if France choked off American access to New Orleans, “from that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.”8 The two English-speaking states collaborated so closely during this period that one historian has dubbed the 1795–1805 period “the first rapprochement.” The United States also found advantage in Europe’s distress. Though the United States eventually became entangled in the European conflicts of this period, this did not prevent it from capitalizing on several diplomatic opportunities. With the European powers’ military might focused in Europe (and, in the New World, in the Caribbean), American statesmen were able to consolidate their strategic position in agreements such as the Pinckney Treaty of 1795, which secured from Spain access to the Mississippi River, and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.9
A great dilemma for early American statesmen was how to take advantage of opportunities presented by British power without becoming a pawn of their former colonial master. American leaders also faced a domestic political challenge: the deeply Anglophobic political culture that was a product of the Revolution made it difficult to align openly with the British even when it was in the national interest to so do. Few walked this tightrope better than did George Washington, whose foreign policy tilted toward the British, especially with the 1795 Jay Treaty. Yet in his famous 1796 “Farewell Address,” Washington glossed over this fact, emphasizing instead the alleged “great rule” of having “as little political connection as possible” with the Old World and the need “to steer clear of permanent alliances.” Washington’s farewell not only obscured the way his administration had allied itself with the British, but it also undermined the pro-French views of his political opponents.10
Nineteenth-century Americans were not uniformly opposed to all things British. American nationalism drew power from both Anglophobia and Anglophilia. Britain served as an important negative self-reference, yet many Americans admired and reproduced British practices and culture. Such contradictory impulses can be seen in Americans’ ambivalent views of the British monarchy. Despite all the fulminations against monarchy in Fourth of July orations, many Americans were fascinated by Britain’s royal family. As the nineteenth century progressed, celebrations of the anniversaries of British monarchs in the United States became more common and open, giving rise to the curious appellation of “Victorian America” (named after Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901). “Had Queen Victoria been on the throne, instead of George III,” Secretary of State William Evarts declared in 1878, “or if we had postponed our rebellion until Queen Victoria reigned, it would not have been necessary.”11 Such admiration of the British monarchy tapped into increasing racial identification between the self-proclaimed “Anglo-Saxon” peoples of America and Britain. The pride Americans took in their independence from Britain did not prevent many of them from viewing themselves, as the nineteenth century progressed, as part of a master “Anglo-Saxon” race in which they stood alongside their former colonial master atop a global racial hierarchy.
Union and Independence
If the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783 did not end Americans’ struggle against the powerful British, it also left unanswered fundamental questions about the nature and form of their union at home. Both centripetal and centrifugal forces swirled in the political vacuum of North America. The potential for unification among Britain’s thirteen former colonies was strong. The American states were connected to one another by networks of trade and communication, a republican ideology, and the experience of collectively fighting the British during the Revolution. Union between the states also brought with it the means to exert control over Native Americans, as well as to expand westward across the North American continent, exploiting its vast natural resources in the name of economic development and integration.
Yet much divided the thirteen states that, upon attaining political independence, were only loosely united under the Articles of Confederation. Small and large states argued over the form of political representation; Atlantic seaboard states worried about their status in a westward-expanding union; Southern slaveholding states and those increasingly opposed to the institution in the North looked upon each other with great suspicion. The extent to which certain states and individuals were committed to the national project was an open question. Leaders in independent Vermont toyed with reentering the British Empire; renegade frontiersmen schemed to detach various parts of the trans-Appalachian West; sectional interests and identities opened the prospect of the establishment of regional confederacies rather than a single union. The histories of other areas emerging from colonial rule—such as Spanish America, which fragmented into multiple nation-states in the nineteenth century, or South Asia, which divided into three separate states after attaining independence from Britain in the mid-twentieth century—make clear that independence from colonial rule often results in political fragmentation.
That the North American states remained united until they would be torn asunder by secession and civil war in 1861 owed much to the interlocking relationship between union and independence. 12 Even before the Revolution, American leaders feared that independence would result in a cluster of unstable and weak states or federations that would invite further European meddling. In this scenario the American states would have traded formal colonialism for an even less desirable position as pawns of the European powers, pitted against one another in conflicts waged to maintain the balance of power in the Old World. The nationalist John Jay feared that “every state would be a little nation, jealous of its neighbors, and anxious to strengthen itself by foreign alliances, against its former friends.” The newly independent states could only be secure if bound together in a strong union. “Weakness and divisions at home would invite dangers from abroad,” Jay later asserted when making the case for a stronger central government; “nothing would tend more to secure us from them than union, strength, and good government within ourselves.” The benefits of union far outweighed the costs, even in the minds of South Carolinians who, though aware of the proliferation of antislavery doctrines in the Northern states, concluded that a more powerful central authority could best secure slavery on their vulnerable periphery. Not only would union preempt future conflicts between the states and foreign intervention, but it also provided the means for territorial expansion, the exercise of control over Native Americans, and the economic development and integration of the vast resources of the North American continent. “We have seen the necessity of the Union,” James Madison wrote in Federalist 14, “as our bulwark against foreign danger, as the conservator of peace among ourselves, as the guardian of our commerce and other common interests.”13
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 aimed to consolidate the achievements of the Revolution by creating a union powerful enough to maintain its independence. It sought to walk the tightrope of conferring new powers to the federal government while at the same time satisfying individual states by retaining elements of home rule. In time, contrasting interpretations of whether ultimate power resided in the federal government or within the states would fuel constitutional crisis and contribute to the coming of the civil war. In the 1780s, however, this balancing act was required to achieve both union and independence. Strong central authority might better counter British power, but it could prove fatal to the union from within; too much delegation of power to the states, on the other hand, might leave the United States incapable of maintaining its independence, a lesson learned under the inadequate Articles of Confederation. The interdependent goals of union and independence became the twin pillars of early American statecraft; they “were from the beginning … joined at the hip,” as the historian David Hendrickson has recently put it.14
The centrality of union and independence is made clear by the terror invoked by their opposites: disunion and colonial dependence. The greatest fear among American statesmen was the possibility that Old World powers would exploit internal divisions by allying with sections or factions of the union, thus fusing internal and external threats. It “was the interference of other nations in their domestic divisions” that undid previous republics, a young John Quincy Adams concluded.15 American statesmen were determined not to allow history to repeat itself. Herein lay the rationale behind the American diplomatic practice of standing aloof, so far as possible, from conflicts that occurred in Europe. The two most famous articulations of this theme—Washington’s Farewell Address (1796) and Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address (1801)—argued that a foreign policy of nonentanglement should be pursued in order to mitigate the threat posed by internal divisions. Washington’s address dealt primarily with the menace of separatist movements in the American West and the entrenchment of ideologically opposed political parties. His “great rule” of diplomatic nonentanglement was a means of safeguarding against these internal threats to the union, not an end in itself. Similarly, Jefferson’s call for “entangling alliances with none” was made in the context of an address that called for national unity—albeit one premised upon his political triumph in the election of 1800—after the divisive politics of the 1790s.16
The objective of steering clear of European alliances was rooted in perceptions of threat, not in some dogma of isolationism. American statesmen had no qualms about engaging with the powers of the Old World when U.S. interests demanded—indeed, America’s political independence owed much to the 1778 alliance with France. Washington’s farewell carefully kept the door open to “temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies,” as he called them. Jefferson tilted toward the French in the 1790s, but would later contemplate joint action with the British when circumstances demanded. Nor were early American statesmen in any sense isolationist when it came to commerce, which they hoped to liberate from the restrictions of European colonialism. An open commercial system that respected neutral rights would benefit the internationalist American economy. Americans also hoped that it would accelerate the breakdown of Old World empires by depriving them of their economic basis. Washington’s farewell contained another qualification on this score: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” The American objective, as John Adams put it, was nothing less than “a reformation, a kind of Protestantism, in the commercial system of the world.”17
The United States’ campaign for the sanctity of neutral rights found little support abroad in an era of great power conflict. Both Britain and France violated neutral rights in order to prevent American exports from reaching each other during their titanic struggle between 1793 and 1815. The United States eventually became entangled in war with both parties, the “Quasi-War” with France in the late 1790s and the War of 1812 with Britain. These conflicts exacerbated internal divisions that proved to be just as great a threat to the union as that posed by foreign powers. Jefferson’s embargo of 1807–1809, which aimed to keep the United States out of the Napoleonic Wars and to coerce the European powers into respecting neutral shipping rights, provoked fierce domestic opposition, particularly among New England Federalists who represented mercantile and shipping interests adversely affected by the policy. Dissatisfaction from this quarter would be even more pronounced during the War of 1812. New England opponents of the conflict convened in Hartford, Connecticut, in late 1814 to discuss ways of securing their interests. In the run-up to the convention, rumors swirled of New England secession and the negotiation of a separate peace treaty with Britain—that toxic combination of disunion and colonial dependence. Moderates ultimately prevailed at Hartford, quashing talk of secession and instead issuing a report detailing their grievances. Yet if the episode reveals the limits of New England separatism in this period, it also underscores the union’s good fortune: the Madison administration concluded a peace treaty with Britain just as the Hartford delegates convened. Had the unpopular war dragged on, it is possible that matters would have played out differently in New England, where a follow-up conference was scheduled if the war with Britain continued.
The War of 1812 ushered in the high tide of early American nationalism. This “second war of independence,” as Americans soon called it, did nothing to protect neutral shipping rights, nor did it expand the borders of the United States northward into Canada, as some Americans had hoped. Yet it created an upsurge in nationalism that forged a stronger union at home. Though the conflict was militarily inconclusive, Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans (which ironically occurred after the peace treaty was signed) provided Americans with a high note by which to remember the conflict. The partisan conflict during the war was replaced with an interregnum of single-party rule. If this “era of good feelings” was not as harmonious as imagined by some at the time, it did witness politicians from across the spectrum embrace legislation that promoted economic development and the integration of internal markets. Even Jefferson himself briefly embraced nationalist economic measures, such as a moderate tariff, to prepare the United States for what many presumed would be a resumption of conflict in Europe.
The War of 1812 was one of many diplomatic and military episodes in this period in which the United States secured and expanded its position in North America. The 1783 Treaty of Paris had granted the new republic generous borders. Few in Europe thought that the United States would maintain its grip on the lands east of the Mississippi, let alone expand further. The young republic proved able to achieve both objectives. American statesmen extended their 1783 borders to include the vast Louisiana Territory and Florida, which the United States partly seized in 1810 and then bullied Spain into ceding by treaty in its entirety during the Monroe administration. Other territorial adjustments included the 1818 Anglo-American Convention, which established the U.S.-Canadian border to the west of the Great Lakes, and the Transcontinental Treaty with Spain (ratified in 1821), which gave the United States a claim on the Pacific Coast.
Just as important as this expansion of territory was the consolidation of dominion over the lands already possessed. Migrants streamed across the Appalachian Mountains, settling in the fertile Ohio Valley and cultivating the rich soil of the Deep South. This “explosive colonization,” as James Belich has called it, witnessed some of the most dramatic population movements in modern history. The populations of both the Old Northwest (the Great Lakes region) and the Old Southwest (the region of the southern Mississippi Valley) tripled in the single decade of the 1810s.18 This population movement invariably brought white settlers into conflict with the Native American inhabitants of these territories. Statesmen in Washington hoped that tensions would be resolved by the “civilization” of Native Americans and the gradual and legal appropriation of their lands. But on the frontier, force often prevailed. The War of 1812 was not just an Anglo-American conflict; it also pitted the United States against Indian tribes. The military commander Andrew Jackson aggressively seized the opportunity to consolidate American power over Native Americans in the Southwest, forcing upon them a series of treaties that ceded vast tracts of territory to the United States. The conflict that advanced American independence from Britain paradoxically entailed the projection of power over peoples deemed to be subordinates.
There was no master plan hatched in Washington that dictated early expansion, even if American leaders made clear that they sought to control areas of strategic importance such as New Orleans, Florida, and Cuba. Statesmen exploited opportunities as they arose in a volatile international system, and also capitalized on population movements that often played into their hands. Yet if there was no blueprint for expansion, Americans developed a political logic for the process of adding new territories to the union. Rather than follow the traditional colonialist model of exerting central authority over distant territories indefinitely, American leaders, led by Thomas Jefferson, proposed that new territories enter the republic as equal members after an appropriate period of tutelage under a federally controlled territorial government. The Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Confederation Congress in 1787, outlined the process by which the federal government would oversee the administration of the Northwest Territory. The ordinance sought to secure this territory for the United States until a time in which republican state governments could be formed and trusted enough to be admitted into the union on equal terms. This model of anticolonial colonization aimed to advance individual liberty and the equality of new states in the long term, while reaping the benefits of controlling strategically important territories in the short term. The Northwest Ordinance also balanced the demands of the inhabitants of the Western territories, who wanted republican self-government and political equality, with the security concerns of the existing states, which used the federal government to control the territories until they proved loyal enough to enter the union as equal states.
As much as Jefferson and many of his contemporaries waxed lyrical about the virtues of an expanding “empire of liberty,” their insecurities and perception of threat were just as significant to expansion as was ideology. Jefferson acquired Louisiana not out of regard for its inhabitants (whose support for entry into the union he did not bother to acquire), but because he viewed control of New Orleans as vital to national security and economic interests. The Louisiana Purchase prompted charges of executive tyranny from many in New England who grasped that the future addition of new Western states would change the balance of power within the union. Jefferson defended the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory on the grounds of both political theory and hardheaded diplomatic realism. “I know that the acquisition of Louisiana has been disapproved by some, from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union,” Jefferson stated in his second inaugural of 1805. “But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view, is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family?”19
Jefferson’s Louisiana diplomacy reflected a fear widespread among American statesmen that the territories on their periphery threatened national security. The European threat loomed both in regions bordering the United States, such as Florida (still a Spanish possession), and in outlying territories of the trans-Appalachian West, where the loyalties of the inhabitants were open to question. Even members of the federal government such as Tennessee senator William Blount and Jefferson’s former vice president Aaron Burr schemed to detach outlying regions from the union. The expansionist process outlined in the Northwest Ordinance aimed to counter the potential of Western separatism within American territories by having territorial governments answer directly to the federal government in Washington. Indeed, federal authority exerted itself far more strongly on the periphery of the union than it did in the preexisting states. Congress kept a watchful eye on the political activities on the frontier so that it could suppress disunionist plots. Nonetheless, the federal government lacked the power, and often the will, to coerce the white inhabitants of the Western territories into complying with its wishes. “If they declare themselves a separate people,” Jefferson wrote of Westerners in 1787, “we are incapable of a single effort to retain them.”20
Federal coercion of white settlers was less effective than was enticing them into the union with generous incentives. Not only were white settlers promised self-government, but they also received, upon entering the union, political representation, in the form of two senators, disproportionate to their population. Moreover, they were the beneficiaries of the continued economic development and exploitation of America’s expanding “empire of liberty.” As further enticement, the federal government often bowed to local demands, frequently supporting white settlers, for example, in their struggles with Native Americans. The federal government also acquiesced to the entrenchment of slavery in the Southwest and Louisiana territories. Congress abandoned the idea of restricting slavery in the Louisiana Territory once it became apparent that it would antagonize the settlers in the region, possibly even leading them into the hands of a European power. This political compromise was necessary to secure the strategically important territories of the Deep South, yet it ironically sowed the seeds for disunion later in the century by enabling the expansion and consolidation of slavery in what would become the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.21
Early American expansionism thus resulted from a mixture of opportunity, ideology, insecurity, and the dynamics of its decentralized and anticolonial political structure. This formula proved remarkably successful, particularly in the context of the European turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars. By the 1820s, Americans had secured their major objectives on the North American continent: they had pushed the British out of their territory; they controlled places of strategic importance such as New Orleans and Florida; and they established supremacy over most Native American tribes east of the Mississippi River. Just as important, they strengthened the bonds between the new Western states and those of the Atlantic seaboard. Long-held fears of Western separatism diminished, particularly as a result of the War of 1812, which demonstrated, in John Adams’s estimation, “that our trans-Alleghanian States, in patriotism, bravery, enterprise and perseverance, are at least equal to any in the Union.”22
In the years after 1815, the North-South divide concerning the future of slavery replaced the old East-West split as the greatest sectional threat to the union. Indeed, the binding together of the East and West ironically fueled conflict between North and South, as the crisis surrounding Missouri’s admission to the union in 1819—21 demonstrated. No longer paralyzed by the fear that Missourians would spurn admission to the union or ally themselves with a foreign power, a broad coalition of Northern politicians now sought to dictate that statehood be contingent upon a moderate plan of gradual emancipation. The prospect of a unified North using the federal government to impose antislavery policies upon Missouri alarmed Southerners, prompting them to speak openly of disunion and to rehearse the proslavery arguments that they would recite throughout the coming decades. Resolution to the crisis came only after protracted debate and the adept political leadership of moderate nationalists, particularly President James Monroe and the Kentucky congressman Henry Clay. The compromise saw Missouri enter the union as a slave state, counterbalanced by the admission of free-state Maine, and slavery prohibited in the Western territories north of parallel 36°30’ (and allowed south of that latitude).23
The Missouri crisis profoundly shaped the subsequent statecraft of the Monroe administration. The controversy made clear the internal dangers of continued territorial expansion. Though Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, remained convinced that it was “a settled geographical element that the United States and North America are identical” (as Adams put it), they opted not to press claims to Texas during the negotiations with Spain that would lead to the Transcontinental Treaty. “It is evident,” Monroe wrote to Jefferson in 1820, “that the further acquisition of territory, to the West and South, involves difficulties of an internal nature which menace the Union itself.” Monroe believed that the United States could take Florida, acquire Texas for “some trifle,” and expel Spain from North America. “No European power could prevent this,” the President asserted, “but the difficulty does not proceed from these sources. It is altogether internal, and of the most distressing nature and dangerous tendency.”24
The fallout from the Missouri crisis also can be seen in the Monroe administration’s embrace of colonization, a fantastical scheme to resolve internal tensions by removing African Americans from the United States. The Monroe administration subsidized the activities of the American Colonization Society, as well as directing the U.S. Navy in 1821–22 to support the establishment of the ACS colony of Liberia. It was a result of this support that the capital of this West African colony was named Monrovia. The President who later sought to ensure domestic security by formulating a doctrine prohibiting external intervention in the New World in this case sought to promote the security of the union by removing African Americans from its borders.
The early American union was a complex and paradoxical political beast, notable both for its fragility and for its remarkable capacity to survive the trials it faced from within and without. Despite—or perhaps because of—the decentralized nature of its political system, nationalism was a powerful force in the early republic, particularly in the years following 1815. The triumph of compromise during the Missouri crisis, Clay contended, “ought to be mainly ascribed to those strong feelings of attachment to the Union … without it, our country would be exposed to the greatest calamities, rent into miserable petty states, and these convulsed by perpetual feuds and wars.” Yet in darker moments, even a nationalist like Clay wondered if just such a contingency would unfold, confessing his fear to Adams “that within five years from this time [1820], the Union would be divided into three distinct confederacies.”25
The “Western Question”
As American statesmen delicately balanced their objectives of union and independence, they confronted the dissolution of other European empires in the Western Hemisphere, most notably the vast dominion previously held by Spain. As in British North America, the peoples of these territories resorted to force to achieve their independence. The revolutions in Spanish America, as well as the success of the Haitian Revolution and the erosion of Portuguese control of Brazil, created a power vacuum in an immense region of great strategic and economic importance. Considered as a whole, the early-nineteenth-century revolutions in what became known as Latin America created the “Western Question” that witnessed the powers of Europe, as well as the upstart states of the Americas, compete for power and influence in areas that Spain was no longer able to control.26
Having recently battled for their own independence from a colonial power, Americans instinctively identified with the Spanish American revolutionaries. “And behold!” Jefferson wrote shortly after the rebellions against Spain began, “Another example of man rising in his might and bursting the chains of his oppressor, and in the same hemisphere.” Statements such as this reflected a current of thought fashionable at the time that divided the globe into distinct and politically diametric spheres of a republican “New World” and a monarchical “Old World.” Yet as the Spanish American revolutions progressed, many Americans questioned such a bifurcation of the globe, as well as the links between their revolution and those occurring elsewhere in the hemisphere. Jefferson’s anticlericalism and his view that Spanish colonialism was particularly retrograde left him doubting the capacity of Catholic Spanish Americans to live up to the North American example of 1776. “I fear [that] the degrading ignorance into which their priests and kings have sunk them,” he confided, “has disqualified them from the maintenance or even knowledge of their rights, and that much blood may be shed for little improvement in their condition.” Such thinking prompted the author of the Declaration of Independence to resign himself to the temporary continuation of Spanish authority until Spanish Americans proved capable of self-government.27
Jefferson’s evolving views of the Spanish American revolutions shine an instructive light upon the ambivalence with which many Americans approached the dissolution of European empires. Nearly all Americans welcomed the collapse of the Old World colonial order, viewing it as validation of their own revolution and an opportunity to expand their interests. Yet many doubted the capacity of peoples other than themselves to establish stable governments and worried that the turmoil might adversely impinge upon their interests. Such misgivings were particularly pronounced in regard to Haiti, where a slave rebellion led by Toussaint-Louverture that began in 1791 succeeded in establishing independence from France in 1804. Racial attitudes in the United States, combined with the bloody nature of the rebellion, prevented most white Americans from identifying with the Haitians. Furthermore, anxiety about slave revolts at home, particularly in the wake of Gabriel’s 1800 plot in Virginia, prompted the Jefferson administration to devise policies that quarantined Haiti from the United States. Nonrecognition would remain the heart of American policy toward Haiti until the Lincoln administration reversed course in 1862.28
Few in the United States advocated isolating the new states of Spanish America when the revolutions there climaxed in the late 1810s and early 1820s. The proponents of extending diplomatic recognition to the new states, however, had their work cut out for them. The Kentucky congressman Henry Clay was the chief advocate of this move. A nationalist who had been a “war hawk” in the run-up to the 1812 clash with Britain, Clay was not one to shy away from confronting Old World colonialism. The Kentuckian viewed the struggles in Spanish America as a reenactment of the American Revolution. His speeches in Congress that made the case for recognition are notable for the equal regard in which he presented the Spanish American revolutionaries. Clay contended that Spanish American leaders such as Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín were the “brothers” of North Americans, whose state papers were worthy of “the most celebrated that ever issued from the pens of Jefferson or Madison.” Clay was confident that under such leadership the new states of Spanish America would become the ideological and political kin of the United States. He first used in 1820 the phrase “American system” to describe the convergence of interests and ideals between the peoples of the Americas. The Kentuckian went further, calling in 1821 for the creation of a hemispheric alliance system “in favour of National Independence and Liberty, to operate by the force of example and moral influence” that would serve as “a sort of counterpoise” to the colonial powers of the Old World.29
As much as Clay emphasized the ideological rationale for recognition, his case for an active Spanish American policy also rested on hardheaded realism. He argued that the economic benefits of cultivating relations with the new states were too good to pass up. Recognition would facilitate trade with Spanish America, Clay predicted, opening up a lucrative market that had been closed to the United States under the restrictions of Spanish mercantilism. These new markets would eagerly consume American exports, particularly those from Western states such as Clay’s own Kentucky. In return they would ship precious metals to the United States that could be used to pay off debts held across the Atlantic and to bolster gold reserves in the capital-starved American West. In this way, Clay contended, recognition would advance the economic independence of the United States as well as providing benefits for the developing states of the West.30
Clay’s campaign for extending recognition to the new states of Spanish America ran into stiff opposition. The Monroe administration (in office beginning in 1817) repeatedly opposed the move, thanks in large part to the views of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Even within the more receptive House of Representatives, Clay met with little success. It was not until 1821 that one of his resolutions advocating recognition was approved by this legislative body (and even here the resolution was watered down and nonbinding).
Many of the opponents of recognition doubted the capacity of Spanish Americans to replicate the American Revolution. “You cannot make liberty out of Spanish matter,” the Virginian John Randolph declared; “you might as well try to build a seventy-four [a type of warship] out of pine saplings.”31 Such statements reflect an emerging racism, as well as a widespread view that Spanish colonialism and Catholicism had degraded the peoples of Spanish America to such an extent that they were unprepared for self-government. “The people of South America,” John Adams contended in 1815, “are the most ignorant, the most bigoted, the most superstitious of all the Roman Catholics in Christendom.” 32 John Adams’s son, the Secretary of State, had a more charitable view of Spanish Americans, but he, too, dismissed Clay’s arguments. “As to an American system,” John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary in 1820, “we have it; we constitute the whole of it; there is no community of interests or of principles between North and South America.”33 Views such as this challenged the division of the globe into distinct “New” and “Old” spheres. Some Americans went further, suggesting that the relationship between the United States and the new states of Spanish America would come to resemble that of superior and subordinate. “South America will be to North America,” the aptly entitled North American Review asserted in 1821, “we are strongly inclined to think, what Asia and Africa are to Europe.”34
Such views portended the imperialist mind-set of the late nineteenth century. But blocking Clay’s calls for recognition in the early nineteenth century required arguments grounded in national interest as well as in race and religion. Adams doubted that recognition would lead to the economic benefits Clay trumpeted, contending that South American markets “cannot for ages, if ever, be very considerable.”35 The Secretary of State also expressed reservations about pursuing a foreign policy that might entangle the United States in conflict either within Spanish America or with European powers intent on upholding the old colonial order. His famous Fourth of July speech in 1821 countered the argument for recognition by contending that the very universality of the Declaration of Independence that Clay heralded undermined the case for an assertive foreign policy. Given that the Declaration “was the corner stone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe,” Adams argued that there was no need to pursue a risky foreign policy that might embroil the United States in war. Such a war inevitably would exacerbate internal divisions, posing as much danger to the union from within as from without. Rather than risk this result, Adams proposed that the United States instead applaud the cause of anticolonialism and independence from the sidelines. “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be,” Adams proclaimed. “But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy … She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”36
Adams’s oration would become a classic statement of American nonintervention, trotted out in future times by opponents of interventions in Vietnam and Iraq. Yet its implications were not so clear-cut at the time. The logic of the speech, which emphasized the righteousness of anticolonialism, put Adams on the path toward recognition of Spanish American independence.37 Nor, despite his condemnations of the European colonial order, was Adams strictly opposed to venturing into the messy game of Old World power politics. One reason the Secretary of State opposed Clay’s campaign for recognition was that it undermined his negotiations with Spanish minister Luis de Onís that sought the transfer of Florida to the United States, as well as a claim to the Pacific Coast. The Monroe administration also took into consideration the views of the British. As early as 1818, Monroe inched toward extending recognition, but he refused to act without assurances that the British would make the same move, thus providing cover for the United States in the event of Spanish reprisals. For not the last time, American statesmen were reluctant to act in Spanish America without British support. The British, whose economic interests were well served by the status quo of weak Spanish rule, rejected the Monroe administration’s overtures.
Clay premised his argument for recognition on the ideological and economic ambitions of the United States. Yet in the end it was heightened perceptions of threat that compelled the Monroe administration in 1822 to recognize the Spanish American governments of Buenos Aires, Chile, Gran Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.38 The move was prompted in part by the ratification in 1821 of the Transcontinental Treaty, in which Spain ceded Florida to the United States and gave the American republic a claim to the Pacific Coast. With this long-sought agreement in hand, Monroe and Adams could move more boldly on the issue of Spanish American independence. But recognition also stemmed from the identification of a new threat: the prospect that the new Spanish American states would not embrace the political and economic principles favored by the United States. Despite the analogies with the American Revolution made by Clay and his supporters, the reality on the ground was more complex. Monarchy remained an attractive political form, especially in Brazil and Mexico, where monarchists loyal to Emperor Agustín I emerged temporarily victorious in 1822. Many Spanish Americans looked toward the Old World rather than the United States for political inspiration and economic sustenance. There was no guarantee that the new states would be the ideological and political allies of the United States.
It was this very political gulf that prompted the Monroe administration to reverse its previous policy and extend recognition. Though several Spanish American states had consolidated their independence by 1822, the Monroe administration feared that they remained unstable and vulnerable to European intervention. Adams felt as if “their governments are Chinese Shadows [,] they rise upon the Stage, and pass off like the images of Banquo[’]s descendants in Macbeth.” To continue to delay recognition would play into the hands of hostile European powers. Monroe predicted that Spanish Americans would feel “resentment towards us” if recognition continued to be withheld, making them all the more susceptible to “the artful practices of the European powers, to become the dupes of their policy.” The prospect of a monarchical Spanish America allied with European powers led the Monroe administration to fear for its own security. If surrounded by hostile states, the United States would be under siege: its preexisting internal divisions would be exacerbated and its decentralized political system might require alteration, such as increased taxation and military buildup, in order to confront these new threats. “There was danger in standing still or moving forward,” Monroe asserted. By 1822, Monroe and Adams embraced moving forward, despite the risk that it would trigger European reprisals.39
The Monroe administration’s reversal on recognition portended a new direction in its foreign policy. It was a bold move, particularly considering that the administration acted without British support. As the historian James Lewis has made clear, recognition prefigured the more celebrated presidential message of the following year.40 The enlarged concept of national security that had prompted recognition necessitated more and more diplomatic involvement. Adams’s instructions to his ministers to the new Spanish American states reflected a newfound desire to shape their political and economic practices, albeit using the powers of persuasion and example rather than intervention or force. “With relation to Europe,” Adams informed his new minister to Buenos Aires, “there is perceived to be only one object, in which the interests and wishes of the United States can be the same as those of the South American nations, and that is that they should all be governed by republican institutions, politically and commercially independent of Europe.” Already in early 1823, Adams was moving closer to Clay’s “American system” ideas that he would champion as president in the future.41

 

 
In its first four decades, the United States transformed itself from a weak collection of former colonies to an increasingly united and expansive republic. It secured the lands east of the Mississippi and laid claim to portions of the faraway Pacific Coast. What had been uncertain in 1783—union at home and independence from an increasingly powerful British Empire—was closer to achievement in 1823, though still not an established fact. The success of the United States on these counts owed partly to shrewd statecraft, but more to the hospitable circumstances in which it was born. The European turmoil of this period provided many opportunities for American statesmen and provided enough threats to bind the union together, but none so great as to destroy it or even prevent the consolidation and extension of its domain.
As the second generation of American statesmen assumed leadership in the years after 1815, they looked to the future with great confidence. “The truth is that the American union, while united,” John Quincy Adams wrote to his father in 1816 (with a revealing qualification), “may be certain of success in every rightful cause, and may if it pleases never have any but a rightful cause to maintain.”42 The great exception to such optimistic predictions, of course, was the intensifying debate over slavery evidenced in the Missouri crisis, the “title page to a great tragic volume,” as Adams portentously called it.43 Yet even here, the glass could be seen as half full. The successful compromise to the crisis served as evidence of the strength of the bonds of union. If compromise had been achieved over Missouri, there were grounds for hope that future statesmen, cut from the centrist political cloth of Henry Clay and James Monroe, could continue to resolve sectional disputes. These conflicting impulses—the persistent danger of internal divisions and the potential power of nationalism—were on the minds of members of the Monroe cabinet when they convened in November 1823 to formulate a response to yet another crisis arising from the dissolution of the Spanish Empire.
Copyright © 2011 by Jay Sexton

Excerpts

 
1
Independence
The American Revolution was the first of what would be many struggles for independence from colonial rule in the Western Hemisphere. This “age of revolutions,” as it has been called, witnessed the gradual breakdown of the colonial empires that Old World powers had constructed in the preceding centuries. This process lasted throughout the nineteenth century (and, in some places, deep into the twentieth). It not only entailed the achievement of political independence from a colonial master, but also concerned the political arrangements that would replace centuries of colonial rule, which often were born out of the struggle for independence. In a broad sense, the dissolution of colonial rule in the Western Hemisphere also involved the much slower erosion of economic structures and cultural forms that had upheld colonial regimes, as well as their neocolonial successors. The multifaceted and protracted process of decolonization dominated the Western Hemisphere in the nineteenth century.1
The origins of what later became the “Monroe Doctrine” lay not just in the deliberations of the Monroe cabinet in 1823, but in this larger geopolitical context. The message of 1823 was rooted in the policies and principles of statecraft that early American statesmen formulated to guide their young republic through the rocky waters of the dissolution of the European colonial order. These principles and policies looked both inward and outward. American statesmen aimed to bind together the various states, sections, and factions of their union that had been established during the era of the American Revolution. They also looked beyond their borders, seeking to consolidate their independence from an increasingly powerful British Empire, as well as to advance their interests in regions of the crumbling Spanish Empire. The interrelated processes that defined the Monroe Doctrine all shaped American statecraft long before 1823: the ongoing struggle of the United States against persistent British power, the nation-building process within the American union, and the projection of American power over peoples excluded from their constitutional arrangements.
The Rising British Empire
Early Americans were not bashful about proclaiming their ambitions for their fledgling republic. George Washington spoke of “our rising empire”; Thomas Jefferson boasted of the expanding American “empire of liberty”; and Tom Paine predicted that American principles “will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot; it will succeed where diplomatic management would fail … it will march on the horizon of the world and it will conquer.” In the twentieth century, American power would transform global politics, though perhaps not in the ways foreseen a century and more before. The global preeminence of the United States in our own time has given early American statesmen an aura of clairvoyance for predicting what one historian has called the “rising American empire.” Yet there was nothing preordained about the global rise of the United States. Though Americans predicted future greatness for themselves, they also were consumed with their vulnerabilities in an era in which their young and untested union faced challenges from within and without.2
The empire that was most dramatically rising in the nineteenth century was not the American but the British. Despite having lost her most important North American colonies in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, the height of the British Empire lay in the future. The British Empire was larger and more powerful in 1820 than it had been in 1776. During the intervening decades, it tightened its grip on India; its resources and people poured into its settler colonies in Canada and Australasia; it acquired strategic way stations such as the African cape and Singapore; it increased its commercial and naval presence in distant markets in East Asia and in Latin America; its naval power became unrivaled; industrialization at home fueled economic growth and the expansion of overseas commerce; it developed a sophisticated and flexible financial system capable of both underwriting international trade and funding wars of unprecedented cost; and its political system weathered the ideological storm unleashed by the American and French revolutions. Even within North America, the British retained a position of great strength, holding Canada and the strategically important Caribbean islands of the British West Indies and maintaining relations with Native American tribes. Following the defeat of Napoleon’s France after nearly a quarter of a century of conflict (1793–1815), Britain stood atop the global hierarchy, a position of preeminence that it would consolidate as the nineteenth century progressed. By the early twentieth century, the British governed two-thirds of the world’s colonial territories and three-quarters of its colonial population. To be sure, Britain’s position of strength brought with it great anxiety stemming from the need to secure its many interests scattered around the globe, particularly as rivals emerged later in the century. This anxiety could serve as the rationale for retrenchment (as would be the case in North America) or could fuel further expansion (as would occur in Africa in the late nineteenth century).
The nineteenth-century British Empire was a multifaceted and dynamic entity. It included formal colonial possessions such as India and, in the late nineteenth century, large portions of Africa, governed through governmental structures originating in London. Settler colonies in Canada and Australasia functioned as a virtual “British West,” as the historian James Belich has recently put it, attracting capital and migrants from the home country much like the American West of the same period. The inhabitants of the settler colonies enjoyed increased self-government during the nineteenth century, though they increasingly viewed themselves as members of a “Greater Britain.”3 In Latin America and East Asia, the British largely refrained from formal colonial rule, instead pursuing their interests through the informal projection of commercial and cultural power. Central to the British Empire in both its formal and informal manifestations were so-called collaborating elites, the native peoples whose self-interest led them to associate with the British. Recent historians have emphasized the interconnectivity and dynamism of the British Empire, arguing that its power rested on the fusion of its component parts. The integration of formal colonial possessions, settler colonies, and a global commercial empire constituted an expansive and adaptable “British world-system,” as it has recently been called.4 The decentralization of the British Empire contributed to its power and, as the nineteenth century progressed, paradoxically fueled its integration. Far from being the product of simple military might, the nineteenth-century British Empire rested upon the interconnected foundations of commercial and financial power, naval supremacy, communication networks, technological innovation, and political cooperation with indigenous elites.
The expanding British Empire cast a long shadow over nineteenth-century America. The young United States remained entrapped in the webs of the British world-system long after achieving its political independence during the Revolution. “In the year of grace 1776, we published to the world our Declaration of Independence. Six years later, England assented to the separation,” wrote the American nationalist Henry Cabot Lodge in 1883. “These are tolerably familiar facts,” Lodge continued. “That we have been striving ever since to make that independence real and complete, and that the work is not yet entirely finished, are not perhaps, equally obvious truisms.” The persistence of “colonialism in the United States,” as Lodge called it, threatened to keep the United States in a position of subordination to its former colonial master.5
The forms of British power in nineteenth-century America were as pervasive as they were enduring. When American statesmen consulted world maps, they found ever more territories colored red (the traditional color of British possessions); the national ledger books showed increasing indebtedness to British banks; English novels took up most of the space on American bookshelves; schoolchildren in the United States continued to be taught with British textbooks deep into the nineteenth century; popular songs—even Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” which later would become the national anthem—were set to old British tunes. It would not be until 1828 that Noah Webster formalized the spellings of “American English,” and even then his dictionary served as much as a reminder of the links as of the differences between the two peoples. Nineteenth-century Americans were consumed by the question of how best to consolidate their independence from the British. The ongoing struggle to free themselves from the yoke of British imperialism united the disparate sections and peoples of the United States. It also created political divisions that endangered the union itself. British power was an inescapable reality that paradoxically threatened and benefited the young American republic.
Nowhere did British power exert itself more in the United States than in the material world of economics. If anything, independence brought with it a closer economic relationship than had existed before 1776. British merchants and financiers quickly recovered their leading position in the American economy, elbowing aside their opportunistic Dutch and French rivals who had sought to replace them during the Revolution. For most of the nineteenth century, Britain would be the United States’ greatest source of foreign investment, its largest source of imports, and its most important foreign market. To be sure, this economic connection was symbiotic; just as Britain was central to the American economy, the United States was important to the British. But there is little doubt that the United States was the subordinate partner in the relationship. The young republic was a classic “developing economy” with vast resources at its disposal but lacking the means of exploiting them. The majority of American exports to Britain were raw materials and agricultural goods (especially, as the nineteenth century progressed, cotton), whereas most of Britain’s exports to the United States were finished goods. Moreover, as Americans would discover in the run-up to the War of 1812, Britain’s diplomatic and naval might could be turned against their republic, closing off the international connections upon which their economy relied.
In the eyes of many Americans, this unequal economic arrangement threatened the very independence of the United States. As the Kentucky statesman Henry Clay put it in 1820, the United States was in danger of remaining a “sort of independent colonies of England—politically free, commercially slaves.”6 The frequent financial panics that originated in London rippled through the American economy; banks in London had a habit of recalling loans when credit was tight in the United States; British manufacturers, exploiting the cheap labor at their disposal, undercut upstart American rivals; reliance on British capital necessitated unpopular compromises in foreign policy to reassure foreign bondholders. The American economy, in short, drifted in winds that originated across the Atlantic. As the Virginian John Taylor put it, “The English who could not conquer us, may buy us.”7
Yet for all the potential dangers of economic dependence upon Britain, the United States greatly benefited from this relationship. The British market provided the chief outlet for America’s farmers and cotton planters. If the period of international instability in the early nineteenth century demonstrated the dangers of reliance upon the British market, the ensuing century of Pax Britannica and unilateral British tariff reductions revealed the advantage. Even as the British lowered their tariffs, the United States remained free to protect its industries, an option it would take full advantage of later in the nineteenth century. British capital played an important role in the dramatic economic takeoff of the United States in the nineteenth century. Investment channeled to the United States by London banks, such as the powerful Baring Brothers firm, kept down interest rates in the capital-starved republic. British investment underwrote important aspects of the “transportation revolution” of canals and railroads, as well as financing the debts of municipalities, state governments, and the federal government itself. By the mid-nineteenth century, nearly half of the United States’ national debt was held abroad, chiefly in Britain. Funds provided to the federal government by Baring Brothers also underwrote American territorial expansion. Both the 1803 Louisiana Purchase (which acquired extensive territory in the interior of North America from France) and the Mexican indemnity payment of 1848 (which compensated Mexico for lands conquered by the United States) were made possible by loans from the English bank.
These benefits notwithstanding, how to break the cycle of economic subordination to the British was a principal issue in early American politics. Though Americans in the early republic agreed that the status quo was undesirable, they disagreed over the means that would best establish their economic independence. From this debate emerged the political coalitions of the first party system of Republicans and Federalists. Led by Thomas Jefferson, Republicans sought to construct a liberal international order cleared of preferential trading systems. This commercial vision, which aimed to entrench republicanism at home and advance the interests of agricultural exporters, challenged the structures of the British Empire. When Britain would not acquiesce to American demands for open trade and the respect of neutral rights, Jeffersonian Republicans advocated economic retaliation (either in the form of tariffs, which Jefferson advocated as a temporary measure at various points in the 1790s, or, as in 1807–1809, in the form of an all-out embargo). In opposition were the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, who viewed Britain as an indispensable economic partner as well as a model to emulate. The Hamiltonian program called for the consolidation of the union’s finances through the creation of a national bank and the federal assumption of state debts. The Federalists were prepared to make diplomatic compromises with their former colonial master to achieve their objectives, thus further widening the partisan divide at home. Most notable was the 1795 Jay Treaty, which averted war with Britain in the short term by addressing several leftover issues from the Revolutionary period, but outraged Republicans for aligning the United States with its old nemesis and for its failure to protect neutral rights on the high seas.
If Republicans and Federalists disagreed on the means of establishing their independence, they were of one voice in identifying Britain as their greatest economic rival in the long term. For all their differences, both parties agreed on the fundamental objective of establishing American economic independence. Though the Federalists were pro-British elites, they differed from “collaborating elites” in Britain’s empire by rejecting associations with the old country that infringed upon American sovereignty. Economic and political exigencies at times blurred the lines between the two parties. For all their heated rhetoric, when in power, both parties found it difficult to implement their policy visions. Federalists and Republicans were also united by the ironic fact that both parties advocated policies that perpetuated short-term British economic hegemony. The Federalist policy of federal assumption of state debts increased American dependence on British credit; likewise, Jeffersonian opposition to barriers to international commerce furthered reliance on British manufactured goods. It would not be the last time that American politicians used British power as a means of achieving their nationalist objectives.
In the arena of diplomacy, British power similarly presented the United States with both threats and opportunities. The young United States remained vulnerable to its former colonial master. The Union Jack continued to be raised each morning in the years following 1783 in seven British posts within U.S. territory that would not be relinquished until 1796. British traders maintained links with Native American tribes, who were understandably hostile to the expansionist republic that had seized their land in the 1783 treaty, in which they were unrepresented. British statesmen pursued policies detrimental to the United States when necessary, as often was the case during their protracted conflict with France, which would not be resolved until 1815. The War of 1812, which arose from the clash between British control of the seas and the American demand for the respect of neutral rights, proved that though the United States could maintain its independence militarily, it remained vulnerable to British power (indeed, most government buildings in Washington lay in ashes at the war’s end).
But as much as Britain threatened the young republic, its power also provided opportunities for American statesmen. At points during the European turmoil of 1789–1815, the chief threat to the United States was its former ally France. The Federalists of the 1790s concluded that aligning themselves with the British was preferable to strengthening ties with the French, with whom they soon engaged in the naval “Quasi-War” of 1798–1800. Even a stalwart Anglophobe like Thomas Jefferson conceded that if France choked off American access to New Orleans, “from that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.”8 The two English-speaking states collaborated so closely during this period that one historian has dubbed the 1795–1805 period “the first rapprochement.” The United States also found advantage in Europe’s distress. Though the United States eventually became entangled in the European conflicts of this period, this did not prevent it from capitalizing on several diplomatic opportunities. With the European powers’ military might focused in Europe (and, in the New World, in the Caribbean), American statesmen were able to consolidate their strategic position in agreements such as the Pinckney Treaty of 1795, which secured from Spain access to the Mississippi River, and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.9
A great dilemma for early American statesmen was how to take advantage of opportunities presented by British power without becoming a pawn of their former colonial master. American leaders also faced a domestic political challenge: the deeply Anglophobic political culture that was a product of the Revolution made it difficult to align openly with the British even when it was in the national interest to so do. Few walked this tightrope better than did George Washington, whose foreign policy tilted toward the British, especially with the 1795 Jay Treaty. Yet in his famous 1796 “Farewell Address,” Washington glossed over this fact, emphasizing instead the alleged “great rule” of having “as little political connection as possible” with the Old World and the need “to steer clear of permanent alliances.” Washington’s farewell not only obscured the way his administration had allied itself with the British, but it also undermined the pro-French views of his political opponents.10
Nineteenth-century Americans were not uniformly opposed to all things British. American nationalism drew power from both Anglophobia and Anglophilia. Britain served as an important negative self-reference, yet many Americans admired and reproduced British practices and culture. Such contradictory impulses can be seen in Americans’ ambivalent views of the British monarchy. Despite all the fulminations against monarchy in Fourth of July orations, many Americans were fascinated by Britain’s royal family. As the nineteenth century progressed, celebrations of the anniversaries of British monarchs in the United States became more common and open, giving rise to the curious appellation of “Victorian America” (named after Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901). “Had Queen Victoria been on the throne, instead of George III,” Secretary of State William Evarts declared in 1878, “or if we had postponed our rebellion until Queen Victoria reigned, it would not have been necessary.”11 Such admiration of the British monarchy tapped into increasing racial identification between the self-proclaimed “Anglo-Saxon” peoples of America and Britain. The pride Americans took in their independence from Britain did not prevent many of them from viewing themselves, as the nineteenth century progressed, as part of a master “Anglo-Saxon” race in which they stood alongside their former colonial master atop a global racial hierarchy.
Union and Independence
If the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783 did not end Americans’ struggle against the powerful British, it also left unanswered fundamental questions about the nature and form of their union at home. Both centripetal and centrifugal forces swirled in the political vacuum of North America. The potential for unification among Britain’s thirteen former colonies was strong. The American states were connected to one another by networks of trade and communication, a republican ideology, and the experience of collectively fighting the British during the Revolution. Union between the states also brought with it the means to exert control over Native Americans, as well as to expand westward across the North American continent, exploiting its vast natural resources in the name of economic development and integration.
Yet much divided the thirteen states that, upon attaining political independence, were only loosely united under the Articles of Confederation. Small and large states argued over the form of political representation; Atlantic seaboard states worried about their status in a westward-expanding union; Southern slaveholding states and those increasingly opposed to the institution in the North looked upon each other with great suspicion. The extent to which certain states and individuals were committed to the national project was an open question. Leaders in independent Vermont toyed with reentering the British Empire; renegade frontiersmen schemed to detach various parts of the trans-Appalachian West; sectional interests and identities opened the prospect of the establishment of regional confederacies rather than a single union. The histories of other areas emerging from colonial rule—such as Spanish America, which fragmented into multiple nation-states in the nineteenth century, or South Asia, which divided into three separate states after attaining independence from Britain in the mid-twentieth century—make clear that independence from colonial rule often results in political fragmentation.
That the North American states remained united until they would be torn asunder by secession and civil war in 1861 owed much to the interlocking relationship between union and independence. 12 Even before the Revolution, American leaders feared that independence would result in a cluster of unstable and weak states or federations that would invite further European meddling. In this scenario the American states would have traded formal colonialism for an even less desirable position as pawns of the European powers, pitted against one another in conflicts waged to maintain the balance of power in the Old World. The nationalist John Jay feared that “every state would be a little nation, jealous of its neighbors, and anxious to strengthen itself by foreign alliances, against its former friends.” The newly independent states could only be secure if bound together in a strong union. “Weakness and divisions at home would invite dangers from abroad,” Jay later asserted when making the case for a stronger central government; “nothing would tend more to secure us from them than union, strength, and good government within ourselves.” The benefits of union far outweighed the costs, even in the minds of South Carolinians who, though aware of the proliferation of antislavery doctrines in the Northern states, concluded that a more powerful central authority could best secure slavery on their vulnerable periphery. Not only would union preempt future conflicts between the states and foreign intervention, but it also provided the means for territorial expansion, the exercise of control over Native Americans, and the economic development and integration of the vast resources of the North American continent. “We have seen the necessity of the Union,” James Madison wrote in Federalist 14, “as our bulwark against foreign danger, as the conservator of peace among ourselves, as the guardian of our commerce and other common interests.”13
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 aimed to consolidate the achievements of the Revolution by creating a union powerful enough to maintain its independence. It sought to walk the tightrope of conferring new powers to the federal government while at the same time satisfying individual states by retaining elements of home rule. In time, contrasting interpretations of whether ultimate power resided in the federal government or within the states would fuel constitutional crisis and contribute to the coming of the civil war. In the 1780s, however, this balancing act was required to achieve both union and independence. Strong central authority might better counter British power, but it could prove fatal to the union from within; too much delegation of power to the states, on the other hand, might leave the United States incapable of maintaining its independence, a lesson learned under the inadequate Articles of Confederation. The interdependent goals of union and independence became the twin pillars of early American statecraft; they “were from the beginning … joined at the hip,” as the historian David Hendrickson has recently put it.14
The centrality of union and independence is made clear by the terror invoked by their opposites: disunion and colonial dependence. The greatest fear among American statesmen was the possibility that Old World powers would exploit internal divisions by allying with sections or factions of the union, thus fusing internal and external threats. It “was the interference of other nations in their domestic divisions” that undid previous republics, a young John Quincy Adams concluded.15 American statesmen were determined not to allow history to repeat itself. Herein lay the rationale behind the American diplomatic practice of standing aloof, so far as possible, from conflicts that occurred in Europe. The two most famous articulations of this theme—Washington’s Farewell Address (1796) and Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address (1801)—argued that a foreign policy of nonentanglement should be pursued in order to mitigate the threat posed by internal divisions. Washington’s address dealt primarily with the menace of separatist movements in the American West and the entrenchment of ideologically opposed political parties. His “great rule” of diplomatic nonentanglement was a means of safeguarding against these internal threats to the union, not an end in itself. Similarly, Jefferson’s call for “entangling alliances with none” was made in the context of an address that called for national unity—albeit one premised upon his political triumph in the election of 1800—after the divisive politics of the 1790s.16
The objective of steering clear of European alliances was rooted in perceptions of threat, not in some dogma of isolationism. American statesmen had no qualms about engaging with the powers of the Old World when U.S. interests demanded—indeed, America’s political independence owed much to the 1778 alliance with France. Washington’s farewell carefully kept the door open to “temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies,” as he called them. Jefferson tilted toward the French in the 1790s, but would later contemplate joint action with the British when circumstances demanded. Nor were early American statesmen in any sense isolationist when it came to commerce, which they hoped to liberate from the restrictions of European colonialism. An open commercial system that respected neutral rights would benefit the internationalist American economy. Americans also hoped that it would accelerate the breakdown of Old World empires by depriving them of their economic basis. Washington’s farewell contained another qualification on this score: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” The American objective, as John Adams put it, was nothing less than “a reformation, a kind of Protestantism, in the commercial system of the world.”17
The United States’ campaign for the sanctity of neutral rights found little support abroad in an era of great power conflict. Both Britain and France violated neutral rights in order to prevent American exports from reaching each other during their titanic struggle between 1793 and 1815. The United States eventually became entangled in war with both parties, the “Quasi-War” with France in the late 1790s and the War of 1812 with Britain. These conflicts exacerbated internal divisions that proved to be just as great a threat to the union as that posed by foreign powers. Jefferson’s embargo of 1807–1809, which aimed to keep the United States out of the Napoleonic Wars and to coerce the European powers into respecting neutral shipping rights, provoked fierce domestic opposition, particularly among New England Federalists who represented mercantile and shipping interests adversely affected by the policy. Dissatisfaction from this quarter would be even more pronounced during the War of 1812. New England opponents of the conflict convened in Hartford, Connecticut, in late 1814 to discuss ways of securing their interests. In the run-up to the convention, rumors swirled of New England secession and the negotiation of a separate peace treaty with Britain—that toxic combination of disunion and colonial dependence. Moderates ultimately prevailed at Hartford, quashing talk of secession and instead issuing a report detailing their grievances. Yet if the episode reveals the limits of New England separatism in this period, it also underscores the union’s good fortune: the Madison administration concluded a peace treaty with Britain just as the Hartford delegates convened. Had the unpopular war dragged on, it is possible that matters would have played out differently in New England, where a follow-up conference was scheduled if the war with Britain continued.
The War of 1812 ushered in the high tide of early American nationalism. This “second war of independence,” as Americans soon called it, did nothing to protect neutral shipping rights, nor did it expand the borders of the United States northward into Canada, as some Americans had hoped. Yet it created an upsurge in nationalism that forged a stronger union at home. Though the conflict was militarily inconclusive, Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans (which ironically occurred after the peace treaty was signed) provided Americans with a high note by which to remember the conflict. The partisan conflict during the war was replaced with an interregnum of single-party rule. If this “era of good feelings” was not as harmonious as imagined by some at the time, it did witness politicians from across the spectrum embrace legislation that promoted economic development and the integration of internal markets. Even Jefferson himself briefly embraced nationalist economic measures, such as a moderate tariff, to prepare the United States for what many presumed would be a resumption of conflict in Europe.
The War of 1812 was one of many diplomatic and military episodes in this period in which the United States secured and expanded its position in North America. The 1783 Treaty of Paris had granted the new republic generous borders. Few in Europe thought that the United States would maintain its grip on the lands east of the Mississippi, let alone expand further. The young republic proved able to achieve both objectives. American statesmen extended their 1783 borders to include the vast Louisiana Territory and Florida, which the United States partly seized in 1810 and then bullied Spain into ceding by treaty in its entirety during the Monroe administration. Other territorial adjustments included the 1818 Anglo-American Convention, which established the U.S.-Canadian border to the west of the Great Lakes, and the Transcontinental Treaty with Spain (ratified in 1821), which gave the United States a claim on the Pacific Coast.
Just as important as this expansion of territory was the consolidation of dominion over the lands already possessed. Migrants streamed across the Appalachian Mountains, settling in the fertile Ohio Valley and cultivating the rich soil of the Deep South. This “explosive colonization,” as James Belich has called it, witnessed some of the most dramatic population movements in modern history. The populations of both the Old Northwest (the Great Lakes region) and the Old Southwest (the region of the southern Mississippi Valley) tripled in the single decade of the 1810s.18 This population movement invariably brought white settlers into conflict with the Native American inhabitants of these territories. Statesmen in Washington hoped that tensions would be resolved by the “civilization” of Native Americans and the gradual and legal appropriation of their lands. But on the frontier, force often prevailed. The War of 1812 was not just an Anglo-American conflict; it also pitted the United States against Indian tribes. The military commander Andrew Jackson aggressively seized the opportunity to consolidate American power over Native Americans in the Southwest, forcing upon them a series of treaties that ceded vast tracts of territory to the United States. The conflict that advanced American independence from Britain paradoxically entailed the projection of power over peoples deemed to be subordinates.
There was no master plan hatched in Washington that dictated early expansion, even if American leaders made clear that they sought to control areas of strategic importance such as New Orleans, Florida, and Cuba. Statesmen exploited opportunities as they arose in a volatile international system, and also capitalized on population movements that often played into their hands. Yet if there was no blueprint for expansion, Americans developed a political logic for the process of adding new territories to the union. Rather than follow the traditional colonialist model of exerting central authority over distant territories indefinitely, American leaders, led by Thomas Jefferson, proposed that new territories enter the republic as equal members after an appropriate period of tutelage under a federally controlled territorial government. The Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Confederation Congress in 1787, outlined the process by which the federal government would oversee the administration of the Northwest Territory. The ordinance sought to secure this territory for the United States until a time in which republican state governments could be formed and trusted enough to be admitted into the union on equal terms. This model of anticolonial colonization aimed to advance individual liberty and the equality of new states in the long term, while reaping the benefits of controlling strategically important territories in the short term. The Northwest Ordinance also balanced the demands of the inhabitants of the Western territories, who wanted republican self-government and political equality, with the security concerns of the existing states, which used the federal government to control the territories until they proved loyal enough to enter the union as equal states.
As much as Jefferson and many of his contemporaries waxed lyrical about the virtues of an expanding “empire of liberty,” their insecurities and perception of threat were just as significant to expansion as was ideology. Jefferson acquired Louisiana not out of regard for its inhabitants (whose support for entry into the union he did not bother to acquire), but because he viewed control of New Orleans as vital to national security and economic interests. The Louisiana Purchase prompted charges of executive tyranny from many in New England who grasped that the future addition of new Western states would change the balance of power within the union. Jefferson defended the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory on the grounds of both political theory and hardheaded diplomatic realism. “I know that the acquisition of Louisiana has been disapproved by some, from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union,” Jefferson stated in his second inaugural of 1805. “But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view, is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family?”19
Jefferson’s Louisiana diplomacy reflected a fear widespread among American statesmen that the territories on their periphery threatened national security. The European threat loomed both in regions bordering the United States, such as Florida (still a Spanish possession), and in outlying territories of the trans-Appalachian West, where the loyalties of the inhabitants were open to question. Even members of the federal government such as Tennessee senator William Blount and Jefferson’s former vice president Aaron Burr schemed to detach outlying regions from the union. The expansionist process outlined in the Northwest Ordinance aimed to counter the potential of Western separatism within American territories by having territorial governments answer directly to the federal government in Washington. Indeed, federal authority exerted itself far more strongly on the periphery of the union than it did in the preexisting states. Congress kept a watchful eye on the political activities on the frontier so that it could suppress disunionist plots. Nonetheless, the federal government lacked the power, and often the will, to coerce the white inhabitants of the Western territories into complying with its wishes. “If they declare themselves a separate people,” Jefferson wrote of Westerners in 1787, “we are incapable of a single effort to retain them.”20
Federal coercion of white settlers was less effective than was enticing them into the union with generous incentives. Not only were white settlers promised self-government, but they also received, upon entering the union, political representation, in the form of two senators, disproportionate to their population. Moreover, they were the beneficiaries of the continued economic development and exploitation of America’s expanding “empire of liberty.” As further enticement, the federal government often bowed to local demands, frequently supporting white settlers, for example, in their struggles with Native Americans. The federal government also acquiesced to the entrenchment of slavery in the Southwest and Louisiana territories. Congress abandoned the idea of restricting slavery in the Louisiana Territory once it became apparent that it would antagonize the settlers in the region, possibly even leading them into the hands of a European power. This political compromise was necessary to secure the strategically important territories of the Deep South, yet it ironically sowed the seeds for disunion later in the century by enabling the expansion and consolidation of slavery in what would become the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.21
Early American expansionism thus resulted from a mixture of opportunity, ideology, insecurity, and the dynamics of its decentralized and anticolonial political structure. This formula proved remarkably successful, particularly in the context of the European turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars. By the 1820s, Americans had secured their major objectives on the North American continent: they had pushed the British out of their territory; they controlled places of strategic importance such as New Orleans and Florida; and they established supremacy over most Native American tribes east of the Mississippi River. Just as important, they strengthened the bonds between the new Western states and those of the Atlantic seaboard. Long-held fears of Western separatism diminished, particularly as a result of the War of 1812, which demonstrated, in John Adams’s estimation, “that our trans-Alleghanian States, in patriotism, bravery, enterprise and perseverance, are at least equal to any in the Union.”22
In the years after 1815, the North-South divide concerning the future of slavery replaced the old East-West split as the greatest sectional threat to the union. Indeed, the binding together of the East and West ironically fueled conflict between North and South, as the crisis surrounding Missouri’s admission to the union in 1819—21 demonstrated. No longer paralyzed by the fear that Missourians would spurn admission to the union or ally themselves with a foreign power, a broad coalition of Northern politicians now sought to dictate that statehood be contingent upon a moderate plan of gradual emancipation. The prospect of a unified North using the federal government to impose antislavery policies upon Missouri alarmed Southerners, prompting them to speak openly of disunion and to rehearse the proslavery arguments that they would recite throughout the coming decades. Resolution to the crisis came only after protracted debate and the adept political leadership of moderate nationalists, particularly President James Monroe and the Kentucky congressman Henry Clay. The compromise saw Missouri enter the union as a slave state, counterbalanced by the admission of free-state Maine, and slavery prohibited in the Western territories north of parallel 36°30’ (and allowed south of that latitude).23
The Missouri crisis profoundly shaped the subsequent statecraft of the Monroe administration. The controversy made clear the internal dangers of continued territorial expansion. Though Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, remained convinced that it was “a settled geographical element that the United States and North America are identical” (as Adams put it), they opted not to press claims to Texas during the negotiations with Spain that would lead to the Transcontinental Treaty. “It is evident,” Monroe wrote to Jefferson in 1820, “that the further acquisition of territory, to the West and South, involves difficulties of an internal nature which menace the Union itself.” Monroe believed that the United States could take Florida, acquire Texas for “some trifle,” and expel Spain from North America. “No European power could prevent this,” the President asserted, “but the difficulty does not proceed from these sources. It is altogether internal, and of the most distressing nature and dangerous tendency.”24
The fallout from the Missouri crisis also can be seen in the Monroe administration’s embrace of colonization, a fantastical scheme to resolve internal tensions by removing African Americans from the United States. The Monroe administration subsidized the activities of the American Colonization Society, as well as directing the U.S. Navy in 1821–22 to support the establishment of the ACS colony of Liberia. It was a result of this support that the capital of this West African colony was named Monrovia. The President who later sought to ensure domestic security by formulating a doctrine prohibiting external intervention in the New World in this case sought to promote the security of the union by removing African Americans from its borders.
The early American union was a complex and paradoxical political beast, notable both for its fragility and for its remarkable capacity to survive the trials it faced from within and without. Despite—or perhaps because of—the decentralized nature of its political system, nationalism was a powerful force in the early republic, particularly in the years following 1815. The triumph of compromise during the Missouri crisis, Clay contended, “ought to be mainly ascribed to those strong feelings of attachment to the Union … without it, our country would be exposed to the greatest calamities, rent into miserable petty states, and these convulsed by perpetual feuds and wars.” Yet in darker moments, even a nationalist like Clay wondered if just such a contingency would unfold, confessing his fear to Adams “that within five years from this time [1820], the Union would be divided into three distinct confederacies.”25
The “Western Question”
As American statesmen delicately balanced their objectives of union and independence, they confronted the dissolution of other European empires in the Western Hemisphere, most notably the vast dominion previously held by Spain. As in British North America, the peoples of these territories resorted to force to achieve their independence. The revolutions in Spanish America, as well as the success of the Haitian Revolution and the erosion of Portuguese control of Brazil, created a power vacuum in an immense region of great strategic and economic importance. Considered as a whole, the early-nineteenth-century revolutions in what became known as Latin America created the “Western Question” that witnessed the powers of Europe, as well as the upstart states of the Americas, compete for power and influence in areas that Spain was no longer able to control.26
Having recently battled for their own independence from a colonial power, Americans instinctively identified with the Spanish American revolutionaries. “And behold!” Jefferson wrote shortly after the rebellions against Spain began, “Another example of man rising in his might and bursting the chains of his oppressor, and in the same hemisphere.” Statements such as this reflected a current of thought fashionable at the time that divided the globe into distinct and politically diametric spheres of a republican “New World” and a monarchical “Old World.” Yet as the Spanish American revolutions progressed, many Americans questioned such a bifurcation of the globe, as well as the links between their revolution and those occurring elsewhere in the hemisphere. Jefferson’s anticlericalism and his view that Spanish colonialism was particularly retrograde left him doubting the capacity of Catholic Spanish Americans to live up to the North American example of 1776. “I fear [that] the degrading ignorance into which their priests and kings have sunk them,” he confided, “has disqualified them from the maintenance or even knowledge of their rights, and that much blood may be shed for little improvement in their condition.” Such thinking prompted the author of the Declaration of Independence to resign himself to the temporary continuation of Spanish authority until Spanish Americans proved capable of self-government.27
Jefferson’s evolving views of the Spanish American revolutions shine an instructive light upon the ambivalence with which many Americans approached the dissolution of European empires. Nearly all Americans welcomed the collapse of the Old World colonial order, viewing it as validation of their own revolution and an opportunity to expand their interests. Yet many doubted the capacity of peoples other than themselves to establish stable governments and worried that the turmoil might adversely impinge upon their interests. Such misgivings were particularly pronounced in regard to Haiti, where a slave rebellion led by Toussaint-Louverture that began in 1791 succeeded in establishing independence from France in 1804. Racial attitudes in the United States, combined with the bloody nature of the rebellion, prevented most white Americans from identifying with the Haitians. Furthermore, anxiety about slave revolts at home, particularly in the wake of Gabriel’s 1800 plot in Virginia, prompted the Jefferson administration to devise policies that quarantined Haiti from the United States. Nonrecognition would remain the heart of American policy toward Haiti until the Lincoln administration reversed course in 1862.28
Few in the United States advocated isolating the new states of Spanish America when the revolutions there climaxed in the late 1810s and early 1820s. The proponents of extending diplomatic recognition to the new states, however, had their work cut out for them. The Kentucky congressman Henry Clay was the chief advocate of this move. A nationalist who had been a “war hawk” in the run-up to the 1812 clash with Britain, Clay was not one to shy away from confronting Old World colonialism. The Kentuckian viewed the struggles in Spanish America as a reenactment of the American Revolution. His speeches in Congress that made the case for recognition are notable for the equal regard in which he presented the Spanish American revolutionaries. Clay contended that Spanish American leaders such as Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín were the “brothers” of North Americans, whose state papers were worthy of “the most celebrated that ever issued from the pens of Jefferson or Madison.” Clay was confident that under such leadership the new states of Spanish America would become the ideological and political kin of the United States. He first used in 1820 the phrase “American system” to describe the convergence of interests and ideals between the peoples of the Americas. The Kentuckian went further, calling in 1821 for the creation of a hemispheric alliance system “in favour of National Independence and Liberty, to operate by the force of example and moral influence” that would serve as “a sort of counterpoise” to the colonial powers of the Old World.29
As much as Clay emphasized the ideological rationale for recognition, his case for an active Spanish American policy also rested on hardheaded realism. He argued that the economic benefits of cultivating relations with the new states were too good to pass up. Recognition would facilitate trade with Spanish America, Clay predicted, opening up a lucrative market that had been closed to the United States under the restrictions of Spanish mercantilism. These new markets would eagerly consume American exports, particularly those from Western states such as Clay’s own Kentucky. In return they would ship precious metals to the United States that could be used to pay off debts held across the Atlantic and to bolster gold reserves in the capital-starved American West. In this way, Clay contended, recognition would advance the economic independence of the United States as well as providing benefits for the developing states of the West.30
Clay’s campaign for extending recognition to the new states of Spanish America ran into stiff opposition. The Monroe administration (in office beginning in 1817) repeatedly opposed the move, thanks in large part to the views of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Even within the more receptive House of Representatives, Clay met with little success. It was not until 1821 that one of his resolutions advocating recognition was approved by this legislative body (and even here the resolution was watered down and nonbinding).
Many of the opponents of recognition doubted the capacity of Spanish Americans to replicate the American Revolution. “You cannot make liberty out of Spanish matter,” the Virginian John Randolph declared; “you might as well try to build a seventy-four [a type of warship] out of pine saplings.”31 Such statements reflect an emerging racism, as well as a widespread view that Spanish colonialism and Catholicism had degraded the peoples of Spanish America to such an extent that they were unprepared for self-government. “The people of South America,” John Adams contended in 1815, “are the most ignorant, the most bigoted, the most superstitious of all the Roman Catholics in Christendom.” 32 John Adams’s son, the Secretary of State, had a more charitable view of Spanish Americans, but he, too, dismissed Clay’s arguments. “As to an American system,” John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary in 1820, “we have it; we constitute the whole of it; there is no community of interests or of principles between North and South America.”33 Views such as this challenged the division of the globe into distinct “New” and “Old” spheres. Some Americans went further, suggesting that the relationship between the United States and the new states of Spanish America would come to resemble that of superior and subordinate. “South America will be to North America,” the aptly entitledNorth American Reviewasserted in 1821, “we are strongly inclined to think, what Asia and Africa are to Europe.”34
Such views portended the imperialist mind-set of the late nineteenth century. But blocking Clay’s calls for recognition in the early nineteenth century required arguments grounded in national interest as well as in race and religion. Adams doubted that recognition would lead to the economic benefits Clay trumpeted, contending that South American markets “cannot for ages, if ever, be very considerable.”35 The Secretary of State also expressed reservations about pursuing a foreign policy that might entangle the United States in conflict either within Spanish America or with European powers intent on upholding the old colonial order. His famous Fourth of July speech in 1821 countered the argument for recognition by contending that the very universality of the Declaration of Independence that Clay heralded undermined the case for an assertive foreign policy. Given that the Declaration “was the corner stone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe,” Adams argued that there was no need to pursue a risky foreign policy that might embroil the United States in war. Such a war inevitably would exacerbate internal divisions, posing as much danger to the union from within as from without. Rather than risk this result, Adams proposed that the United States instead applaud the cause of anticolonialism and independence from the sidelines. “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be,” Adams proclaimed. “But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy … She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”36
Adams’s oration would become a classic statement of American nonintervention, trotted out in future times by opponents of interventions in Vietnam and Iraq. Yet its implications were not so clear-cut at the time. The logic of the speech, which emphasized the righteousness of anticolonialism, put Adams on the path toward recognition of Spanish American independence.37 Nor, despite his condemnations of the European colonial order, was Adams strictly opposed to venturing into the messy game of Old World power politics. One reason the Secretary of State opposed Clay’s campaign for recognition was that it undermined his negotiations with Spanish minister Luis de Onís that sought the transfer of Florida to the United States, as well as a claim to the Pacific Coast. The Monroe administration also took into consideration the views of the British. As early as 1818, Monroe inched toward extending recognition, but he refused to act without assurances that the British would make the same move, thus providing cover for the United States in the event of Spanish reprisals. For not the last time, American statesmen were reluctant to act in Spanish America without British support. The British, whose economic interests were well served by the status quo of weak Spanish rule, rejected the Monroe administration’s overtures.
Clay premised his argument for recognition on the ideological and economic ambitions of the United States. Yet in the end it was heightened perceptions of threat that compelled the Monroe administration in 1822 to recognize the Spanish American governments of Buenos Aires, Chile, Gran Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.38 The move was prompted in part by the ratification in 1821 of the Transcontinental Treaty, in which Spain ceded Florida to the United States and gave the American republic a claim to the Pacific Coast. With this long-sought agreement in hand, Monroe and Adams could move more boldly on the issue of Spanish American independence. But recognition also stemmed from the identification of a new threat: the prospect that the new Spanish American states would not embrace the political and economic principles favored by the United States. Despite the analogies with the American Revolution made by Clay and his supporters, the reality on the ground was more complex. Monarchy remained an attractive political form, especially in Brazil and Mexico, where monarchists loyal to Emperor Agustín I emerged temporarily victorious in 1822. Many Spanish Americans looked toward the Old World rather than the United States for political inspiration and economic sustenance. There was no guarantee that the new states would be the ideological and political allies of the United States.
It was this very political gulf that prompted the Monroe administration to reverse its previous policy and extend recognition. Though several Spanish American states had consolidated their independence by 1822, the Monroe administration feared that they remained unstable and vulnerable to European intervention. Adams felt as if “their governments are Chinese Shadows [,] they rise upon the Stage, and pass off like the images of Banquo[’]s descendants in Macbeth.” To continue to delay recognition would play into the hands of hostile European powers. Monroe predicted that Spanish Americans would feel “resentment towards us” if recognition continued to be withheld, making them all the more susceptible to “the artful practices of the European powers, to become the dupes of their policy.” The prospect of a monarchical Spanish America allied with European powers led the Monroe administration to fear for its own security. If surrounded by hostile states, the United States would be under siege: its preexisting internal divisions would be exacerbated and its decentralized political system might require alteration, such as increased taxation and military buildup, in order to confront these new threats. “There was danger in standing still or moving forward,” Monroe asserted. By 1822, Monroe and Adams embraced moving forward, despite the risk that it would trigger European reprisals.39
The Monroe administration’s reversal on recognition portended a new direction in its foreign policy. It was a bold move, particularly considering that the administration acted without British support. As the historian James Lewis has made clear, recognition prefigured the more celebrated presidential message of the following year.40 The enlarged concept of national security that had prompted recognition necessitated more and more diplomatic involvement. Adams’s instructions to his ministers to the new Spanish American states reflected a newfound desire to shape their political and economic practices, albeit using the powers of persuasion and example rather than intervention or force. “With relation to Europe,” Adams informed his new minister to Buenos Aires, “there is perceived to be only one object, in which the interests and wishes of the United States can be the same as those of the South American nations, and that is that they should all be governed by republican institutions, politically and commercially independent of Europe.” Already in early 1823, Adams was moving closer to Clay’s “American system” ideas that he would champion as president in the future.41

 

 
In its first four decades, the United States transformed itself from a weak collection of former colonies to an increasingly united and expansive republic. It secured the lands east of the Mississippi and laid claim to portions of the faraway Pacific Coast. What had been uncertain in 1783—union at home and independence from an increasingly powerful British Empire—was closer to achievement in 1823, though still not an established fact. The success of the United States on these counts owed partly to shrewd statecraft, but more to the hospitable circumstances in which it was born. The European turmoil of this period provided many opportunities for American statesmen and provided enough threats to bind the union together, but none so great as to destroy it or even prevent the consolidation and extension of its domain.
As the second generation of American statesmen assumed leadership in the years after 1815, they looked to the future with great confidence. “The truth is that the American union, while united,” John Quincy Adams wrote to his father in 1816 (with a revealing qualification), “may be certain of success in every rightful cause, and may if it pleases never have any but a rightful cause to maintain.”42 The great exception to such optimistic predictions, of course, was the intensifying debate over slavery evidenced in the Missouri crisis, the “title page to a great tragic volume,” as Adams portentously called it.43 Yet even here, the glass could be seen as half full. The successful compromise to the crisis served as evidence of the strength of the bonds of union. If compromise had been achieved over Missouri, there were grounds for hope that future statesmen, cut from the centrist political cloth of Henry Clay and James Monroe, could continue to resolve sectional disputes. These conflicting impulses—the persistent danger of internal divisions and the potential power of nationalism—were on the minds of members of the Monroe cabinet when they convened in November 1823 to formulate a response to yet another crisis arising from the dissolution of the Spanish Empire.
Copyright © 2011 by Jay Sexton

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