Building an American Empire

With the Civil War’s end, the United States had put itself back on course to become one of the leading economies in the world. Economic strength begets influence around the world, and America was no exception to this principle; it now was entering an era—an era that, as of the time of this writing, has not come to a close—of taking part in directing the world’s affairs. More than that, America now had the potential to reshape parts of the world in its image. After all, this was the 19th Century, and the era of empires was arguably at its peak—although its sun was setting. For the time, there was an expectation: if you had the opportunity and resources to expand, to take more land and more people into your orbit, you took full use of the opportunity. To abstain from this mode of operation was to concede a wealth of riches, and indulging in the taking of those riches was no cause for shame; every one of the major powers—some for decades, some for centuries—had carved up a part of the world, had made their own empire.

To expect America to restrain its ambitions would be to misunderstand what an emerging power does. An emerging power has known of its potential and has waited to achieve it, and once the door cracks open for that emerging power to make its mark in the world, it’ll throw the door wide open and march out. Exceptions to this are difficult to find, and America was never going to be an exception.

There was always the chance that the United States, with its increasing power, would move to take part of Canada or Mexico. More likely, all things considered, was that some breakaway region would seek to join the United States and that America would oblige—acknowledging its gravity as a growing power and enjoying the fruits of added territory and resources. But there would not be any major piece of land in North America changing hands; even following America’s purchase of Alaska, when there was some commotion about such an event, nothing of the sort came to fruition.[i]

The United States Treasury Warrant to Pay Russia for the Purchase of Alaska.

At the center of expansionism following the Civil War—and the purchase of Alaska—was William Seward. He negotiated the purchase of Alaska, but, more than that, he embodied that idea of expansionism—and at a time that fell between the Manifest Destiny push from decades prior and the full-force expansionism that would come at the close of the Nineteenth Century.[ii] Seward believed that America would acquire territory, to expand its markets and economy in line with President Andrew Johnson’s belief that the country would do so “peacefully and lawfully, while neither doing nor menacing injury to other states.”[iii] Seward also held the belief that the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico were principally American: acquiring “Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Tiger Island off the coast of Honduras” were not out of the question for him.[iv] America’s sphere of influence need not stop there. In the North Atlantic, Iceland and Greenland were appealing targets, and in the Pacific, the Hawaiian islands and Fiji held promise.[v] With time, Seward said, he would have America take possession of its continent and give it “control of the world.”[vi] The Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles simply called Seward a “monomaniac.”[vii]

As things came to pass, many of Seward’s ambitions remained unrealized. When he sought to negotiate a treaty with Colombia to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama, the Colombian Senate refused to ratify it; when domestic political opposition arose to acquiring the Danish West Indies, the opposition prevailed; and when the Senate tabled some of his efforts, like a treaty of reciprocity with Hawaii, those plans remained tabled, scuttling Seward’s plans—at least for the duration of his life (he died in 1872 and Hawaii would become a United States territory in 1898).[viii]

But those ambitions that became reality—America’s acquisitions of Midway Island and Alaska—would remain standout moments for Seward, be the last large expansion of the country, and foster that belief that Americans should not confine themselves to their continent. Although many viewed acquiring Alaska as being the prelude to Canada—in its entirety—joining the United States, this was perhaps more delusion than reality; no such major ceding would happen. In the end, as to Alaska, which was the biggest acquisition since the Louisiana Purchase, it was a matter of the Russian Empire was losing control of Alaska as it fought to defend recently acquired land in Central and East Asia, and there was a widespread belief that America—with its rapidly growing power—would end up taking Alaska anyway given its proximity.[ix] Rather than fight the inevitable, the reasoning went, it was better to profit from it—and at a time when profit was needed.

Alaska and Its Resources. By: William Healey Dall.

[i] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, 254-55.

[ii] Id. at 255.

[iii] Id. at 256.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 256-57.

[vi] Id. at 257.

[vii] Id.

[viii] See id.

[ix] See id.

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