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American Foreign Policy to 1899 (under construction)

Selected and introduced by Stephen F. Knott

This collection focuses on a broad array of foreign policy pronouncements over a remarkably lengthy epoch in American history: from a sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 to the emergence of the United States as the world’s premier economic power in the 1890s.

Students seeking to label or define the basic precepts of American foreign policy during this era are confronted with a challenge due to the democratic nature of the American political order. The nation’s relations with the outside world fluctuated with changes in presidential administrations, sometimes dramatically so. While sharing a belief in the special place of the United States in the world, the nation’s leaders frequently differed as to the best means to preserve the nation’s security and advance its interests abroad.

There were, however, some discernible threads that seemed to consistently emerge in debates over American foreign policy, including a tendency to assume that the people, if not the governments, of the world looked to the United States as a beacon, as the “last best hope” of mankind. Even American statesmen who opposed intervention abroad tended to see the United States as something of a “City upon a Hill.” This sense of America’s special place in the world was reinforced by its geographic isolation from the quarrels of Europe. The new nation was truly “set apart.” The downside to Americans’ pride in their exceptional regime was that it fostered a contemptuous view of nations that had yet to secure the blessings of liberty. Some Americans came to believe that these nations needed to be “civilized,” at the point of a bayonet if necessary.

Two recurring issues confronted America’s leaders during this era. The first was whether the nation should support movements around the globe seeking to overthrow the crowned heads who still ruled much of the planet.
The second focused on the propriety of territorial acquisition for a nation founded on the principle of self-government.

In many ways the contours of the perennial debate over the course of American foreign policy were set within five years of  the nation’s founding. The disputes between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to William Short, The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates, “Views on the French Revolution,” Farewell Address), while generally focused on questions of constitutional interpretation related to domestic matters, occasionally involved disputes over the correct course of action in the international arena. While that portfolio belonged to the secretary of state, Hamilton frequently contested Jefferson’s policies, much to the latter’s distress. Although both men were patriots, they held markedly different views regarding the principles and practices that should guide the new nation’s foreign policy.

Both Jefferson and Hamilton considered the survival of the American experiment to be the foremost concern of the federal government. They differed as to which policies best served the national interest, with Hamilton embracing the idea of a world of sovereign nation-states competing for influence and wishing to see America takes its place in that existing system. Jefferson believed the new American order should leave the Old World’s conflict-ridden system on the ash heap of history. In Jefferson’s view, a world of self-governing republics was ultimately in America’s national interest, as such republics would pursue peaceful relations with one another. These self-governing republics would prosper economically, and consequently would see peace as the key to happiness and security. Its unique geographic circumstances permitted the United States to serve as a model for all man-kind and for all those eager to move beyond the perpetual slaughterhouse of European politics.

One of the most bitter disputes between Hamilton and Jefferson concerned American policy toward the revolutionary government of France. This dispute occurred at a time when the tensions in President Washington’s cabinet were at the breaking point. According to Hamilton, the American Revolution was characterized by a devotion to liberty, the French Revolution by a passion for licentiousness. Hamilton was repulsed by the atrocities committed by the Jacobins in France and favored a foreign policy that tilted
toward Great Britain.

Hamilton found much to admire in Britain’s political and economic systems. This put him in an untenable position at times, since most Americans viewed Great Britain as an “evil empire.” One of the threads that emerges repeatedly throughout this collection of documents is the American disdain for all things British, as if this disdain were in the nation’s DNA—and arguably it was. Hamilton’s willingness to tolerate, if not embrace, aspects of British principles and practices thus put him and his policies at odds with many of his countrymen. Although he initially welcomed the French Revolution, Hamilton soon saw little to admire in it. He considered mankind to be deeply flawed and thought movements that spoke of creating a new man through political action were both futile and dangerous. Men, in Hamilton’s view, were “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious,” and the same could be said for the conduct of nations.

Thomas Jefferson had a more optimistic perspective. He thought mankind was progressing toward justice and enlightenment. Great Britain remained a major stumbling block to this progress. The French revolutionaries, while occasionally allowing their zealotry to get the best of them, were nonetheless on the cutting edge of history. Jefferson believed that the French Revolution was evidence that the principles of 1776 were taking root in Europe, and upon its success rested the fortunes of free men everywhere. The extent to which the United States should endorse or assist this revolution divided not only President Washington’s two key cabinet members but the American people as well. This dispute over American policy toward France was one of the key factors leading to the creation of the two-party system in the United States.

In this debate two schools of thought emerged. The one strongly associated with Hamilton was realism. Members of this school tended to think in terms of the “national interest.” They believed that it was not in America’s interest to ally with an unstable revolutionary government and thereby alienate its largest trading partner, Great Britain. Hamilton was critical of a foreign policy governed by sentimentality or passion—or as he crudely put it, a “womanish” attachment to a foreign nation. Hamilton believed that Jefferson possessed such an attachment when it came to France.

Jefferson, on the other hand, believed that a Revolutionary War–era treaty obligated the United States to come to the aid of its former ally. Additionally, Jefferson considered Great Britain to be the world’s foremost opponent of liberty and self government. These ideals animated Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and set the American political order apart from the rest of the world. This more idealistic approach to American foreign policy considered the realist approach a betrayal of everything the “last best hope” of mankind represented.

The contrast between realism and idealism, while somewhat simplistic and often overdrawn (even in the case of Hamilton and Jefferson), nevertheless provides some insight into the motives of America’s foreign policy practitioners during this era. Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s successors tended to fall somewhere along this realism–idealism continuum, although individuals might alter their position depending on the passions surrounding a particular issue. And one cannot dismiss the fact that for some political figures a foreign policy choice might depend on how it affected their electoral prospects. But again, the basic outline of the debate over American foreign policy through 1899 was set by Jefferson and Hamilton.

Many textbooks argue that the era from the founding to 1899 was characterized by American isolationism. While the United States did not engage with the rest of the world to the extent that it would in the twentieth century, where it arguably became the “world’s policeman,” this era was hardly one of isolationism. The United States intervened abroad in a variety of ways from the beginning of its existence, especially when it came to Latin America (President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith, Annual Message (Monroe Doctrine), Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson). Using America’s growing economic power—and their penchant for covert operations—a series of American presidents, for better and for worse, began a battle for the soul of the Americas by spreading the gospel of self-government, often accompanied by calls for opening economic markets or ceding territory to the United States. And sadly, for some American leaders during this time, expansion was motivated by a desire to extend the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

During this era the United States fought three of its five declared wars: the War of 1812, the War with Mexico, and the Spanish-American War. These conflicts were all justified as necessary to defend the nation’s “honor” and expand the “empire of liberty.” Some policymakers adopted a literal interpretation of “empire” and concluded that the acquisition of new territory was essential to the success and survival of liberty. Opponents of these wars believed that the United States betrayed its principles when it engaged in territorial acquisition either through force or through economic coercion; it should instead avoid war and attract adherents to the sacred cause of liberty by leading through example. The War of 1812 concluded in something of a standoff, while the latter two wars were see —at least in raw political and military terms—as great successes. But all three conflicts generated considerable opposition on the home front and raised serious questions about whether in its drive for expansion the nation was abandoning its founding precepts, or putting it more bluntly, was acting in a manner consistent with the practices of the Old World.

The reader will note the inclusion in this collection of sever documents related to the use of secret operations (President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, The Acquisition of Hawaii). Many Americans assume that American reliance on such operations is something of a twentieth-century phenomenon, beginning with the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War, or perhaps with the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947. That is not the case. Prominent American statesmen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries considered clandestine operations to be an important tool in their foreign policy arsenal; in fact, many seemed to believe that these operations were superior to any overt use of force.

It is important to note that the operations discussed in this collection were conducted by emissaries hired by the Department of State. In most instances, clandestine operations were directed by the American ambassador to the host country. The high wall of separation between diplomacy and secret operations that became commonplace in the twentieth century did not yet exist. All of the major world powers operated in this fashion, and in this sense there was nothing exceptional about America’s use of these operations. It is interesting to note, however, that during this era the United States took its first steps toward creating separate bureaucratic entities devoted to clandestine operations. The secretary of the navy established the Office of Naval Intelligence in 1882, and the Army followed suit with its Military Information Division in 1885.

Clandestine operations were used from the earliest days of the republic. General Washington employed such tactics throughout the Revolutionary War, and upon becoming president under the new Constitution sought to incorporate them as a permanent part of the president’s portfolio (First Annual Message to Congress). While Washington agonized over the need to deal with individuals of dubious character who were part of the “business of intelligence,” he believed that necessity dictated their use. His request for a “Secret Service Fund” in January 1790 marked the beginning of presidential recourse to these operations.

Clandestine operations were attractive to American leaders in general because they allowed the nation to project force short of war and served as a substitute for a large standing military. They were cheaper than conventional
uses of force in terms of sparing both American blood and treasure. And they allowed the nation to secretly project force and occasionally acquire territory while preserving the notion that republics do not covet other nations’ territory or employ the heavy-handed tactics of monarchies. Nevertheless, it is important to note that there is no intention to equate the significance of the dispatch of a secret operative to a foreign land with something like the Monroe Doctrine or the three declared wars that occurred during this time.

The Americans who lived during this era were blessed with a protective moat separating them from much of the globe. Long before the advent of aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles, this moat set Americans apart from the violence and political instability of the Old World. While this sense of security had its benefits, it also fostered a fear of foreign lands and foreigners. Americans approached foreign interactions with some trepidation, fearing a loss of republican virtue through any interaction (or “entanglements”) with corrupt foreign regimes. That angst persists to this day, as the repeated resonance of campaign slogans such as “Come Home, America” and “America First” reveals.

Nonetheless, during this remarkable era in its history, the United States emerged as a major player on the world scene, however reluctantly. Its global interactions would lead the nation down paths many wished it did not have to travel. One member of the founding generation, Chancellor Robert Livingston of New York, negotiated the treaty with Napoleon that led to the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory. Livingston noted that “we have lived long but this is the noblest work of our whole lives. . . the United States take rank this day among the first powers of the world.” But even at this triumphant moment, Livingston likely recalled the words Napoleon uttered when the two men met: “You have come to a very corrupt world.”

 

American Exceptionalism

American Relations with Great Britain and France

Annexation

Secret Operations

Diplomacy

Colonialism/Imperialism

Presidential Power over Foreign Affairs

War

Filter by Thread

For each of the documents in this collection, we suggest below questions relevant for that document alone and questions that require comparison between documents.

Governor John Winthrop, “A City upon a Hill,” 1630

A. John Winthrop said that the eyes of the world would be upon the settlers of New England. Was this due to the actions of the colonists or simply because they were some of the first settlers in the New World? Are there dangers associated with believing you are, or should act like, a chosen people? Why do you think presidents as diverse as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have cited Winthrop’s remarks?

B. Was the United States a “new order for the ages”—an exceptional nation— and thus committed to breaking with the traditional practices of nation-states in Europe? (See Declaration of Independence, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, Federalist 1, Market Speech, Special Message Regarding the Annexation of Santo Domingo, The Olney Corollary, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain, Against American Imperialism.)

Second Continental Congress, Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, November 29, 1775

A. Why do you think the founding generation considered it so vital to establish relations with foreign governments? What might they have expected to achieve with these relationships?

B. Did preserving and protecting this “new order for the ages” require the use of Old World practices? Is secrecy consistent with a government based on consent and the rule of law? (See Federalist 64, First Annual Message to Congress, President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)

Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, 1776

A. Why do you think the drafters of the Declaration considered it important to declare to the world their reasons for separating from Great Britain? Jefferson believed that the principles of the Declaration applied globally. Is it possible that this is not the case—that some human beings do not share the views that Jefferson believed were intrinsically human? Does the fact that some nations still reject the principles of the Declaration indicate that Jefferson was wrong to assume these were “self-evident” truths?

B. Did the fact that the United States was graced with the “blessings of liberty” require the nation to propagate these blessings abroad through diplomatic, military, or covert means? (See “A City upon a Hill,” Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, Market Speech, Special Message Regarding the Annexation of Santo Domingo, The Olney Corollary, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain, Against American Imperialism.)

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, 1785

A. Jefferson argued that America’s geographic location provided it with certain advantages. What are those advantages? Where did Jefferson suggest that the United States should confront its European enemies? The habits of Americans attached them to commerce, Jefferson argued, yet his preference would be for what type of citizen? Why was Jefferson dismissive of the importance of a standing army?

B. This document was written almost ten years after the Declaration of Independence. What similarities can you see between this document and the Declaration Are there any comparisons to be drawn between this document and Jefferson’s dealings with the Barbary pirates? Are there passages in this document that reveal some of the policies President Jefferson would pursue during hostilities with Great Britain in 1807–8?

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 1, October 27, 1787

A. According to Hamilton, the success or failure of what principle rested on the United States? Hamilton used the phrase “empire” in this excerpt. What do you think he meant by using this term? Hamilton referred to a “crisis” in this passage. What “crisis” was he referring to?

B. Was the United States a “new order for the ages”—an exceptional nation— and thus committed to breaking with the traditional practices of nation-states in Europe? (See “A City upon a Hill,” Declaration of Independence, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine, Market Speech, Against American Imperialism.)

John Jay, Federalist 64, March 5, 1788

A. Which entities of the federal government did Jay believe were best equipped to deal with foreign affairs? What disadvantages did he see as inherent in the House of Representatives in dealing with treaties and foreign affairs? What did Jay mean when he referred to “tides” in the affairs of men? Who did he think was best equipped to deal with “the business of intelligence”? What features built into the Senate permitted it a more extensive role in foreign affairs than the House? Jay mentioned the importance of executive “secrecy and dispatch.” Why might this quality be vital in dealing with foreign affairs?

B. Does Jay’s argument contradict the idea that the “consent of the governed” is fundamental to the American political order? What would Jay say to those who argue that transparency and accountability to the people are lost when secrecy predominates? Is secrecy consistent with a government based on the rule of law? (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, First Annual Message to Congress, Message to the House of Representatives, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)

President George Washington to the U.S. Senate, August 22, 1789

A. Washington initially believed that the “advice and consent” provision of the Constitution required the president to seek the Senate’s guidance regarding treaties with foreign entities. He and his successors for the most part abandoned this practice. Why? Was this a positive development from the perspective of constitutional government? What are the costs and benefits to a president in engaging the Senate prior to negotiating with a foreign government?

B. Washington would later argue that he was entitled to withhold documents related to foreign negotiations from the House of Representatives (Message to the House of Representatives). Did his angry response to the Senate in this instance and his invocation of executive privilege with the House set the stage for presidential primacy over foreign affairs? (See First Annual Message to Congress, The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates, Message to the House of Representatives, Farewell Address.)

President George Washington, First Annual Message to Congress, January 8, 1790

A. What impact do you think Washington’s experience as the commander of an army had on his request for a Secret Service Fund? How important do you think it was that this request came from George Washington in terms of its approval by Congress? How did a request like this enhance presidential control of foreign policy?

B. How is Congress able to conduct its oversight functions if certain presidential actions are off limits to scrutiny? Is secrecy consistent with a government based on consent and the rule of law (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Federalist 64, Message to the House of Representatives, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)?

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to William Short, January 3, 1793

A. Why did Secretary of State Jefferson reprimand William Short? What points did Jefferson make in arguing for a patient approach to the French Revolution? Who did Jefferson believe was behind the effort to tarnish the reputation of the French revolutionaries? Jefferson compared the innocent deaths lost in the French Revolution to casualties of war. Does this strike you as a fair comparison?

B. Lives are lost in any revolution—arguably in any movement for change. Considering this, which argument do you find compelling in terms of Jefferson and Hamilton and the French Revolution (The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates and “Views on the French Revolution”)?

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates, June–September 1793

A. What role did Hamilton see for Congress regarding war powers? Why did Hamilton consider the phrase “the executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States” to be such an important passage in the Constitution? Does Madison’s argument exclude the possibility that the president can respond to an attack on the United States or its armed forces without waiting for Congress to act? Does Hamilton’s argument open the door to the abuse of presidential warmaking power? Did the fact that George Washington accepted Hamilton’s argument open the door to presidential primacy over foreign affairs? Between Pacificus and Helvidius, which arguments do you find the most compelling?

B. From your readings of the various war messages in this collection, did Madison’s interpretation or Hamilton’s interpretation of war powers prevail over the long run? In your opinion, did the United States have an obligation to assist an ally who helped secure American independence? (See Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Relations with France, the XYZ Affair, First Annual Message to Congress, The Embargo Act, War Message, Special Message to Congress on Mexican Relations, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain.)

Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, “Views on the French Revolution,” 1794

A. Why did Hamilton believe religion so important to a healthy political order? According to Hamilton, “an attack was first made upon the Christian Revelation; for which natural Religion was offered as the substitute.” Whom do you think he had in mind when he made this statement? What, according to Hamilton, set the French Revolution apart from the American Revolution? Hamilton seemed to suggest that the French Revolution’s faith in science and reason was ultimately unhealthy. Why do you think he made this claim, and do you agree?

B. As with the American revolutionaries, the French revolutionaries toppled a monarchy and formed a republic. Did the excesses of the French revolutionaries provide sufficient cause to support Hamilton’s claim that Americans had no moral or legal obligation to assist France? (See Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to William Short, Farewell Address, Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Relations with France, the XYZ Affair.)

President George Washington, Message to the House of Representatives, March 30, 1796

A. What unique characteristics about foreign relations led President Washington to reject the House’s request for documents? What features given to the Senate and not the House give the Senate more authority over foreign relations? Did Washington’s stance on this matter enhance or diminish the principle of checks and balances? Did it enhance or diminish the principle of separation of powers?

B. What similarities do you detect in Washington’s position in this message near the end of his presidency and the position he staked out in his First Annual Message to Congress in January 1790? Do you notice any differences in the argument made by President Washington and that made by President Polk?

President George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796

A. Is there anything in the Farewell Address that strikes you as contrary to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence? What dangers did Washington see in America forming an attachment to a foreign nation? What advantages accrue to the United States due to its geographic isolation from Europe? Washington proposed that the United States pursue commercial agreements with foreign nations but avoid “political” agreements. Why do you think he made that distinction? In practice, is it possible to distinguish clearly between commercial agreements and political agreements?

B. Are there any indications in this address that Washington believed the United States was exceptional, a “city upon a hill”? (See Declaration of Independence, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine, The Olney Corollary, Against American Imperialism.)

John Adams, Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Relations with France, the XYZ Affair, May 16, 1797

A. What military preparedness steps did President Adams propose to deal with the looming war with France? How important did the preservation of America’s “honor” seem to be in Adams’ thinking? Did Adams give any indication of what he thought defined the “American character”?

B. Did Adams share Washington’s concern expressed in the Farewell Address about foreign nations meddling in internal American affairs? (See First Annual Message to Congress, The Embargo Act, War Message, Special Message to Congress on Mexican Relations, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain.)

President Thomas Jefferson, First Annual Message to Congress, December 8, 1801

A. What reason did President Jefferson give for the release of the seized Tripolitan cruiser? According to Jefferson, the “energies” of the American nation were directed toward what end? Jefferson was asking Congress for permission to authorize “measures of offense.” Hamilton argued that such permission was unnecessary, that the president could order offensive operations the minute American ships were attacked. Which argument do you find most compelling?

B. What similarities, if any, do you see in this message and President Polk’s war message or President McKinley’s war message? (See Farewell Address, Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Relations with France, the XYZ Affair.)

Senator Timothy Pickering to President Thomas Jefferson, February 24, 1806

A. Was Senator Pickering arguing that it was in America’s national interest to support Haiti or that America’s ideals required such support? Pickering seemed to accuse President Jefferson of placing French interests over American interests. What other grounds might have prompted the president to propose an embargo against Haiti? How much of a role do you believe race might have played regarding American policy toward Haiti?

B. Throughout the early republic, both Federalists and Democrat-Republicans accused their opponents of dual loyalty, either to Great Britain or to France. What other reasons might have led leaders of both parties to pursue foreign policies that were not rooted in treason? (See Declaration of Independence, Farewell Address.)

President Thomas Jefferson, Message to Congress on the Embargo, December 17, 1807; Proclamation on the Embargo, April 19, 1808

A. Jefferson hoped his embargo would both protect American ships and commerce and convince the belligerent powers of Europe to cease their harassment of American shipping. Why might this policy have failed? In what ways did the embargo fulfill the idea that America was an exceptional nation, a “new order for the ages”? President Jefferson ordered a crackdown against smugglers defying the embargo. In what ways might those who were breaking the embargo law argue that they were acting consonant with the nation’s founding principles and practices?

B. Did Jefferson’s decision to avoid war through an economic embargo incorporate elements of Washington’s Farewell Address, with its warnings against “entanglements” in the conflicts of Europe? In the instance of the embargo, was Jefferson being consistent with the arguments he made twenty years earlier in Notes on the State of Virginia? (See Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine.)

President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith, July 17, 1810

A. Is this document an example of an American president choosing to ignore the nation’s founding principles in order to acquire territory? The action in West Florida was directed against an Old World power, Spain, which was governed by a monarchical regime. Do those two facts provide any justification for this aggression? Did the fact that West Florida bordered on American territory provide some justification for Madison’s action? How do actions like this impact Congress’ role in shaping American foreign policy?

B. What costs are there to America’s reputation both at home and abroad when clandestine actions of this sort are revealed? Do actions of this type indicate that the United States was not a “new order for the ages” but rather cut from the same cloth as the Old World? (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Federalist 64, First Annual Message to Congress, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)

President James Madison, War Message, June 1, 1812

A. According to President Madison, what prompted the war between the United States and Britain? What did Madison mean by claiming that the United States had tried to avoid war by “mak[ing] every experiment short of the last resort of injured nations”? How did Madison explain the failure of the economic measures designed to alter Britain’s behavior?

B. Compare Madison’s war message with those of Polk and McKinley. Are there any consistent themes in these messages to Congress? Were there grounds by which Madison could have initiated combat on the high seas without a formal declaration of war? (See Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Relations with France, the XYZ Affair, First Annual Message to Congress, The Embargo Act, Special Message to Congress on Mexican Relations, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain.)

Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, September 10, 1814

A. Why did Jefferson believe it would be easy to hire arsonists in London to torch St. Paul’s Cathedral? What defense did Jefferson offer regarding Napoleon Bonaparte’s actions? Jefferson argued that the Americans subjected to “barbaric” acts by the British during the War of 1812 were nonetheless better off than British citizens. What evidence did he offer to support this contention? Did the fact that arson would be used in retaliation for a similar act justify its use? Are Jefferson’s musings regarding arson similar to Teddy Roosevelt’s axiom, perhaps with a slight twist, to “speak softly and carry a blowtorch”?

B. What principles were invoked here and elsewhere to justify the use of covert means to advance American interests? Are means normally considered repugnant justifiable in wartime? (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Federalist 64, First Annual Message to Congress, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, July 4, 1821

A. According to Adams, what had the United States done for the benefit of all mankind? Adams claimed that the United States avoided meddling in the affairs of other nations even when democratic principles were at stake. Did this make him a realist or an idealist? What would happen to the United States should it become the “dictatress of the world”? While the United States would avoid intervening in foreign conflicts, Adams contended that it would continue to influence the world by what means?

B. How are the principles enunciated by Adams in concert with Washington’s Farewell Address? Did Adams believe that the United States was an exceptional nation? What do you think Adams might say to later advocates of American imperialism? (See “A City upon a Hill,” Declaration of Independence, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, Farewell Address, Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine, The Ostend Manifesto, The Olney Corollary, Against American Imperialism.)

President James Monroe, Annual Message (Monroe Doctrine), December 2, 1823

A. Critics of the Monroe Doctrine have claimed that it opened the door to American expansionism throughout the Western Hemisphere. How might this be so? According to Monroe, what was the policy of the United States regarding diplomatic relations with governments it found objectionable? Would you say that the author of the doctrine was a realist or an idealist? How did the United States plan to resist European encroachments in the Americas?

B. To what extent has the United States abided by the proposition “not to interfere in the internal concerns of any . . [European] powers”? What language or sentiments can you detect in the Monroe Doctrine that resonate with the Farewell Address and the Declaration of Independence? Are the principles of the Monroe Doctrine at odds with American territorial acquisition or westward expansion? (See  “A City upon a Hill,” Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, The Ostend Manifesto, The Olney Corollary, Against American Imperialism.)

Joel R. Poinsett to Secretary of State Henry Clay and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, Selected Dispatches, 1825–1829

A. By what means was Poinsett planning to influence the Mexican government? Which foreign government did Poinsett identify in his dispatch to Henry Clay as intervening in Mexico? Poinsett characterized his intervention in Mexican politics as a way to moderate the excesses of dissatisfied elements in the country. Does this at all justify Poinsett’s meddling? How do actions like this impact Congress’ role in shaping American foreign policy?

B. Do the actions described in these dispatches accord with the Monroe Doctrine? Should the fact that Mexico borders the United States have changed the calculations of American foreign policy makers regarding intervention? How might actions like this, when publicly revealed, impact America’s reputation? (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Federalist 64, First Annual Message to Congress, Farewell Address, President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)

Thomas Jefferson to Roger Chew Weightman, June 24, 1826

A. How optimistic was Jefferson that the Declaration’s principles were taking root around the globe? Do you think this optimism was misplaced? What was Jefferson referring to when he mentioned “monkish ignorance and superstition” as a force keeping men in chains?

B. Did the fact that the United States was graced with the “blessings of liberty” require the nation to propagate these blessings abroad through diplomatic, military, or covert means? (See “A City upon a Hill,” Declaration of Independence, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22, Selected Dispatches, Market Speech, Special Message Regarding the Annexation of Santo Domingo, The Olney Corollary, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain, Against American Imperialism.)

Anthony Butler to President Andrew Jackson, January 2, 1833; President Andrew Jackson to Anthony Butler, October 30, 1833

A. By what means was Anthony Butler planning to influence the Mexican government? What was the goal of Butler’s influence campaign? Butler remained in Mexico for close to six years. Why do you think his mission failed?

B. What are the costs to America’s reputation, both at home and abroad, when actions like Butler’s are revealed? If the British were interfering in Mexico, was this an appropriate response on the part of the U.S. government? The Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to not meddle in the Americas. Considering that warning, were Jackson and Butler merely implementing the doctrine’s principles? (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Federalist 64, First Annual Message to Congress, Farewell Address, President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine, Selected Dispatches, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)

Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, June 7, 1841

A. What was the goal of Smith’s operation in Maine? What  tactics was Smith planning to employ to achieve that goal? Why was it so important to alter public opinion in this case? If foreign policy is the province of the federal government, as the Constitution mandates, was it not appropriate for the federal government to take control of the situation in Maine?

B. Do securing the peace and avoiding war ever justify the use of illegal means? What were the consequences to Congress’ power over foreign affairs from this “successful” operation? Secretary of State Webster turned to the British to help fund this campaign. Is this type of collusion in the interests of preserving the peace ever permissible? (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Federalist 64, First Annual Message to Congress, Farewell Address, President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)

President James K. Polk, Special Message to the House of Representatives, April 20, 1846

A. Why did Polk contend that it would be inappropriate for him to hand over the requested materials to Congress? Polk argued that it would be inappropriate for a president to question the motives and rationale of a predecessor who wished to conceal certain facts. Does this strike you as an appropriate method of governing for a republic? Did Polk make any exception to his claim that this type of material can never be handed over to Congress? What argument did Polk make in favor of secrecy in foreign negotiations? When Polk noted that all nations engaged in these types of practices, was he acknowledging that the United States was no different than any other world power?

B. Who has the stronger argument in terms of invoking executive privilege: George Washington or James K. Polk? Congress attempted to investigate what happened in Maine, but the investigation was blocked at nearly every turn. What does this case teach us about the effectiveness of checks and balances in the realm of foreign policy, especially regarding clandestine operations? (See First Annual Message to Congress, Message to the House of Representatives.)

President James K. Polk, Special Message to Congress on Mexican Relations, May 11, 1846

A. According to President Polk, what were some of the “injuries” the United States had suffered at the hands of Mexico? What was John Slidell’s assignment, and why, according to Polk, did Slidell fail? Why do you think President Polk emphasized the lack of constitutionally prescribed means of succession in Mexico as a problem for the Slidell mission? What were General Zachary Taylor’s instructions? Was the interruption of commerce between the United States and Mexico a factor that led to war?

B. Are there any similarities between this message and Thomas Jefferson’s message regarding events in the Mediterranean in 1801? (See Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Relations with France, the XYZ Affair, The Embargo Act, War Message, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain.)

Henry Clay, Market Speech, November 13, 1847

A. What did Clay foresee as the greatest danger that could befall the United States? What problems did he anticipate arising if the United States annexed Mexico? What did Clay have to say about the status of slavery in Kentucky and in the United States as a whole? What, according to Clay, does history teach us about attempts to conquer and annex territory?

B. Did Henry Clay believe in American exceptionalism—the idea that the United States is a “City upon a Hill”? How do Clay’s sentiments accord with the principles enunciated in the Monroe Doctrine? While serving as secretary of state in the 1820s, Henry Clay worked with Joel Poinsett to acquire Texas from Mexico. Is there a contradiction between the principles of the Market Speech and his dealings with Poinsett? (See Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson.)

Pierre Soule, James Buchanan, and John Y. Mason, The Ostend Manifesto, October 18, 1854

A. What did the authors of this manifesto hope to achieve? What strategic reasons did they offer for acquiring Cuba? Why had Cuba “become . . . an unceasing danger” to the United States? The authors contended that “the United States have never acquired a foot of territory excerpt by fair purchase.” Do you agree with this statement? What course of action did the authors recommend if Spain refused to sell Cuba to the United States? Does race appear to be a factor in the authors’ proposed course of action?

B. Do the principles of the  Monroe Doctrine animate this manifesto? Did the authors believe that the United States was an exceptional nation (“A City upon a Hill”)? Is there any difference between what the Ostend authors advocated and what President Madison did in the Floridas (President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith)? Considering events in the twentieth century, were the authors correct in terms of their assessment of Cuba as a potential threat to the United States? (See Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Against American Imperialism.)

Correspondence between Secretary of State William Seward and Ambassador Charles Francis Adams, May 21, 1861

A. What did Secretary Seward instruct Ambassador Adams to do if the British government met with representatives of America’s “domestic enemies”? What did Seward expect the other nations of Europe to do if England and France recognized the Confederacy? What instructions did Seward provide regarding the Union blockade of Confederate ports? According to Seward, Britain’s recognition of the Confederacy would be tantamount to “British intervention.” Why did he make this claim? Seward warned that if Britain made the wrong choice regarding recognition, it would lose the “only nation on whose sympathies and affections she has a natural claim.” What did Seward mean by this, and why make this claim? What was Charles Francis Adams’ reaction to the British government’s position when he arrived in England? What arguments did Adams present to the British dismissing the notion that the Confederacy was a belligerent state? What form did Adams expect the Union blockade to take? What reassurances did Adams provide to the British regarding tariffs and trade?

B. Are there elements of the Monroe Doctrine in either of these dispatches? What factors might have inclined the British government to recognize the Confederacy? Was the U.S. government asking Britain to adopt a position of neutrality or to take affirmative steps in support of the Union? To what extent might Ambassador Adams’ diplomacy have been complicated by Union agents’ covert operations in Europe? (See Farewell Address, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives.)

Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, July 4, 1861

A. What tactics did Sanford suggest he would use to acquire information from the Confederate “commissioners”? Sanford proposed to use a team he created outside of “official” channels. What potential problems are there with using this kind of “off the cuff” capability in a republic? What did Shelton mean when he compared war to love? Why did Sanford say that clandestine operations were so expensive?

B. How might covert operations like Sanford’s, when publicly revealed, impact America’s reputation? Did keeping Britain from recognizing the Confederacy justify the use of illegal means? How might such operations affect Congress’ power over foreign affairs? (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Federalist 64, First Annual Message to Congress, Farewell Address, President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)

President Ulysses S. Grant, Special Message Regarding the Annexation of Santo Domingo, May 31, 1870

A. What impact did Grant see the annexation of Santo Domingo having on slavery? If Grant was correct that the people of Santo Domingo “yearn[ed] for the protection of our free institutions and laws, our progress and civilization,” then he was claiming that American imperialism was a force for good. Do you agree with Grant? What arguments did Grant make for Santo Domingo’s strategic importance? How important were “cheaper” goods for the American public to Grant’s desire to annex this island?

B. What influence did the Monroe Doctrine have on Grant’s decision to annex Santo Domingo? What do you think Secretary of State John Quincy Adams would think of annexing Santo Domingo? How important do you think the issue of race was in terms of Grant’s proposal to annex Santo Domingo, and in the Senate’s rejection of the treaty? (See Senator Timothy Pickering to President Thomas Jefferson, The Ostend Manifesto, Against American Imperialism.)

Justice Stephen J. Field, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, April 10, 1876

A. What was the contract allegedly agreed to by President Lincoln and William Lloyd? According to Justice Field, the president, as commander in chief, was “undoubtedly authorized” to do what? Why did Field argue that the courts were not allowed to intrude on decisions involving secret operations? Field claimed that secret operations were “sometimes indispensable to the government” and that they were under the control of the president. Under our system of separation of powers and checks and balances, would it be better to give the other branches of government a greater role in these matters?

B. What are the long-term consequences of a decision like this on Congress’ role in foreign affairs? Is secrecy consistent with a government based on consent and the rule of law? What argument would you make in favor of judicial review of secret executive branch decisions? (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Federalist 64, First Annual Message to Congress, President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Ambassador Henry Shelton Sanford to Secretary of State William Seward, The Acquisition of Hawaii.)

The Acquisition of Hawaii, Correspondence between Secretary of State John W. Foster and Ambassador John Stevens, 1892 1893; American Diplomacy in the Orient, John W. Foster, 1904

A. According to Ambassador Stevens, Hawaii in 1892 was at a  crossroads and had to make a decision. What was that decision? Why did Secretary Foster urge Ambassador Stevens to use two modes of communication with him? Why did Foster urge Stevens to keep in close contact with the U.S. Navy? Secretary of State Foster and Ambassador Stevens believed that the United States was bringing the gift of “civilization” to Hawaii. Why would they make such a claim? What was Foster alluding to when he drew a parallel between
the situation in Hawaii and the “aborigines” colonists encountered on the Atlantic Coast?

B. Did Foster and Stevens believe that the United States was an exceptional nation (“A City upon a Hill”)? In what sense could you argue that they were putting the principles of the Declaration of Independence (Declaration of Independence) into practice? Could Foster and Stevens claim that what they were doing was no different from what President Madison did in the Floridas (President James Madison to Secretary of State Robert Smith)? Is there any difference between what the Ostend authors advocated and what Foster and Stevens were discussing here? How do you think John Quincy Adams might react to the actions of Foster and Stevens (See Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine)? (See Establishment of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Federalist 64, First Annual Message to Congress, Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Selected Dispatches, Correspondence Between Anthony Butler and President Andrew Jackson, Hon. Francis O. J. Smith to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Special Message to the House of Representatives, Totten, Administrator, v. United States, Against American Imperialism.)

Secretary of State Richard Olney to Ambassador Thomas Bayard, The Olney Corollary, July 20, 1895

A. What justification did Olney give for America’s “interposition” in the dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela? Why did he reject claims that this “interposition” would be “impertinent intermeddling”? What was the source of America’s ability to rule the Western Hemisphere by “fiat”? According to Olney, what lessons did the American people and government learn from the history of European meddling in the Americas? Olney observed that the people of the United States have a “vital interest in the cause of popular self-government.” How did this situation affect that cause and allow them to protect that interest?

B. Olney referred to the Monroe Doctrine throughout this document. Some have argued that Olney distorted the Monroe Doctrine. Do you agree, or does his interpretation strike you as credible? Did Olney embrace the idea that America’s geographic isolation gives it a strategic advantage in the Western Hemisphere (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 22)? Did Olney believe that America is an exceptional nation, a “City upon a Hill”? (See Federalist 1, Farewell Address, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, Against American Imperialism.)

President William McKinley, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain, April 11, 1898

A. What points did President McKinley make in arguing that instability in Cuba had negatively affected the United States? What examples did McKinley cite to support his contention that Spanish rule of Cuba had been inhumane and uncivilized? If you were a member of Congress at that time, would you have been sufficiently moved by McKinley’s account of atrocities to vote to intervene in Cuba? According to McKinley, Spain’s war against Cuban insurgents was likely to lead to what outcome? How important was the disruption of American trade and commerce to the decision to intervene in Cuba? What did McKinley have to say about the destruction of the USS Maine?

B. Compare McKinley’s war message with those of Madison and Polk. Are there any consistent themes in these messages to Congress? Could one say that McKinley’s focus on a humanitarian rationale for intervention anticipated what would become a norm in international relations in the twentieth century—that is, the responsibility of the international community to halt atrocities? (See Farewell Address, Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Relations with France, the XYZ Affair, First Annual Message to Congress, The Embargo Act, Against American Imperialism.)

Carl Schurz, “Against American Imperialism,” January 4, 1899

A. Schurz observed that the United States “cannot long play the king over subject populations without creating within itself ways of thinking and habits of action most dangerous to its own vitality.” Do you agree with Schurz that the acquisition of foreign territory distorts the character and habits of the American people? How important was race in terms of Schurz’s rejection of imperialism? What did he mean when he claimed “their tropical climate” would prove a barrier to the Spanish speaking population of the Caribbean “becoming assimilated to the Anglo-Saxon” way of life? What did he mean by comparing the United States of 1899 with the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte? How did Schurz react to the argument that the United States had a role to play in “civilizing” the world? What was Schurz’s definition of a genuine “world power”? What did Schurz mean when he lauded “citizens patriotic and brave enough to defy the demagogues’ cry and to haul down the flag”?

B. What did Schurz have to say about George Washington’s Farewell Address? Did Schurz believe in American exceptionalism— the idea that the United States is a “City upon a Hill”? How do you think Schurz might have reacted to America assuming the role of the “world’s policeman” in the twentieth century, “the American century”? How do you think Schurz might have responded to those who argued America should make the world safe for democracy? (See Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, Annual Message The Monroe Doctrine, Thomas Jefferson to Roger Chew Weightman, Market Speech, The Ostend Manifesto, Special Message Regarding the Annexation of Santo Domingo, The Acquisition of Hawaii, Message to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Spain.)

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