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« III. Later Imperialism and Early Exceptionalism | Main | I. The Colonization of America »

II. The Early Stages of American Imperialism

The American West, American Imperialism, and American Exceptionalism

John M. Miller


            In the first lecture we examined how, from the beginning, “America” and “Americans” knew there was a vast and unexplored continent which stretched out to the west. Most of the earliest settlers were from England. Later they came from other parts of Great Britain, then from elsewhere in Europe, and then, much later, from all over the world. But all of the first colonists and immigrants originally came to the eastern USA. From there many of the new Americans began to move west, until by the end of the nineteen century, American settlement stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.


            The colonists who arrived on these shores in the first century of British colonization did not encounter a continent devoid of any other humans. According to most anthropologists and ethnologists, people from Asia had come across the hypothetical-but-certainly-actual “land bridge” from Siberia into Alaska many millennia ago, when sea levels were lower. They were the ancestors of what Europeans called “Indians” after Columbus came to America.


            The first instances of American imperialism revolved around two glaring realities in our early history. The first was our treatment of the Indians, to which I referred in some detail in the last lecture, and shall finish addressing very shortly in this lecture. The second was our tacit acceptance of, and our treatment of, black slaves who originated in Africa. “We” (meaning white Americans) were thoroughly reprehensible in our historical mistreatment of what now are called by many people “native Americans” and “African Americans.” There are no darker chapters in our history, and it behooves every American to admit that, even if it is painful to do so.


            Attempts have been made to brush aside or excuse what we did to these groups of people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Other European nations were doing the same things in other parts of the world, it has been claimed. That is true. But despite the eighteenth century being called “the Enlightenment” by cultured Europeans and Americans, our policies toward Indians and slaves were very unenlightened at best and absolutely atrocious at worst.


            Let me finish up with respect to our imperialism toward the Indians before turning to American imperialism toward the slaves. Many if not most American politicians in the nineteenth century were remarkably insensitive to promises our government made to the native peoples. We broke treaty after treaty and promise after promise. If it is argued we did that because the Indians rose up against us in warfare, that argument is obliterated by the fact that almost always we gave them no choice other than retaliation. Either they were to accept extinction or complete subjugation by white people. Caucasian Americans virtually accomplished the second and almost accomplished the first.


            Far too few words and far too many guns were utilized with respect to the Indians. Usually they tried to reason with us if that was at all possible, but ordinarily we did not listen. And when we did, and we made agreements with the tribes, we almost always broke those agreements. It was surely imperialism by any other name.


            Philosophically, the imperialism of the American treatment of slaves falls into a different category. There were no slaves on either of the original ships which brought colonists to Virginia and Massachusetts, as we all know. But slaves began to be brought on other ships not long afterward, and they were taken to colonies both north and south.


            Slavery is an ancient, inhuman, and ethically indefensible institution. There are records of its practice in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and elsewhere. Slavery is frequently mentioned in the Bible, and almost never negatively or with condemnation, except when the Bible reported that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. In any case, when one race or class of people enslaves another race or class of people, it is illustrative of imperialism of a particularly demonic sort.


            Though there were slaves early in the history of the northern and middle British colonies in America, it was mainly in the South where slaves were concentrated. By the time the British and other Europeans came to America, household slavery had become very rare in European culture, and it also became rare from Maine to Pennsylvania. It was thought to be as inexpensive to have live-in servants and provide them room and board and very little spending money as to pay the considerable price to own another human being for the mere purpose of doing household chores.


From Maryland and Virginia south, however, slavery was prevalent because of the particular nature of southern agriculture. Labor-intensive crops, especially cotton, but also sugar cane and indigo, required many people successfully and profitably to grow and harvest those crops for sale on the commodities market. Therefore from the earliest years in many parts of the southern colonies, and later in other southern territories once they became states, slavery was a common practice even if it also was widely recognized as “the peculiar institution.”  


The US census of1790 declared that there were 700,000 slaves out of a total population of 3.9 million people. Thus for every hundred free white people, there were about twenty-three enslaved black people. At no point in American history after 1650 or 1675 did Indians come close to representing that high a percentage of the total population. But never after 1790 did slaves represent that high a percentage of the total population. Immigrants began pouring into the new American nation from its foundation onward. However, it was not a steady flow; at some periods there were far more immigrants than at other times.


The peculiar institution of slavery caused major political problems in the initial establishment of the United States of America. The Articles of Confederation stated almost nothing with respect to slavery, other than to say how slaves were to be counted in a state’s population. In order to get the Constitution passed, the infamous “Three-Fifths Compromise” was adopted. By it, each slave within the bounds of any state was to be reckoned as three-fifths of a person for determining that state’s population. This solution was demanded by the southern states. Without it, the Constitution very likely would never have been passed. Slaves by no means were considered citizens, nor could they vote. Nonetheless, every black slave was the equivalent of 60% of a white person in determining a state’s population. Politics makes strange population-fellows.


As time went on, the issue of slavery started even more seriously to rend the fabric of the American body politic. In 1822 in Charleston, SC, a slave named Denmark Vesey attempted to organize a slave rebellion. The plot was discovered, and more than thirty of the plotters were executed. A fortress was built close to the Emanuel AME Church, where the rebellion had been planned, after the authorities burned the church to the ground. (As an aside, do you suppose that the racist Dylan Roof was aware of that fact?) The fortress was intended to be a visible symbol that such notions among slaves would never be tolerated. Later the fortress became known as the Citadel, the official military academy of South Carolina. In 1831 in Virginia, a slave named Nat Turner led another slave rebellion, which was equally unsuccessful. Eight years later, Virginia founded its own military academy, the Virginia Military Institute. Might the institution of those two schools have had an influence on an immensely bloody civil war more than two decades later?


The Fugitive Slave Law of the early 1850s declared that any slaves who escaped their bonds and made their way to free states were still the property of their owners. Citizens were forbidden to harbor fugitive slaves, and whenever the escaped slaves were apprehended, they were to be returned to their owners. The Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were political attempts to mollify southern sentiments by saying that certain territories would forbid slavery and others could permit it or that certain newly-admitted states could decide the issue of slavery for themselves. We may deduce that because there was a civil war, these measures did not succeed in what they intended.


Only abolitionists initially thought the Civil War should be fought or was fought primarily because of slavery. Nearly everyone else, including Abraham Lincoln, thought either that the war would be a means of insuring states’ rights (the South) or that it would be a means of restoring the Union (the North). By the end of the war, however, most people in the North and West, including President Lincoln, had concluded that the enormously bloody conflict was primarily a means of abolishing slavery. With the Union victory, the slaves concluded that American imperialism regarding their situation was at an end. The racism of Reconstruction soon rendered that opinion very premature.


How can anyone suggest that slavery was a form of imperialism? And what is imperialism, in actuality?


Linguistically, it would seem that there needs to be an emperor and an empire for imperialism to exist. The three words obviously are etymologically related. Thus in history there were, among many other empires, Roman, British, Russian, French, German, Ottoman, Persian, Indian, Mongol, Chinese, and Japanese Empires.


The United States of America never had an emperor, nor did we technically have an empire. But as our history unfolded, at times we nonetheless became very imperialistic. At its most elemental level, imperialism says this: I am better than you and stronger than you, so I shall do with you whatever I please. Thus it was that we confiscated an entire continent which its original inhabitants understandably thought belonged to them. Furthermore, we allowed slavery to exist within the boundaries of America for two and a half centuries, thinking that somehow free citizens were superior to slaves, and by extension, that white people were superior to blacks.


Why would any normal person choose to address the unpleasant issues of racial and territorial imperialism? What is the purpose behind reconsidering such negative thoughts? The purpose is to try to help us better understand who we are and why we are the way we are. Out of all the nations of the world, especially all the nations of the New World, only the United States of America had the unique opportunity to grow into what for four centuries was known as “the American West.” The West was enormous, enchanting, and intriguing. The kind of people who moved west had to be strong, independent, individualistic, self-protective, adventurous, and hard-working risk-takers. The West was no place for wimps or wusses. Only Real Men and Real Women could survive in the West, especially in the early days. Nobody blazed the trail for you; you had to blaze your own trail. Nobody fought your battles for you; you had to fight your own battles. But note: it was mainly civilians fighting these battles; it was not soldiers.


Along with numerous positive personal traits of the settlers of the West, there emerged some negative traits as well. If somebody blocked your path, like Indians, they had to be removed from your path. If you believed someone was beneath you, like slaves, you did what you had to do to “keep them in their place.” Self-reliance is a wonderful thing in moderation. Self-determination is splendid, so long as it does not determine that someone else is required to bow or bend to my wishes in order for my self-determination to be fully realized. John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham never made it from Edinburgh or London to Denver or San Francisco. Their philosophy got lost somewhere between New York and Philadelphia and Columbus and Columbia. And so, it appears, did the notion of seeking to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Looking out for Number One became the law of the West.


If you feel you’re fighting for your life for most of your life, as many who went west felt, philosophical niceties got lost in their daily shuffle. It’s High Noon, and Gary Cooper, and Grace Kelly, all over again. “He made a vow while in State Prison/ Vowed it’d be my life or his’n/ I’m not afraid of death, but O-o/ What will I do if she leaves me?” And so Gary, the reluctant marshal, leaves his Quaker wife, Grace, goes out to meet the train and the Really Bad Hombre Frank Miller and his equally bad desperadoes, mows them all down in a blaze of Colt-45 derring-do, rips his badge off his shirt and flings it to the blood-stained ground, puts his arm around his grateful but ethically compromised bride (she shot one of the bad guys in the back), and together they stride purposefully into the sunset, sort of, presumably never again to take up arms against anybody for anything. But we are left to wonder: Would a Real Man do that, and do it like that, for a woman, even for Grace Kelly? Would he really throw away his badge?


It wasn’t like that when Egypt was settled, or Babylon was settled, or China or India or Greece or Rome or Gaul or Germania or Engelonde or Rus were settled. Back then, there weren’t that many people anywhere, and even in China and India, which had huge chunks of turf but also many tribes and clans, they could take millennia if need be to conquer all the land they believed was rightly theirs. In America the whole enterprise was completed in less than three centuries. A continent was crossed and conquered! The speed of the civilizing, to the extent it was civilized, took considerably less than three centuries. To those subjected to the civilizing, the Indians and the slaves, it probably seemed like three millennia. The defeated see things differently than the defeaters.


The Spirit of the American West lives on today. Whenever anyone worries about federal overreach, there is The West. When people grow tired of government, there is The West. When we want to sing with Old Blue Eyes, “I’ll do it my way,” when “I” is more influential than “we” in our thinking, when we’re sick of rules and regulations and laws and lawyers, when we’re sick of cities and crowds and too many people pressing in too hard upon us, there is The West.


That kind of a mentality leads to people feeling too hemmed in. When all the land that we’re going to get seems to have been gotten, then we look for more land. In the presidential election of 1844, a man hardly anyone had ever heard of defeated a man everyone had heard of. When James K. Polk rather than Henry Clay moved into the White House, Polk came with an arsenal of expansive ideas.  He was not pleased that years before the US and Britain had made an agreement on joint ownership of the Oregon Territory, which included all of modern-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, much of western Montana, and most of British Columbia. “54.40 or Fight!” shouted President Polk, threatening to take on Britain for a third time after the Revolution and the War of 1812. He wanted the northwest border of the United States to extend almost up to the southernmost sliver of Russian Alaska. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and we agreed to make our northern border along the straight line that runs from International Falls, Minnesota to the Puget Sound.


Having failed to expand in the north, Polk then turned his sights south. In 1846 the Mexican War started, when a small battle ensued. The pugilistic President decreed that American blood had been shed on American soil. In actual fact, Mexican blood had been shed on Mexican soil. The Mexican War was an example of unrestrained and unvarnished American imperialism. It also turned out to be a training ground for several famous future generals on both sides of the American Civil War. When it was over, Mexico agreed to accept fifteen million dollars from the US government for what is now West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. In addition, Washington paid three-plus million dollars owed by Mexico to various private individuals and entities in what euphemistically was called “The Mexican Cession.” Mexico didn’t altruistically cede all that territory to us, however; we paid for it in cold, hard American greenbacks. “Green grow the lilacs all sparkling with dew/ I’m lonely, my darling since parting with you/ But by our next meeting I hope to prove true/ And change the green lilacs to the Red, White, and Blue.” Gringos and their greenbacks were something else, as far as the Mexicans were concerned; they really were. Gringos forced the little guys into a war they didn’t want, handily defeated them, snatched a huge chunk of their territory, paid them a pittance for what they took, and prepared to live happily ever after in La La Land.   


Besides being a land grab, the Mexican War was also an undisguised blow against the influence of Hispanic Roman Catholicism in the American Southwest. At that time, millions of Americans believed Protestantism was the only acceptable form of Christianity, and they intended to drive the Mexicans back into Old Mexico, liberating New Mexico (writ large) into a bastion of Proper Religion. Religion, it is sad to say, can and often has become imperialistic. When it does that, it attempts to drag government into its dubious plans.


When did the United States of America start to feel like a world power? Was it when President James Monroe elucidated the Monroe Doctrine? In 1824 Monroe declared that from then on, no European powers could establish any new colonies in the Americas without incurring a possible war with the USA. It would appear, less than forty years after we became an independent nation, that we were imagining ourselves to be a world power. Or did we perceive ourselves to be a world power when we brazenly started a war with Mexico in the 1840s? When did America begin to think “big?” Can it be pinpointed?


The Mexican War may be classified as the end of early American imperialism. Up to that time, our imperialism had been largely internal. That is, it concerned how we dealt with some of the people who had been living here since soon after the inauguration of the American Experiment, namely, the Indians and the slaves. The movement of the frontier ever westward had ramifications for both of those peoples. Later obvious imperialism began with events leading up to the Spanish-American War.


Alfred Thayer Mahan was a retired Navy captain, geopolitical theorist, and military strategist. In 1897 he published a book called The Interest of America in Sea Power, Past and Present. In it he wrote, “Not in universal harmony, nor in any fond dream of unbroken peace, rest now the best hopes of the world….Rather in the competition of interests, in that reviving sense of nationality…in the jealous determination of each people to provide first for its own…are to be heard the assurance that decay has not touched yet the majestic fabric erected by so many centuries of courageous battling.”


Those bold and bellicose thoughts struck a responsive chord in a nation which clearly had begun to flex its military might. They also found a harbor in the hearts of certain influential American politicians. Notions of peace and harmony must be swept aside, said Mahan. Nations have always fought one another, and the nobility of those battles sounds the alarm for America to increase its armed forces, particularly its Navy, said Mahan. American nationality must be promoted in a time of international conflicts of interest, and the most effective way to do that is by force of arms, said Mahan.


It is well to recall that Alfred Thayer Mahan’s widely-read book was published only four years after Frederick Jackson Turner had delivered his famous 1893 speech at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In The Significance of the Frontier in American History, Turner postulated that over the nearly three centuries it took for pioneers to move all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast, settling on all the tillable land in between, the westward movement itself was the primary factor in determining what America was to become. The 1890 census led Turner to decree that the western frontier had officially disappeared, and that America would find itself in an entirely new chapter of its existence. Was it in that context that Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book hinted how that new chapter might begin?


Mahan’s thesis had a powerful influence on the man then in the White House, William McKinley, and the man who later was to become his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt. It also won wide acclaim in Germany and Britain. But in order to thwart too much sea power by either of those dominant European nations, Mahan and McKinley were determined to increase American naval strength in order to establish a brand-new Pax Americana. The Pax Britannia had lasted long enough, both men apparently assumed.


It happened that in 1895 the Cubans had staged a revolution to drive out what they considered to be their Spanish colonial oppressors. American Anti-Spanish sentiment quickly escalated. Governor Theodore Roosevelt of New York, who became Vice President under McKinley in 1901, described himself to Mahan as a “Cuba Libre” man. He boldly told the Navy strategist that it was necessary for America to intervene in Cuba if it was to maintain its self-respect as a nation.


In the meantime, newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were fanning antipathy against the Spanish by reporting stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba. Under those circumstances, it was not difficult to whip up war frenzy in the American populace. And when the American battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor, the US had what seemed like a God-granted opportunity for declaring war on Spain, which forthwith Congress did. Subsequently it was determined that the Maine was not sabotaged, but that instead it had somehow managed to detonate itself. But no matter. (That declaration of war was, by the way, the third of only five times war was officially declared by the United States Congress. The others occurred regarding the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and World Wars I and II. If you find it unsettling to hear that America has been genuinely imperialistic, consider how many scores of wars around the world in which we have been engaged for the past 240 years, and how many of those wars were officially approved by Congressional declarations of war. Only blind patriotism can refuse to acknowledge that the USA has been and continues to be imperialistic in all but the most severely proscribed of definitions.)


In 1898 America liberated Cuba, assisted by Col. Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Perhaps surprising ourselves, and certainly most other nations, we declared the island to be free. We said that we had no intention of annexing it, which technically, but only technically, we never did. We also drove the Spanish out of the Philippines. Having done that, however, suddenly America was faced with a situation no one had thoroughly thought through: What should be done with the Philippines now, they suddenly wondered? President McKinley had no doubts about that issue. The islands should certainly not go to Great Britain, which was a potential contender, nor should Japan be allowed to acquire them by default. McKinley said, “There is only one logical course to pursue. Spain has shown herself unfit to rule her colonies, and those [that] have come into our possession as a result of war, must be held, if we are to fulfill our destinies as a nation… giving them the benefits of a christian [small “c”] civilization which has reached its highest developement [misspelled] under our republican institutions.”


The treaty which ended the Spanish-American War resulted in Spain relinquishing ownership of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. The Philippines became a particular problem for America, because local insurrectionists had the temerity to try to establish the islands as an independent nation. The US Army and Navy put an end to that utterly unacceptable idea, and America held sway in the archipelago until we finally magnanimously granted the Filipinos their independence on July 4, 1946. In other words, the Philippines remained an American protectorate for nearly fifty years.


It would be disingenuous to argue that there was no opposition to the aggressive foreign and military policies of the USA in the years before and after the Spanish-American War. Nevertheless, the opposition was not strong, nor was it well organized. From President James K. Polk through President Theodore Roosevelt, American military and foreign policy was essentially expansionist, which many opponents of that policy would also characterize as imperialist. Only during the first three years of World War I was there sufficient isolationist sentiment to prevent America from entering the War to End All Wars. But the sinking of the Lusitania and numerous other American ships finally led Congress to declare war on Germany and its allies.


In other words, the expansionism represented by the westward movement of Americans from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries morphed into a different kind of expansionism in the latter nineteenth and the early twentieth century. In American minds, America was growing continentally up until 1890, when western expansion essentially ceased, a la Frederick Jackson Turner. From then on we saw ourselves as growing globally. It was, to us, a natural progression.


Americans have long believed that our entry into World War I in 1917 was the most important factor which led to victory in November of 1918. The Allies needed us to win, we tend to think, and without us there would have been no victory. That is possible. It is also possible that without American intervention, eventually, and probably fairly soon after the end of 1918, both of the competing sets of allied forces would simply have declared a truce, with no one as the victor. Had that happened, the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, which led inevitably to World War II, would never have been signed. And that might have rendered World War II, the most lethal conflict in world history up to the present time, moot. But history does not consist of What Ifs; it consists rather of What Happened, and especially What Does What Happened Mean.


The last chapter of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American imperialism can be observed during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The first President Roosevelt, like the second, was an intensely complex human being. He was at once peaceful and belligerent, greatly interested in natural conservation and the deliberate killer of thousands of animals and birds by means of his innumerable firearms, cautious on occasion, a huge risk-taker on most occasions, a gentle soul with his family and a terror to his enemies, and he was also honest as well as devious.


Theodore Roosevelt had a great grasp of international relations while nonetheless treating some nations with utter disdain. His political engineering of the Panama Canal was brilliant and atrocious, all at the same time. He could be the very soul of diplomacy while also being oblivious to almost every diplomatic nuance. His order for the Great White Fleet to sail around the world from late 1907 to early 1909 as a display of American military prowess was an exercise in undisguised nationalistic bravado. Mr. Roosevelt was, in summary, a man unlike any other President in personality and political activity, with the possible exception of another more contemporary President. However,  these two particular Presidents are intellectually and educationally much more unalike than alike. And while Theodore Roosevelt used the Presidency as a Bully Pulpit, the other President, of whom we all jointly may be thinking, up to this point seems to be using it as a Bully Bludgeon.


The inexorable expansion west across America to the Pacific occurred from the mid-1600s to the end of the 1900s. There is an almost inevitable if also easily overlooked progression from that westward movement into the American imperialism of the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries. That was followed by the self-understood phenomenon of American exceptionalism, although many other citizens of the world besides Americans also perceived Americans to be an exceptional people.


In the next lecture we shall further investigate American imperialism after World War I, leading up to the present time. After that we shall look at how our very understandable imperialism led to a national self-identity of American exceptionalism. And all this started when the first few seventeenth-century white settlers along the Atlantic Coast trekked west a few miles to stake a claim for themselves in what was undeniably “Indian territory.” It took the better part of three centuries, but we went from being timid coastal colonists to being frontier men and women, to being imperialists, to being exceptionalists. It all sounds very exceptional. And it should, because it is.