Paper by David Flash, HIS 306N: Latin America and the U.S. at the University of Texas at Austin, Grade: A- 10/12, Mean: 8.5/12

American exceptionalism, a sense of divinely-endowed societal and racial superiority underpinned the United States’ self-ascribed Manifest Destiny, its mission to spread its brand of “civilization” from sea to shining sea. U.S. actions in The Mexican American and Spanish American Wars were largely motivated by Manifest Destiny ideals. However, the same sense of superiority that served to justify and motivate U.S. engagement in both wars also put the brakes on incorporating into its borders Mexico and Cuba, the possible territorial spoils of those wars. Racialized rhetoric relating to Mexicans and Cubans in nineteenth century U.S. media and politics reveals attitudes of social superiority to be based on race. Examining this rhetoric, it becomes apparent that white American notions of superiority, rooted in racialism, both fueled and tempered the expansion of the nation’s influence and territorial footprint.

“The history of the world furnishes no example of…improvement in all circumstances…which bears any resemblance to it,”[1] James Monroe praises his country’s exceptional prosperity in 1823. “I can congratulate you on the continued prosperity of our country,” James K. Polk said in his 1845 state of the Union, “Under the blessings of Divine Providence and the benign influence of our free institutions, it stands before the world a spectacle of national happiness…”[2] The United States praised itself for progress, for advancing civilization. American expansionism, many statesmen and journalists argued, was a civilizational mission.[3] Newspaperman John O’Sullivan, who coined the term “Manifest Destiny” pointed to the “plough and rifle…schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting houses” as tools of civilization to bring “improvement in all circumstances” to lands beyond current U.S. borders.[4] “In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be,” Richard Henry Dana gushes of the opportunities California holds in his travelogue, Two Years Before the Mast. Dana caricatures Mexican inhabitants of California as intrinsically different from Americans: “thriftless, proud… given to gaming.”[5] This belief in the superiority of American society morally justified taking lands from people who were not as “enterprising.”

Dana was not alone in ascribing undesirable characteristics to non-whites. Peter Guardino points out in his chronicle of The Mexican American War, “ideas about race permeated both intellectual publications and the more popular media.” The Democratic Review, the very newspaper whose pages first trumpeted John O’Sullivan’s call to Manifest Destiny warned the adding lower Mexico to the United States would bring “calamity, despite the country’s great natural wealth. For it would add five million ignorant and indolent half-civilized Indians together with a million and a half free negroes and mulatoes…”[6] The Richmond Whig editorialized, “We have far more to dread from the acquisition of a debased population […] than to hope from extension of our territorial limits.”[7] U.S. Senator Lewis Cass declared from the Senate floor, “We do not want the people of Mexico… All we want is…territory…generally uninhabited, or, where inhabited at all, sparsely so, and with a population, which would soon recede, or identify itself with ours.” While the U.S., as victor in the conflagration, did attain its coveted Pacific coastline, lands south of the Rio Grande, spoiled by the “debased population,” remained Mexican.

Half a century later, victory in the Spanish American War gave the United States something else it had long coveted, control of Cuba. However, though the US had made frequent offers to purchase Cuba from Spain over the course of the nineteenth century, the opportunity to own Cuba at the end of Spanish American War was disavowed at the wars outset. In place of territorial control or annexation to the United States, control through interventionist foreign policy was preferred for Cuba. Factoring in this policy choice was the popular American perception that Cuba’s populace was racially inferior to its own. Cuban-American historian Ada Ferrer explains, “the Cuban revolution unfolded as…North American thinkers linked biology to progress [dividing] the world into superior and inferior races.” Ferrer paraphrases Cuba’s principal intellectual leader, Jose Marti, insisting race was “merely a tool…used by men who invented ‘textbook races’ in order to justify expansion and empire.” Cuba had become a society set on eradicating race during its 30-year fight for independence. “It is significant,” Ferrer concludes, that in an age of ascendant racism, [the U.S.] opted to temper the victory of an explicitly antiracist, multiracial movement.”[8]

Unless the lands were sparsely populated with peoples who “would soon recede, or identify itself with ours,” the U.S. saw bringing progress with the plow and American know-how as impossible. Thus, in areas where the U.S. sought dominion that were more densely settled with people of color than California, ambition to expand America’s borders was supplanted by policy to secure control. Exercising “benevolent” power, ostensibly to protect people innately incapable of protecting themselves, allowed all of the benefits of the desired countries’ territory and resources without the problem of integrating territories into U.S. society which were populated by people white Americans in the U.S. viewed as racially inferior.

Bibliography

Ferrer, Ada. “Rethinking Race, Nation, and Empire,” Radical History Review. Durham: Duke Press, 1999.

Frens-String, Dr. Joshua. Lecture 3.1: Looking South: Manifest Destiny, Texas and the Mexican American War. Austin: University of Texas at Austin. 2018.

Gutierrez, David. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Hahn, Steven. A Nation without Borders. London: Viking, 2017.

Monroe, James. The Monroe Doctrine excerpted in Latin America and the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011.

Polk, James. State of the Union Address to Congress, 1945 excerpted in Latin America and the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011.

[1] James Monroe. The Monroe Doctrine excerpted in Latin America and the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. pg. 16.

[2] James Polk, State of the Union Address to Congress, 1945 excerpted in Latin America and the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. pg. 24.

[3] Dr. Joshua Frens-String. Lecture 3.1: Looking South: Manifest Destiny, Texas and the Mexican-American War. Austin: University of Texas at Austin. 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] David Gutierrez. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Pg. 18.

[6] Steven Hahn. A Nation without Borders. London: Viking, 2017. Ch. 5 1:20:22.

[7] Ibid. pg. 16

[8] Ada Ferrer. “Rethinking Race, Nation, and Empire,” Radical History Review. Durham: Duke Press, 1999. pg. 28

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Photo by Christopher Ruel on Unsplash

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