Nationalism - The american mission abroad: imperialism and empire

Changes that occurred later in the century provided a different gloss both to the idea of manifest destiny and to the meaning of mission. The new "manifest destiny" of the 1890s involved acquisition and control of an overseas empire. Although the older xenophobia and the civilizing mission remained, they were more strident in their tone and also more derivative of the European experience. The distinctions between European and American imperialism appeared to blur at the turn of the century. It was not that the popular nature of nationalism had altered significantly. The beer-garden simplicity with which the flag was venerated in the 1890s and the gusto with which the Spanish were rebuked for their behavior in Cuba linked Theodore Roosevelt to Davy Crockett. Finley Peter Dunne, the leading press satirist at the time of America's rise to world power, put words into the mouth of his Mr. Dooley that would have been as fitting half a century before: "'We're a great people,' said Mr. Hennessy earnestly. 'We are,' said Mr. Dooley. 'We are that. An' th' best iv it is, we know that we are.'"

What was different was a respectful interest in European imperialism and a wish by many American leaders to imitate it. As the burgeoning American economy produced enormous wealth, the instant oil, meat-packing, and rail barons sought marriage alliances with the Old World and pursued culture by bringing the French Middle Ages or Tudor England architecturally to their Rhode Island estates or New York City palaces. But they were conscious that they still lacked a sense of ideological security that European aristocrats possessed as a birthright. The spirit of Teutonic, and especially Anglo-Saxon, solidarity filled some of the needs of an insecure upper class. Although England may have remained a commercial and political rival, there was a surge of appreciation for the kinship of the two peoples that would account for the greatness of both.

The scholar-diplomats George Bancroft and John Lothrop Motley had commented earlier on the role that racial stock had in assuring a nation's greatness. Both had been students in Germany. Granting his distaste for some aspects of Prussian militarism, Bancroft claimed that it would be the instrument to win "more rapidly liberty in Europe than all that the Kossuths, Garibaldis, and Mazzinis could effect in half a century." Motley celebrated Teutonic virtues by noting that Holland's struggle with Spain in the sixteenth century "must have particular interest, for it is a portion of the records of the Anglo-Saxon race—essentially the same, whether in Friesland, England, or Massachusetts." Another diplomat, James Russell Lowell, more poet than scholar, brought the good news to England that "the duty which has been laid upon the English-speaking races, so far as we can discover, has been to carry over the great lessons of liberty combined with order. That is the great secret of civilization." In a major disquisition on democracy in 1884, Lowell had spoken of the problems that Americans encountered with the irresponsible masses in the large cities that were composed of peoples of inferior stock. America's success in overcoming these obstacles to become a great democracy could be traced to the fact that "the acorn from which it sprang was ripened on the British oak."

The only trouble with these perorations was the implication of a junior partnership for America in the racial connection. This became increasingly unacceptable to nationalists. A colonial relationship with even the best of the Old World did not fit America's self-image by the time the nineteenth century ended. America would be superior to Britain even in racism. Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana pointed out to the Senate that "God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration…. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world."

For those who might not heed a divine appeal, the mandate of social Darwinism brought the same message. The transfer of Darwinian principles from a struggle among species for survival to a competition among nations moved the naturalist's theory of evolution from biology to sociology and international relations almost from the moment of its conception. Presumably the laws of nature justified power in the hands of the fittest; and in the late nineteenth century the arena for the display of national superiority lay in carving out colonial empires in Asia and Africa. For the United States to stand by and remove itself from this competition would be an admission of inferiority. Since the American continent was filled, expansion would have to take place overseas. The alternative would be both a sapping of national strength and increasing advantage to European competitors in the Darwinian struggle for greatness.

The naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, more than any other figure, tied together the strains of racial pride and Darwinian sanctions with the economic significance of the acquisition of colonies. Such an undertaking would solve the problems of surplus goods flowing from what appeared, after the Panic of 1893, to be an overdeveloped economic plant. It would also satisfy the defense needs of the nation, through a navy protecting routes to new colonies. Lastly, it would address the imperative of carrying the blessings of American civilization abroad.

Indeed, the American mission was ultimately the most important rationalization for imperial control. The Reverend Josiah Strong, secretary of the Evangelical Alliance and a powerful publicist for expansion, exhorted Americans to respect their sacred trust by bestowing their privileges upon other sectors of humanity. After all, "they are not proprietors, apportioning their own, but simply trustees or managers of God's property…. Our plea is not America for America's sake," he wrote in Our Country (1885), "but America for the world's sake." It is this eleemosynary spirit that gave meaning to President William McKinley's reluctance to leave the Philippines under Spanish control or under its own governance. In confessing his agony over the decision to annex the islands, he finally realized, "there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died."

The gulf between McKinley's understanding of America's mission and those of the French, British, Germans, and Russians was not as wide as the gulf between McKinley's or Theodore Roosevelt's conception of mission and that of Jefferson or John Quincy Adams. The Monroe Doctrine had made it clear that America was to serve as a model for others to emulate, but not as an instrument to involve itself in the afflictions of the less fortunate. America's own system could only be corrupted by such involvement. So Adams concluded when he counseled President James Monroe not to intervene against Turkey on behalf of the admired Greek revolutionaries. But by the end of the century the combination of racial pretensions, Darwinian impulses, and putative economic imperatives had broken one great barrier of isolationism. They affected more than the special interests of navalists, businessmen, or missionaries. Even so sensitive a scholar as Frederick Jackson Turner found virtue in overseas expansion. He "rowed with the tide of the new nationalism," Ralph Gabriel noted in his Course of American Democratic Thought, at least for a while, as he pondered the effect of the passing of the frontier upon American democracy. It was hoped that settlement of Hawaii and the Philippines could have the same beneficial results for democracy as the settlement of Ohio and Iowa had in the past.

For Turner and for most Americans, the new manifest destiny was a mistake, an aberration of American tradition. In the wake of Filipino resistance to American occupation in 1899, William Jennings Bryan observed, "'Destiny' was not as manifest as it was a few weeks ago." Most American leaders were slower to realize this than Bryan had been. The tide of empire finally receded, but not before it had left a permanent imprint on the fabric of American nationalism, or at least had deepened indentations that had always been there. The country came to recognize the incompatibility between the governance of Iowa and the governance of the Philippines; the former was based on self-government and eventual state-hood, the latter, on imperial control over unassimilable peoples. The result was the gradual disengagement from the imperial plans of 1900, and ultimate independence for those islands.

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