Two periods of intense involvement in foreign affairs have marked the history of the United States: the nation-forming period, when the new Republic sought to register its independence while the world was being shaken by the mortal conflict of the great powers of the time, France and Great Britain; and the period beginning with World War II, when the United States itself became the world's greatest power. A more striking contrast between two eras could scarcely be imagined, though the simple substitution of the roles of all the powers involved is a start.
In addition to the irrelevance of affairs out-side of North America to the growth of the United States during the nineteenth century, those who would probe the sources of national action are faced with another problem: how to detect and analyze possible connections between domestic influences and foreign policy actions. It is probably safe to say of this period, however, that presidents generally felt little need of advice on foreign affairs except from their secretaries of state, and sometimes not even from them.
Some presidents, such as James Madison, acted as their own foreign ministers. Deprived by Senate hostility of his first choice for secretary of state, the able Albert Gallatin, Madison was forced to appoint the incompetent Robert Smith and for a time even found it necessary to rewrite Smith's dispatches. Historians still debate the influence on Madison in 1812 of such war hawks as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Felix Grundy; but Madison's most perceptive and thorough biographer, Irving Brant, believes that the president reached his own decisions.
President James Monroe, who had been secretary of state under Madison, relied almost exclusively on Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, except for the president's questions to his Virginia friends and predecessors, Jefferson and Madison, during the formulation of what became the Monroe Doctrine. Indeed, Adams, generally recognized as the greatest of all American secretaries of state, was responsible for the two major foreign policy achievements of the Monroe administration. It was Adams who negotiated the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 (Adams-Onís Treaty) by which the United States not only acquired Florida but also laid claim to the Oregon territory. And it was Adams who persuaded the president and the cabinet to reject a British offer and instead have the United States alone declare itself the protector of the New World against European interference, and thus was responsible for the doctrine that bore Monroe's name.
President James K. Polk evidently had imbibed the elixir of "manifest destiny" long before John O'Sullivan coined the phrase in an editorial in the Democratic Review (1845). The idea of westward expansion was at least as American as the Declaration of Independence—it had been a fact since 1607—but the war with Mexico to advance it was mostly the president's idea. The accusation "Mr. Polk's war" was undoubtedly accurate.
The Civil War marked an end and a beginning to many things in America, but neither an end nor a beginning to expansionism. William H. Seward, secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, had in the 1840s believed that "our population is destined to roll its resistless waves to the icy barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific." Thus he welcomed the suggestion that Russia might be willing to sell Alaska. Presented with an opportunity to expand to "the icy barriers of the north," ostensibly to guarantee Alaskan fishing rights and to repay Russian Unionist sympathy during the war, Seward rushed through a treaty to purchase Alaska in 1867.