Fighting for America: The Struggle for Mastery in North America, 1519-1871

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Prize winning author Jeremy Black traces the competition for control of North America from the landing of Spanish troops under Hernn Corts in modern Mexico in 1519 to 1871 when, with the Treaty of Washington and the withdrawal of most British garrisons, Britain accepted American mastery in North America. In this wide-ranging narrative, Black makes clear that the process by which America gained supremacy was far from inevitable. The story Black tells is one of conflict, diplomacy, geopolitics, and politics. The eventual result was the creation of a United States of America that stretched from Atlantic to Pacific and dominated North America. The gradual withdrawal of France and Spain, the British accommodation to the expanding U.S. reality, the impact of the American Civil War, and the subjugation of Native peoples, are all carefully drawn out. Black emphasizes contingency not Manifest Destiny, and reconceptualizes American exceptionalism to take note of the pressures and impact of international competition.

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1 Sixteenth-Century Background

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North America was created as a geopolitical issue by Europeans. Such a stark remark is subject to criticism on the grounds of Eurocentricity, and certainly risks underplaying the vitality of Native American states and peoples, let alone the extent to which the overwhelming majority of those who lived in North America in 1700 still had their origins in the Americas, with a more distant source in those who had once crossed from Asia across a Bering Strait land bridge. Yet, once in the Americas, these peoples had not interacted with the outer world. Instead, they had followed their own course of development, with distinctive outcomes in terms of religions, technological bases, and military methods. Exceptionalism is an overused concept, but, if the Americas were exceptional, in the sense of different, then this was far more the case in 1450 than in 1870.

Crucially, the Americas did not see long-range maritime activity, and certainly not activity comparable to some of the Pacific peoples, or Indian Ocean, East Asian, and European traders and states. Instead, American states were centered inland, as with the Aztec and Inca empires or the less-famous North American peoples that left extensive settlements reflecting a considerable degree of organization, notably in the Mississippi Valley, such as Cahokia. The same was true of areas of dense village settlement as in Huronia, the region of Huron settlement north of Lake Ontario where the results of archaeological work do not challenge Samuel de Champlain’s estimate of a population of about 30,000 in 1615.

 

2 Creating New Frontiers 1600–74

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Much of the seventeenth century was not a great age of European expansion, and certainly did not compare with that seen in the first seventy years of the sixteenth century. Indeed, there were some important European failures in the seventeenth century, with bases lost, including Fort Zeelandia (on Taiwan), Candia (Crete), Tangier, Albazin (in the Amur valley), and Mombasa, by the Dutch, Venetians, English, Russians, and Portuguese respectively, and with the Portuguese unsuccessful in the Bay of Bengal and the Zambezi Valley. In South America, expansion was limited, and notably so in the case of the southern border of Spanish expansion in Chile. From 1683, a very different overall impression was to be created when the disastrous failure of the Turkish siege of Vienna was followed by major inroads into the Turkish Empire. However, prior to that, the two major areas of European expansion in the seventeenth century, European understood as Christian European, were Siberia and North America. Of the two, the former was the most impressive in scale and provides an instructive comparison for activity in North America. The Russians expanded from the 1580s through the Urals and across Siberia, reaching the Pacific in the 1630s, a formidable distance greater than that of the Europeans in North America, either in that period or, indeed, in total by 1846 when America stretched to the Pacific.

 

3 Britain, France, and the Natives 1674–1715

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By 1715, the pattern of Anglo-French confrontation down to eventual British success in 1760 had been fairly clearly set. French North America was heavily outnumbered in terms of settlers, while its military resources were also weaker. As a result, French success against the British in the Yorktown campaign of 1781 was to be as part of a coalition, with the American Patriots providing crucial troops and bases. In contrast, British efforts in earlier conflicts had drawn on more numerous settlers as well as on regular forces sent from Britain. The willingness of the British to deploy a considerable force in an (unsuccessful) amphibious attempt to capture Quebec in 17111 prefigured the more consistent attempt on French North America that was to be considered in 1746–47 and to be pursued in 1757–60, and ultimately to total success as far as French Canada was concerned.

The 1711 attempt, in turn, was the latest stage in a series of British attempts mounted on Canada in the 1690s and 1700s,2 a series that had begun in the 1620s: Quebec had been captured in 1629, only to be returned in 1632 as part of the peace settlement. These attempts did not succeed insofar as the St. Lawrence center of French power was at issue, but the situation was very different in Nova Scotia. The capture of French positions there, notably Port Royal in 1690 and 1710, did not end the question of its future, as the British were to become concerned about the position of the Acadians (French settlers) and of the local Native Americans. However, this capture altered the strategic situation for Canada by greatly lessening the British task in future conflicts and also by providing bases for future operations against Canada. The latter advantage was not fully realized until the development of the fortress-port of Halifax, but the first advantage was already apparent by the time of the next conflict in the 1740s.

 

4 Multiple Currents 1715–53

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The success we met with in trade was principally owing to the settlement and improvement of our colonies which are now become a fountain of wealth and the only branch of commerce, except that with Portugal, which gives a balance in favour of the British nation.

Old England, 18 February (os) 1744

The lure of the interior coexisted with the pressures arising from transoceanic links; there was coexistence but only at times close interaction. It is possible to present an account suggesting some sort of seamless link between frontiers and metropoles, provinces and capitals, but the reality was of a far more episodic and complex relationship both then and in other periods: links existed, but there were cross-currents including those arising from different priorities.

French policy provided a good example of this situation. The French were particularly active in the interior of North America, and their activities were far-flung. Fort Niagara was rebuilt in the 1720s. In the 1730s, Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye built a series of posts toward the sea then believed to be in what is now western Canada: Fort St. Charles (1732) on the Lake of the Woods was followed by Fort Maurepas (1734) at the southern end of Lake Winnipeg, and by Fort La Reine (1738) on the Assiniboine River. Fort Bourbon (1739) took the French presence to the northwest shore of Lake Winnipeg, Fort Dauphin (1742) established their presence on the western shore of Lake Winnipegosis, and Fort La Corne (1753) was founded near the Fords of the Saskatchewan. These fords were a crucial node of Native trade routes first reached by French explorers in 1739–40, and part of a geography of influence and power very different to that of the later world of roads and railways.

 

5 War for Dominance 1754–64

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With regard to the war in America, he said, he could not help wondering at the absurdity of both nations, to exhaust their strength, and wealth, for an object that did not appear, to him, to be worth the while, that he was persuaded, by next year, both nations would be sick of it.

Frederick the Great of Prussia, 1756

The French and Indian War takes central place in this period, although most British readers will know it better as the Seven Years’ War. This war left Britain the dominant power in North America and its consequences inadvertently helped prepare the way for the War of American Independence, prefiguring the relationship between the Mexican War and the Civil War, and serving as a reminder that unforeseen results powerfully subvert deterministic accounts of developments.

Yet, like other periods, these years should not simply be seen in terms of rivalry between the European powers. Instead, Native Americans play a major role, not least because their relationship with the rivalry between Britain and France helped lead the two powers to war in the mid-1750s. Furthermore, this episode, and the eventual role of the Native Americans in at least one key British operation, the advance on Fort Duquesne in 1758, did not exhaust their importance. Instead, conflict in the early 1760s between them and the British, both Cherokee War and Pontiac’s War, underlined the extent to which victory over France did not end the challenge posed by North America to British power. If the Native Americans were unsuccessful in ending the British advance, so also were the French, but the measure of British success was more complex than suggested by this remark. Moreover, the extensive warfare with the Native Americans helped increase colonial sensitivity about the policies of the British government, as well as the latter’s concern about the military presence in North America. The financial implications of this presence played a major role in causing crisis between colonists and government.

 

6 Britain Triumphant to America Independent 1765–76

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The empire of America may be said to be the renovation of youth to the kingdom of Great Britain.

Anon., A Full and Free Enquiry into the Merits of the Peace (1765)

Oft told, the story of the breakdown of the imperial link is generally presented in political terms, although Stephen Hornsby has recently advanced a geopolitical thesis. Arguing that profound and longstanding differences existed between the American eastern seaboard and the Atlantic regions of eastern Canada and the West Indies, he sees these differences as being pushed to the fore after the conquest of Canada: “In attempting to govern the enlarged spaces of the British Atlantic, the British government had tightened imperial authority over the seaboard colonies, which, in turn, had provoked a fierce political backlash. . . . The strength of British power over its Atlantic empire reinforced the imperial government’s desire to rein in the continental colonies, while at the same time spurring the colonists to throw off the imperial harness.”1 The attempt by the British government to control the interior threw this issue to the fore. There was no consistent master plan of control, but the determination, with the controversial Royal Proclamation issued on 7 October 1763, to stop settlement, and indeed surveying, in areas seen as rightly Native American, was followed by the Quebec Act of 1774, which allocated much of the interior with the lands west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River going to the Canadian colony. This was a step that affected both settlers and the speculators who had invested in land, a group that included influential circles in America, notably in Virginia, as well as back-country groups, such as Pennsylvania’s Paxton Boys, that rejected the idea of Friendly Natives and that were ready to resort to violence.2

 

7 Britain Defeated 1775–83

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Civilization acting across space was the aspect of geopolitics captured by Edward Gibbon in the fourth volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written in 1782–84 and published in 1788. He claimed that, in what was seen as the unlikely event of civilization collapsing in Europe in the face of new barbarian inroads, which he assumed would come from Central Asia: “Europe would revive and flourish in the American world, which is already filled with her colonies and institutions. . . . America now contains about six millions of European blood and descent; and their numbers, at least in the North, are continually increasing. Whatever may be the changes in their political situation, they must preserve the manners of Europe.”1

This consolation might well be vindicated in a geopolitical light in the long term of the twentieth century, with Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia cast in these barbarian roles, both culturally and geopolitically, but Gibbon’s argument was an after-echo of a bitter war of independence (1775–83) and one that poses the question of how best to link strategy with geopolitics. A member of Parliament, Gibbon himself had supported government policy.

 

8 Flexing Muscles 1783–1811

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A New and Correct Map of the United States of North America “agreable to the Peace of 1783” was published in New Haven in 1784. Produced by Abel Buell, a silversmith there, it was advertised by him as “The first ever published, engraved and finished by one man, and an American,” and as designed for the “patriotic gentleman.” The map presented a new land reaching to the Mississippi, and offered a potent prospectus of American independence followed by national expansion. The two concepts, independence and expansion, were clearly linked, notably with the British cession of the “Old Northwest,” Trans-Appalachia, to America in 1783, a cession that greatly increased the land mass offered by the thirteen colonies. America obtained Trans-Appalachia without having either conquered or peopled it because of what might be called Franklin’s geopolitical sensibility about American destiny. Of the three American negotiators in Paris in 1782, he held out most firmly for the Mississippi boundary on the most, more than Jay or Adams. Franklin argued that, otherwise, the new nation would be cooped up between the Appalachians and the sea. In fact, few Americans, possibly only 25,000, lived in Trans-Appalachia in 1782, most of them in central Kentucky. Franklin’s emphasis on a need for Trans-Appalachia traced back at least as far as his essay “Observations on the Increase of Mankind,” written in 1751, in which, arguing against British mercantilist policies, he maintained that natural increase among the American colonists was causing their population to double roughly every quarter-century, and, before very long, they would require Trans-Appalachia or else would become as poverty-ridden as British people. It is unclear how far Franklin’s personal involvement in western lands influenced his geopolitical thinking, and the relationship may have worked the other way: his ideas about the need for western living space may have induced him to speculate.

 

9 Florida, but Not Canada: From the War of 1812 to the Monroe Doctrine 1812–23

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The key event in this period occurred south, not north, of the Rio Grande. The end of Spanish power meant that the European imperial presence in the New World went from being the norm for those lands not still run by the indigenous population to becoming the less common option, and notably so on the continental land mass to the south of the United States. Moreover, the collapse of the Spanish Empire left the fate of its former territories unclear, as far as spatial organization, form of government, stability, and international alignments were concerned. This uncertainty offered major prospects (although less than anticipated) for American expansionists, not least because of the weakness of the empire during its dissolution. Nevertheless, there were also risks that other powers, notably Britain, France, or a revived Spain, would move into the vacuum, creating a formal or informal empire, and that the successor states in Latin America might have a territorial energy and expansionist agenda of their own.

 

10 Expansionism and Its Problems 1823–43

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America was the most dynamic society in the Western world, with its population rising rapidly prior to the great territorial expansion of the 1840s, from 9.6 million in 1820 to 17.1 million in 1840, whereas Mexico’s population, which had been similar to that of America in the late eighteenth century, rose from 1820 to 1840 by little to 7 million. Moreover, a sense of national destiny became more pronounced in America during these years and also seemed within grasp. This sense was seen in the engagement with American landscape as sublime and morally uplifting, a view clearly demonstrated by the enthusiastic response to the self-consciously national Hudson River school of painters. Regarded as more vigorous and unspoiled than those of Europe, the American landscape also appealed to British visitors such as Henry Addington, Richard Cobden, and Charles Dickens. Addington found more grandeur and beauty in the Hudson Valley than in those of the Rhine, Elbe, or Oder, sites of awe for European Romantics. Cobden was enthralled by the sight of the Hudson Valley in 1835, and Dickens by the sublimity of Niagara Falls in 1842.1

 

11 From the Oregon Question to the Gadsden Purchase 1844–53

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It can be no longer disguised that this question has become a British and an American question . . . whilst England is using every effort of skilful diplomacy to acquire an influence in Texas, to be used notoriously to our prejudice.

James Buchanan left the Senate in no doubt on 8 June 1844 that a struggle with Britain was the key element for American foreign policy, and, with that pronounced passive aggressive stance so typical of many American politicians of that generation, he presented Britain as the aggressor because Texan annexation was “necessary to our defense, peace, and security.” A former Jacksonian, who, indeed, had unsuccessfully spoken in February against the ratification of the Ashburton-Webster Treaty, Buchanan was chosen as secretary of state when James Polk, a protégé of Jackson and the Democratic candidate, became president after the bitterly contested 1844 election.

That election epitomized much that foreign governments and commentators found alarming about the United States. There was a conflation of populism with bold calls for territorial expansion, calls that reflected the changing nature both of the country and of its self-perception. The development of the railway and of steamships made it easier to think of a potential that could, and thus should, be realized.1 Far from the Rockies being a boundary to effective control, let alone to an integrated nation, they were now seen as a barrier to be overcome as America expanded more clearly to the Pacific and beyond. The key issue coming to a head was the Oregon Question, and that, rather than the possibility of war with Mexico, dominated attention during the 1844 election campaign. The end of the 1818 Anglo-American agreement over Oregon appeared inevitable, not least as it now more obviously approximated to a postponement, and this apparently imminent change led to contrasting demands, demands that reflected the differing requirements of the two powers. The United States sought territory in bulk, land in short, and not so much because this land was required for settlement, although that was important, but, rather, because the acquisition of land was a key theme of American politics. This theme was one in which local drives could be extrapolated onto the national scale and as part of an economy in which agriculture was a key source of output and the flow of produce from the West important to growth,2 while white settlement was seen as a way to avoid overpopulation in the East and, instead, to ensure that a fairly egalitarian society could be maintained there and expanded westward.3

 

12 A Great Power in the Making? America 1853–61

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The People have learnt, even more than ordinary minds in general do, to attach the idea of national greatness to extensive territory.

Lord Lyons, British ambassador, 1862

Success over Mexico, combined with the settlement of the Oregon Question, led to bold plans for further expansion and activity. The range was dramatic, and notably so in the Pacific. Both the experience of the value of deployment there during the Mexican War, and the new interests and possibilities that followed the annexation of California, led to greater interest in the Pacific, and this interest was not restricted to the eastern Pacific. Indeed, after the war, when the USS Ohio made its final cruise, it visited both Hawaii and Samoa. More significantly, on 8 July 1853, a squadron of four ships under Commodore Matthew Perry anchored at the entrance to Tokyo Bay in order to persuade Japan to inaugurate relations. After presenting a letter from President Millard Fillmore (1850–53), Perry sailed to China, declaring that he would return the following year. Having wintered on the Chinese coast, itself an important display of naval capability, and made naval demonstrations in the Ryuku and Bonin Islands, which secured a coaling concession from the ruler of Okinawa, competing with British interests there,1 Perry returned to Japan with a larger squadron of eight warships and negotiated the Treaty of Kanagawa of 31 March 1854, providing for American diplomatic representation, coaling stations, the right for American ships to call at two ports, and humane treatment for shipwrecked American soldiers.2 This “unequal treaty” left deep grievances, but it reflected the extent to which force underlay America’s advancing merchants’ frontier around the Pacific with the developing Pacific trade system seen as a particular national opportunity.3 Perry then returned to the United States, but, in 1854–55, another American naval expedition, the North Pacific Surveying Expedition, greatly expanded hydrographic knowledge of Japanese waters. In the southwest Pacific, American warships had rarely ventured west of the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands prior to the 1850s, but Commodore William Mervine, who took command of the Pacific Squadron in August 1854, was keen to champion American commercial interests and instructed his captains accordingly.4

 

13 America Divided 1861–63

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The admission of California as a free state in 1850 gave the free states a majority in the Senate, and the minority status of the South in the Union was a key feature of the sectional controversy of the 1850s, a feature that created problems for the South. Minnesota and Oregon followed as free states in 1858 and 1859 respectively. A sense of being under challenge ensured that Southern secession was frequently threatened in the 1850s, before it finally triumphed in 1860–61. British envoys noted this development. Already, in 1851, Bulwer had written of “the but half suppressed excitement which the Southern states have lately been exhibiting,” and in 1859 Lyons observed “after making due allowance for the tendency to consider the ‘present’ crisis as always the most serious that has ever occurred, I am inclined to think that North and South have never been so near a breach.”1

The alternative to secession was to seek to make the Union safe for the South and slavery, in part by reeducating Northerners about the constitution, or by acquiring more slave states, or by somehow addressing the vulnerabilities of the slave system in the South. The Southerners’ failure to do so was compounded by the difficulties posed by the slaves’ desire for freedom, although the latter did not have a scale nor disruptive consequences comparable to the situation in Brazil in the 1880s.

 

14 Winning the War 1863–65

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“If there be a decided victory one way or the other, it will be an event of very great importance, but drawn battles seem the rule in this war.” Lord Lyons began 1863 by reporting on “a great battle” then going on at Stones River in Tennessee.1 To foreign observers, there appeared no obvious end to the conflict. The battle of Antietam had ended expectations of such a result through Southern victory, but the opposite still seemed far distant. Instead, there was a belief that the North would focus on making secondary theaters the deciding places. Indeed, Lyons had reported on 24 November 1862 that Charleston was seriously threatened with attack, and he added, “The real object of this government now is their campaign on the Mississippi and their attacks on the Southern ports. The Grand Army of the Potomac will do as much as is wanted, if it protect Washington.”2 Seward told Lyons that success would lead to control over the cotton that could be marketed yielding valuable funds.3

 

15 Settling the North American Question 1865–71

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The war left the Union with a massive and well-honed military, just over a million men strong at the start of 1865, and with the second-largest navy in the world: 671 warships, including seventy-one ironclads, in commission, as well as the prospect of further growth in the number of ships. This force appeared to offer options for expansion, or at least activity, notably against Canada and Mexico. Concerns about the former led Britain to press ahead with plans for Canadian unity through confederation, but the possibility of conflict focused on Mexico. After the war, American pressure for the departure of the French troops increased, and America’s nonrecognition of Maximilian’s government became more significant. There was an important popular dimension, with volunteers going to fight for Juárez. Sir Frederick Bruce, the British envoy in Washington, was being naïve, when he reported in January 1866:

As soon as the temper of this country allows the Mexican question to be discussed on its merits, it can be conclusively demonstrated that the Mexican people are at present incapable of appreciating a republican form of government, and the United States have the most direct interest in seeing a firm and orderly government substituted for the anarchy which has hitherto prevented the development of the resources of Mexico.

 

16 Postscript 1871–2010

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The year 1871 saw not only the Treaty of Washington, which ended, or, at least, greatly eased, Anglo-American differences in North America, but also the declaration of the German Empire. Initially, this might have seemed benign to America, as in 1872 Wilhelm I arbitrated the Anglo-American dispute over the San Juan Islands boundary essentially in line with American claims. Moreover, in 1870, Fish had told Thornton that he “hoped some day to see Germany, England and the United States, the three great Protestant and progressive Countries, in the most friendly alliance with each other.”1 However, in the long term, German power was to pose a major challenge to America. In part, this challenge reflected specific issues, but there was also a more serious cultural disdain for America on the part, first, of Imperial Germany and, subsequently, of Nazi Germany, a disdain that was stronger and more significant for policy than anything stemming from Britain. Moreover, Germany was to project its ambitions, although not its power, into the New Hemisphere, seeking to challenge American influence in Mexico in 1917 and in Latin America as a whole in the early 1940s.2

 

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