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

Jeremy Black Indiana University Press ePub

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

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2 A Personal Note on Life and Times

Jeremy Black Indiana University Press ePub

One of the great pleasures of being a “nuts and bolts” historian is that every so often my intellectual betters explain what I am doing. The French playwright Molière phrased it better when, in his comic masterpiece Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670), he gave the ridiculous, fictional Monsieur Jourdain the line, “Il ya plus de quarante ans que je dis de la prose sans que j’en susse rien” (For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it) (act 2, scene 4). In light of the critique of counterfactualism by Richard Evans,1 I have discovered that I have been “liberal Whiggish” or “conservative, pessimistic,” if not a “young fogey,” for I have employed counterfactuals,2 frequently lecture in the United States on the topic “Could the British have won the American War of Independence?” (not “should”—more interesting, but outside my competence), and have discussed, on radio and in print, the topic of “What if, instead of turning back toward Scotland, the Jacobites had advanced on London from Derby in December 1745?”

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6 Britain and France, 1688–1815

Jeremy Black Indiana University Press ePub

The struggle between Britain and France from 1688 to 1815 enables one to amplify and reconsider the discussion of the rise of the West, by offering a very different perspective from that provided in the last chapter. The rise of the West is one of the metanarratives of world history over the last half millennium, but more attention has been devoted, not least in counterfactual discussion, to the linked questions of “When/How/ Why rise?” rather than to “Which West?” Yet, the latter question can be profitably reexamined. It is important in its own right and also needs to be addressed as a second-order counterfactual. In short, “Would the rise of the West have occurred at all, or possibly followed another path, and with other consequences, had there been a different West?” At the outset, instead of posing the question of whether, once Western dominance had been established, it had to take the forms it did, it is more pertinent to link with the last chapter by asking if a variety of possible courses of Western development existed that might have precluded such a dominance. This issue is a variant of the questions in chapter 5 about Chinese weaknesses and how far they helped lead to a tipping point toward Western success. This chapter focuses on the struggle between Britain and France in 1688–1815, although that is not the sole possible counterfactual in terms of “Which West?”

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5 The Twentieth Century

Jeremy Black Indiana University Press ePub

This chapter serves as an historical introduction to the themes covered in chapters 6 to 9, where the focus is on recent decades and the organization by types of states. The varied, often clashing, concerns of the state and the market, of officials and entrepreneurs, come to the fore in this account. However, these concerns differ quite conspicuously from the views of many cutting-edge thinkers on the purposes of history and on historical method, and notably so in the twentieth century and the twenty-first. Officials and entrepreneurs offered an assessment of history that was, understandably, far less affected by advances in theoretical developments or in other intellectual disciplines. Instead, the needs of state identity and the very different exigencies of the market took a greater role. It would be difficult to imagine many popular writers joining Jacques Le Goff, the influential director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, who wrote, in 1992, that “banal, reactionary modes of history – narrative, the history of events, biography, and political history – continue or stage comebacks.”1

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8 Into the Future

Jeremy Black Indiana University Press ePub

In his futuristic novel L’An 2440 (The year 2440), published in 1770, the radical French writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier described a monument in Paris depicting a black man, his arms extended rather than in chains, and a proud look in his eye, surrounded by the pieces of twenty broken scepters. He stands atop a pedestal bearing the inscription, “Au vengeur du nouveau monde” (To the avenger of the New World). Alternative histories deal with the past, but counterfactuals comprehend future histories as well, including, crucially, ones produced in the past foretelling a future era we have now passed. Of course, no future option from the present is yet factual—no option has yet been instantiated—so the question arises as to whether these options can really be counterfactual. However, there are important similarities in the intellectual processes involved in generating alternatives for both past and future. Looked at differently, although it is easier to assess the validity of alternative histories than alternative futures, the issues and methodological problems raised by the latter require discussion, not least, in this context, because they cast some light on alternative histories.

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