Sunday, December 07, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part V

This is the fifth 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.

This week, we are reviewing Herring's chapter that covers the years between 1837 and 1861. I was loaded for bear before I read this, but found myself rather unmoved by the chapter. It is a very solid overview of Manifest Destiny, the Oregon question, the Mexican War, and how U.S. foreign policy was dominated by the slavery question in the 1850s.

I think my lack of passion about this chapter has little to do with Herring. Rather, the Mexican War is so discredited today (well, except in Texas), that's it is hard to get worked up about it. It's really one of the low points in American history. James Polk essentially started the war by forcing Mexico into a corner and then wanted to punish them severely after they resisted. It was a brutal war with some horrific atrocities on the American side. It was our first real conflict with a nation of what is today called the developing world and in many ways it set the tone--arrogance, racism, and domination ruled the day.

I do like Herring's exploration of our increased presence in the Pacific. I find the burgeoning Pacific World of the late 18th and 19th centuries pretty interesting and I thought Herring's discussions of early American interactions with Hawaii, Japan, and China both complete and satisfying. In particular, the machinations of missionaries in Hawaii, slowly bringing the islands into our orbit, is a fascinating if disturbing story. Though of course, if the British had taken over Hawaii instead, I'm not sure the story would have ended any happier for the native peoples of the islands.

It's pointless to separate slavery from any part of U.S. history in the 1840s and 1850s, but I wonder what U.S. expansionism would have looked like if the issue could have been swept under the rug a bit longer. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 and the Oregon settlement of 1846 basically ended any possibility of U.S. expansion into Canada. Would we have taken Cuba from the Spanish? Perhaps the nation as a whole could have supported some of the filibustering expeditions into Central America? I don't really think so, but it's remarkable how expansionistic the nation remained in the 1850s but how unsuccessful we were in fulfilling our insatiable desires. We had pretty much fulfilled the idea of Manifest Destiny. We extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific and were rapidly settling the land in between. The U.S. had to move away from physical to economic expansion, something they would do with aplomb after the Civil War.