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American Continentalism: An Idea of Expansion, 1845-1910

Author(s): Charles Vevier


Reviewed work(s):
Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Jan., 1960), pp. 323-335
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
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American Continentalism: An Idea


of Expansion, 1845-1910
C(HARLESVEVIER*

IDEOLOGY is the means by which a nation bridges the gap between its
domestic achievement and its international aspiration. American continentalism, as the term is used here, provided just such an order of ideology and
national values. It consisted of two related ideas. First, it regarded the
United States as possessing identical "national and imperial boundaries."
These were located within the physical framework of a "remarkablycoherent
geographic unit of continental extent." Second, it viewed much of North
America as a stage displaying the evolving drama of a unique political society, distinct from that of Europe and glowing in the white light of manifest destiny.' This attitude sharpened the practice of American foreign
policy. Encountering the opposition of Europe's powers, it asserted that the
United States was engaged in a domestic and therefore inevitable policy of
territorial extension across the continent. American diplomacy in the nineteenth century thus appeared to demonstrate national political and social
worth rather than acknowledge its active involvement in international affairs.
Relying on its separation from the Old World, the United States redefined
the conventional terms of foreign relations by domesticating its foreign
policy.
But sharp and immediate disengagements in history are rare. Professor
Norman Graebner has argued persuasively that the acquisition of Oregon
and California-conventionally set within the background of territorial expansion to the west and guaranteed by manifest destiny-was due predominantly to martime influence and executed by a President whose party repre* Mr. Vevier presented this essay under its original title "Imperial Aspects of American
Continentalism"at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington,
D. C., on December 28, 1958. An associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
the author's major interest is the history of American foreign policy and his major publication
is The United States and China, i906-19I3
(New Brunswick, N. J., I955).
I Bernard De Voto, The Course of Empire (Boston, I952), xiii and Albert K. Weinberg,
Manifest Destiny (Baltimore, Md., 1935), I-2, 8. For an over-all definition of continentalism,
see Charles A. Beard, A Foreign Policy for America (New York, 1940), 12-35. The argument
presented in this paper is not in support or opposition to Beard as such; in fact, I have derived
a considerable portion of the argument by reversing the order of Beard's term continental
Americanism, in order to demonstrate that his insulationist outlook is also subject to an expansionist interpretation. See Max Lerner, America as a Civilization (New York, I957), 887-88,
who raisesthis issue in a mild way without intending to pursue it further.

323

324

Charles Vevier

sented the agrarianexpansionismof Jefferson.2In spite of its apparentterritorialinsularity, Americancontinentalismwas bound to an older doctrine
that had been overshadowedby the recordof land acquisitionof the I840's.
In these years, and in the I850's as well, there were some men who were
affectedby the outlook of Americancontinentalismand who adaptedfor
theirown endsthe greatobjectiveof Europeanexpansionthatdatedfromthe
age of Columbusand the Elizabethans.They sought to deepencommercial
contactwith Asia, an ambitionthat addeda maritimedimensionto the eraof
territorialexpansionprecedingthe Civil War.
Studentsof AmericanFar Easternpolicy have alreadypointed out the
rough coincidenceof the westwardmovementacrossthe continentwith the
rising activityof Americaninterestin the PacificOceanand tradein China.3
By the early 1840's, Hawaii had alreadyshifted into the continentalorbit.4
Explorationof the Pacific Ocean had been undertakenby the government
beginning with the Wilkes expeditionin 1838 and concluding with the
Ringgoldvoyagesto the northernPacificin I853-I859.5 The CushingTreaty
with Chinain I844 andthe openingof Japanby Perrya decadelaterreflected
the attractionof Far Easterntrade marketsto Americanmerchantson the
Atlanticseaboard.The gold strikeof 1849stimulatedrailroadpassageacross
the Isthmusof Panama,encouragedshippingoperationsbetweenNew York
and California,6and suggestedcontinuationof this trafficto the Oirient.The
wider commercialpossibilitiesimpliedby these forcesmeshedwith an older
Americaninterestin the Caribbean,particularlyin Cubaand the picketline
of West Indian islandsthat ran down to Latin America.In an age of the
clippership and the steadyreductionof the tariff at the behestof agrarian
elements,these developmentsdrew taut the strand of national mercantile
expansionistambition that seemingly had lain slack while the territorial
lines of Americancontinentalismwere castwestwardacrossNorth America.
This added tension suggestedto some that the United States was linked
to the historic expansionismof Europe westwardto Asia, that it was the
fulfillmentof the long searchfor a "passageto India," and that a great
2 Norman Graebner, Empire on the Pacific (New York, 1955), 3, 218; Robert G. Cleland,
"Asiatic Trade and American Occupation of the Pacific Coast," Annual Report, American
Historical Association, 1914 (2 vols., Washington, D. C., I9I6), I, 283, passim.
3Eldon Griffin, Clippers and Consuls (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1938), 9-12 and Tyler Dennett,
175-76, 178.
A4mericans in Eastern Asia (New York, 1922),
4 Harold Whitman Bradley, "Hawaii and the American Penetration of the Northeastern
Pacific I8oo-I845," Pacific Historical Review, XII (Sept. 1943), 286-87.
5 Allan B. Cole, "The Ringgold-Rodgers-BrookeExpedition to Japan and the North Pacific,
1853-i859," ibid., XVI (May 1947), 152 if.
ibid., VII
6John Haskell Kemble, "The Panama Route to the Pacific Coast, I848-I869,"

(Feb. 1938),

i if.

American Continentalism

325

mercantileempire could be developedon the basis of Asian commerce.7


Historianshave been proneto examineAmericanexpansionismin terms
of conflictingmercantileand agrarianinterests.8They have overlookedthe
presenceof a unifying view of American world geographicalcentralism
interpretationof Americancontinentalthat was groundedin a "geopolitical"
ism and its placein the historyof Europe'sexpansionto Asia. What emerged
was a combinationof two deterministicpatternsof thought reflectedin the
outlook of such men as William Gilpin, Asa Whitney, MatthewFontaine
Maury,and Perry McDonough Collins. These men shapedan expectation
of commercialempireas an end in itself as well as a means of developing
the internal continentalempire. Today, after the bitter experiencesof its
practicein the ig3o's,geopoliticsdeservedlyhas an unsavoryreputation.Although it did not exist in any organizedform or establishedtheory before
the Civil War, it was, nevertheless,a conceptual instrument whose economic
implications projected American continentalism onto the world scene and
anticipated in some respects its greater use by the expansionists of i898.
William Gilpin, "America's first Geopolitician,"9 declared that the unifying geographical features of the North American continent, particularly the
Mississippi Valley, contrasted favorably with Europe and Asia. A summary
of his views in the period 1846-I849 reveals his belief that the physical environment of America promised the growth of an area equal in population
and resources to that of the entire world. A Jeffersonian democrat and a
devotee of the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, he believed in the inevitable westward march of an agrarian civilization to the Pacific Ocean. He
also associated westward expansion with American commerce and whaling
enterprise already established there. During the Oregon crisis in I846, Gilpin
advised congressmen, as he may have suggested to President James Polk,
7 Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge,

Mass.,1950),

3-51.

Smith'sworkhasbeenveryhelpfulin this study.

In his book The Idea of National Interest (New York, 1934), 50, Beard states: "For the
sake of convenience in tracing the application of the national interest conception in the external
relations of the United States, those relations may be divided into territorial and commercial,
although in practice the two are seldom, if ever, divorced." My point here in citing Beard
is not to raise the issue of the over-all validity of the approach to the problem that he employed.
His is a great work that attempted to lay out a theoretical framework for the study of American
foreign policy. In this instance, I am more interested in the agreement of belief enforced by
ideology and the considerationsincluded in it rather than in the differences fostered by economic
interest and their political expression. By italicizing Beard's own qualfications above I have
tried to indicate my own use of them in approaching the problem. See also footnote one.
9 Bernard De Voto, "Geopolitics with the Dew on It," Harper's Magazine, CLXXXVIII
(Mar. 1944), 3I5. De Voto's piece is brilliantly suggestive and should be read in conjunction
with Smith, Virgin Land, 35-44. See also Maurice 0. Georges, "A Suggested Revision of the
Role of a Pioneer Political Scientist," Frances Greenburg Armitage Prize Winning Essays:
Armitage Competition in Oregon Pioneer History, Reed College (2 vols., Portland, Ore., 194546), and James C. Malin, The Grassland of North America (Lawrence, Kan., I947), I77-92.
8

326

Charles Vevier

that settlers moving into Oregon from the MississippiValley, the geographicallyfavored heart of the continent, would make the mouth of
the ColumbiaRiver an outlet for the exportof Americanfarm produceto
Asia. Since agriculturesought through commercean "infinite market of
consumption"in the Far East, Oiregonbecamethe "maritimewing of the
MississippiValley upon the Pacific,as New Englandwas on the Atlantic."'10
A strong bid for Asian trade,therefore,dependedon the constructionof a
transcontinentalrailroadfrom the Mississippito the ColumbiaRiver that
would link the agriculturalheartof the North Americancontinentwith the
Pacific Ocean. By developing the interior, thereby gaining access to the
coast, the United States might become the center of a new world traffic
pattern. America's"intermediategeographicalposition between Asia and
Europe. . . investsher with the powersand dutiesof arbiterbetweenthem,"
he wrote in i86o. "Our continentis at once a barrierwhich separatesthe
other two, yet fuses and harmonizestheir intercoursein all relationsfrom
which force is absent."'1
The Pacificrailroad,in fact, was closelyidentifiedwith the careerof Asa
Whitney, who had returned from China after a successfulcareer as a
merchantand who had campaignedfrom i845 onwardfor the construction
of a railroadfrom the upper portionof the MississippiValley to Oregon.
It was Whitney'sprojectthat dominatedfor five yearsthe great American
debateover this vital internaltransportationscheme.'2Unless Oregon was
bound to the rest of the countryby a transcontinentalrailroad,Whitney
diplowarned,the nation would be forced to engage in a balance-of-power
macyin the Europeanmanner,an eventualitythat he thoughtwould destroy
the continentalhomogeneityof America.In presentinghis Pacificrailway
scheme,he proposedto connectOregon with the rest of the country,open
orientaltrade marts to Americancommerceand agriculture,particularlyif
the railroadwas tied to a PacificOceanshippingline, and providean instrument for the internaldevelopmentof the nation-continentthat would serve
as "themeans,and only means,by which the vastwildernessbetweencivilization and Oregon can be settled."Thus he exaltedthe continentalpotential
10 Gilpin to James Semple, Mar. I7, I846, in Report (Senate Executive Document, 29 Cong.,
sess., V, No. 306), 2I, 44, 23, 30; "Speech on the Pacific Railroad," Nov. 5, I849, in William Gilpin, The Central Gold Region: The Grain, Pastoral and Gold Regions of North
America (Philadelphia and St. Louis, i86o), 20-21;
Gilpin to David R. Atchison, Jan. 23,
I846, in Report (Senate Executive D,ocument, 29 Cong., I sess., IV, No. I78), 4.
11 De Voto, "Geopolitics,"3I9; Gilpin to Atchison, Jan. 23, I846, Report (Senate Executive
Document, 29 Cong., I sess., IV, No. I78), 6, 7; Gilpin to Semple, Mar. I7, I846, ibid., V,
No. 306, 25, 30; Gilpin, Central Gold Region, vi.
12 Margaret L. Brown, "Asa Whitney and His Pacific Railroad Publicity Campaign,"
209-24;
George L. Albright, fijidal
Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XX (Sept. I933),
Explorationsfor Pacific Railroads I853-I855 (Berkeley, Calif., I92I), Io-I 8.
I

American Continentalismii

327

of producing"the most necessaryand importantproductsof the earthbreadstuffsand meat,"and stressedthe valueof an international"commerce
of reciprocity-an exchange of commodities."The railroad,he insisted,
would "revolutionizethe entire commerceof the world; placingus directly
in the centreof all ..., all must be tributaryto us, and, in a moral point of
view, it will be the means of civilizing and Christianizingall mankind."13
MatthewFontaineMaury,hydrographerof the United StatesNavy and
adviseron railroadand internationalcommercialproblemsto southernbusinessmenand politicians,was also interestedin the relationshipof the Pacific
railroadissue to the old dreamof the "passageto India."'14But he formulated a wider geopoliticalconceptionof the North Americancontinentby
linking it with Latin Americaas well as with Asia. He agreedthat a Pacific
railroadwas neededto developthe continentalinterioras a meansof raising
land values,encouragingsettlementof the westernlands,and providingfor
the continentaldefenseof the nation.He, too, sharedthe convictionof the
importanceof the Asian tradeand, faithfulto the interestsof the South,he
railroadfrom Memphisto
pressedfor the constructionof a transcontinental
Monterey.'5

idea
Maury, however, was influencedby an old geographical-historical
of
forms
the
enduring
and
fruitful
river
were
most
that
valley civilizations
society.In his view, the basins of the Mississippiand the Amazon Rivers
complex that dependedupon
were united in a vast continental-maritime
American supremacyof the Gulf of Mexico and the CaribbeanSea, the
as he called it. Aware of the potentialof an age
"AmericanMediterranean"
of steam,he believedthatconventionalideasof geographicalrelationshipshad
to change.MauryurgedAmericansto think of oceannavigationaroundthe
globe in terms of great circle travel ratherthan of routeslaid out on the
Mercatorprojection.This placed his Memphis-Montereytranscontinental
railroadprojectthat was to servicethe MississippiValley close to the great
13 Cole, "Ringgold-Rodgers-Brooke,"I52; Memorial of Asa Whitney, Feb. 24, 1846 (Senate Executive Document, 29 Cong., I sess., IV, No. I6I), 8-9, I, 6, 2, 5.
14 Cole, "Ringgold-Rodgers-Brooke,"153; Smith, Virgin Land, I53-54;
Henry F. Graff,
45; Merle Curti, The Growth of A'merican
Bluejacketswith Perry in Japan (New York, 1952),
Thought (New York, 1943), 321, for mention of Maury's religiosity. See R. S. Cotterill, "Mem83
phis Railroad Convention, 1849," Tennessee Magazine of History, IV (June 1918),
ff., for an account of the South's view of the Pacific railroad issue. Maury was also elected a
vice-president of the National Railroad Convention that met in St. Louis before the opening
of the Memphis convention. He representedthe Board of Directors of the Virginia and Tennessee
Railroad. Proceedings of the National Railroad Conventio;nwhich Assembled in the City of
St. Louis on the Fifteenth of October, I849 (St. Louis, I850).
15 Maury to John C. Calhoun, Mar. 29, I848, in J. D. B. De Bow, ed., The Industrial Resources, etc., of the Southern and Western States... (3 vols., New Orleans, 1852-53), I, 257,
Maury to T. Butler King, Jan. in, I847, in Steam Communication with China, and the
259;
Sandwich Islands (House of RepresentativesReports of Committees, 30 Cong., I sess., III, No.
596), 23 ff.

Charles Vevier

328

circle running from Central America to Shanghai at a point off the coast of
California. Cut a canal through the Isthmus of Panama that would link
the Pacific Ocean with the "American Mediterranean" and the shortened
route to Asia would force European commerce to use a passageway that
Maury insisted should never be under the control of a foreign power since it
violated traditional American policy to allow foreign interference in the
Western Hemisphere. "I regard the Pacific railroad and a commercial
thoroughfare across the Isthmus as links in the same chain, parts of the great
whole which ... is to effect a revolution in the course of trade... .Those
two works . . . are not only necessary fully to develop the immense resources
of the Mississippi valley . . . but ... their completion would place the United
States on the summit level of commerce. . . ." In effect, Maury extended
the line of American continental interest south from the Mississippi in
order to command the same degree of geographic centralism that had marked
the ideas of Gilpin and Whitney. The canal, taken in conjunction with the
Pacific railroad, demonstrated his ambition for the United States to overcome
the "barrier that separates us from the markets of six hundred millions of
people-three-fourths of the population of the earth. Break it down ... and
this country is placed midway between Europe and Asia; this sea [Gulf of
Mexico and the Caribbean] becomes the centre of the world and the focus
of the world's commerce.""'
Tlis doctrine of geopolitical centralism was reflected in the activity of
Perry McDonough Collins, whose career had been shaped by the westward
movement, experience with steamship operations on the Mississippi, and the
California gold rush. Living on the West Coast in the 1850's, he not only
absorbed the impact of the nation's new geographical position on the Pacific
but also read about Russia's explorations of the northern Pacific Ocean and
its expansion into eastern Siberia. Quickly he "fixed upon the river Amoor in
Eastern Siberia as the destined channel by which American commercial
enterprise was to penetrate the obscure depths of Northern Asia."17
16 Maury to Calhoun, Mar. 29, I848, De Bow, Industrial Resources, 365, 373, 369, 370;
Maury to King, Jan. I0, I847, Steam Communication (Report, House of Representatives,30
Cong., i sess., III, No. 596), 20, 23; William L. Herndon and Lardner Gibbon, Exploration
of the Valley of the Amazon (Senate Executive Document, 32 Cong., 2 sess., VI, No. 36),
190,

I9I,

193,

testifying to Maury's influence in urging this expedition

and in coloring

the

conclusions regarding the linkage of the Amazon and the Mississippi Valleys; T. Butler King,
Jan. I6, I849, Railroad Across the Isthmus of Panama (House of RepresentativesReports of
Committees, 30 Cong., 2 sess., I, No. 26), 2-3, citing Maury on the importance of an isthmian
railroad to link the CaribbeanSea and the Pacific Ocean; F. P. Stanton, Railroad to the Pacifc
(House of RepresentativesReports of Committees, 3I Cong., I sess., III, No. 439), 32, I4, 27.
17 I have drawn upon my article "The Collins Overland Line and American Continentalism"
in the Pacific Historical Review, XXVIII (Aug. I959), 237-53. The quotation is in Perry McDonough Collins, A Voyage Down the Amoor (New York, i86o), I. A valuable contribution

American Continentalismn

329

Supportedby PresidentFranklinPierce and Secretaryof State William


Marcy,Collins traveledthroughoutSiberiain i856 and saw there elements
of the AmericanWest. He felt himselfto be a "pioneerin thesewilds in the
shapeof a live Yankee,"encounteringmany of the "difficultiesthat all western men who have blazed the first trail in a new countryknow by experience."Russianexpansionin this regionhe interpretedas similarin objective
and spirit to that of Americancontinentalexpansion.Russia,he predicted,
would move into Manchuriajust as the United States had gone into
Louisiana.The Amur Riverin easternSiberiahe likenedto the Mississippiin
North America.In his mind the spiritof the Americanfrontierhad international and historicalsignificance:the emergenceof the United States in
North America was the first vital step in linking Europe and Asia. "The
problemof a North Western passageto India . . . , which has occupied
the great minds of Europefor some centuries,has been solved by the continuous and onward march of Americancivilizationto the West . . . the
commerce of the world will find its path across this continent....h18

CollinsinspiredWesternUnion'sprojectfor the constructionof an internationaloverlandtelegraphsystemthrough British Columbia,Alaska, and


Siberiain I865 which was to be linked with Russia'sown networkto Europe.Basicto the whole schemewas the anticipationthat the transcontinental
telegraphline to the Pacificbuilt by WesternUnion in i86o-i86i would be
ranone of the company's
in the centerof the vast enterprise."Consequently,"
shall be completedthe
this
line
of
company
circulars,"when the extension
commerceof the whole of Europe,Asia, and North America,radiatingfrom
theirgreatcommercialcenterswill be tributaryto it."19
The outlook formulatedby these variousopinionssuggeststhe existence
of two relatedAmericanworlds.The first was the nation-continentcreated
through the interactionof foreign policy and territorialexpansion that
resultedin the acquisitionof contiguous territoryin North America. In
to knowledge of Collins' career and activities has been made by Vilhjalmur Stefansson in his
book Northwest to Fortune (New York, I958), 243-53.
18 Perry McDonough Collins, Feb. 28, I857, Extract from Notes (House of Representatives
Executive Document, 35 Cong., I sess., XII, No. 98), 50; Collins to Marcy, Jan. 3I, I857, ibid.,
Perry McDonough Collins, "Overland Telegraphic via Behring Strait and Across
I9-20;
I6-I7,
Asiatic Russia to Europe," in Western Union, Statement of the Origin, Organization
and Progress of the Russian-ACmericanWestern Union Extension, Collins Overland Line
(Rochester,N. Y., i866), I64.
L9WesternUnion, Statement of the Collins Orerland Line, I5. The company also hoped to
run extensions from Russia's trunk system to China and Japan. This explains the grandiose
vision of telegraphic supremacy in Asia. In addition, Collins began negotiations with Latin
American governments to unite their lines with the American trunk system. In this sense, one
should read "Western Hemisphere" for "North America" in the passage quoted in the company's prospectus.

330

Charles Vevier

turn, it projectedthe conceptof the secondAmericanworld,the continental


domainthat was fatedto extendits influenceover the entireworldthrough
the expansionof commerceand control of internationalcommunications.
.The relationsof both worlds were reciprocal.All this, however,depended
upon realizingthe economicimplicationsof the centralpositionconferred
upon the United Statesthrough its expansionin North Americaand the
significanceof this eventin the generalexpansionisthistoryof the European
world.
By the middleof the i850o's aspectsof this informalsystemof geopolitical
thought had made its impressionupon public discussion,affectingdebates
over internalcommunicationand transportation as well as foreign policy.26
based on the
It is true, however,that the notion of an American"empire"idea of the United Statesas the great land bridgeto Asia had given way to
the growingtensionof the sectionaldebatesover federalpolicydealingwith
the developmentof the continentalinterior.21Nevertheless,the fund of ideas
that had projectedAmericancontinentalismonto the world scene were restated and maintainedby William Henry Seward,an expansionist,a worshipperof the continentaltraditionestablishedand exemplifiedearlierby
John QuincyAdams,and a man whose outlook22matchedthe geopolitical
determinismexhibitedby Gilpin, Whitney, Maury,and Collins.
Ten years before Seward became Secretaryof State, he advocatedthe
constructionof a Pacific railroadand telegraphin the debatesover the admissionof Californiato the Union. Americanswho understoodthe benign
future of the Americancontinent,Seward argued,had to preventa division betweenthe North and the South in orderto overcomethe more portentoussplit betweenEast and West causedby the expansionof the United
States. Centralized political unity, the economic welfare of the continental
20 The standard work dealing with this phase is Robert R. Russel, Improvement of Communication with the Pacifi Coast as an Issue in A4mericanPolitics, z783-1864 (Cedar Rapids,
Iowa, I948), I8-I9, who asserts that from the I850's onward the emphasis shifted to discussion
of internal affairs and development. Smith, Virgin Land, 282, note 28; James C. Malin, "The
Nebraska Question: A Ten Year Record, 1844-1855," Nebraska History, XXXV (Mar. 1954),
i4, for an interesting discussion of the global perspective of Stephen Douglas; Richard W. Van
Alstyne, "Anglo-American Relations, 1853-1857," American Historical Review, XLII (Apr.
1937),
493 for an incisive critique by John F. Cramptan of American ambition in a letter to
Lord Clarendon; James G. Swan, The Northwest Coast (New York, 1857), 403, linking
affairs in China and Russia with the Washington territory, and his article "Explorationsof the
Amoor River: And Its Importanceon the Future Great Inter-OceanicTrade Across the American
Continent," Hunt's Merchant'sMagazine, XXXIX (Aug. I858), 176-82.
21 Smith, Virgin Land, 29.
22 "'Neither politicians nor statesmen control events. They can moderate them and accommodate their ambitions to them, but they can do no more." Seward to Charles Francis Adams,
Nov. 4, I 862, PapersRelating to Foreign Afairs of the United States (Washington, D. C., I 862),
23I; Seward to Thurlow Weed, Apr. 4, 1847, Thurlow Weed Papers, University of Rochester,
for a sample of Seward'sveneration of John Quincy Adams.

American Continentalism

33I

empire, and mastery of the seas that bounded the great land mass between
two worlds-these were required if the United States was to take effective
advantage of its geographical position to direct commerce with Europe and
"intercept"trade with the Far East. He charged the South with obstruction
of the American primacy on the world stage that was promised by its domestic development. "This nation is a globe," he cried, "still accumulating upon
accumulation, not a dissolving sphere."23"Even the discovery of this continent [North America] and its islands, and the organization of society and
government upon them," Seward stated, "grand and important as these events
have been were but conditional, preliminary, and ancillary" to the great
goal of European expansion for four hundred years, the attainment of
the seat of all civilization-Asia.24 The revolts of I848 and the strain of
maintaining the "crazy balance of power" forecast the destruction of Europe,
and it fell to the United States to seize the torch and light the way. Because
the United States was writ large on the sphere of world geography and
history, it had the obligation to extend by means of its institutions the "civilization of the world westward ... across the continent of America," across
the Pacific to Asia, on through Europe until it reached "the other side, the
shores of the Atlantic Ocean."25
This rhetoric was not separated from the realities that Seward encountered as Secretary of State. The continent under American dominion, he reported, "like every other structure of large proportions,"required "outward
buttresses" that were strategically favorable to the United States. Thus the
policy of attempting to buy naval installations in the Caribbean after the
Civil War reflected his conviction at the outbreak of the conflict that Spanish intrusion in the region partially justified the launching of a propaganda
counterattack throughout Latin America as well as war against Spain. In
I864, he insisted that commerce and communication in North America were
centralized in the United States and had to be extended as a means of uniting domestic and foreign commerce and encouraging the development of
American "agricultural, forest, mineral, and marine resources." It was
Seward who wrote the vital provisions of the Burlingame Treaty of i868
with China that provided for the importation of Chinese coolies to work on
the transcontinental railroad and western mining undertakings. He also
contributed to the continental basis of the argument used by Senator Charles
Sumner, who supported the purchase of Alaska by pointing out that the new
23

I,

91.
24
25

The Works of William H. Seward, ed. George E. Baker (5 vols., New York, I853-84),
Ibid., 247-49.
Ibid., IV, I24; Cong. Globe, 36 Cong., 2 sess.,

25I

(Jan. 5, i86I).

332

Charles Vevier

territory rounded off the continental domain and permitted contact with Far
Eastern markets by the shortest possible sea route from the West Coast. Later
Seward made his meaning more clear to Canadians when he implied that the
Alaskan purchase was a portent of "commercial and political forces" that
made "permanent political separation of British Columbia from Alaska and
the Washington territory impossible."26 And, it was Seward's system of
roughhewn continental geopolitics and beliefs cut out of the American grain
that gives depth to the vigor with which he pursued American interests in
the Far East. Much of his ambitious program, however, was not fulfilled
because, as he said, "no new national policy deliberately undertaken upon
considerations of future advantages ever finds universal favor when first announced."27 But Alfred Thayer Mahan countered this argument when he
remarked in 1902 that "all history is the aggressive advance of the future
upon the past, the field of collision being the present."28
Mahan might well have added, however, that it was his geopolitics as well
as that of Brooks Adams that defined the "field of collision." For the serious
domestic crisis in the United States occurring in the I890's within the context
of a global economy and an international transportation revolution forecast
a pessimistic future. Each, in his own way, attempted to swamp it with
a conception of the past that he carried with him. Both Mahan's quest for a
new mercantilism and Adams' propaganda for a new empire illustrate a
retreat into history for a model that might avert disaster.One theme emerged
-the extension of the nation's economic power from the line of the West
Indies, Panama, and Hawaii to Asia. Here, the expansionist projection of
the American continental experience that was developed in the pre-Civil War
period acquired some relevance in the outlook of Brooks Adams. Viewing
the expansion of Europe and of the United States as complementary developments, he turned to geopolitics to explain the nature of the problem.29
The Germans and the Russians appeared ready to march to the East.
This move would reverse the historical westward trend of the exchanges that
Charles C. Tansill, The United States and Santo Domingo, 1798-i863 (Baltimore, Md.,
227; Frederick W. Seward, comp., William Henry Seward: An Autobiography (3 vOls.,
New York, I89I), II, 535; Seward to Chandler, May 14, I864, Western Union, Statement of
the Collins Overland Line, 5I; Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia, 530; James Alton James,
The First Scientific Exploration of Russian America and the Purchase of Alaska (Evanston and
19, 35, 27; for Sumner's argument advocating the purchase, see CharlesSumner,
Chicago, I942),
His Complete Works, ed. George F. Hoar (20 vols., Boston, I900), XV, 36 f.; Baker, Seward,
V, 574.
27 Seward to Yeaman, Jan. 29, I868, in Seward Papers.
28 Alfred Thayer Mahan, "Subordinationin Historical Treatment," in Naval Administration
and Warfare (Boston, I908), 269.
29 I have drawn upon my article "Brooks Adams and the Ambivalence of American
Foreign Policy," World Affairs Quarterly,XXX (Apr. 1959), 3-I8.
26

I938),

American Continentalism

333

formed the basis of world power. Obsessedby the belief that controlover
Asia and its resourceswas the issue between the Russo-Germanbloc and
what he believedto be a weakenedEngland, Adams called for an AngloAmerican rapproachement.This would allow the geographicalcenter of
the exchangesto "crossthe Atlantic and aggrandizeAmerica."The result?
"Probably,"Adams suggested, "human society would then be absolutely
dominatedby a vast combinationof peopleswhose right wing would rest
upon the British Isles, whose left would overhangthe middle provinceof
China, whose centre would approachthe Pacific, and who encompassthe
Indian Ocean as though it were a lake, much as the Romansencompassed
the Mediterranean."30
Specifically,Adams, Mahan,and the imperialexpansionistswho clusteredaroundTheodoreRoosevelturged upon the United
States the "largepolicy of I898," which revivedthe Caribbean-Panama-Pacific Ocean relationshipthat had been sketchedout in the I840's and I850's
and publicizedby Seward.3' But by I909, the outer edges of this grandiose
empire were frayed by abrasiverealitiesin Asia. The failure of the open
door in China, the knowledgethat the Philippinescould not be defended,
the growing tension with Japanover Manchuria-all this was complicated
by the existenceof the ideologicalRealpolitik
of TheodoreRoosevelt,who
claimedAmericanmanipulativepowerover affairsin Asia but who was cautious enough to realizethat he did not have it. Roosevelt'srefusalto carry
out completelyAdams' programdrove Adams back to examine his own
nationalistassumptionsin a biographyof his grandfatherthat he never
completed.82

At this point in his quest, the traditionalelementsof Americancontinentalismreceiveda full statement-geographicaldeterminism,politicaland


social separationfrom Europe, and independentaction in foreign affairs.
Nevertheless,Adams, like Mahan, continued to interpretthe history of
mercantilist
Americancontinentalismas an expressionof eighteenth-century
imperialism.Just as Asia appearedin his own time to be the principalobjectivethat would guaranteesurvivalthroughexpansion,so North America
had appearedto the Europeanpowers. "Men believed that he who won
Brooks Adams, America's Economic Supremacy (New York, I900), I96, 13, 190, 12, 25.
Julius Pratt, "The Large Policy of I898," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XIX
for Albert Shaw's agreement with Bryan on this as well as the
233,
229-30,
(Aug. 1932),
statement by Senator William E. Chandler; Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in
Sea Power (Boston, I897), 260, and The Problem of Asia (Boston, 1900), 7-9, for his remarks on the preparationfor imperialist expansion that had occurredearlier in American history
on the basis on this geographical outlook.
32 Arthur Beringause, Brooks Adams (New York, 1955),
304
f.; Brooks Adams, "Unpublished Biographyof John Quincy Adams" in the MassachusettsHistorical Society (microfilm copy
by courtesyof Mr. Lyman Butterfieldand the MassachusettsHistorical Society).
30

31

334

Charles Jevzer

Americamight aspireto that universalempirewhich had been an ideal since


Franklin,Washington,and JohnQuincyAdams
the dawn of civilization."33
had understoodthe need for a consolidated,unified,and expansioniststate
strong enough to establishitself in North America.In I823, the Monroe
Doctrine confirmed what the American Revolution had already demonstrated:the leadershipof the westwardmarchof the exchangeswould pass
from a divided Europe to a unified America."It was the first impressive
manifestationof that momentoussocial movementwhich has recentlyculminatedin the migrationof the centreof the equilibriumof human society
acrossthe Atlantic."34Here the nationalistmet the imperialistwhen the
expansionistprojectionof continentalismmade clearthat America,the prize
of empirein the eighteenthcentury,had to becomean empirein the twentieth century.
Contemporarystudentsof the United Statesforeignpolicythat developed
at the turn of the centuryareconfrontedwith a problemof perspective.From
the standpointof the expansionistprojectionof Americancontinentalismrevealed in the pre-CivilWar era, the imperialismof McKinleyand Roosevelt was not a new departurein Americanhistory.It was not an "aberration"
of nationalbehaviorwhich has been looselydefinedas the emergenceof the
United States to world power. The geopoliticalsuggestionsof Mahan and
Brooks Adams helped Americanstatesmento install the United States as
such a power.It was also a startlingdemonstrationof the adjustmentof the
new ideologicaljustificationsof the i890's to an older nationalisticexpansionist base formulatedby men of an earliergeneration.35Gilpin, Whitney,
Maury,and Collins had sensedthe meaning of the new technology,its effect upon geographicalrelationships,and the interrelationsbetween aspects
of the economicsystemat home, and these men were capturedby a desireto
assumethe leadershipof an entire Westerncivilizationin orderto make a
lasting impressionupon Asia.
Historianswho are sensitiveto the relationshipof foreign and domestic
affairsas well as to the play of ideas upon foreign policy might do well
to reexamineand explore the concept of American continentalismas an
ideology of overseasexpansion. Conventionallyemployed to explain the
separatistand isolationistquality of the Americanoutlookon world affairs
33 Adams, "UnpublishedBiographyof John Quincy Adams," I30.
34 Ibid., 299.

35 julius Pratt, "The Ideology of American Expansion," in Essays in Honor of William E.


Dodd, ed. Avery Craven (Chicago, 1935), 347, for a comment that stresses manifest destiny
rather than American continentalism as employed in this essay. See also the judgment of
Seward's biographer regarding the continuity of the expansionist impulse in Frederic Bancroft,
"Seward'sIdeas of Territorial Expansion," North American Review, CLXVII (July i898), 79 if.

American Continentalism

335

in the nineteenthcentury,American continentalismalso possesseda geopoliticalcharacter-nativelyderivedin large measure-that was contraryto


its own spirit. The only virtue of geopoliticsis that it draws attentionto
the facts of political geography;its greatest vice is that it lends itself to
almost mystical judgments of national purpose in internationalaffairs.
Seeminglydealing with reality,it becomesa refuge for unclearand unfulfilled aspirations.Geographerslong ago learnedthis bitterlesson.Historians
of Americanforeign policy might profit by investigatingfurtherthe active
America of this aspect of thought, not as
presencein nineteenth-century
a justificationfor foreign policy but as an importantstimulusof nationalist
expansionism.