…..But that self-image, with its yearning for some imagined lost innocence, is based on myth. Far from the modest republic that history books often portray, the early United States was an expansionist power from the moment the first pilgrim set foot on the continent; and it did not stop expanding–territorially, commercially, culturally, and geopolitically–over the next four centuries. The United States has never been a status quo power; it has always been a revolutionary one, consistently expanding its participation and influence in the world in ever-widening arcs. The impulse to involve ourselves in the affairs of others is neither a modern phenomenon nor a deviation from the American spirit. It is embedded in the American DNA.
Long before the country’s founding, British colonists were busy driving the Native American population off millions of acres of land and almost out of existence. From the 1740s through the 1820s, and then in another burst in the 1840s, Americans expanded relentlessly westward from the Alleghenies to the Ohio Valley and on past the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, southward into Mexico and Florida, and northward toward Canada–eventually pushing off the continent not only Indians, but the great empires of France, Spain, and Russia as well. (The United Kingdom alone barely managed to defend its foothold in North America.) This often violent territorial expansion was directed not by redneck “Jacksonians” but by eastern gentlemen expansionists like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams.
It would have been extraordinary had early Americans amassed all this territory and power without really wishing for it. But they did wish for it. With 20 years of peace, Washington predicted in his valedictory, the United States would acquire the power to “bid defiance, in a just cause, to any earthly power whatsoever.” Jefferson foresaw a vast “empire of liberty” spreading west, north, and south across the continent. Hamilton believed the United States would, “erelong, assume an attitude correspondent with its great destinies–majestic, efficient, and operative of great things. A noble career lies before it.” John Quincy Adams considered the United States “destined by God and nature to be the most populous and powerful people ever combined under one social compact.” And Americans’ aspirations only grew in intensity over the decades, as national power and influence increased. In the 1850s, William Seward predicted that the United States would become the world’s dominant power, “the greatest of existing states, greater than any that has ever existed.” A century later, Dean Acheson, present at the creation of a U.S.-dominated world order, would describe the United States as “the locomotive at the head of mankind” and the rest of the world as “the caboose.” More recently, Bill Clinton labeled the United States “the world’s indispensable nation.”
From the beginning, others have seen Americans not as a people who sought ordered stability but as persistent disturbers of the status quo. As the ancient Corinthians said of the Athenians, they were “incapable of either living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so.” Nineteenth-century Americans were, in the words of French diplomats, “numerous,” “warlike,” and an “enemy to be feared.” In 1817, John Quincy Adams reported from London, “The universal feeling of Europe in witnessing the gigantic growth of our population and power is that we shall, if united, become a very dangerous member of the society of nations.” The United States was dangerous not only because it was expansionist, but also because its liberal republicanism threatened the established conservative order of that era. Austria’s Prince Metternich rightly feared what would happen to the “moral force” of Europe’s conservative monarchies when “this flood of evil doctrines” was married to the military, economic, and political power Americans seemed destined to acquire…..
via Cowboy Nation.
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