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Political Parties and American Empire

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Daniel Walker Howe, reviewing Walter Nugent’s Habits of Empire, asks a good question:

The most significant deficit of “Habits of Empire” is that the book pays too little attention to the perennial opposition to American imperialism. However common, imperialism has been consistently controversial throughout American history, and objections have been raised to the imperial impulse from all corners of the American political stage. It would be interesting to know why, for example, the Democratic party, which enthusiastically supported Empire I under Jefferson, Jackson, and Polk, largely opposed Empire II [which included the acquisition of Caribbean and Pacific real estate after the Civil War].

That would be, I think, primarily due to the Democracy’s traditional pretensions to being the party of white yeoman supremacy — claims that were much more plausible as an excuse for continental expansion than as an excuse for, say, colonizing the Philippines or acquiring Cuba. Before the party foundered in the 1850s on the question of extending slavery into the territories, it could always defend the acquisition of new land (Louisiana, Florida, Oregon, etc.) in terms of gunfighter/settler mythology. That is, Western lands could be idealized as vacant — and thus a source for agrarian fantasies — while being temporarily occupied by people who required extermination or expulsion. Through the 1840s, Democratic expansionists insisted that such gains would be (a) consistent with the proper fulfillment of national destiny and, thus, (b) egalitarian in their economic and social consequences.

That illusion was strained, first by the debate over the annexation of Texas and then by the aftermath of the Mexican War, the latter of which proved to many Northern Democrats that the gains of that war amounted to a land grab for the slavocracy. When representatives of the execrable Franklin Pierce sought to acquire Cuba, and when pro-South mercenaries organized an array of filibustering schemes to take land in Central and South America, the cause of overseas expansion was firmly associated with the ominous designs of the Slave Power. No one pretended that Cuba or segments of Nicaragua, for example, would play host free white American farmers; these were to be plantation aristocracies and nothing more. The cultural mythology of the antebellum Democracy, then, had no place in these plans.

After the Civil War, there were a variety of concerns that fed Democratic opposition to the (generally) Republican-led efforts to widen the American imperium. It didn’t help that Republicans retained their commitment to high tariffs, which Democrats tended to oppose, and it didn’t help that the party of “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men” had matured into the instrument of Big Business. Quite simply, Democrats (and a variety of insurgent populists) were skeptical of Republican notions of a global American presence, because they couldn’t imagine Republicans would structure such a system to their benefit.

It also didn’t help that many Republicans were proposing to “civilize” — and potentially absorb as citizens — millions of non-white peoples whom most white Americans were unwilling to acknowledge as their peers. (Then again, even Republican voices could be heard arguing against further “amalgamation,” for the same reasons they tacitly accepted segregation ; The Nation, for instance, argued against Hawaiian annexation because it would only feed racists’ “inextinguishable passion” for blood.) For Southern Democrats especially, the ideology of the “white man’s burden” posed a challenge to the ideology of Jim Crow; they weren’t completely incompatible species of white supremacy, but neither were they easily combined into a bipartisan rationale for imperialism.

Anyhow, Nugent’s book seems worth a read. As does Howe’s, of course….

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