EXCEPTIONALISM AND EXPANSION: 19TH CENTURY AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY
TO BRO. JERRY HANSEN
DEPARTMENT OF POLITICAL SCIENCE
24 FEBRUARY 2010
Exceptionalism and Expansion: 19th century American Foreign Policy
The period of American history from 1800 to 1900 was characterized by unprecedented expansion geographically and geopolitically. Having miraculously won its independence from Britain, the new American nation quickly shifted into an expansionary phase. This great expansion began in the early 1800’s under the leadership of ambitious visionaries, and using the the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny as motivating ideology the movement would culminate in an “American Empire” by the turn of the century. This relatively quick expansion was a product of everything from geopolitical circumstances to good fortune, but the greatest motivating factor in this expansion was a general belief in American exceptionalism. Throughout the 19th century Americans’ belief in their cultural and political superiority manifest itself in various ways, justifying an unprecedented expansion geographically, commercially, economically, and politically.
American ideas of exceptionalism sprang from spiritual roots. The miraculous victory over one of the greatest empire in the world during the American Revolution put into the mind of many Americans the idea that God had chosen them for success. This idea would later develop into the policy of Manifest Destiny which, as George C Herring put it, “expressed the exuberant nationalism and brash arrogance of the day. Divine sanction, in the eyes of many Americans gave them a superior claim to any rival and lent an air of inevitability to their expansion” (Herring 2008, 180). This god-inspired exceptionalism led to the expansion of both American ideas and institution, as well as geographic expansion across the continent. There was a firm belief that both the religious and cultural values of America were destined to spread across the continent, and globe.
The first great geographic expansion occurred during the hesitant, but visionary leadership of Thomas Jefferson. The opportunity fell to Jefferson to purchase Louisiana and expansive western territory from Napoleon. At first hesitant, Jefferson waivered over the constitutionality of making such a purchase of territory, but succumb to the fervor of American cries for “divinely-sanctioned” expansion. In 1803 he made the famous Louisiana Purchase. As the first great territorial expansion of the new nation, The Louisiana Purchase “increased the self confidence of the nation and reinforced an already deeply entrenched sense of destiny” (Herring 2008, 108-9).
Not only did the Louisiana Purchase feed the zeal of exceptionalism spreading across America, but it also established precedent for territorial expansion. The large population of “Americans” in Florida and Texas, along with geopolitical instabilities made these areas the perfect target for the new American expansionist zeal. The resulting territorial acquisitions were by no means as peaceful and bloodless as the Louisiana Purchase, but with the banner of Manifest Destiny leading the way, America decidedly pushed its boundaries westward and southward. This expansion would ultimately culminate in the acquisition of land from the Louisiana Territory, Florida, The Mexican Cession, The Gadsden Purchase, and the Oregon Territory. This new wave of enlargement would result in the modern day continental United States. Jefferson’s dream of continental empire had been accomplished, and in less than 50 years! (Herring 2008).
Manifest destiny not only manifest itself in the form of spiritual exceptionalism, but also cultural exceptionalism. Americans saw themselves as a people blessed by God, and many felt it their duty to “uplift and regenerate ‘backward’ peoples…” (Herring 2008, 181) From Mexico to the Philippines, American expansion would occur in the name of Christianity, liberty, and freedom. This form of exceptionalism was often accompanied by a deeply rooted and inherent sense of racial superiority. Inherent in the ideals of Manifest Destiny was the role of America as the “great civilizer.” (Herrin 2008, 181) American’s viewed themselves and their system as superior, and sought to “civilize” those less fortunate.. Throughout the century Americans were becoming conscious of their power and became more willing to intervene internationally in the name of “adventure, opportunity, commerce, and ‘heathen’ souls to save.” (Herring 2008, 265) This racial superiority and proud exceptionalism would characterize America for the rest of the century and beyond. The period of expansion during the early 19th century was, at least in part, a product of the spiritual and cultural exceptionalism epitomized by the principle of Manifest Destiny.
Another significant factor in this expansionary period was Americans desire for commercial exceptionalism. As American ideals of exceptionalism, destiny, and independence were developed through territorial and political expansion they were often checked by the reality of the new nation’s precariously weak position in the world. Europe’s commercial dominance of the globe threatened the ideas of American exceptionalism. Commercial expansion would become one of the characteristic policies of the century. The War of 1812 had numerous geopolitical and economic results, but the role it played in testing and proving the newly developing exceptionalism of the American people was pivotal. Sometimes considered “the “Second War of Independence,” (Hansen 2012) the War of 1812 was an opportunity to overcome economic dependence on Europe and to also sever psychological and emotional ties to “the Old World.” Victory in 1812 provided fuel to the flame of American exceptionalism. It was the first opportunity for Americans to assert themselves on the international sphere, and the pride and American fervor that followed the victory would characterize American foreign policy from that day forward.
Following the war of 1812 American commercial exceptionalism became an ever greater driving force behind expansion. Commercial interest pushed for the acquisition of territory beginning with the Mississippi River and the Gulf ports of Florida and culminating in imperialistic ventures as far reaching as Hawaii and the Philippines. While Americans often cited their spiritual and cultural exceptionalism as the driving force behind expansion, “more often than not, Manifest Destiny covered and attempted to legitimate selfish [economic] motives” (Herring 2008, 181). The commercial interest of Americans and the drive for commercial exceptionalism were undoubtedly significant driving forces behind the great expansion period.
The new waves of expansion inspired by Manifest Destiny and commercial interests brought to the forefront America’s ever developing desire for security. The cession of new states fueled the already smoldering flames of the great slavery debate. In 1850, when California was admitted as a “free state” the nation began to tear itself apart. Southern discontent resulted in secessionist fervor. As Herring put it, “expansionism thus tore the nation apart instead of pulling it together, making a mockery of the grand pretentions of Manifest Destiny.” (Herring 2008, 215) This threat to security, which resulted in Civil War, reinvigorated already existing desires for greater American security at home and abroad. This desire for absolute security was saturated with the ideas of American exceptionalism and implicitly sought dominance in the western Hemisphere for the United States and freedom from fear of outside threat.
The resulting push for hegemonic security can be traced as far back as President Monroe and wouldn’t be fully realized until the twentieth century. President James Monroe in 1823 made a pair of declarations to Congress that would form the base of a new foreign policy doctrine which George C. Herring has referred to as, “one of the most significant and iconic statements of principle of U.S. foreign policy and a ringing affirmation of U.S. preeminence in the Western Hemisphere and especially North America.” (Herring 2008, 153). The Monroe Doctrine declared a separation between new world and old world politics. It also asserted the United States’ dominance in the Western Hemisphere, and called for European powers to stay out of North and Latin America. This Doctrine fanned the flames of American exceptionalism and destiny. It gave weight to expansion both politically, and geographically. It also established a precedent that would be invoked by numerous Presidents from Polk to Roosevelt to justify interventionary actions across the globe. With this momentous new policy the Americans declared their dominance in the hemisphere, which would ultimately grow into global hegemony.
The drive for regional hegemony, and national security brought the United States onto the playing field of world politics in a whole new way. Americans began to have sway in global geo-politics and they knew it. In the last decades of the nineteenth century the century long drive for expansion reached the level of European imperialism. Americans began to dream of and create an American empire. Leaders and citizens alike “developed a vision of empire that included U.S. preeminence in the hemisphere, commercial domination of the Pacific, an American owned [Panama] canal, and even the acquisition of Hawaii, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.” (Herring 2008, 279) Surprisingly, most, if not all of these things occurred.
By the end of the gilded age the American attitude of exceptionalism paid off. By the turn of the century the United States had gone from a feeble republic to American Empire. By 1900, the new powerful country intervened, in varying degrees, in Canada, Cuba, Hawaii, the Philippines, Samoa, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Nicaragua. This new American Empire had even challenged European Empire, when in 1898 it challenged the Spanish in a war that would result in America’s emergence as one of the great world powers. (Herring 2008) The final two decades of the 19th century proved to be the culmination of American exceptionalism and destiny. With a continental empire secured, America took on the world, and to a great degree succeeded. The result would be the solidification of an American mentality of superiority that would eventually lead the nation to great power status in a bipolar and ultimately unipolar world.
Nineteenth century America was characterized by the reinforcement of the “American experiment,” as Thomas Jefferson put it in his inaugural address, and unprecedented expansion. Able leaders and geopolitical circumstance allowed for the development of an American belief in their exceptionalism and destiny. This mentality would carry the new nations from feeble republic to American empire. The imperial vision of Jefferson became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Americans saw themselves and their system as supreme, and therefore conducted themselves to superiority. Indeed the success of the “American experiment” was based in the greater beliefs of the American people. By recognizing their exceptionalism and asserting themselves in the global sphere, nineteenth century Americans created for themselves a world power.
Hansen, Gerald. “Expansion Period.” Online Power Point Lecture, BYUI, Rexburg, Idaho, 2012.
Herring, George C.From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.