[The following is a guest post by David Sim, lecturer in U.S. history at University College London.]
Just over a half-century ago, Walter LaFeber published an expanded version of his doctoral dissertation as The New Empire: an Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898.[i] In it, LaFeber told a story about the evolution of American foreign policy in the late nineteenth century. Summarising his argument for the book’s thirty-fifth anniversary republication, LaFeber emphasised four key contributions. First, he argued that “important continuities marked the years from 1865 to 1898.” Second, “economic transformations” – and the way that policymakers understood them – “were the most important of the continuities.” Third, “officials acted consciously, rationally, and creatively.” And finally, “from [William] Seward [to William] McKinley, U.S. policymakers were pushed and pulled… by their own sophisticated worldviews.”[ii]
The imperial ambitions of William Seward, Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869, frame LaFeber’s narrative. He makes his first appearance in the book’s second paragraph, and it’s with a quotation from the hard drinking, heavy smoking New Yorker that LaFeber closes the book. Lincoln and Johnson’s Secretary of State, LaFeber writes, was his “prince of players,” whose “vision of empire dominated American policy for [a] century.”[iii] In emphasising Seward’s importance, LaFeber was in good company. William Appleman Williams called him a “prophet” of American expansion.[iv] Ernest Paolino, in a detailed study of Seward’s statecraft, argued that he “anticipated” the expansionists of 1898, and that his career “reveals the fundamental continuity of American foreign policy between 1861 and 1900.”[v]
There’s enough in Seward’s career – particularly in his antebellum years – to flesh out these narratives of continuity. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, in particular, Seward spoke the language of exuberant expansionism. “The borders of the federal republic,” he claimed in 1853, “shall be extended so that it shall greet the sun when he touches the tropics, and when he sends his glancing rays toward the polar circle, and shall include even distant islands in either ocean.”[vi] Seward apparently theorised that the future capital of the United States “would be in the City of Mexico.”[vii] British North Americans, Seward argued, were “building excellent states to be hereafter admitted into the American Union.”[viii] The wily Whig-turned-Republican rightly emphasised the future importance of Asian markets, highlighted the primacy of commercial competition in determining global power, and recommended internal improvements and the acquisition of strategic bases in the Pacific and Caribbean to protect and promote American commerce. Talk of “the commerce of the world, which is the empire of the world” and his hopes for “an integrated empire with a great continental base” indicated, for LaFeber and others, a profound prescience and traced the path that his successors at the State Department would follow.[ix]
If we turn from words to deeds, though, Seward looks like a pretty poor patriarch for the genealogy of imperialism that these historians offer. His greatest achievement as Secretary of State was to prevent foreign intervention in the American Civil War. This is not to be slighted; the alignment of domestic fissures and European imperial ambitions had long haunted American statesmen. Seward’s astute use of threats, conciliation and public diplomacy were instrumental in limiting the scope of the conflict. But, with the exception of his 1867 purchase of Alaska, his achievements in securing the “empire of the world” look a little underwhelming. On leaving office, his isthmian canal syndicate was already beginning to fragment; the Colombian government and the US Senate would later reject his treaty regarding a passage across Central America. His grand schemes for multiple intercontinental telegraphs were similarly frustrated. Congress was unmoved by his calls for more investment in the US foreign service. Returns to capital in the American West undermined attempts to invest overseas in order to secure “the commerce of the world.” And his attempts to secure naval bases in the Caribbean – at St Thomas and Samana Bay – came to naught.
Seward’s limited historical utility was apparent to those turn of the century statesmen to whom the Secretary of State offered little. Intriguingly, in an October 1899 speech on Philippine annexation, William McKinley skated over Seward to talk at length about his contemporary and rival, Stephen Douglas, and his ideas about American expansion.[x] Theodore Roosevelt had a little more to say about Seward, though mostly in the context of apportioning blame for the sins of Reconstruction.[xi] Henry Cabot Lodge was rather more positive about Seward, praising him for his anti-slavery radicalism, but passed over any larger political vision he might have had.[xii]
What should we make of this divergence: the prescient architect of empire on the one hand, his rather more limited projection of American power on the other? In part, Seward’s attractiveness to historians is a product of his prolific output. Seward was a talker, and specifically someone who talked the language of expansion at a time when most American statesmen who did so had slavery on their minds. Sure, much of his antebellum exuberance was less a serious programme for empire and rather an inducement to his fellow statesmen to think about the United States as it might be were it absolved of the stain of slavery. But with regard to railroads, the telegraph, the virtues of cultivating international markets and the lure of Asian commerce, Seward’s instincts were good. His antebellum speeches offer ample material for constructing congenial narratives of continuity in US foreign relations. And unlike Douglas, I would suggest, his repudiation of slavery makes him attractive to modern historians seeking the antecedents of turn-of-the-century imperialism.
In addition – and unsurprisingly – context is key. Seward’s Republican Party reshaped the American state during its tenure in office from 1860 through the early 1880s. The United States emerged from Civil War with a new national banking system, a protective tariff, a commitment to construct transcontinental railroads, and a stronger relationship between government, finance and industry than had existed during the antebellum period. We don’t need to subscribe to Charles and Mary Beard’s notion of a “second American Revolution” to think these changes significant for the development of US political economy – and American foreign relations – in the late nineteenth century.
Does Seward’s limited charge sheet mean we should write him out of narratives of American imperialism? No. But the dissonance between his words and deeds suggests two things. First, we should be more attentive to the relationship between empires, and less hung up on telling a unilateral story of the rise and rise of American power through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Seward and his contemporaries were well aware of both the contingent nature of the American Union and the relationship between American power and other, European imperialisms. In the late nineteenth century, in China, South Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Central America, Japan and elsewhere, American commerce, expertise and influence were intertwined with European – and often British – imperial projects. Second, perhaps historians of US foreign relations should to be a bit more attentive to contingency – even to irony – and should worry less about sanding off the rough edges in order to tell a smooth story about the lineage of the turn-of-the-century American empire. As Seward himself suggested in 1850, “states, nations, and empires, are apt to be peculiarly capricious…not only as to the time, but even as to the manner, of their being born… They are not accustomed to conform to precedents.”[xiii]
[i] Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: an Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963).
[ii]Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: an Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998 ed.), xix
[iii] LaFeber, The New Empire (1963), 24-5.
[iv] William Appleman Williams, The Roots of the Modern American Empire: a Study of the Growth and Shaping of Social Consciousness in a Marketplace Society (St. Helens: Wood Westworth & Co., 1970), 136.
[v] Ernest Paolino, The Foundations of the American Empire: William Henry Seward and U.S. Foreign Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973), xi.
[vi] William H. Seward, ‘The Destiny of America’, speech at Columbus, Ohio, 14 Sept 1853, in George Baker (ed.), The Works of William H. Seward (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 5 vols., 1884), 4:122.
[vii] Charles A. Dana quoted in Frederic Bancroft, ‘Seward’s Ideas of Territorial Expansion’, The North American Review, 167:500 (Jul. 1898), 80.
[viii] Seward, ‘Political Equality the National Idea’, speech at St. Paul, 18 Sept 1860, in Baker (ed.),Works, 4:333.
[ix] Seward quoted in LaFeber, The New Empire, 30-1.
[x] William McKinley, ‘Speech at Madison, Wisconsin’, 16 Oct 1899, in McKinley, Speeches and Addresses of William McKinley, from March 1, 1897 to May 30, 1900 (New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1900), 320.
[xi] Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches (New York: Library of America, 2004), 375, 464.
[xii] Henry Cabot Lodge, ‘William Henry Seward’, in idem., Historical and Political Essays (Boston, MA; New York: Houghton & Mifflin, 1884), 1-46.
[xiii]Seward, Speech… on the Admission of California in the Senate of the United States, March 11, 1850 (Washington, D.C., 1850), 8.