Manifest destiny's hangover: Congress confronts territorial expansion and martial masculinity in the 1850s

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How much land is too much land? In the course of a short but devastating war in the late 1840s, Mexico lost about half her territory to the United States. One might imagine that the Mexican Cession, over half a million square miles of land, would satisfy Americans and would satiate the seemingly unquenchable expansionist desire that had governed American international relations since at least the 1830s. How after dismembering Mexico in 1848, and becoming a continental nation, could anyone expect, demand even, that the United States grow yet larger? This seems like a particularly good question given the explosive power of those newly acquired territories, and the issue of slavery in them, to tear the nation in two. The fact that the territorial growth of the United States was more or less complete in 1848 (with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii) had led most historians to accept what appears to be obvious, that the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the belief that God has singled out the United States to continue growing, spreading her superior social, economic, and political forms to less fortunate peoples in the Western Hemisphere, was fulWlled in 1848 with the Mexican Cession. But such a view is incorrect. Just because the United States failed to gain much more territory in the 1850s, and territorial expansion was the number one factor exacerbating the sectional crisis, does not mean Americans did not try, very hard, to gain more land in the 1850s. Many Americans were as passionate in the 1850s as they had ever been to gain more lands. They believed that America's Manifest Destiny was yet to be fulWlled, and they envisioned the United States not as a continental nation but a hemispheric one, spreading from an annexed Canada in the North, to an annexed Central America and Caribbean, and possibly even an annexed South America. As Texas senator Sam Houston proudly proclaimed in 1848, "the people whom God has placed here in this land," must "spread, prevail and pervade throughout the whole rich empire of this great hemisphere."1 Senator Stephen Russell Mallory, Democrat of Florida, asserted in 1859 that it was "no more possible for this country to pause in its career than it is for the free and untrammeled eagle to cease to soar," and that "at our present rate of progress this vast continent, every inch of it, must soon be ours."2 Nor would the continents themselves limit the spread of the United States. When rumor reached Congress in 1852 that Kamehameha III, king of independent Hawaii, had approached a U.S. diplomat about forming a tighter alliance with the United States, the Senate twice requested information from President Millard Fillmore and twice the Senate was denied. In response, California Democrat Joseph McCorkle demanded the immediate annexation of the islands in an inXammatory congressional speech in August 1852. The following year, after more rumors, congressmen again spoke in favor of annexing the islands.3 Why this lust for territory? There were cultural factors at work in the 1850s that drove this ongoing and destructive impulse to ever expand the territorial boundaries of the United States. As economic changes led to increasing economic inequality, as Irish immigrants poured into the country in the potato famine years, as middle-class women began, through the Woman's Rights movement and the emerging ideology known as domesticity, to assert their authority both within and outside the home, norms and practices of manhood in American shifted in response, ultimately coalescing into two competing ideals of white masculinity. Two visions of proper manhood, restrained and martial, battled for supremacy during this period, competing, in part, over how large the nation should be, and what the right way was to go about gaining new territories.4 Restrained men, who understood their virtue as men in terms of their business success, family life, and Christian behavior, argued that the United States was plenty large enough and should expand its reach around the globe through commercial treaties and missionary activities. Martial men, on the other hand, largely understood their virtue as men through their ability to dominate others. They were empowered by the lesson of the U.S.-Mexico War, that Americans had the right to take, through force, what should rightfully be theirs. If the inferior peoples of Latin America would not sell their lands to us, then we should take them. It was because of this belief that the post-Mexican War years saw a rash of mercenary activities by American men operating without governmental sanction, men who, at the time, were known as Wlibusters. Filibusters repeatedly and unsuccessfully targeted Mexico, Central America, and Cuba in the 1850s, and their actions, however illegal, and in our eyes immoral, were upheld by martial men as right and just. Ultimately, although the martial men lost out, in that they managed to annex almost none of the lands they desperately wanted, their vision of violence as a solution to conXict won the day when sectional diVerences exploded into civil war in 1861. In other words, martial manhood was ascendant during the 1850s, and one issue it thrived on was territorial expansion. These two visions of manhood, and of America's place in the world, were not held and espoused only by marginal characters; they are clearly evident in virtually every national debate over expansionism from the 1850s, expressed clearly and with conviction by members of Congress. Democratic senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, for example, took an extreme martial position when he argued in 1848 in favor of taking all of Mexico as spoils of war. He compared the occupying American army in Mexico to the "children of Israel," who "under the direction of Jehovah himself, acquired what was deemed a good and valid title to all the territory included in the promised land, by force of arms alone." By virtue of our strength we had won the right to take as much of Mexico as we could grasp.5 Whig congressman Alexander Stephens of Georgia expressed the restrained position when he condemned the U.S.-Mexico war as the self-indulgent exercise of antiquated forms of aggression. He declared the war to be "downward progress. It is a progress of party-of excitement-of lust of power-a spirit of war- Aggression-violence and licentiousness. It is a progress which, if indulged in, would soon sweep over all law, all order, and the Constitution itself." Note that Stephens was right when he predicted that this "spirit of war" and "aggression" would ultimately "sweep over all law, all order, and the Constitution itself." But Stephens would hardly be an objective bystander when that day came. He was the vice president of the Confederacy.6 In sum, martial men argued that America, and American men, proved that they were great by physically dominating others, as the United States had dominated Mexico. Restrained men argued that the United States and American men proved that they were great by restraining their violent impulses, focusing on business (or commercial growth) and setting an example of Christian forbearance for others to emulate. Lust for new territory did not dissipate, because it served so many purposes for so many Americans. It provided the Democratic Party with a platform that they believed could hold their fracturing coalition together, it oVered the possibilities of new lands to working men and their allies who were being marginalized in the industrializing economy, and it stroked the egos of Americans who understood their worth and power in terms of their ability to dominate others. Territorial expansionism was appealing but dangerous, a fact that congressmen recognized at the time. Proexpansionists, and even some antiexpansionists understood that their positions could very well lead to civil war. Congressmen knew how poisonous the issue of territorial growth was during the 1850s, particularly after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act opened up Kansas to slavery, overturning the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and provoking intense wrath among northerners. Congressional debates over new territories frequently devolved into threats of secession after the passage of this act. But some congressmen, and their constituents, found territorial acquisition too addictive to lay aside, regardless of the consequences. This chapter will consider congressional responses to three of the most signiWcant expansionist episodes of the 1850s, the period of Manifest Destiny's hangover, in order to explore how Congress dealt with the twin problems of territorial expansion and the rise of martial manhood. This essay will Wrst examine the controversy that led to the Gadsden Purchase of 1853- 1854 and resulted in the only addition of new territory during the decade. It will then move into the Caribbean and consider the many attempts to gain Cuba over the course of the decade, and then shift to Central America, in order to explore the congressional debate in 1857 over William Walker, the most famous of the Wlibusters and one-time president and dictator of Nicaragua. This organization, while not precisely chronological, has the virtue of exploring increasingly violent methods of territorial acquisition, from a legal treaty, to negotiation backed up with a clear threat of violence, and Wnally outright Wlibustering or piracy. Despite the obvious problems with further territorial growth in the 1850s, many in Congress were still passionately devoted to the continued growth of the United States, even through force of arms. As a result, territorial expansionism was central to the crisis of the 1850s.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCongress and the Crisis of the 1850s
PublisherOhio University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9780821419779
StatePublished - 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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