The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy

By Thomas A. Bailey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
THE MIASMA OF MANIFEST DESTINY

"If there be one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest."--THOMAS JEFFERSON, 1791


1

THE AMERICAN PEOPLE were ardent expansionists for roughly the first three hundred years of their existence. They kept moving in inexorable stages, and in ever widening circles, to the richer lands beyond the sunset, until by the end of the nineteenth century they had taken up the last large tracts of desirable free soil. This magnificent march of empire was primarily a domestic phenomenon, but where it encroached on the preserves of other peoples, and led to diplomatic dealings or even war, it became an issue in foreign affairs.

The American birth certificate--the treaty of 1783 with England--gave us a tremendous initial endowment, embracing roughly the present United States east of the Mississippi, except for east and west Florida. We had not even begun to fill up this princely domain when in 1803 a still-smiling Providence dumped the Louisiana Purchase into our laps, thereby spreading the Land of the Free to the Rockies, and more than doubling the original bequest. We now had the heartland of the richest valley on the face of the globe, and its vast resources and fertile plains gave promise of eventual world dominance.

Most of the additional domain that we acquired came in response to existing strategic demands or future territorial needs, and as a consequence our population never really caught up with the land, or at least did not do so until quite recent times. This explains why we have never been swayed by the living-room arguments of Germany, Italy, and Japan; and why we have branded as incorrigibly quarrelsome the nations of crowded continents. The Daniel Boones, who became restless when they saw a neighbor's smoke a dozen miles away, have never realized that the twenty or so different nationalities of Europe, with scores of different languages and dialects, and with hundreds of hereditary hates, are jammed into a veritable cockpit, where in certain areas the question is not so much living room as elbow room.

The great chunks of the continent that we tore off came to us in response to varied urges. Where we needed to fulfill our "physiographic destiny"-- as in east Florida and west Florida--we seized the territory or purchased it with more than a show of the mailed fist. Where we needed the area for strategic purposes--as was true of Louisiana, the Gadsden Purchase, the Canal Zone, and the Virgin Islands--we acquired it by purchase or lease,

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