Sunday, November 23, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part III

This is the third installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

Chapter 3 covers 1801 through 1815, arguably the most desperate time in American foreign policy history. The U.S. was trying to assert its sovereignty with Europe while those nations were fighting the Napoleonic Wars. To say it didn't go well is an understatement. The U.S. survived and left the period with a new nationalistic fervor. But the nation could easily have fallen apart.

Herring really gives it to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He clearly considers the two of them complete disasters when it comes to foreign policy. Although I tend to be defensive of the Democratic-Republicans, at least when compared to the Federalists, it's hard to argue with him here. Neither of them were effective presidents. For all their achievements outside the presidency, neither seem particularly suited to the office. Certainly, they fumbled around in their dealings with Europe, started an unpopular war, and nearly saw the nation collapse around them.

If anything, Madison and especially Jefferson were even more belligerent and demanding of Europe than Washington, Hamilton, and Adams had been. Jefferson refused to compromise with the British over maritime issues. Even though such compromises had been hard on American pride before 1801, they had kept relative peace with the English. Not any more. Jefferson's own hatred of the English made compromise with them almost impossible.

The trickiest issue was impressment. No one comes out of this fight looking good. The Americans were openly recruiting British sailors to desert. Meanwhile, if the British had simply treated their sailors like human beings, they wouldn't have had these problems. The British certainly had no right to stop and search American ships and were completely wrong in the Chesapeake incident, when the HMS Leopard fired upon the USS Chesapeake in 1807.

Knowing that the U.S. could not fight the British, Jefferson enacted his famous Embargo of 1808, stopping all trade with both France and Britain. Typical of the overinflated sense of self-importance that most Americans felt in the nation's early years, Jefferson actually thought the Europeans would care. He thought they could not survive without American products. The French were completely indifferent to the embargo while the economic damage done to Britain was slight. Jefferson never explained to the American people his reasons for the Embargo, and it proved incredibly unpopular, especially in New England. In response, New Englanders just smuggled their goods to British traders. The U.S. enforcement agents could do almost nothing.

In 1809, James Madison took over. On the same day, Jefferson's Embargo ended. But Madison's handling of the British didn't go any better. Like Jefferson, Madison was unwilling to compromise with the British, particularly on issues of neutral rights. The British were contemptuous of neutral rights throughout the Atlantic during these years. Fighting for their lives against Napoleon, the English saw anyone helping the French as their enemy. Harassing American shipping was bad enough, but as Herring points out, the British actually bombed Copenhagen and confiscated Danish ships when that nation pressed for neutral rights. Given how little anyone respected the United States in 1810, no one was going to give the U.S. any quarter on these issues.

By 1812, war was on the immediate horizon. Pushed by the War Hawks, a group of western politicians who wanted to expand America's borders, Madison slowly moved toward conflict. However, the war would prove extremely unpopular in New England, eventually leading to the Hartford Convention of 1814, which saw some Federalist leaders advocating secession. The War of 1812 was fought without popular support, with a dithering president in charge, and with the nation's capital burned to the ground.

The U.S. could have easily collapsed by 1814. Yet once again, the nation survived through a combination of excellent diplomats (Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and Albert Gallatin) and Europeans simply wanting to be rid of an American distraction so they could kill each other. The War of 1812 ended early in 1815 with a general declaration of status quo ante bellum. Very little was decided. The British agreed to stop fighting because it seemed the wars in Europe were starting up again. This may have proven a misstep on their fault because by end of 1815, Europe was at peace. After the war though, the conditions leading to the War of 1812 dissipated, particularly neutral rights and impressment. Eventually, the British changed a lot of their policies as the mercantilist system faded. The days of pre-modern warfare were almost over. The United States survived and became stronger with each passing day. They remained as obnoxious and belligerent toward other nations as ever.

I am surprised Herring doesn't focus on the Battle of New Orleans more. While militarily irrelevant because the war was already over, Jackson's victory in Louisiana in January 1815 gave Americans a big shot in the arm and created national pride that led to the rise in American nationalism that would lead to Manifest Destiny, the Mexican War, and the expansion of the nation west.

The other major theme of the chapter is America's expansion into the West. Reading about Jefferson's expansionist policies, I was again reminded of my argument that the Revolution was maybe not such a good thing. Not only did Jefferson run roughshod over Indian tribes, but he also bullied the Europeans in Louisiana and Florida, laying claim to lands that the U.S. had no legitimate right to. Herring argues that while Jefferson claimed he held to principles of liberty, his lust for land and the expansion of the American republic led him to act in overtly expansionist ways to the nations that bordered the United States. Both Jefferson and Madison wanted to take Florida from the Spanish. The government encouraged American settlers in Florida to be prepared in case Spanish authority collapsed, but were embarrassed when those settlers went ahead and declared an independent republic of West Florida and then requested annexation to the United States.

Of course, the most prominent accomplishment of the Jefferson Administration was the Louisiana Purchase. Again, the U.S. gained from Europe's struggles, this time the Haitian Rebellion, which convinced Napoleon to dump Louisiana and end his dreams of restoring the French empire in the Americas. Again, this was a disaster for the Indians. The Lewis & Clark Expedition paved the way for American power throughout the continent. By 1815, with William Henry Harrison's win at Tippecanoe in 1811, the killing of Tecumseh in 1813, Andrew Jackson's brutal crushing of the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend in 1814, and end of the War of 1812, the fate of Indians east of the Mississippi River was sealed. Americans rapidly expanded into their lands after 1815 and the long horrible nineteenth century for Indians was in full effect.

Jefferson also deserves to be castigated for his treatment of Haiti. Jefferson's racism and fear of slave revolts easily outweighed his ideas of liberty and justice. Jefferson labeled the Haitian rebels "cannibals." He hoped to undermine the slave revolt and agreed to support French efforts to retake the colony, though he later reneged on his promises to Napoleon. Although Haiti declared itself a nation in 1804, the United States did not recognize it as such until Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The Haitian freedom movement was used as an argument against emancipation of the slaves. Combined with the cotton gin and available land in the West, the emancipatory rhetoric of the Revolutionary quickly died. Slavery and white supremacy became the ideology of much of the nation. U.S. hostility to Haiti also helped doom that nation to the endemic poverty and violence it still faces today.

All of this reminds me of a point I forgot to make last week, but is still relevant here. I think you can make a strong argument for the Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance as a key foundational document of American foreign policy history. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, I believe in a wide definition of the term "foreign relations." One of the most important and understudied angles to this is environmental issues. The Northwest Ordinance placed the grid on the Old Northwest without any local knowledge of the land. While the act made splitting up the land easier from the perspective of the government, it devalued conditions on the ground. Ecology, waterways, soil--none of this mattered.

By the late 19th century, the U.S. was using the grid around the world to gain control of land for its own use and pushing the idea to governments as way to control land and people. Like in the Old Northwest, it devalued local knowledge. Why understand the land when you can grid it on a map? From the expansion of American forestry around the Pacific World to banana plantations in Honduras to mining operations in South America, the United States used the grid pioneered in the Northwest Ordinance to consolidate the power of its capitalist system.

I don't want to overargue this point. The U.S. was hardly the only western nation to use the grid--Britain and France were equal pioneers. If the U.S. had organized the Old Northwest in a more ecologically friendly way, the grid probably would have used in other ways. And certainly our foreign environmental policies have been influenced by ideas other than the grid and simplification. Nonetheless, I'd like to nominate the Northwest Ordinance as a core document of foreign policy for the groundwork it laid in the abstraction of nature and for the emphasis it placed on simplicity over understanding, central themes in the history of our environmental foreign policy.