The Transcontinental Treaty and American Expansion

The Transcontinental Treaty and American Expansion

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Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, son of the second president of the United States, was an ardent expansionist. He believed that the United States should by peaceful means expand the realm of political freedom across the entire North American continent. This was not because of excessive ambition but because of the law of political gravity—it was a physical, moral, and political absurdity that the European powers could retain colonies in the Americas at such a distance. As those ties gave way, the peoples of those lands would naturally be drawn into a great, powerful, enterprising, and rapidly growing nation. The process might take centuries—or in some cases it might be precipitated much sooner by events outside American control. As to the Indian tribes who possessed those lands, Adams believed they should be treated fairly, but he thought their culture retrograde and bound to fade away over time. The North American Union would be one people, speaking one language, under republican government.

For Adams, the first major step in this process was to define the northern boundary with British Canada in the Convention of 1818, such that the United States would have some claim to what became known as the Oregon Territory (the current states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming). Next, to rectify the boundary with colonial Spain, which was accomplished in the Transcontinental, or Adams-Onis, Treaty of 1819 (eventually ratified in 1821). In this agreement, the United States gained title to Florida, a long-standing goal, and to Spain’s western territories above California. This cemented America’s position on the Pacific Ocean, also known as the South Sea. Spanish Texas was not included, as many Americans had wished, because President James Monroe feared its acquisition would raise the question of the expansion of slavery. Third, Adams wanted to prevent Spanish Cuba from falling into the hands of any power other than Spain, to keep that island safe for future expansion. Finally, Adams insisted that expansion be confined to North America, including Cuba—no overseas possessions, and no colonies.

Source: The Diaries of John Quincy Adams, online at, Massachusetts Historical Society.

February 22, 1819, on the signing of the Transcontinental Treaty

We came home immediately after the Ladies had supped, but it was near one in the Morning when I closed the day; with ejaculations of fervent gratitude to the giver of all good—It was perhaps the most important day of my life. . . . The acquisition of the Floridas has long been an object of earnest desire to this country—The acknowledgment of a definite line of boundary to the South Sea,[1] forms a great epoch in our history. The first proposal of it in this negotiation was my own; and I trust it is now secured beyond the reach of revocation—It was not even among our claims by the Treaty of Independence with Great Britain—It was not among our pretensions under the purchase of Louisiana—for that gave us only the range of the Mississippi and its waters—I first introduced it in the written proposal of 31 October last, after having discussed it verbally both with Onis and De Neuville.[2] It is the only peculiar and appropriate right acquired by this Treaty, in the event of its ratification. I record the first assertion of this claim for the United States as my own; because it is known to be mine, perhaps only to the members of the present Administration; and may perhaps never be known to the public; and if ever known will be soon and easily forgotten. . . .

Yet let me not forget that in the midst of this hope there are seeds of fear—The ratification of Spain is yet uncertain, and may by many possible events be defeated—If ratified, many difficulties will certainly arise to clog the execution of the treaty. There is some discontent at the acceptance of the Sabine[3] as our boundary from the Gulf of Mexico to the Red River—[4]The amount of claims upon Spain which we have renounced and cancelled will prove five times greater than the sum which we have assumed to pay;[5] and that, when finally ascertained will leave all the claimants dissatisfied—For although our scale of comparison is between what they will obtain under the treaty, and what they would have obtained from Spain, without it; that is, absolutely nothing; yet theirs will be between their entire right which we cancel, and the very imperfect indemnity which we secure for them. The Floridas will be found in all probability less valuable in possession than when merely coveted—Most of the lands will be found to have been granted, and it may be doubted whether enough will be left to raise from their proceeds even the five millions to be paid for the claims. A watchful eye; a resolute purpose, a calm and patient temper, and a favoring Providence will all be as indispensable for the future, as they have been for the past in the management of this negotiation. May they not be found wanting!

November 16, 1819, Cabinet Meeting on European Reactions to American Expansion

He said he had been conversing with Mr. Lowndes, who told him that both in England and France, everybody with whom he had conversed, appeared to be profoundly impressed with the idea, that we were an ambitious and encroaching people; and he thought we ought to be very guarded and moderate in our policy to remove this impression.[6] I said I doubted whether we ought to give ourselves any concern about it—Great Britain after vilifying us twenty years as a mean, low-minded, pedlaring nation having no generous ambition,[7] and no God but gold, had now changed her tone and was endeavoring to alarm the world at the gigantic grasp of our ambition—Spain was doing the same; and Europe whoever since the commencement of our government under the present Constitution had seen those nations intriguing with the Indians and negotiating to bound us by the Ohio, had first been startled by our acquisition of Louisiana, and now by our pretension to extend to the South Sea; and readily gave credit to the envious and jealous clamor of Spain and England against our ambition—

Nothing that we could say or do would remove this impression, until the world shall be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America. From the time when we became an independent people, it was as much a law of Nature that this should become our pretension as that the Mississippi should flow to the sea.—Spain had possessions upon our southern and Great Britain upon our northern border—It was impossible that centuries should elapse without finding them annexed to the United States—Not that any spirit of encroachment or ambition on our part renders it necessary; but because it is a physical, moral, and political absurdity that such fragments of territory, with sovereigns at fifteen hundred miles beyond sea, worthless and burdensome to their owners should exist permanently contiguous to a great, powerful, enterprising and rapidly growing nation.

Most of the Spanish territory which had been in our neighborhood, had already become our own; by the most unexceptionable of all acquisitions; fair purchase, for a valuable consideration.[8] This rendered it still more unavoidable that the remainder of the continent should ultimately be ours. But it is very lately that we have distinctly seen this ourselves; very lately that we have avowed the pretension of extending to the South Sea; and until Europe shall find it a settled geographical element that the United States and North America are identical, any effort on our part to reason the world out of a belief that we are ambitious, will have no other effect than to convince them that we add to our ambition, hypocrisy—Crawford spoke of an article in the last Edinburgh Review, defending us against this charge of ambition; but if the world do not hold us for Romans, they will take us for Jews, and of the two vices I had rather be charged with that which has greatness mingled in its composition.

January 27, 1821, Discussion with British Minister Stratford Canning on U.S. Claims on the Columbia River

Have you, said Mr. Canning,[9] any Claim to the Shetland Islands,[10] or New South Wales? [11]— Have you any Claim, said I, to the mouth of Columbia River? [12]— Why, do you not know, replied he, that we have a claim?—I do not know said I, what you claim, nor what you do not claim—You claim India—you claim Africa—you claim—perhaps, said he a piece of the Moon—No; said I, I have not heard that you claim exclusively any part of the Moon; but there is not a spot on this habitable globe, that I could affirm you do not claim—and there is none which you may not claim with as much color of right, as you can have to Columbia River, or its mouth—And how far, would you consider said he this exclusion of right to extend—to all the shores of the South Sea, said I—we know of no right that you have there—Suppose, said he, Great Britain should undertake to make a settlement there, would you object to it? I have no doubt we should, said I—

But surely, said Mr. Canning, proof was made at the negotiation of the Convention of October 1818 of the claims of Great Britain,[13] and their existence is recognized in it—“There was no proof, I said, made of any claim, nor to my knowledge, any discussion of claim—The boundary to the Stony Mountains was defined—[14]of them Great Britain had no settlement whatever—We had one at the mouth of Columbia, which having been broken up during the war,[15] was solemnly restored to us by the British government, in fulfilment of a stipulation in the treaty of peace. We stipulated in the Convention that the ports and places on the Pacific Ocean, should be open to both parties for ten years, and taking all these transactions together we certainly did suppose that the British government had come to the conclusion that there would be neither policy nor profit in caviling with us about territory, on this North American continent”—“And in this, said he, you include our northern provinces on this continent?”[16] No, said I; there the boundary is marked, and we have no disposition to encroach upon it—Keep what is yours, but leave the rest of this continent to us.”

John Quincy Adams (Department of State) to Hugh Nelson, American Minister to Spain, April 28, 1823, on the Status of Cuba

But in the war between France and Spain now commencing, other interests, peculiarly ours, will in all probability be deeply involved. Whatever may be the issue of this war, as between those two European powers, it may be taken for granted that the dominion of Spain upon the American continents, north and south, is irrecoverably gone. But the islands of Cuba and of Puerto Rico still remain nominally and so far really dependent upon her, that she yet possesses the power of transferring her own dominion over them, together with the possession of them, to others.

These islands, from their local position, are natural appendages to the North American continent; and one of them, Cuba, almost in sight of our shores, from a multitude of considerations has become an object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union. Its commanding position with reference to the Gulf of Mexico and the West India seas; the character of its population; its situation midway between our southern coast and the island of San Domingo;[17] its safe and capacious harbor of the Havana, fronting a long line of our shores destitute of the same advantage; the nature of its productions and of its wants, furnishing the supplies and needing the returns of a commerce immensely profitable and mutually beneficial; give it an importance in the sum of our national interests, with which that of no other foreign territory can be compared, and little inferior to that which binds the different members of this Union together.

Such indeed are, between the interests of that island and of this country, the geographical, commercial, moral, and political relations, formed by nature, gathering in the process of time, and even now verging to maturity, that in looking forward to the probable course of events for the short period of half a century, it is scarcely possible to resist the conviction that the annexation of Cuba to our federal republic will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself. It is obvious however that for this event we are not yet prepared. Numerous and formidable objections to the extension of our territorial dominions beyond the sea present themselves to the first contemplation of the subject. Obstacles to the system of policy by which it alone can be compassed and maintained are to be foreseen and surmounted, both from at home and abroad. But there are laws of political as well as of physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by the tempest from its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only toward the North American Union, which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom.

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