Like George Washington, President Harrison caught his death of
cold. He did so on his Inauguration Day and did not survive the
ensuing plague of office-seekers. The usual quarrels over the national
bank and tariffs occupied his successor, John Tyler, who would not
be domineered by Henry Clay's Congressional capers.
He accomplished little.
Relations with Britain were as bad as usual, when a well-disposed
Prime Minister sent to America a Lord Ashburton to dicker with
Daniel Webster, now Secretary of State, and the two sent skimming
back and forth across the table chunks of territory the size of
England, Switzerland, the Netherlands or Portugal.
The Maine boundary was settled; it was a good deal for Britain; the
natural boundary seemed more properly to include New Brunswick.
But perhaps the two gentlemen wished to keep the French-
Canadians all on the British side. (In a century or so the
Francophones would be hopping the border to
settle and proliferate in New England.)
The boundary line between Lake Superior and Lake-of-the-Woods
was also agreed upon, a simple straight line that by a
stroke of luck put inside the States the great Minnesota
Mesabi Iron Range to come.
The idea of "manifest destiny" meant more than horizontal
expansion to some people. The phenomenon "filibusters" acquired
its name from sundry adventurers who combined here and there to
expand or capture pieces of territory, recently liberated from or still
pertaining to the weakening Spanish imperial domain. A group
calling itself Knights of the Golden Circle claimed 65,000 members
pledged to liberate the whole of the Caribbean on behalf of the slave
culture. The Civil War cut short its expansionist efforts.
A William Walker sailed with a gang of self-styled "Immortals" on
news of a Nicaraguan Civil War in 1855. He espoused many causes,
some good, like the abolition of slavery and the rights of women. He
claimed to have taken over the seat of government in Managua,
whereupon President Franklin Pierce recognized his regime. He got
mixed up with American businessmen, and especially the robber baron,
Cornelius Vanderbilt. Soon thereafter, Walker was run out of office
by a combination of Vanderbilt and British interests in the country.
Eventually he was executed by firing squad in Honduras.
Other filibusterers with a Cuban penchant were aching to "liberate" the
Pearl of the Antilles on behalf of the slave culture. When President
Pierce, ever hopeful, told American Ambassador Soulé to offer Spain
$130 millions, the Spanish government
ushered him out the door.
Piqued, Soulé then got together in Ostend with the American
ambassadors to Britain and France. The trio composed a manifesto
which they leaked to the media, declaring that only "stubborn pride
and a false sense of honor" motivated note to sell the Island,
and in such case, it would "seriously endanger our internal peace
and existence of our cherished Union." Thus, "then, by every law,
human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain."
Instead of delivering the ambassadors to the custody of the insane
asylum recently set up in Massachusetts, the first in the nation,
Pierce merely disavowed them, following an uproar of opinion.
Yankee traders harbored in the most esoteric and exotic ports of the
world in the ante-bellum decades. After them came the flagged
gunboats. Like Pocohontas, Indian trinkets, Squanto, et al. their
cultural items and living specimens were carried back as cultural
exchanges. The exchange worked both ways. Trade flourished when
nations were prosperous; economic cycles matched between Europe
and America; when English merchant houses and banks failed,
so did the American.
When Germans immigrated (a form of cultural exchange) they found
the same economic recession here that drove them to leave
Germany. The progress of republican revolutions and constitutional
revolutions in Europe sent thousands of emissaries to the United
States, depressed and poor, some of them accomplished and skilled.
The American Revolution and Constitution made their way steadily as
cultural transfers to Latin America. If the Revolutionaries of the
United States had not in effect set up the ruling class of Canada and
the Maritime Provinces when it expelled the Loyalists, Canada would
have probably revolted and become a republic along with the rest.
(Actually Brazil performed the novel turn of hiring a member of the
Portuguese royal family to head its independent government, but after
some years subsided into a regular republic along U.S. federal lines.)
Inventions moved back and forth. Americans carried many
innovations to the Orient and South America, many of them
received from Europe of course. There was a considerable traffic in
pirated literary works and inventions, mostly to America, the
cheapest form of import imaginable - next to the immigrant, who
paid to be taken from his domicile. Aesthetic imports were also
heavy, and cost next to nothing. In short the culture of the Old
World, as fast as it could be transported, and of the Orient as well,
journeyed to the New World. If it were not for the ghastly sight of
the new immigrants, the docking of a boat from Europe would bring
a cargo of valuable cheap thrills.
Nor should it be overlooked that America was becoming once again
big news in the Old World, not only for its political and diplomatic or
commercial news that the upper classes enjoyed, but for once there
was news throughout Europe of the lower classes, the masses of
people, who would hear all about their own kind living other styles of
life in strange circumstances. Just as the Age of
Discoveries flooded the European mind with stories of the New
World, so did the age of Immigration, first in Latin America but
then even more forcibly in poly-national North America.
We have yet to study in depth the enormity of the impact of the
American experience on the changes occurring in Europe from the
British Isles to the Russian steppes and Anatolia. The perspectives of
the European masses changed greatly in the nineteenth century, owing
in good part to the influences flowing back from America through
people-to-people communications as well as through the exchange of
goods and devices and political designs for the elites.
America was a haven for political refugees, New York especially,
though not nearly so much as London and Paris. In reverse, there
were political and religious refugees from some of the Latin
American revolutions in the same cities and in Madrid and Lisbon.
America could be proud that practically its only refugees were
expatriates in England, France, and Italy from philistinism.
The Far East was known to Catholic missionaries from the sixteenth
century onwards, preceded by men-o-war and followed by traders.
The Chinese Emperor and his mandarins were of two minds about
foreign trade, let it in or keep it out, and finally allowed it at
selected points. The American boats entered through Canton alone
beginning in 1785. The ports of entry were increased to four by the
Treaty of Wanghsia in 1844, conditions the equal of those granted
the most favored nation.
By the same treaty, drafted by Secretary of State Daniel Webster,
the USA was afforded extraterritoriality, the right to create a little
nook in the port city where Americans would be subject to their own
laws, not the Chinese. America obtained eleven additional ports of
ingress fourteen years later and the right to travel throughout China.
Missionaries were already hammering at the gates and
soon poured in, so that China was paramount among
targets of Protestant proselytizers.
The USA was by no means the largest trader in China. But, by the end
of the century, Secretary of State John Hay would be striving for an
Open" Door" policy, disallowing any discrimination against any
nation's traders. Great Britain was still by far the most
aggressive and successful operator in the region, with a new colony
at Hongkong emerging from victory in the Opium War of 1839-42,
a disgraceful episode in British history, amounting to forcing a
nation to aggravate its hard drug problems, to stay hooked so that
British traders could gain the means of taking rich goods out of
China; the British even got the right to set Chinese tariff duties.
Lessons like this the victims long remember.
Japan was meanwhile closed to American trade, and did not hasten to
return shipwrecked sailors. In response to this offensive posture, an
armed intervention seemed called for - after all, figured the Yankees,
what are we paying taxes for? One day in July of 1853, there appeared
before the startled eyes of the Japanese, engaged at their usual
business around Tokyo harbor, a flotilla of eight gunboats.
Its commander let the Japanese shogunate of Tokugawa, dominant
political elite of the country, know that he was
sending a note to the Emperor.
Negotiations followed. and by the Treaty of Kanagawa the next
year, America gained representation in Japan, promises of improved
treatment of castaways, and visiting privileges. Commercial
relations set in several years later. In 1860 a Japanese diplomatic
mission viewed for the first time the interior of a western nation,
and retired before the shot and shell could
more deeply impress them.
The Oregon territory was also subject of international dispute at this
time. Russia pulled out, we know already, and so Spain, but how to
get rid of Britain? There were many who wanted to fight Britain again,
crying "54.40 or fight" this being the Northernmost
boundary-latitude of the American claim. But the line that had
already been traversing the continent from East to West was just too
tempting to the logic of large empty spaces. The American
negotiators gave in to it. They thought that the Mexican War would
be enough to handle. America could have used a Lord North or
Talleyrand, a diplomat who knew how to
give away other people's claims.
Alaska, the next stage, was a horror story from the standpoint of the
indigenes and, if humanitarianism for the plight of the Indian people
had been common currency, the United states might have insisted then
and there that the Russians get out. The great Russian Empire, unlike
the British Empire, whose containment Secretary of State John Quincy
Adams believed to be the major object of American foreign policy, was
not uncontainable. It would have been easy enough to enforce the
directive, since Russian capabilities were centered some
thousands of miles away.
Any American flotilla that showed up would have contributed to the
resuscitation of the whale, seal, otter and furry critters that the
Russians were obliging the natives to kill as fast as possible. Like
their Southern counterparts, the Russians used alcohol as a currency
and the Alaskans, America's future citizens, became vodka-sodden
well in advance of the Alaska Purchase of 1865. At least the
Americans could not blame this tragedy upon themselves.
A continual hullabaloo was raised over how high tariffs should be, and
there are those who go so far as to say that they great struggle in
America was between the protectionists and the free traders, the North
and the South, the merchant and the farmers. It requires no proof of
great importance to the country whether the tariff was high or low;
chances are that it made no difference.
Still men must wage politics, and a trivium will do - the existence
of the holy trinity, the seduction of a woman, the theft of a donkey,
the chance shots of a stupid patrol boat - to ignite a war. The tariff
struggle did not cause the expansionism or even affect much the
bloating of U.S. territory.
One would have to admit that the United States was dedicated to
expansion, if this were the full story, but it is less than the half,
the rest of which concerns Mexico, at least for another memorial
generation. What motives underlay this eager expansionism by a
people who had so much land to till and mine
that all of Europe could be fitted into it, all the European peoples,
for that matter?
There are, pursuing a conventional kind of
explanation, the economic reasons of trade. Go out unto the world
and profit thereby. Admittedly this was a great good of the modern
nation. It could encompass and organize the
energies to do this job well.
Was it the fault of the Slave Culture that drove its gallant leaders into
dreaming of the conquest of far off places where the cotton fields far
away would be forever fertile? That would hardly account for Oregon,
Alaska, California, Alaska and places yet to come in the next delirious
period of American expansionism.
Was it the human needs of Americans abroad, the shipwrecked sailors
who needed consuls to rescue them and ship them home, the travelers
who were stranded and uncertain in strange lands, the bureaucrats who
fantasized ministries and consulates and assistant consuls in every city
of the world? Hardly. But here one must consider the enormous
evangelical dynamism contained within the United States.
Could the churches with their endless missionary energies never fully
satisfied domestically have prompted and pushed the advocates of
manifest destiny and given them the moral courage that they needed to
do their utmost? Yes, here was a strong reasons for
moving out into the world. The profiteers needed justification for
a presence everywhere; the missionaries could provide it.
But it was also a case of the missionaries finding not only sustenance
in the traders but also continual supporters of their far-flung missions.
Every sect in America wanted to proselytize the heathen.
Never mind that it had been such failure -- who would admit it? -
among the Indians. Nothing a missionary could dream of would be
so comfortable as proselytizing in India or China or even in the few
places in South America or Europe where you might be permitted -
servants, a fine cuisine, polite pagans.
Is there a disease that could be called spatial megalomania? Many
distinguished foreign observers and a great many common people
everywhere marked the American mania for expansion as a
reprehensible religious hypocrisy, which explains the economic
expansion, the western expansion, the Mexican aggressions, etc.
(not that the world's nations were innocent of the trait, particularly
when it extrudes from nationalism, but, then, they would not
normally consider the beam in their own eye when seeing the mote
in the eye of another).
There is something called agoraphilia, the irrepressible desire to
keep moving away from the center in which you were born. To
escape from the inhospitable womb of mother and motherland, from
the good and bad neighbors, to conquer land simply by putting one's
feet upon it, often finding this enough, viz., "Oh, yes, I've been
there too." That such a disease was the basic motive for all the
aggression of a great people in achieving its natural limits could not
even be imagined, much less accepted by Americans; and the New
Englanders, doing it their way, scorned the footloose West-bound,
while the Westerners, doing it their way, contemned the house-bound
Easterner. And the military scorned the pacifists, and
There is yet a point to be made about this that supersedes all the rest.
The people of the United States have always believed that they were
peaceful and unaggressive. The word "isolationist" has been used by
them to describe themselves and has been employed by
others who listen to such twaddle. Actually, the Americans have
never been isolationist. They have held to two other positions,
which, sliding over one another like two films,
gave a unified false impression.
America from its rebirth at the instance of European invaders has been
a society immensely involved with the outside world, with the Indian
nations by the score, who themselves tried vainly to become united
enough to act in internal proceedings, and then with any single nation
that approached its shores, then with individuals by the millions from
every country of the world, then with all countries of the world that
would get in its way. The United States has been an integral member
of the world order from its seeding time onwards.
Its claim that has been called isolationism is a warning in fact of its
own weakness as a popular democracy: the United States was too
decentralized, unintegrated, full of popular and elite passions and
partisanship, to be able to promise anything to any nation or group
of nations. Its promises were not to be relied on. Its
policies were capable of instant change.
The problem was beyond raison d'état. The isolationism of America
was a kind of helpless exclamation to warn others away. It is the
child, grown adolescent, become adult, and even old, saying, in
ashamed knowledge of oneself,
"Do not believe me when I say yes,
because tomorrow, I insist, I may be driven to say no.
I cannot help myself."