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« IV. The Latter Stages of American Imperialism and Early American Exceptionalism | Main | II. The Early Stages of American Imperialism »

III. Later Imperialism and Early Exceptionalism

The American West, American Imperialism, and American Exceptionalism

A lecture by John M. Miller


            Many American people pride themselves on being what we call “self-made.” It is a myth, of course, but a pleasant and sometimes harmless one. The undeniable truth is that everyone has a great deal of help from other people. “Self-made people” need the assistance of parents in order to be born, and thus to attempt to become “self-made.” No one who was never born has ever become self-made. Furthermore, it is much easier to be “self-made” in America than almost anywhere else on earth. How many self-made people come from Namibia or Zambia or Bhutan or Bangladesh or El Salvador? A few, maybe, but not many. And not nearly as high a percentage as are born and raised and live their entire lives in the United States of America. America is truly the Land of Opportunity.


            Without banks or other kinds of investors or investment institutions, entrepreneurs could never start businesses. Without colleagues, no one in any kind of enterprise could “make it” in that enterprise. Without law and order, without a solid social contract, without social, educational, cultural, and religious organizations, it would be impossible to become self-made, because there would be no external resources to draw on with which to “make oneself.”


            Nevertheless, for many historical and economic reasons, probably a higher percentage of Americans consider themselves to be self-made than the citizens of any other nation. And that, as I have attempted to illustrate in the previous two lectures, occurred to a large degree because of the unique way that America and Americans developed. We might have remained the Chile of the mid-Atlantic coast of southern North America, had the original thirteen colonies, which became the first thirteen States of the United States of America, never expanded westward. Chile is a narrow sliver of land along the west coast of South America; we might have been a narrow sliver of land along the east coast of North America had we developed differently and had we not expanded.


            Instead, from within a few years of the first colonists setting foot on American soil, an inexorable movement to the West began. “The West” was where the land was, where prosperity was, where the future was. There were some places in the West which could not support many people, and thus few people settled there, at least up until very recent times. These places were the high plains in the northern part of the nation’s center, where the soil is thin and precipitation is relatively scarce; the Great American Desert of the Southwest; large stretches of the Mountain West; the eastern half of the Pacific Northwest; and most parts of Alaska. And anyway, Alaska is not truly West, even though it is west; it is North, really North.


            The Pioneer Spirit pervaded the movement to the West. “East is East, and West is West/ And the wrong one I have chose,” sang Bob Hope in the classic comedic Western movie of relatively long ago (1948), The Paleface. Painless Potter, the dubious dentist played by Bob Hope, is an unlikely easterner in the West, who, by a set of unlikely circumstances, ends up married to Calamity Jane (Jane Russell). People like Painless Potter did not fit in the West; they wanted to go “where they keep on wearing those silks and satins and buttons and bows.” Strong, independent people made it in the West; effete, dainty eastern charlatan dentists didn’t.


            A collective “American Outlook” evolved out of the western migration. “It was easier to “make it” in some areas of the West than in others, but it wasn’t really easy anywhere. People had to work at it to make it. A steady, indomitable work ethic came to characterize Americans, at least in their own minds, if not completely in reality. Americans had pride. They were tough. They couldn’t be pushed around. They made it their business to push others around as they went west, but they resisted being shoved themselves. They would raise fists or firearms to protect themselves


            Geographical and personal stereotypes eventually evolved to describe certain sections of America and the people who lived in those sections. (I know ahead of time that some of you will object to the stereotypes I shall now present, but I shall do it anyway.) Northeasterners were those who lived mainly in New England. They were flinty, like their land, and taciturn. Easterners lived in the mid-Atlantic States, from southern New England through New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and maybe Maryland. They were titans of finance, members of the D.A.R., Social-Register types. The South began at the Mason-Dixon Line (sort of), and eventually ran all the way down to Florida (sort of), and west to the Mississippi. Depending on the particular period of history, it included Kentucky and Tennessee, leaping across the Father of Waters to encompass Arkansas and Louisiana.  Southerners addressed life more slowly, worshipped their ancestors, and were perhaps more parochial than just about everyone else. The Midwest extended from the western border of Pennsylvania, down the Ohio River, north to northern Michigan, northwest to the western border of the Dakotas, and south to Kansas and Missouri. The people there were self-effacing, usually reliable, slower-on-the-uptake than many, and more rural than urban in their thinking. The Mountain West followed the range of mountains from northern New Mexico to the Canadian border where Montana and Idaho bequeath the American Rockies to the Canadians, where they become the Canadian Rockies. The people in that section of the West perhaps now represent “Real Westerners” more than any other people in any other part of America, including the three states on the Pacific Coast. Those three states, incidentally, are in a category all by themselves, although if the truth is told, California is a State of Being in its own state, while the people of Oregon and Washington are “Pacific Northwesterners,” who do not want to be equated with Californians, and the reverse is also true. Furthermore, Americans everywhere detest being stereotyped, as you have very likely been thinking as you heard this rapid, rough, even rough-shod summary.


            Regardless of anything stated in the last long paragraph, all the people in all the sections of the American nation who spent their formative years growing up primarily in one of those sections have been subliminally influenced by when and how their forebears came to where they came. Many of the “old-time families” in western New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia got there in the very late 1700s or early 1800s. Many old-timers in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi got there in the “eighteen-aughts” through the 1830s. People in the Midwest got there from the 1830s through the 1880s, with the latter migrants, who were Scandinavians, going to Minnesota and the Dakotas. Southwesterners (from Texas and Oklahoma west to the California border) came there largely in the 1830s through the early 1900s. In truth, however, far, far more came to that section of the West in the late twentieth century than in all of the nineteenth century. The same is even more accurate for California. There were Anglo-Americans in California by the 1830s, but not many, and it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that a huge flood of Anglos and others began to pour into the Golden State. Not until the last quarter of the last century did California overtake New York as the most populous state in the Union, and by now the Empire State has also been surpassed by Texas and Florida. The American Empire moved west and south, but mainly west.


            While all this was going on, millions of immigrants were coming into the country through Ellis Island, Miami, New Orleans, El Paso, Tijuana, and San Francisco. Many of them went west, depending on when and from whence they came. And some of them, “Orientals” as they used to be called, or “Asians” as they are now called, initially came to the West by going east across the Pacific. But the movement of the later immigrants, like the movement of the earliest immigrants, was mainly westward. The majority did not stay where they landed; they headed west, unless they were already in the west when they landed, in which case most of them stayed put within fifty miles of the Pacific coast.


            It has always been the case that not every American was thrilled by the waves of new immigrants to America. In the 1890s there was a serious depression in America. It was not as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s, or perhaps the Great Recession of the late Twenty-Aughts to the mid-Twenty-Teens, but it was bad. A New York newspaper editorial opined about immigrants of that time, “The floodgates are open. The bars are down…The dam is washed away. The sewer is choked…The scum of immigration is viscerating upon our shores. The horde of $9.60 steerage slime is being siphoned upon us from Continental mud tanks.”


            Such words are not nice, or kind, or charitable, or sensitive. But similar words were uttered many times before that, and have been heard many times since. We hear similar sentiments even today. The thought is a very common one, and it goes like this: Once my family got here, no one else should be allowed in.


            Well, no matter at what point when anyone came individually, collectively they were all influenced by the mentality which had won and was winning the West. Obviously there is a great variety in the personal outlook of everyone who is an American, but those many millions who have lived here all their lives have a certain commonality of outlook in their understanding of our native land. Americans seem to be more patriotic than most other nationalities, especially European ones. We feel more pride in our country than do most other peoples. We are more inclined to become involved in other nations’ squabbles or outright wars than are other states. We are more committed to self-reliance than many others. We believe that all people not only can but are obligated to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” We firmly trust that “God helps those who help themselves.” And we are convinced that God smiled on America from its earliest days as on no other nation in history, including the people of the Bible. Further, we imagine that God still has a unique plan for America that is more elevated than any other plan He may have for any other nation-state (if in fact He has such plans at all).


            Where did those ideas come from? They came in large part from people of a pioneering spirit moving continually westward into an unexplored land from the time of our national origin. Those who moved west knew they had to believe in themselves, but they also felt they needed to believe in America: in its expanding size and enormous potential and unlimited future. They felt they had a part in making all that happen, and we are the recipients of their Can-Do Attitude.


            One of the most persistent and noxious notions among Americans declares that from our inception, God had special plans in mind for the United States of America. That is an even more poisonous theological concept than a political one. However, that will not be argued here. Instead we must note that those nationalities who honestly believe God has carefully selected them for national greatness always engage in imperialistic impulses of the worst kind. “Holy Russia” committed terrible crimes against its own citizens and against its many neighbors over the centuries. Spain spilled the blood of countless Spaniards during the Spanish Inquisition. Then they set about to exterminate innumerable native peoples in the Americas, supposing God intended that to happen in order for them to conquer the New World. British subjects loved to sing of their nation, “God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.” The belt buckles of German soldiers in World War I brazenly declared, “Gott Mit Uns”: God With Us. And Americans proudly sing, “America, America, God shed His grace on thee.” All of those nations at the height of their power were imperialistic.


            Any people who honestly believe God favors their nation over all others are bound to use that lethally flawed idea as a license for aggressive strategies against other nations. It follows as surely as the night does the day.


            David Reynolds is a professor of International History at Cambridge University in England. He is one of the United Kingdom’s leading experts on America and Americans.


            Prof. Reynolds wrote a book called AMERICA, EMPIRE OF LIBERTY: A New History. The book’s title is taken from a phrase of Thomas Jefferson, who urged his fellow Americans to build “an empire of liberty.” To some, the words “empire” and liberty,” when yoked together, might seem to be antithetical or oxymoronic, but not, apparently, to the nation’s third President. When we expanded to the west, establishing an empire of liberty is exactly what we thought we were doing. We were turning the prairie grasslands into croplands. We were turning the forests into lumber for homes and offices. We were extracting coal from the earth to heat those homes and fire the furnaces to make iron and steel for constructing buildings and cars and airplanes and ships. We were making the deserts blossom like the rose. We were conquering a wild continent and taming its wild animals and pacifying its wild peoples. We were creating an empire of liberty. What could be better than that?


            Not everyone in the world perceived what we were doing as we perceived it. They considered us at times to be remarkably and aggressively pushy. That was especially true of our neighbors to the north and south, the Canadians and Mexicans. But their perceptions were shared by other nationalities farther away from our geographical expansionism. We believed that what we were doing was good; it was proper; it was moral; it was right. It was what God destined us to do. We had a Manifest Destiny from none other than God Himself. Not only that, we also were exceptional.


            David Reynolds explained the theme of his history of America, the Empire of Liberty. In a very unambiguous and forthright summary, he wrote, “It makes sense to see the United States in a continuum with earlier imperial powers, rather than to accept the doctrine of American exceptionalism – the idea that the United States is both historically unique and morally exemplary.” It behooves us honestly to conclude that there are numerous thoughtful and objective non-Americans who would agree with that sober assessment, even if we ourselves find it rather jarring.


            Max Hastings, a book reviewer for The Times of London, said in his review of the Reynolds book, “This is the best single-volume account for many years of the world’s greatest society. Even those of us who think we know America well are reminded anew what an awesome place it is, even if its record is a trifle less noble than it citizens seem to think.”


            It is vital for Americans to know that both Americans and those of other nationalities can love and admire the USA without having to perceive America and the American people as being exceptionally faultless. But those who still adhere to the Spirit of the Old American West tend to berate anyone who questions the morality of some of the actions America has taken in the past and continues to take in the present. “America: Love It Or Leave It” is surely a recipe for national disaster. One need not find a nation faultless to continue loving it, any more than one must perceive a spouse or child or friend to be faultless in order to continue loving that person. Every person has faults, as every nation also has faults. To ignore those mistakes is a guarantee that the mistakes shall be repeated. It may be unwise or impossible to try to help another human being overcome shortcomings, but it not unwise or impossible to try to assist one’s nation from repeating its mistakes.


            Nevertheless, talk of loftier American morality and propriety and exceptionalism can win elections in America. But it can lose friends elsewhere if it is trumpeted too loudly or with too much brazen bravado. When we watched the western movies as children or young adults, internally we cheered for the Good Guys, because we saw ourselves in them, and we booed the Bad Guys, because we thought none of us was like them.


For most of its early history, when the values of the West still strongly permeated our national psyche, Hollywood, as George W. Bush said of himself, did not “do nuance.” Nuance is anathema to those who see the world in black and white. When Technicolor came along, either in the movies or in real life, more subtle grays began to appear, along with all that Living Color. No longer was there just red or blue; now purple appeared. In tone and texture, Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves were no longer like Giant or Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.


            The Good Guy/Bad Guy outlook did not die, however. It never even encountered a serious momentary intermission. It is as deeply penetrated into the American Mind in 2017 as it was in 1917 or 1817 or 1717. Municipal bond issues are won or lost because of it. Corporations are made or broken because of it. Elections are won or lost on the basis of whether the electorate believes the candidates are good guys or bad guys.


            Essentially we still see ourselves as a force for good in the world. And we are - - - sometimes. And we were - - - many times. Many other nations also perceive us in that light. And many other nation-states are also like that. However, no other nation thinks as highly of us as we think of ourselves. That ought not to be news to anyone. We are too often too aggressive, oppressive, and expansive of our own ideas and ideals to meet with the approval of the entire world.


            In the last lecture we examined the obvious imperialism of President William McKinley. It was he who, somewhat reluctantly, concluded that “without any desire or design on our part,” the Spanish-American War forced the United States to “meet and discharge” its military obligations for the good as became “a great nation.” When the war was over, we essentially received the Philippines as a kind of colonial protectorate.


Now we shall again look briefly at the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, as you may remember, became President upon the assassination of President McKinley. Soon thereafter, he engineered the peace treaty between Russia and Japan in their war with one another, for which Mr. Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes newly inaugurated American Presidents are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on virtually inscrutable grounds. Maybe it is simply because they are Americans. TR inserted American influence into a French and German conflict in Morocco. It had been a century-long policy of the US to avoid such interference, but by the middle of the first decade of the 1900s, America saw itself as a world power, and it was widely affirmed that we should act like one. That seems to mean that world powers are expected to intervene in other nations’ affairs.


In the meantime, America had adopted Cuba as a protectorate, which lasted from 1898 to 1934, with five American military occupations during that time. (It was not just Fulgencio Batista whose dictatorship led to the Cuban Revolution under Fidel Castro. Those American occupations also were a factor in a long-festering Cuban unrest over American influence in their internal affairs.) Panama became a US protectorate under Roosevelt’s leadership from 1903 to 1939, the Dominican Republic from 1905 to 1941, and our Army occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933. In those years we definitely were not speaking very softly, but we were carrying a very large stick.


Perhaps because of the unusually assertive foreign policy of Theodore Roosevelt, and the “dollar diplomacy” of William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson followed a more quiescent foreign and military policy. But in an astonishing statement from a major address on the Fourth of July, 1914, Wilson said, “My dream is that as the years go on and the world knows more and more of America, it…will turn to America for those moral inspirations which lie at the basis of all freedoms…and that America will come into the full light of day when all shall know that she puts human rights above all other rights and that her flag is not only the flag of America but of all humanity.” It is difficult to discern overwhelming national humility in that declaration. At least in those particular words, Woodrow Wilson sounded every bit as imperialistic as James K. Polk, William McKinley, or Teddy Roosevelt.


When World War I broke out in the late summer of 1914, the United States Congress and the President had no intention of becoming involved in what they believed was a European conflict. Isolationism was strong for the first two years of the war. Then circumstances, particularly the sinking of many American ships by the Germans, virtually assured a congressional declaration of war, which came in 1917. Since our entry into World War I, we have been involved in far more wars than any other nation on earth.


What explains the American propensity for so readily leaping into international conflicts? An unquantifiable but undeniable factor is the American fascination with guns from the outset of the American Experiment. As they moved West, Americans wanted to have weapons with them to repel Indians and wild animals. Many Americans came to believe that guns were necessary to settle differences. Most other people use words; Americans often use guns. The right to bear arms, as everyone does or should know, is guaranteed in the badly-worded, even mystifying Second Amendment to the US Constitution.


American rates of homicide have been higher than European rates since the founding of the American colonies. Part of the reason for that is the widespread availability of firearms, but another factor is that as it developed, American culture accepted violence and bloodshed more readily than did the cultures of European nations. In a book titled A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present, Dutch professor Pieter Spierenburg traces European homicide rates over many centuries. He estimates that in Europe during the medieval period, there were roughly 35 murders per hundred thousand people every year. By 1500, he says, that had fallen to 20 per hundred thousand, and by 1700 to five. Now, the rate is below two.


The USA, on the other hand, has had a much higher murder rate than Europe, according to Prof. Spierenburg. In the nineteenth century, the primary century of western expansion, the murder rate escalated from decade to decade. After the Second World War, the rate dropped to about five per hundred thousand, but by 1991 it had climbed back up to eleven. Again there are currently about five murders per year per hundred thousand Americans, and most of those killings involve guns. That rate is more than two times as high as any other affluent nation.


Pieter Spierenburg postulates that democracy came too soon to America. We did not have a strong, centralized government until well after the Civil War. But most European democracies, which came into being half a century to a century after the formation of the USA, started out with strong central governments, which had existed for centuries in many European monarchies. Americans felt free to take the law into their own hands to settle personal disputes, and they did, often with impunity. (See “Rap Sheet: Why is American history so murderous?” by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, Nov. 9, 2009, p. 79 ff.)


 Americans have always been more willing to end their personal conflicts with violence than their European forebears or counterparts. The American West is particularly illustrative of that tendency. Where police, sheriffs, or US marshals were scarce, many people in conflict with other people, almost always males, took up arms to resolve their differences. It had a major influence on how Americans came to view themselves in conflicted relationships with other nation-states or nationalities.   


Walter Hixson is a professor of history at the University of Akron. Dr. Hixson wrote a book a few years ago called The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy. He is not what anyone would describe as a timid historian. He wrote that “the myth of America” is rooted in “the Puritan jeremiad, a ritualized denunciation of sin with an attendant call for redemption.”  He clearly suggested that we are defined as a nation by those we kill. He said, “I argue that the United States chooses to go to war, seizing opportunities to engage in militarism throughout its history….The United States emerges as a warfare state, a nation with a propensity for initiating and institutionalizing warfare.”


As they would say in the Old West, “Them thar’s fightin’ words!” And there are millions of Americans who would take very strong exception to those characterizations.


On April 28, 2003, a few weeks after the US invaded Iraq, the-then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was asked by an al-Jazeera newscaster whether America was “empire building” by its war in Iraq. Mr. Rumsfeld was shocked by the question. “We don’t seek empires,” he responded with obvious irritation. “We’re not imperialistic. We never have been.” Really? There are many historians, and not all of them dedicated internationalists, who would volubly deny the Rumsfeldian claim.


During the presidential campaign of 2008, Time writer Peter Beinart had an outstanding article entitled “Patriot Games” (July 7, 2008). In it he compared and contrasted conservative and liberal views of patriotism. Of John McCain and Barack Obama he said, “What both campaigns understand is that American patriotism wears two faces: a patriotism of affirmation, which appeals more to conservatives, and a patriotism of dissent, particularly cherished by liberals.”


America in 2017 seems clearly to be divided into two distinct and unalterably opposed camps. One camp believes it is necessary to love the past and present of America in order to make America great again for the future. The other camp wants to express its love for America by attempting to overcome what they believe are some inherent historic national and cultural deficiencies, and to engage with the world in a more balanced, less heavy-handed way. So the question might be framed in this manner: What made America great in the past, what are its present strengths, and what can make it great again in the future? Alternatively, we might ask: What were some of the most egregious mistakes we made in the past, which of those mistakes are we continuing to make in the present, and if we are not the nation we have believed ourselves to be, what steps might we take to turn our aspirations into our future reality?