The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/History V.


EXPANSION has been the very law of American life. In the treaties which record the successive annexations of the territory of the United States we may read the story of the nation's acquisition of its physical basis, a basis comparable in area and resources not to any single European country but to Europe as a whole. If a map of the United States is laid down upon a map of Europe drawn to the same scale, with San Francisco resting on the coast of Spain, Florida will occupy the land of Palestine, Lake Superior will be adjacent to the southern shore of the Baltic, New Orleans below the coast of Asia Minor, and the shores of North Carolina will nearly coincide with the eastern end of the Black Sea. All of Western Europe will lie beyond the Mississippi, the western limits of the United States in 1783. These treaties[1] mark the stages by which the Union acquired an area equal to all nations west of the Black Sea.


Freed from the fear of French attack after the peace of 1763, the thirteen colonies declared their independence. Against the wishes of Spain, and even against the pressure of her French ally in the Revolutionary War, the United States secured from England by the treaty of 1783[2] boundaries which extended along the Great Lakes, west to the Mississippi, and south to Florida, as well as the free navigation of the Mississippi. Spain recovered from Britain Florida which she had conquered in the course of the war.

But these boundaries were only paper rights, for England failed to give up her posts on the Great Lakes, alleging the neglect of the United States to carry out the provisions of the treaty in regard to loyalists and debts, and Canadian officials encouraged the Indians across the Ohio to resist the advance of the Americans. In similar fashion on the southwest Spain denied the right of England to convey to the Union the territory between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi, and withheld the navigation of the river by means of her possession of New Orleans. She also, in the period of the weak confederation, intrigued with leaders of the Kentucky and Tennessee settlements to withdraw them from the Union; and, like England, she used her influence over the Indians to restrain the American advance.

While Indian wars were in progress north of the Ohio during Washington's administration, the French Revolution broke out, and England feared not only that the American expeditions against the Indians were in reality directed against the posts which she retained on the Great Lakes, but also that the United States would aid France in a general attack on her. Breaking her historic alliance with Spain, the French Republic, in 1783, tried to involve, first the Government of the United States and then the western frontiersmen in attacks upon Florida and Louisiana.

These were the critical conditions which in 1794 resulted in Jay's mission and treaty by which England agreed to give up the western posts.


Alarmed at the prospect of a union of England and the United States, Spain not only made peace with France at Bâsle in 1795, but also, by Pinckney's treaty in that year, conceded to the United States the Mississippi boundary and the navigation of the river. The latter concession was vital to the prosperity of the Mississippi Valley, for only by way of this river could the settlers get their surplus crops to a market.

It had become clear by 1795 that, with rival European nations threatening the flanks of the American advance, interfering in domestic politics, and tampering with the western frontiersmen, the United States was in danger of becoming a mere dependency of the European state system.[3] Partly to ensure such a dependence of the United States upon herself, and partly to procure a granary for her West Indian Islands, France now urged Spain to give her Louisiana and Florida, promising protection against the American advance.

The Alleghenies seemed to the leaders of French policy the proper boundaries for the Union. At last; in 1800, Napoleon so far mastered Spain as to force her to yield Louisiana to him; and the Spanish Intendant at New Orleans, pending the arrival of French troops, closed the Mississippi to American commerce. The West was in a flame. It had now acquired a population of over three hundred and eighty thousand, and it threatened the forcible seizure of New Orleans. Even the peaceful and French-loving President Jefferson hinted that he would seek an English alliance, and demanded the possession of the mouth of the Mississippi from France, arguing that whoever held that spot was our natural enemy. Convinced that it was inexpedient to attempt to occupy New Orleans in view of the prospect of facing the sea power of England and an attack by the American settlers, Napoleon capriciously tossed the whole of the Province of Louisiana to Jefferson by the Louisiana Purchase Treaty[4] of 1803, and thereby replenished his exchequer with fifteen million dollars, made friends with the United States, and gave it the possibility of a noble national career by doubling its territory and by yielding it the control of the great central artery of the continent.


The expansive spirit of the West grew by what it fed on. The Ohio valley coveted Canada, and the South wished Florida, where England exercised an influence upon the Spanish administration. It was the West that took the lead—bringing on the war of 1812. In the peace negotiations in 1814 Great Britain tried to establish a neutral zone of Indian country between Canada and the Ohio Valley settlements, but by the treaty[5] the United States retained its former possessions. By the convention of 1818 they extended the boundary between Canada and the United States from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains along the forty-ninth parallel, leaving the disputed Oregon country open to each nation for a term of years without prejudice to the rights of either.


In the same years the United States was pressing Spain to relinquish Florida. Claiming West Florida and Texas as a part of the Louisiana Purchase, the Government annexed the former piecemeal in 1810 and 1812. Taught by General Jackson's successful although unauthorized invasion of Florida in 1818 that she held that position on the Gulf only at the pleasure of the United States, and hopeful, perhaps, to avert the threatened recognition of the revolting Spanish-American colonies, Spain ceded Florida in 1819,[6] drawing an irregular line between her possessions and those of the United States which left Texas as well as the other southwestern territory in Spain's hands. Recognition of the revolted republics followed in 1823 and thereafter the Union had to deal with Mexico in place of Spain in acquiring mainland possessions. Russia withdrew her claims to territory south of 54° 40′ in 1824, and as a result of the negotiations which preceded this action, as well as by the prospect of European intervention in Spanish America, President Monroe in 1823 announced the famous Doctrine[7] which declared the American continents no longer subject to European colonization or intervention to oppress them or control their destiny.

Early in the thirties American missionaries entered the Oregon country where the Hudson's Bay Company held sway under the English flag. American settlers, chiefly descendants of the hardy frontiersmen of the Mississippi Valley, also made settlements in Mexico's province of Texas. In 1836 the Texans revolted, declared their independence, and appealed to the United States for annexation. The northeastern boundary was settled by the Webster-Ashburton treaty[8] in 1842, leaving the fate of Oregon still undetermined. In that very year an emigration of American farmers began across the plains and mountains to that distant land, and relations between the Union and England became strained. In Texas, also, European interests were involved, for in the long interval between the formation of the Texan Republic and its annexation by the United States, England and France used their influence to keep it independent. California, moreover, furnished reason for apprehension, for England had shown an interest in its fate, as Mexico, torn by internal dissensions, gave evidence that her outlying provinces were likely to drop from her nerveless hands.

The slavery contest now interrupted the old American expansive tendencies, for while the South raised its voice of warning against the possibility of a free Texas under British protectorate and demanded its annexation, the Whigs and anti-slavery men of the North, alarmed at the spread of slavery and the prospect of new slave States, showed opposition to further territorial acquisition in the Southwest. But in the election of 1844, which was fought on the issues of the "reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation of Texas," Polk, a Tennessee Scotch-Irishman, representing the historic expansive spirit, won the Presidency. Texas was annexed as a State under a joint resolution of Congress in 1845, before Polk was inaugurated, and immediately thereafter he determined that if Mexico made this annexation an occasion for war, she should be compelled to cede us California and her other Southwestern lands as the price of peace.


He compromised the Oregon question with England by the Treaty of 1846, accepting the forty-ninth parallel as the boundary, in spite of the campaign cry of "fifty-four forty or fight." The same year the Mexican war began, in which American troops overran California and the intervening land.

With the American flag floating over the capital of Mexico, a strong movement began to hold Mexico itself, or at least additional territory. But by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo[9] in 1848 the line was drawn along the Gila River and from its mouth to the Pacific. Agitation for a southern route to the Pacific led to the further acquisition of a zone south of the Gila by the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.

By these annexations between 1846 and 1853 the United States gained over 1,200,000 square miles of territory. Gold was discovered in California in 1848, and unimagined riches in precious metals, timber, and agricultural resources were later revealed in this vast new empire. But most important of all was the fact that the nation had at last made its lodgment on the shores of the Pacific, where it was to be involved in the destiny of that ocean and its Asiatic shores.

The South, deprived of the benefits of these great acquisitions by the compromise of 1850, tried in vain to find new outlets by Cuban annexation. But the Civil War resulting from the rivalries of the expanding sections engrossed the energies of the nation. At the close of that war, Russia, which had given moral support to the North when England and France were doubtful, offered the United States her Alaskan territory and, not without opposition, Secretary Seward secured the ratification of a treaty[10] in 1867 by which nearly six hundred thousand square miles were added to our domains.

For nearly a third of a century after the Civil War the energies of the Union were poured out in the economic conquest of the vast annexations in its contiguous territory. In 1892 the Superintendent of the Census announced that the maps of population could no longer depict a frontier line bounding the outer edge of advancing settlement. The era of colonization was terminating. The free lands were being rapidly engrossed and the Union was reaching the condition of other settled states.


In this era the old expansive movement became manifest in a new form by the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of land oversea. It was the recognition of the independence of Cuba[11] by the United States in 1898 and the intervention to expel Spain which brought about the Spanish-American War; but once involved in that war, the naval exigencies led to the conquest of the Philippines, and Porto Rico as well as Cuba. Considerations of strategy also facilitated the annexation of Hawaii[12] in 1898.

By the treaty of peace[13] in 1898 Spain ceded the Philippines and Porto Rico and withdrew from Cuba, which obtained its autonomy by the recall of the American troops in 1902.

The events of the war, and especially the dramatic voyage of the Oregon around Cape Horn from the Pacific Coast to share in the fight off Santiago, gave an impetus to the long debated project of constructing the Isthmian Canal by the United States. With her vastly increased power in the Pacific, her new possessions in the Caribbean Sea, and the astonishing growth on the Pacific coast, the canal seemed a necessity, and almost a part of our coast line. By the Hay-Pauncefote treaty of 1901, England withdrew the obstacles arising from the Clayton-Bulwer treaty of 1850, and the United States acquired the rights of the French Company, which had failed in its undertaking to pierce the isthmus. When in 1903 Colombia rejected a treaty providing for the canal, a revolution broke out in Panama. President Roosevelt with extraordinary promptness recognized the Republic of Panama and secured a treaty[14] from this republic which was ratified in 1904, granting the canal zone and various rights to the United States.

Thus at the beginning of the twentieth century the long process of attrition of the United States upon the Spanish Empire was brought to this striking climax. The feeble Atlantic colonies had won a land extending across the continent, they had acquired dependencies in the Caribbean, in the Pacific, and off the coast of Asia, and they had provided for connecting the two oceans by the Panama Canal.

  1. The references in this lecture are to the volume of American Historical Documents, and especially to the collection of treaties, Harvard Classics, xliii.
  2. H. C., xliii, 174.
  3. Compare "Washington's Farewell Address," in H. C., xliii, 237, 238, 239; 243–246.
  4. H. C., xliii, 250.
  5. H. C., xliii, 255.
  6. H. C., xliii, 268.
  7. H. C., xliii, 277.
  8. H. C., xliii, 280.
  9. H. C., xliii, 289.
  10. H. C., xliii, 432.
  11. H. C., xliii, 440.
  12. H. C., xliii, 437.
  13. H. C., xliii, 442.
  14. H. C., xliii, 450.