The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad

By Walter Lafeber | Go to book overview

1
The Roots of American Foreign Policy
(1492-1789)

THE BEGINNINGS: GOLD, GOD, AND PARADISE

William Seward, a fascinating scholar and New York backroom politician as well as Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state during the Civil War, once called the story of American development "the most important secular event in the history of the human race." 1 Seward might well have been correct. Americans, however, have viewed their secular, or more earthly, successes (such as making money) as part of a higher purpose. This view goes back to the origins of their country. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama needed few words to explain why a new world was discovered in the late fifteenth century: "We come in search of Christians and spices."

Mission and money or, as some historians prefer to phrase it, idealism and self-interest have for nearly five hundred years been the reasons Americans have given for their successes. From their beginnings, they have justified developing a continent and then much of the globe simply by saying they were spreading the principles of civilization as well as making profit. They have had no problem seeing their prosperity—indeed, their rise from a sparsely settled continent to the world's superpower—as part of a Higher Purpose or, as it was known during much of their history, a Manifest Destiny.

The most spectacular chance taker of his time said it directly. "Gold is most excellent, Gold is treasure," Christopher Columbus observed,

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