America's `righteous expansionism' and the movers, shakers behind it

Review History

August 12, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[Special to The Sun]

Seizing Destiny

How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea

By Richard Kluger

Alfred A. Knopf / 649 pages/ $35

Millions of Americans were flocking to the fertile valleys of the Mississippi and following the Missouri to its head springs, President James K. Polk announced in his March 1845 inaugural address. They were "establishing the blessings of self-government" in villages and towns reaching toward the Pacific Ocean.

The president promised to protect these patriotic pioneers "wherever they may be upon our soil" and bring American law to "the distant regions which they have selected for their homes."

Within four years, by overstating claims and contriving a war of conquest, Polk added Oregon, Texas, California and greater New Mexico to "our soil," some 768 million acres. Few of his contemporaries, including his critics, Richard Kluger concludes, "wished his deeds undone."

A journalist who began his career at The Wall Street Journal, Kluger is the author of Simple Justice, an account of Brown v. Board of Education, and Ashes to Ashes, a history of the tobacco industry. In Seizing Destiny, he supplies a sweeping synthesis of America's "righteous expansionism." His thematic focus is on "land accumulation as the nurturing engine and compelling impulse in ruthlessly transforming a spectacular wilderness into a mighty state."

Kluger breathes new life into an oft-told tale by offering sharp and shrewd judgments of the movers and shakers in America's surge to dominion.

Napoleon's decision to abandon Louisiana, he argues, was not a colossal blunder. Napoleon "was not a patient builder, but a conqueror," who knew he lacked the time, money and manpower to construct, govern and defend a colony coveted by the Americans and 5,000 miles from Paris.

Acknowledging the role of unforeseen circumstances, Kluger insists that President Thomas Jefferson deserves great credit for acting with "moderation and resolve." Anticipating that Haitian rebels might douse France's colonial dreams, Jefferson resisted political pressure to seize New Orleans, waited out the volatile First Consul and jumped at the chance to acquire all of Louisiana.

And, of course, he overcame his constitutional scruples to seal the deal -- for a paltry $11.25 million -- before Napoleon changed his mind.

Eavesdropping on treaty negotiations, Kluger reveals how envoys rolled the dice to enlarge America.

In 1782, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams fixed the new nation's ill-defined boundaries as they made peace with England. They ignored instructions to consult with their ostensible allies, France and Spain, who were scheming to prevent the United States from becoming "mistress of an immense continent."

Playing on the war-weariness of the European belligerents -- and their suspicion of each other -- they brazenly laid claim to Canada and territory extending to the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

They didn't get everything. But, Kluger writes, they brought home 900,000 acres "of the most fertile, well-watered and scenic land on earth," four times the size of France, a bounty "stunningly beyond anything rationally related to the outcome on the battlefield."

Kluger's fascination with diplomacy is a weakness as well as a strength. Seizing Destiny is trickle-down history, with presidents, secretaries of state and foreign ministers hogging the stage. Less visible are settlers, squatters, speculators and surveyors; slavers and free-soilers, who squared off in "Bleeding Kansas"; railroad barons, who sold off millions of acres given to them by the government; and Indians, who fought against a "grasping people" throughout the 19th century.

Though generally sensible and sure-footed, Kluger makes a few errors and questionable judgments. The Puritan Anne Hutchinson was not a bold advocate of religious toleration. Historians do not all agree that the Articles of Confederation was "a mostly dysfunctional central government." And William McKinley was not "by all accounts" a "reluctant combatant," pushed into a war with Spain by the "jingoist fervor sweeping across the nation."

More importantly, Kluger gives insufficient attention to anti-expansionist sentiments in American history. Opponents of empire often found themselves in the minority. But they were not without influence.

President Ulysses S. Grant's attempt to annex the Dominican Republic in 1870 did not fail because expansion "was not on the nation's mind," but because a powerful political coalition, led by Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, believed that the island belonged to the inhabitants: "It is theirs by right of possession; by their sweat and blood mingling with the soil." Similar arguments, combined often with racism, produced legislation in 1898 pledging that the United States would not take control of Cuba.

Re-connecting with these anti-expansionist traditions might fortify the cautionary lesson embedded in Seizing Destiny. In exploiting "every opportunity their fortunate geography presented to them," Americans at times trampled on others and betrayed their own democratic principles. A history of how the West was won should engender humility as well as pride -- and, perhaps as well, a realization that lucky and plucky Americans have no right "claiming entitlement to mastery abroad."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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