Author Interview--Daniel J. Burge (A Failed Vision of Empire) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with 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.

Part 1

Many southerners viewed manifest destiny as a means to expand slave territory, how much did race and racism figure into the manifest destiny debates?

DJB: It’s everywhere. You can’t look at U.S. empire in the nineteenth century (or any century) without pondering the role that racism played in its development. To get back to the first part of the question, what’s interesting about manifest destiny is that I found that southerners were generally hesitant to embrace manifest destiny as an ideology. Now that does not mean that they were not expansionists, but they were typically more specific in what they wanted. In other words, from late 1840 into the 1850s, most southern expansionists targeted specific spots, most notably Cuba, northern Mexico, and the U.S. West (where they saw slavery potentially gaining a foothold). However, it was generally northerners who spoke in broad terms about manifest destiny and acquiring the continent. Southern expansionists had zero interest (and dreaded the thought) that Canada might potentially join the United States. What strikes me as odd is the remarkable extent to which northern expansionists such as O’Sullivan, Douglas, Cass, and Buchanan continually asserted that continental expansion would not prove problematic. To cite the most striking example, Buchanan (the Pennsylvanian) was appalled by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, believing that it blocked the US from extending its border in a southerly direction. William R. King, the southern-born senator from Alabama, fully supported the treaty and told Buchanan point-blank that the U.S. would gain nothing from acquiring more of Mexico (or Central America). 

Now the second part of the question is a bit more difficult to answer. Racism permeated every debate that took place in the period I examine (Texas, Mexico, Cuba, Alaska, Danish West Indies, and Dominican Republic). Both sides deployed racist arguments to advance their specific cause. Proponents of manifest destiny, for instance, usually portrayed Cuba as “white” and fully embraced the theory that the U.S. could “whiten” Mexico by turning it into a territory (it’s oddly similar to the arguments that pop back up in the 1890s with Puerto Rico). On the flipside, opponents of manifest destiny deployed all the racist language they could muster to block expansion projects. Reading through these congressional debates is to read hundreds of epithets hurled at Mexicans, Alaska Natives, and Dominicans. Put differently, it’s hard to tell exactly when racism overcome empire (to pull from Love’s excellent monograph). Certainly, it seemed to be the paramount argument that Republicans pulled upon to block Grant’s attempt to secure the Dominican Republic, but the U.S. still acquired (obviously) a lot of territory in the mid-nineteenth century that contained people who were quickly stripped of rights (Alaska, Texas, New Mexico, California, etc.). So it’s hard to argue that racism torpedoed empire because most imperialists had no qualms about removal, dispossession, or (in many cases) outright genocide. I hope that somewhat answers that question. It’s tricky because racism permeates each discussion but there are so many factors involved in determining what treaties eventually pass (what party is in power, who controls the senate, how quickly the treaty is voted upon, etc.).


It is such an important topic for this conversation, but I think individuals matter too. I rather enjoyed your coverage of Pierre Soulé, as probably does anybody who studies the 1850s abroad. I do wonder if you were not a bit too nice to Solon Borland who was quite a troublemaker in Central America?

DJB: I completely agree that individuals matter and one thing that I believe (although I didn’t have enough evidence to argue in the book) is that we tend to see manifest destiny as popular because so many of its proponents were prolific writers and public speakers (with dynamic personalities). Soulé is certainly up there, but you could also add figures such as Caleb Cushing. Cushing led a fascinating life and was absolutely enthralled with the idea of expanding the U.S. empire (going so far as to claim in a speech in the early 1850s that the U.S. was to become the next Rome). People like Douglas, O’Sullivan, Soulé, Cass, etc., were constantly giving speeches on the glorious benefits of empire and so it's relatively easy for historians today to use their quotes to prove that “many people” or “most people” believed something similar. To get back to Borland, though, I do think I could have discussed him a bit more thoroughly.

Borland, in a sense, epitomizes the imperialists who absolutely despised Britain and the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. A good part of his career in Central America was his lamenting the passage of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. I do think too many historians overlook the importance of Clayton-Bulwer and how it influenced the development of U.S. foreign relations in the region of Central America. I think I can safely add that Borland’s diplomatic career illustrates why Pierce had such an ineffective foreign policy. Why appoint Borland in the first place? As I try to show in the book, Pierce embraced a relatively cautious foreign policy, but he foolishly appointed men like Soulé, O’Sullivan, and Borland to foreign posts where they only managed to annoy Marcy and generally sabotage whatever Pierce hoped to achieve. A president cannot please all the factions within the party and Pierce did a poor job at selecting the right men to carry out his foreign policy. I’m not sure he could have been successful, but it certainly did not help that he had to deal with the fallout from Ostend and other events that were completely preventable. 


Also as sort of a follow up question regarding Grant’s failed acquisition of the Dominican Republic, how much did U.S. politicians consider the recent failure of Spain to retake the territory and local popular opposition to foreign rule?

DJB: This probably is not super surprising to folks who study U.S. empire (even today), but there was very little discussion in the U.S. about what those outside of the bounds of the United States thought about becoming a part of the United States. I was honestly most surprised by this in the case of the Danish West Indies, where the U.S. agreed to a plebescite. Outside of that, very few individuals seemed concern (or interested in any way) about what the local population thought about expansion. Indeed, it’s hard to tell from the politicians involved what the ultimate plan was for places like the Danish West Indies and the Dominican Republic. Would they have become “states,” territories, or something in between? Grant seemed to think that Dominicans would become U.S. citizens, but there was very little discussion about what that ultimately meant. Charles Sumner and a few other politicians did embrace the argument that Dominicans, Haitians, Cubans, etc. should be allowed to choose their own governments and rule themselves, but most of those in the anti-annexation crowd were worried about what would happen to the United States. The thought that folks outside of the U.S. would not want to become Americans did not seem to cross many minds. I should add that I simply did not come across many in either camp who thought that Spain’s “failures” were applicable to the U.S.  

To close, Daniel, I know your work at the Register will keep you very busy, but are you planning any new projects?

DJB: I’ve spent so much time talking and writing about manifest destiny that it is tough to think about a new project! But I do have one that I have turned my attention to, although I will quickly admit it is in its earlier stages (so my sincere apologies if the following sounds a bit vague). My next project focuses on what I am terming the Washington Doctrine. Think of Jay Sexton’s excellent monograph on the Monroe Doctrine (or doctrines, as he terms it) and that is similar to what I’m doing. I’m exploring U.S. foreign policy in the nineteenth century by looking at a duality that intrigues me. Washington is well-known for his Farewell Address, which admonished his fellow Americans to maintain harmonious relations with their neighbors (and, as I argue in A Failed Vision of Empire, which some took to mean that the U.S. needed to avoid aggressive wars of conquest like the U.S.-Mexican). On the flip side, the U.S. has invested a great deal of power in the person of the president, largely because of Washington. Presidents such as Polk, therefore, argued that they were simply exercising the powers granted to them by the founding generation. 

I’m hopeful that this study will enable me to focus more broadly on nineteenth-century empire and tie together seemingly disparate events such as the War of 1812 and Spanish-American conflicts. I know we have talked about this via email, but I do think we are trending toward broader histories of U.S. empire that are slightly less focused on specific, discrete time periods (U.S. foreign relations in the Civil War) and that therefore show the overlap between different “eras.” I remain interested in how individuals reacted to the growth of U.S. empire, both how they supported it and how they challenged it. I think we would benefit from understanding the similarities between the U.S.-Mexican War and the Spanish-American conflicts, for example. I think the U.S. is such an interesting case study because we (as a nation) invest so much power in the person of the president and yet maintain a hope that said president will exercise that authority in a judicious manner. I suspect that duality can be traced to Washington and I hope to more fully explore how ordinary folks drew upon the Washington Doctrine in the nineteenth century.