Thomas Hietala, Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire, 1985

There is no dearth of polemics decrying American “empire” and the ideas facilitating it. Unfortunately, many of these works are ill-informed, poorly argued, and lack historical insight. Thomas Hietala’s Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire, originally published in 1985 and reprinted by Cornell University Press in 2003, distinguishes itself with its penetrating analysis and commodious primary research. Placing itself firmly in the revisionist camp, Manifest Design looks at the political economy of American expansion in the 1840s.

The bulk of Hietala’s book focuses on the debate over the annexation of Texas. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the U.S. produced cotton and sugar more cheaply than India, thus leading Britain to view the abolition of slavery as making their empire less competitive. Citing Duff Green and Abel Parker Upshur’s arguments, Hietala makes note of the Democrats’ trepidation over Britain’s push for abolition in Texas. An independent, free-soil Texas, these Democrats contended, would be “a constant threat to the south” and lead to abolition in all of North America. Thus, Calhoun argued, a slave-free North America “would transfer the production of cotton, rice, and sugar…to [Britain’s] colonial possessions and would consummate the system of commercial monopoly, which she has been so long and systematically pursuing.” (p. 23) Green was incapable of seeing abolition in any other light, countering abolitionists by proclaiming, “sympathy for the black man is but a pretence for plundering and oppressing the white.” (p. 21)

Although concern about trade and competition with Britain were important, Hietala makes special note of Mississippi Senator Robert J. Walker’s twenty-six page essay on slavery and the annexation of Texas. Critical to Walker’s argument was the dubious Census of 1840, which “proved” that free blacks were more prone to “physical infirmities, mental illness, pauperism, and crime,” whereas as southern slaves, though still inferior people, more easily avoided these vices. In short, “freedom degenerated blacks, whereas slavery uplifted them.” (p. 28) Walker acknowledged that ultimately the problems the country faced were not because of slavery per se, but rather because of morally deprived black people. Texas provided salvation for the nation. Walker’s main argument was that acquiring Texas would give black people, free or slave, a place to go and then eventually could be a funnel through which they could diffuse throughout Mexico, and Central and South America. In short, Texas was a way to preserve slavery in the short run, and part of the long-term hope to rid the United States of black people.

There were, however, anti-slavery annexationists. Reflecting logic not unlike Walker’s, Senator James Buchanan argued that the annexation of Texas would allow Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and other states to emancipate their slaves so that they could move to Texas since the North did not care for free blacks. For Buchanan and his ilk, Texas was the only hope for the eventual demise of slavery in the United States. Both abolitionists and those for preserving slavery agreed that without ridding itself of its black population, the United States could expect serious racial conflict in the foreseeable future.

Despite the importance of race and slavery in the debate over the annexation of Texas, Hietala puts special emphasis on the economic motives for annexation. John Tyler was well aware that the acquisition of Texas would give the United States a virtually monopoly on cotton. Tyler contended that the “value of virtual monopoly of the cotton plant…[is] a monopoly [with] more potential in the affairs of the world than millions of armed men.” (p. 68) Indeed, many annexationists argued that a U.S. monopoly of cotton would allow it to take Oregon from Britain. To this end, Samuel Gordon argued to the House of Representatives that if the U.S. obtained Texas, then the possibility of Britain going to war over Oregon would be nil since they would be dependent on “uninterrupted relations in commerce with the United States.” (p. 76)

Those arguing for annexation, Hietala contends, were making the familiar argument that the U.S. could gain security through expansion. The annexation of Texas assuaged fears of domestic racial strife and America’s economic competition with Britain. Likewise, the acquisition of Oregon and California was in part seen as a means to access Asian markets. Hietala makes a perceptive point in noting that the revisionist observation about domestic factors influencing U.S. foreign policy in the 1890s had a precedent in the 1840s.

Hietala fleshes out this argument forcefully in chapter four of his book entitled, “Jefferson Redivivus: The Perils of Modernization.” Of great concern to many southern democrats were rapid industrialization and the creation of a large working class. John O’Sullivan put it bluntly when he argued that industrialization and modernization, favored by the Whigs, would create a class of white wage servitude. Not unsurprisingly, O’Sullivan believed that southern slaves were “healthier and happier than British workers.” British industrialization in fact was the model antithesis to what the U.S. should become. The annexationist formula was straightforward: expansion was a “guarantee against the dangers of industrialization, urbanization, and class polarization.” (p. 101) The increase of the availability of land (and, thus, the lowering of the price of land) would increase labor wages “by drawing workers away from industrial centers…and by creating a scarcity of workers there.” (p. 107) In short, the annexationists believed that expansion was the answer to many of the most pertinent domestic problems.

Accordingly, Tyler and Polk recognized trade as the driving force of the economy. Trade could not be effective without a strong Navy. Hietala best encapsulates how “domestic economic considerations significantly affected national ‘defense’ policies” in noting that the drive to increase Navy appropriations in the early and mid-1840s was in large part due to the view that commerce needed military protection. For example, in an appeal for additional funding, Navy Secretary Abel Upshur argued that cotton and grain exports passing through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Florida could be attacked easily. As such, Hietala argues, “Naval appropriations can be viewed as a form of federal assistance to farmers, planters, and merchants who needed foreign markets.” (p. 114) The point to take away from all this is that the fear of industrialization made expansion, even at the risk of war, all the more crucial. The alternative offered by expansionists was an economy based on agricultural trade, which in turn also necessitated military defense.

The main thesis of Hietala’s book is that the notion of manifest destiny is entirely apocryphal. This is not exactly a novel conclusion, but an important one nonetheless. Manifest Design must be read in the context of the Cold War. Substantial sections of the book’s penultimate and concluding chapters are dedicated to criticizing the historiography of the subject produced since 1945. Hietala cites historians such as C. Vann Woodward, Samuel Flagg Bemis, George Kennan, Ralph Henry Gabriel, Thomas A. Bailey, Norman Graebner, and Robert H. Ferrell that look at 19th Century U.S. diplomatic history as a simpler time of peaceful engagement with other nations and peoples, and as a time of fundamental discontinuity with the 20th Century. Although today even right-wing historians such as Robert Kagan fully embrace the thesis that the U.S. has always been an aggressive, expansionist nation, this was not the consensus at the time of Manifest Design’s publication.

America’s westward expansion was not part of some supernatural destiny. Rather, America’s continental empire was one of design, motivated by fears (real and imagined), perceived economic opportunities, and a quest for finding easy solutions abroad to domestic problems. The final borders of the United States were by no means easily anticipated. In fact, Hietala makes special note of Polk’s desire to conquer the Yuchatan and Cuba. Lastly, Hietala notes that nearly all of the expansionists’ arguments turned out to be wrong in the long run:

“The expansionists became victims of their own propaganda. Expansionism, touted as the panacea for several perils threatening the nation, actually created as many problems as it solved. The annexation of Texas did not siphon off large numbers of southern slaves, nor did it alleviate the North’s racial difficulties—one of the worst disappointments for the extreme Negrophobes across the nation. The Asian market never met the Democrats’ high expectations. The acquisition of the continental empire failed to prevent rapid industrialization and urbanization in the East. After the Civil War, congestion increased in northern cities as a distinct working class crowded into the rapidly growing number of shops and factories, and hardship and economic dislocations became a recurring reality of both city and country life during the closing decades of the century. The expansionists did not attain a homogenous nation, either: blacks remained in the United States after emancipation, Native Americans survived, and immigration from central and southern Europe further diversified the population.” (p. 253)

The expansionists were not only wrong about the problems expansion would solve, they also refuted their own claims to American exceptionalism through their own actions.

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