Continental Expansion

David M. Pletcher

A special providence, some believe, has looked after the affairs of the United States through its history. If this is so, part of the concern has been geographical, for Americans have taken over more than one-third of North America, including much of its best land—a broad swath stretching from sea to sea across almost twenty degrees of latitude.

Before the United States came into being, the three most powerful nations of the world in turn occupied most of this territory but had to give way eventually to the irresistible American advance. Some Americans were quite aware of what they called their destiny; at their independence, for example, Gouverneur Morris (as he later remembered) thought "that all North America must at length be annexed to us—happy, indeed, if the lust of dominion stop there." Fortunately, Morris's vision proved an exaggeration.

As the American nation grew, it worked out a flexible combination of expedience, usually legal or moral. To overcome each obstacle and obtain for it the land it wanted, the most direct method was negotiation followed by a treaty of some sort, providing for a land cession and certain benefits or safeguards for its inhabitants. On two occasions the negotiation followed a victorious war, once with Great Britain and once with Mexico. In the first the enemy grew tired of fighting and sued for peace; in the second, however, the Americans had to occupy the enemy's capital city and much of its country. On a third occasion, again involving Britain, the outcome was a draw and brought only minor boundary adjustments. On the fourth and last occasion, the United States resorted to purchase—this was the vast territory of Alaska.

The reasoning of Americans in acquiring their territory differed with the occasion. The first acquisition, specified in the Treaty of Paris of 1783 ending the revolutionary war, came with independence itself. For the other acquisitions the Americans worked out a flexible combination of expedients, usually legal or moral, to overcome each obstacle; they thereby obtained the land they wanted. The most direct was negotiation followed by a treaty of some sort, providing for a cession and certain benefits or safeguards for its inhabitants. Another expedient of territorial expansion was purchase, again involving a treaty that usually contained other provisions and sometimes followed hostilities. There also was a lot of sheer luck—being at the right place at the right time. Behind the formalities of land transfer were such pressures as migration and trade that could bend or destroy boundary lines traced out on a map. The notorious mobility of Americans and their acquisitive instincts might thus defeat the plans of faraway Europeans. As Americans moved west across the continent these instincts were whetted by cultural contacts and reciprocal brutality between American settlers and their Native American neighbors and by prejudices against Spanish and French remembered from life in Europe and eventually against the mother country as well. As this developing American nationalism overcame the rivalry of individual colonies enough for cooperation during the Revolution and after, it inspired propaganda to reinforce expansionist instincts. While these factors encouraged expansionism in the New World, the international rivalries of the Old World claimed the attention and exhausted the resources of European rulers who would have liked to thwart the ambitious Yankees across the ocean if they could.


Bemis, Samuel Flagg. The Diplomacy of the American Revolution. New York, 1935. Old but especially good for boundary settlement.

——. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1949. Solid accounts of several episodes from 1815 to 1830.

DeConde, Alexander. This Affair of Louisiana. Baton Rouge, La., 1976. One of several good accounts.

Garber, Paul Neff. The Gadsden Treaty. Philadelphia, 1923. An old work but still useful.

Jensen, Ronald J. The Alaska Purchase and Russian-American Relations. Seattle, Wash., 1975. More detail on the treaty negotiations.

Jones, Howard. To the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1977.

Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. New York, 1963. A minority view of manifest destiny and events of the 1840s. Should be compared to Weinberg.

Morris, Richard B. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence. New York, 1965. More detailed scholarship.

Pletcher, David M. The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. Columbia, Mo., 1973.

Saul, Norman E. Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763–1967. Lawrence, Kans., 1991. Cross-archival study of a complex relationship.

Stuart, Reginald C. United States Expansionism and British North America, 1775–1871. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988. Covers the whole span of continental expansion.

Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansion in American History. Chicago, 1935. Still the standard work on the subject.

See also Colonialism and Neocolonialism ; Imperialism ; Nationalism .

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:


Continental Expansion forum