Author Interview--Daniel J. Burge (A Failed Vision of Empire) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Daniel Joseph Burge to talk about his new book, A Failed Vision of Empire: The Collapse of Manifest Destiny, 1845–1872, published by the University of Nebraska Press in May 2022.

Daniel Joseph Burge is an associate editor at the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Alabama.

How did you come to write a book about Manifest Destiny? 

DJB: I stumbled upon the topic as I was researching the U.S-Mexican War (for a possible master’s thesis) at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. As I began digging into the primary sources, I was intrigued that so many historians had tried to understand why individuals believed in manifest destiny. Flipping the traditional narrative, I was curious why I was coming across people who openly disagreed with the ideology (for a variety of reasons). Over the last decade, my goal has been to understand those who were uncomfortable with expanding the U.S. empire in the nineteenth century. I must say that I have found it to be a far richer topic than I originally envisioned.

What do you argue in A Failed Vision of Empire

DJB: On the most basic level, I argue that contrary to popular belief, manifest destiny was an unsuccessful ideology that was largely abandoned by the 1870s. Since the l920s most historians have defined manifest destiny as the belief that the United States would expand to the Pacific, but it was clear from the sources I studied that proponents of manifest destiny wanted far more than that. From the anonymous authors in the Democratic Review to William Henry Seward, proponents of manifest destiny always saw manifest destiny as the theory that the United States would eventually acquire the contiguous portions of North America (often along with Cuba). In A Failed Vision of Empire, I explore why those dreams of empire ultimately failed to come to fruition. The broader timeframe (my book stretches from the annexation of Texas to the attempted annexation of the Dominican Republic) permits me to examine a series of events that are typically ignored or given minimal treatment in history texts: the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, Ostend Manifesto, Buchanan’s attempts to carve out a slice of Mexico, Grant’s dream of acquiring the Dominican Republic, etc.
You already use the interesting word choice of empire here and I wanted to ask this a bit later, but let’s tackle it now, how do you distinguish between empire and what Manifest Destiny does? Are these the same? If not how do we separate manifest destiny from later imperial projects in the latter part of the century?

DJB: I really like this question. First, I should admit that the title of the book changed over time, as I originally intended to call it something to the effect of The Myth of Manifest Destiny. To return to the question, though, I would say that manifest destiny was one vision of empire that emerged in the nineteenth century. In other words, proponents of manifest destiny such as Stephen Douglas, John L. O’Sullivan, and William H. Seward wanted to create a continental empire, one that spanned over the contiguous portions of North America. This was a “failed vision of empire” because it never came to pass, so it’s difficult to determine exactly how it would have worked. To give an example, if the United States had annexed all of Mexico in 1848 (as proponents of manifest destiny wanted), it likely would have become a colony (of sorts), ruled from Washington, D.C. The same applies to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Danish West Indies. These places were all coveted by proponents of manifest destiny who wanted to pull them directly under the control of the United States

All of that being said, and turning to the second part of your question, I do think we need to separate manifest destiny from later imperial projects simply because proponents of manifest destiny dreamed of acquiring land (and most often contiguous land). Stephen Douglas, for example, said throughout the 1850s that the United States would continue to expand and expand until it gobbled up all the land from Texas to South America (with Cuba thrown in for good measure). Even though he was unsuccessful, Grant clearly wanted to annex the Dominican Republic and incorporate it (in some form) into the United States. Put differently, proponents of manifest destiny did not merely want ports or an outlet for American goods, but they wanted land. I’m certainly not an expert on late nineteenth-century empire, although I am hopeful that my second project will drift in that direction. But, in many respects, I think historians have done a disservice to manifest destiny by seeing it as a movement from east to west (that is, manifest destiny as the belief the United States would span from coast to coast). Manifest destiny was far more grandiose a concept, dreamed of by policymakers and politicians who wanted to conquer an entire continent, not a portion of it.

What is the biggest challenge you make to Manifest Destiny Historiography? What do you specifically challenge geographically and chronologically that sets your work apart from previous scholars?

DJB: People seem to be quite interested in the fact that I don’t delimit manifest destiny to the decade of the 1840s, which I would say is the biggest challenge I make to the historiography. Most books on manifest destiny, even ones that I find the most useful, cover the period from 1845-1850, and perhaps briefly look at filibustering in the early 1850s. Because so many people have bought into the argument that manifest destiny was an east to west ideology that was essentially fulfilled in 1848, they have abandoned the rest of the narrative. As I try to show throughout the book, those living in the nineteenth century certainly did not see manifest destiny as fulfilled or anywhere near completed in 1848. What do we make of folks like John P. Hale, for instance, who stood in the U.S. Senate in 1859 and delivered a lengthy speech on manifest destiny, jesting that it always looked South? Or the countless articles that appeared in newspapers from 1860-1872 that discussed its potential fulfillment? My biggest intervention, then, is to argue that Americans debated manifest destiny throughout the middle portion of the nineteenth century.

I do want to quickly mention that this argument is not made in a vacuum. I’ve learned much (and incorporated many of the ideas of) folks like Rachel St. John, Andrés Reséndez, Richard White, Tommy Richards, Drew Isenberg, and Frederick and Lois Bannister Merk. These historians have all written works that have grappled with the popularity and pervasiveness of manifest destiny and I do pull them in. To the best of my knowledge, though, I’m one of the first historians in a while to pick up the argument of the Merks that manifest destiny was continentalism. I simply take that argument and expand it a couple of decades, showing how manifest destiny was debated not just in the 1840s, but in the 1850s, 1860s, and early 1870s. What I hope sets my work apart is that readers will find not merely a discussion of the U.S.-Mexican War, but also discussions over the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, Cuban filibustering, the McLane-Ocampo Treaty,  Alaska, the Danish West Indies, and the Dominican Republic. My book covers a great deal of time and pulls together presidents and policymakers that we typically don’t juxtapose: Pierce and Grant, for instance. 

These are very good points. I also notice here as well as in your book, that this was not like so often presented the goals of just one party. Subjectively, who/which party was the bigger proponent of manifest destiny and imperial expansion?

DJB: I somewhat break with the “traditional” historiography here in two ways. First, I try to show that manifest destiny was not popular with all members of the Democratic Party. Many historians who have written about the period from 1840 to 1854 have noted that manifest destiny was generally supported by Democrats and opposed by Whigs. This broad outline is partially true, as Whigs did try to block the U.S. from acquiring any territory after the war with Mexico and were ambivalent about (or outright opposed to) taking Cuba. What I found was that Democrats were somewhat torn over the issue of expansion. Certainly, the Young America wing of the party wanted to expand (think Stephen Douglas), but this faction of the party did not represent all Democrats. To take one example, most Democrats in the senate accepted the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which specifically stated the U.S. would not seek to colonize Central America. Douglas despised that treaty, but had no power to prevent his Democratic peers from voting for it. We can see the same thing with filibustering. Franklin Pierce ends up siding with more conservative members of his party (like William Marcy) who condemned filibustering and who thought the U.S. needed to buy Cuba. So, yes, in broad strokes Democrats tended to favor manifest destiny more than Whigs, but it was only a faction of the Democratic Party that believed in continental expansion (and that faction did not control the party in the late 1840s and 1850s). 

Moving into the middle of the 1850s, I try to show that there were Republicans who came to firmly embrace manifest destiny. I again want to give credit to some other folks, as historians such as Greg Downs have pointed out that Republicans were as invested in imperialism as their Democratic counterparts (Downs’
The Second American Revolution is excellent on this point). Quite a few scholars are doing excellent work on how Republicans sought to expand the U.S. empire in the West both during and after the Civil War. My book does not focus on the struggles in the West (although as a western historian I believe they are important), but I hope it shows that Republican expansionists such as Seward and Grant were heavily invested in expanding the U.S. empire through territorial acquisitions (they still wanted land). We can’t overlook Alaska (and subsequent debates over Canada), the Danish West Indies, and the Dominican Republic. It's Ulysses S. Grant, after all, and not Polk who is the first president that we have a record of writing about manifest destiny and its potential fulfillment. Put differently, Republicans in the aftermath of the Civil War quickly become the party of expansion, although I do still think we should not assume that all members of the party necessarily thought it was beneficial.