The Writings of Carl Schurz/Manifest Destiny

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New York City: G. P. Putnam's Sons, pages 191–214. In the original Harper's Magazine article, the title appears with quote marks around it.


Whenever there is a project on foot to annex foreign territory to this Republic the cry of “manifest destiny” is raised to produce the impression that all opposition to such a project is a struggle against fate. Forty years ago this cry had a peculiar significance. The slaveholders saw in the rapid growth of the free States a menace to the existence of slavery. In order to strengthen themselves in Congress they needed more slave States, and looked therefore to the acquisition of foreign territory on which slavery existed—in the first place, the island of Cuba. Thus to the pro-slavery man “manifest destiny” meant an increase of the number of slave States by annexation. There was still another force behind the demand for territorial expansion. It consisted in the youthful optimism at that time still inspiring the minds of many Americans with the idea that this Republic, being charged with the mission of bearing the banner of freedom over the whole civilized world, could transform any country, inhabited by any kind of population, into something like itself simply by extending over it the magic charm of its political institutions. Such sentiments had been strengthened by the revolutionary movements of 1848 in Europe, which invited a comparison between American and European conditions and stimulated in the American a feeling of assured superiority, as well as of generous sympathy with other less-favored nations. There was, indeed, no lack of sober-minded men in the United States who, although by no means devoid of high ambition for their country nor of warm sympathy with others, did not lose sight of the limits of human possibility. But they could not prevent a large number of their more enthusiastic and less discriminating fellow-citizens from cherishing the dream of a Pan-American republic to be realized in a lifetime. It was, however, the Southern “manifest-destiny” movement, with a strong organized interest behind it and well-defined purposes in view, that exercised the greater influence upon the politics of the country. But as these purposes became more apparent, and the slavery question was by the Kansas-Nebraska bill thrust upon the country as the dominant political issue of the period, the merely sentimental conception of “manifest destiny” gradually vanished, and many of those who had entertained it turned squarely against the acquisition of foreign soil for the benefit of slavery.

The civil war weakened the demand for territorial expansion in two ways. With the abolition of slavery the powerful interest which had stood behind the annexation policy disappeared forever. And as to the sentimental movement, the great crisis which brought the Union so near to destruction rudely staggered the jubilant Fourth-of-July optimism of former days and reminded the American people of the inherent inadequateness of mere political institutions to the solution of all problems of human society. The troubles and perplexities left behind by the civil war sobered the minds of the most sanguine. A healthy scepticism took the place of youthful over-confidence. It stimulated earnest inquiry into existing conditions, and brought forth a strong feeling among our people that we should rather make sure of what we had, and improve it, than throw our energies into fanciful foreign ventures.

Only very few of the public men of the time still delighted in “manifest-destiny” dreams. The most prominent among them was Seward, who in 1868 predicted that “in thirty years the city of Mexico would be the capital of the United States,” and whose brain was constantly busy with schemes of annexation. But public opinion received his projects with marked coldness. The purchase of Alaska found very scant favor with the people, and it would have failed but for Sumner's efforts and the popular impression that Russia had in some way done us a service in critical times, and that it would be ungracious to repel an arrangement agreeable to this friendly power. Moreover, Alaska being a part of the American continent in a high northern latitude, its acquisition appeared less objectionable than that of non-continental territory, especially in the tropics. Seward's treaty with Denmark for the purchase of St. Thomas died of inanition in the Senate, where everything of the kind was received with instinctive apprehension. When President Grant sought to effect the annexation of Santo Domingo, neither the gorgeous pictures drawn of the advantages to be gained, nor General Grant's personal prestige, nor the determined efforts of his powerful Administration, could prevail against the adverse current of public opinion, or save the treaty from defeat in the Senate.

The recent attempt made by President Harrison to precipitate the Hawaiian Islands into our Union has again stirred up the public interest in the matter of territorial expansion, and called forth the cry of “manifest destiny” once more. This attempt would no doubt already have been buried under popular disapproval had not Republican politicians and newspaper writers seen fit, for the purpose of making party capital, to defend President Harrison's action, and to discredit the cautious course of President Cleveland with deceptive appeals to American pride. To draw a matter of importance so far-reaching into the ordinary game of party politics is an act of recklessness much to be deprecated. While in all probability it will have no serious practical effect at the present time, it may result in spreading among well-meaning people misleading impressions about matters of the highest consequence to the future of the Republic.

The new “manifest-destiny” precept means, in point of principle, not merely the incorporation in the United States of territory contiguous to our borders, but rather the acquisition of such territory, far and near, as may be useful in enlarging our commercial advantages, and in securing to our Navy facilities desirable for the operations of a great naval power. Aside from the partisan declaimers whose interest in the matter is only that of political effect, this policy finds favor with several not numerically strong but very demonstrative classes of people—Americans who have business ventures in foreign lands, or who wish to embark in such; citizens of an ardent National ambition who think that the conservative traditions of our foreign policy are out of date, and that it is time for the United States to take an active part and to assert their power in the international politics of the world, and to this end to avail themselves of every chance for territorial aggrandizement; and lastly, what may be called the navy interest—officers of the navy and others taking especial pride in the development of our naval force, many of whom advocate a large increase of our war-fleet to support a vigorous foreign policy, and a vigorous foreign policy to give congenial occupation and to secure further increase to our war-fleet. These forces we find bent upon exciting the ambition of the American people whenever a chance for the acquisition of foreign territory heaves in sight.

As to the first of these classes, it is certainly not to be denied that among the American adventurers in foreign parts there are many respectable characters, whose interests are entitled to consideration, and may be, under certain circumstances, entitled also to active protection by our Government. But when they ask, under whatever pretext, that for the advancement or protection of their interests the countries in which they are engaged in private business should be incorporated in this Republic, the apparent patriotism of their demand should be received with due distrust. If it were once understood that a combination of Americans engaged in business abroad could at any time start a serious annexation movement in the United States, there would be no end of wild attempts to drive the American people into the most reckless enterprises.

The patriotic ardor of those who would urge this Republic into the course of indiscriminate territorial aggrandizement to make it the greatest of the great Powers of the world deserves more serious consideration. To see his country powerful and respected among the nations of the earth, and to secure to it all those advantages to which its character and position entitle it, is the natural desire of every American. In this sentiment we are all agreed. There may, however, be grave differences of opinion as to how this end can be most surely, most completely and most worthily attained. This is not a mere matter of patriotic sentiment, but a problem of statesmanship. No conscientious citizen will think a moment of incorporating a single square mile of foreign soil in this Union without most earnestly considering how it will be likely to affect our social and political condition at home as well as our relations with the world abroad.

According to the spirit of our Constitutional system, foreign territory should be acquired only with a view to its admission, at no very distant day, into this Union as one or more States on an equal footing with the other States. The population inhabiting such territory, and admitted into the Union with it, would have to be endowed with certain rights and powers, and the United States would have to undertake certain obligations with regard to them. The people of the new States would not only govern themselves as to their home concerns, but also take part in the government of the whole country through the Senators and Representatives sent by them to Congress, as well as through the votes cast in the elections of our Presidents and in adopting or rejecting Constitutional amendments. More than this: as the party managers would study and humor their likes and dislikes in order to obtain their votes, the newcomers would soon exercise a considerable influence upon the conduct of our political parties. The United States, on the other hand, would be bound to guarantee to them a republican form of government, to protect them against invasion and, upon proper application, against domestic violence. In other words, this Republic would admit them as equal members to its National household, to its family circle, and take upon itself all the responsibilities for them which this admission involves. To do this safely it would have to act with keen discrimination.

If the people of Canada should some day express a desire to be incorporated in this Union, there would, as to the character of the country and of the people, be no reasonable doubt of the fitness, or even the desirability, of the association. Their country has those attributes of soil and climate which are most apt to stimulate and keep steadily at work all the energies of human nature. The people are substantially of the same stock as ours, and akin to us in their traditions, their notions of law and morals, their interests and habits of life. They are accustomed to the peaceable and orderly practices of self-government. They would mingle and become one with our people without difficulty. The new States brought by them into the Union would soon be hardly distinguishable from the old in any point of importance. Their accession would make our National household larger, but it would not seriously change its character. It might take place—and, in fact, it should take place only in that way—as a result of a feeling common to both sides that the two countries and peoples naturally belong together in their sympathies as well as their interests. Nor would the union of the two countries excite among us any ambition of further aggrandizement in the same direction, for the acquisition of the Canadian Dominion would give to the United States the whole of the northern part of the continent.

Very unlike would be the situation produced by the acquisition of territory to the south of us. In the first place, it would spring from motives of a different kind—not the feeling of naturally belonging together, but the desire on our part to gain certain commercial advantages; to get possession of the resources of other countries, and by exploiting them to increase our wealth; to occupy certain strategical positions which in case of war might be of importance, and so on. It is evident that if we once are fairly started in the annexation policy for such purposes, the appetite will grow with the eating. There will always be more commercial advantages to be gained, the riches of more countries to be made our own, more strategical positions to be occupied to protect those already in our hands. Not only a taste for more, but interest, the logic of the situation, would push us on and on.

The consequences which inevitably would follow the acquisition of Cuba, which is especially alluring to the annexationist, may serve as an example. Cuba, so they tell us, possesses rich natural resources worth having. It is in the hands of a European power that may, under certain circumstances, become hostile to us. It is only a few miles from the coast of Florida. It “threatens” that coast. It “commands” also the Gulf of Mexico, with the mouths of the Mississippi and the Caribbean Sea. Its population is discontented; it wishes to cut loose from Spain and join us. If we do not take Cuba “some other power will take it.” That power may be hostile. Let us take it ourselves. What then? Santo Domingo is only a few miles distant from Cuba; also a country of rich resources; other powers several times tried to get it; if in the hands of a hostile power it would “threaten” Cuba; it also “commands” the Caribbean Sea; the Dominican Republic, occupying the larger part of the island, offered to join us once, and will wish to do so again; to acquire the Haitian Republic we shall have to fight; it will cost men and money, but we can easily beat the negroes. We must have Santo Domingo. Puerto Rico will come as a matter of course with Cuba. The British possession of Jamaica will still be there to “threaten” and “command” everything else. It will be difficult to get it and the other little islands from the clutch of the British lion. Thus all the more necessary will it be to have possession of the mainland bordering and “commanding” the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea on the western side. We must have all the “keys” to the seas and to the land, or at least as many as we can possibly get, one to protect another. In fact, when once well launched on this course we shall hardly find a stopping-place north of the Gulf of Darien; and we shall have an abundance of reasons, one as good as another, for not stopping even there.

Let us admit, for argument's sake, that there is something dazzling in the conception of a great republic embracing the whole continent and the adjacent islands, and that the tropical part of it would open many tempting fields for American enterprise; let us suppose—a violent supposition, to be sure—that we could get all these countries without any trouble or cost. But will it not be well to look beyond? If we receive those countries as States of this Union, as we eventually shall have to do in case we annex them, we shall also have to admit the people inhabiting them as our fellow-citizens on a footing of equality. As our fellow-citizens they will not only govern themselves in their own States as best they can the United States undertaking to guarantee them a republican form of government, and to protect them against invasion and domestic violence—but they will, through their Senators and Representatives in Congress, and through their votes in Presidential elections, and through their influence upon our political parties, help in governing the whole Republic, in governing us. And what kind of people are those we take in as equal members of our National household, our family circle?

It is a matter of universal experience that democratic institutions have never on a large scale prospered in tropical latitudes. The so-called republics existing under the tropical sun constantly vibrate between anarchy and despotism. When we observe there a protracted period of order and quiet, we find almost always something like martial law at the bottom of it. President Porfirio Diaz has succeeded in establishing in the republic of Mexico a tolerably stable government; but he has bodies of soldiers constantly marching through the country and shooting down disturbers without ceremony. The rule he exercises there with so firm a hand may, all things considered, be a blessing to his country, but it hardly corresponds to our principles of Constitutional government. We would regard it as little, if at all, short of a military dictatorship. Under a government less vigorous in the employment of drastic measures the Mexican republic, even now frequently discomforted by little insurrectionary outbreaks, would certainly have relapsed into the old revolutionary disorder; and it is the chronic character of this revolutionary disorder, the tendency to effect changes by force instead of the peaceable and patient process of discussion, that is characteristic of the tropics. It cannot be said that the people of the American tropics have lacked opportunity for the progressive development of democratic institutions. Ever since they threw off the Spanish yoke they have been their own masters. They have long been as free and unhampered as the people of the United States to rule their home affairs and to shape their own destinies. Why have they not succeeded, as we have, in developing the rich resources of their own countries and in building up stable democratic governments? The cause is obvious to every unprejudiced observer.

Democratic government cannot long endure without the maintenance of peace and order through the ready acquiescence of the minority in the verdict of public opinion as expressed in the manner provided by law—the minority, if it continues to consider that verdict wrong, reserving to itself only the right of seeking to change it by another appeal to public opinion through the means of peaceable discussion. This presupposes a state of society in which peace and order are felt by the masses of the people to be needed for their everyday occupations, their regular activities—in other words, a state of society in which everybody, or nearly everybody, being steadily at work for his own sustenance or benefit, feels himself interested in the maintenance of peace and order to insure to himself and those dependent upon him the fruit of his labor. Such a state of society is not found where, on the one hand, nature is so bountiful as to render steady work unnecessary, and where, on the other hand, the climatic conditions are such as to render steady work especially burdensome and distasteful. This is the case in the tropics.

I do not mean to say that under the tropical sun there may not be found localities with climatic conditions comparatively pleasing. There are such in the mountain regions of India, on the plateaus of Mexico and on many islands. But they are exceptions; and when the annexation of great countries is considered, the exceptions cannot be taken without the rule.

I do not say that in the tropics there are not some persons who perform comparatively hard and steady work. But it is a well-known fact that the great mass of the people in those regions, in a state of freedom, labor just enough to satisfy their immediate wants; and these are very limited in a climate of perpetual summer, where most of the time food is easily obtainable, and where extremely little is needed in point of clothing and shelter. As in addition to this the high temperature discourages every strenuous and steady exertion, it is but natural that wherever in such climate labor is left to itself it should run into shiftlessness, and that efforts to stimulate or organize labor for production on a large scale should have a tendency to develop into some sort of coercion.

Neither do I say that in tropical countries there are not persons who understand the true theory of democratic government, or who are in favor of it. But democratic government cannot long be sustained by mere sentiment or political philosophy. It must live in the ways of thinking and the habits of the people who have to carry it on. And experience shows that the tropics will indeed breed individual men who know how to govern others, but not great masses of men who know how to govern themselves.

We are frequently told that this is not a mere matter of climate, but of race, and that if those countries were under the control of Anglo-Saxons the result would be different. There are tropical countries under the control of Anglo-Saxons. But what do we see? History teaches us that the Anglo-Saxon takes and holds possession of foreign countries in two ways—as a conqueror, and as a colonizer. In his character as a conqueror he founds governments to rule the conquered. In his character as a colonizer he founds democracies to govern themselves. The governments to rule the conquered he founds in the tropics. The democracies to govern themselves he founds in the temperate zone. It matters little that a conquest in the tropics was begun by a mercantile settlement, as in India, or that settlement in the temperate zone was enlarged by conquest, as in Canada; the result was government over the conquered in the one case, and the establishment of a democracy in the other. Nor is there a single instance of the growth of a strong Anglo-Saxon democracy in tropical latitudes. The nearest approach to it, with a large distance between, is found in some clusters of commercial establishments in tropical towns, and some feeble communities of planters who have their work done by people of another race. The vast empire of India, in which there is hardly more than one European to 3500 natives, is governed by Great Britain through what might be called administrative and military garrisons, who, so far as they are composed of Englishmen, have to be renewed from time to time from the mother-country; for as Professor Seeley says in his book on The Expansion of England, “Nature has made the colonization of India by Englishmen impossible by giving her a climate in which, as a rule, English children cannot grow up.” The effect of the climate of the American tropics may not be equally destructive, especially on some of the smaller islands and in high altitudes, but in general it is such as will exert its characteristic influence. Nowhere in the tropics do we find Anglo-Saxon settlements spreading over large stretches of country and developing into towns, counties and great self-governing commonwealths as they have done in North America and Australia. Indeed, in Australia the difference between the settlements in Queensland and those in the southern part of that continent furnishes a striking object-lesson.

The reason is that the tropical climate is not congenial to men of Germanic blood. They may seek the tropics as adventurers, succeed in making their fortunes, and then depart again. But when they go there to establish permanent homes for themselves and their posterity, the succeeding generations, if not the first settlers, will always prove a deterioration of the race in physical as well as in mental and moral vigor. The American tropics form no exception to this rule. If the United States acquired them, they would, no doubt, be overrun by American adventurers trying to get rich quickly, and then to enjoy their wealth somewhere else. There would be branch establishments of American business houses in the towns, with a more or less frequently changing personnel. There would be short-lived attempts by speculators to draw American farmers into agricultural settlements, to end as all such enterprises have ended, but little beyond this. Only Europeans belonging to the so-called Latin races have ever in large masses become domesticated in tropical America. They adapt themselves more easily to the influences and requirements of a hot climate, and commingle readily with the natives. Thus was produced that Spanish-Indian mixture which, with a strong African ingredient in some regions, forms so large a part of the population of the American tropics. It is evidently far more apt to flourish there than people of the Germanic stock, and will under climatic influences so congenial to it remain the prevailing element and the assimilating force. American influence might succeed in modifying somewhat the character of a few commercial towns, but not of the country and its population at large.

Imagine now fifteen or twenty, or even more, States inhabited by a people so utterly different from ours in origin, in customs and habits, in traditions, language, morals, impulses, ways of thinking—in almost everything that constitutes social and political life—and these people remaining under the climatic influences which in a great measure have made them what they are, and render an essential change of their character impossible—imagine a large number of such States to form part of this Union, and through dozens of Senators and scores of Representatives in Congress, and millions of votes in our Presidential elections, to participate in making our laws, in filling the Executive places of our Government, and in impressing themselves upon the spirit of our political life. The mere statement of the case is sufficient to show that the incorporation of the American tropics in our National system would essentially transform the constituency of our Government, and be fraught with incalculable dangers to the vitality of our democratic institutions. Many of our fellow-citizens are greatly disturbed by the immigration into this country of a few hundred thousand Italians, Slavs and Hungarians. But if these few hundred thousand cause apprehension as to the future of the Republic, although under the inspiriting influence of active American life in our bracing climate the descendants of the most ignorant of them in the second or third generation are likely to be Americanized to the point of being hardly distinguishable from other Americans in the same social sphere, what should we fear from the admission to full political fellowship of many millions of the inhabitants of the tropics whom under the influence of their climatic condition the process of true Americanization can never reach? It was a happy intuition which suggested to Mr. Seward that the policy of annexation would transfer the capital of the United States to the city of Mexico, for after the annexation of the American tropics there would certainly be an abundance of Mexican politics in that capital.

The annexation of the Hawaiian Islands would be liable to objections of a similar nature. Their population, according to the census of 1890, consists of 34,436 natives, 6186 half-castes, 7495 born in Hawaii of foreign parents, 15,301 Chinese, 12,360 Japanese, 8602 Portuguese, 1928 Americans, 1344 British, 1034 Germans, 227 Norwegians, 70 French, 588 Polynesians and 419 other foreigners. If there ever was a population unfit to constitute a State of the American Union, it is this. But it is the characteristic population of the islands in that region—a number of semi-civilized natives crowded upon by a lot of adventurers flocked together from all parts of the globe to seek their fortunes, some to stay, many to leave again after having accomplished their purpose, among them Chinese and Japanese making up nearly one-fourth of the aggregate. The climate and the products of the soil are those of the tropics, the system of labor corresponding. If attached to the United States, Hawaii would always retain a colonial character. It would be bound to this Republic not by a community of interest or national sentiment, but simply by the protection against foreign aggression given to it and by certain commercial advantages. No candid American would ever think of making a State of this Union out of such a group of islands with such a population as it has and is likely to have. It would always be to this Republic a mere dependency, an outlying domain, to be governed as such. The Constitutional question involved in an acquisition of this nature has recently been so conclusively discussed by an eminent jurist, Judge Cooley, that not another word need be said about it.

But there is a practical feature of the case which deserves the gravest consideration. The Hawaiian Islands are distant two thousand miles from our nearest seaport. Their annexation is advocated partly on commercial grounds, partly for the reason that the islands would furnish very desirable locations for naval depots, coaling-stations and similar conveniences, and that Hawaii is the “key” to something vast and important in that region. Thus we find in favor of the scheme a combination of the interest of commercial adventure with the ambition to make this Republic a great naval power which is to play an active and commanding part in the international politics of the world. Leaving aside the question whether the occupation of this “key” would not require for its protection the acquisition of further “keys,” admitting for argument's sake all that is claimed for this project, might we not still ask ourselves whether the possession of such an outlying domain two thousand miles away would really be an element of strength to us as against other powers?

In our present condition we have over all the great nations of the world one advantage of incalculable value. We are the only one that is not in any of its parts threatened by powerful neighbors; the only one not under any necessity of keeping up a large armament either on land or water for the security of its possessions; the only one that can turn all the energies of its population to productive employment; the only one that has an entirely free hand. This is a blessing for which the American people can never be too thankful. It should not be lightly jeoparded.

This advantage, I say, we have in our present condition. We occupy a compact part of the American Continent, bounded by great oceans on the east and west, and on the north and south by neighbors neither hostile in spirit nor by themselves formidable in strength. We have a population approaching seventy millions and steadily growing, industrious, law-abiding and patriotic; not a military, but, when occasion calls for it, a warlike people, ever ready to furnish to the service of the country an almost unlimited supply of vigorous, brave and remarkably intelligent soldiers. Our National wealth is great, and increases rapidly. Our material resources may, compared with those of other nations, be called inexhaustible. Our territory is large, but our means of interior communication are such as to minimize the inconveniences of distance. In case of war a hostile naval power might, indeed, sweep what maritime commerce we have from the seas—a compliment we could return with a comparatively small number of cruisers—and it might blockade some of our seaports, and molest some of our coasts, without, however, seriously impairing our strength or doing more than excite the war spirit among our people to greater heat. But no European enemy could invade our soil without bringing from a great distance a strong land force; and no force that could possibly be brought from such a distance, were it ever so well prepared, could hope to strike a crippling blow by a sudden dash, and thus to force us to a peace, or to effect a lodgment within our boundaries without the certainty of being soon overwhelmed by an easy concentration of immensely superior numbers. Nor could a European enemy hope to raise a sufficient land force by alliances on this continent, for neither north nor south of us can armies be mustered strong enough seriously to threaten us. In other words, in our compact continental stronghold we are substantially unassailable. We present no vulnerable point of importance. There is nothing that an enemy can take away from us and hope to hold. We can carry on a defensive warfare indefinitely without danger to ourselves, and meanwhile, with our enormous resources in men and means, prepare for offensive operations.

The prospect of such a war will be to any European nation, or any league of European nations, extremely discouraging, especially as not one of them has the same free hand that we have. Every one of them is within the reach of dangerous rivals, whom a favorable opportunity might tempt to proceed to hostilities, and such an opportunity would certainly be presented by a long and exhausting war with the United States. And this very circumstance would afford to this Republic in such a case the possibility of alliances which would enable it to pass from its defensive warfare to a most vigorous offensive one.

Seeing the impossibility, under existing conditions, of striking against us a quick blow that would have any decisive consequences, and seeing also that a war carried on upon our own ground would, owing to our unlimited staying power, be practically a war without end, and present chances of combinations most dangerous to them—recognizing these obvious facts, all those powers will be naturally disposed to go to the extreme of honorable concession in order to avoid hostilities with the United States. In fact, we can hardly get into a war unless it be of our own seeking. And this inestimable advantage of commanding among the nations of the world the greatest degree of consideration and deference, without any necessity on our part of keeping up burdensome military and naval establishments, we enjoy now and shall continue to enjoy so long as we are so situated that in case of war we can defend all our possessions without leaving our own continental ground, on which we can fight with every condition in our favor.

This advantage will be very essentially impaired if we present to a possible enemy a vulnerable point of attack which we have to defend, but cannot defend without going out of our impregnable stronghold, away from the seat of our power, to fight on ground on which the enemy may appear in superior strength, and have the conditions in his favor. Such a vulnerable point will be presented by the Hawaiian Islands if we annex them, as well as by any outlying possession of importance. It will not be denied that in case of war with a strong naval power the defence of Hawaii would require very strong military and naval establishments there, and a fighting fleet as large and efficient as that of the enemy; and in case of a war with a combination of great naval Powers, it might require a fleet much larger than that of any of them. Attempts of the enemy to gain an important advantage by a sudden stroke, which would be entirely harmless if made on our continental stronghold, might have an excellent chance of success if made on our distant insular possession, and then the whole war could be made to turn upon that point, where the enemy might concentrate his forces as easily as we, or even more easily, and be our superior on the decisive field of operations. It is evident that thus the immense advantage we now enjoy of a substantially unassailable defensive position would be lost. We would no longer possess the inestimable privilege of being stronger and more secure than any other nation without a large and costly armament. Hawaii, or whatever other outlying domain, would be our Achilles' heel. Other nations would observe it, and regard us no longer as invulnerable. If we acquire Hawaii, we acquire not an addition to our strength, but a dangerous element of weakness.

It is said that we need a large navy in any case for the protection of our commerce, and that if we have it for this purpose it may at the same time serve for the protection of outlying National domains without much extra expense. The premise is false. We need no large navy for the protection of our commerce. Since the extinction of the Barbary pirates and of the Western buccaneers, the sea is the safest public highway in the world, except, perhaps, in the Chinese waters. Our commerce is not threatened by anybody or anything, unless it be the competition of other nations and the errors of our own commercial policy; and against these influences warships avail nothing. Nor do we need any warships to obtain favorable commercial arrangements with other nations. Our position of power under existing circumstances is such that no foreign nation will, at the risk of a quarrel with us, deny our commerce any accommodation we can reasonably lay claim to. Nor would our situation as a neutral in case of a war between foreign nations be like that we occupied during the French-English wars at the beginning of this century. Then we were a feeble neutral whom every belligerent thought he could kick and cuff with impunity. Now the United States would be the most formidable neutral ever seen, whom every belligerent would be most careful not to offend. When our maritime commerce was most flourishing we had no navy worth speaking of to protect it, and nobody thought that one was needed. The pretense that we need one now for that purpose reminds one of the Texas colonel, who thinks he must arm himself with a revolver when walking on Broadway because he might be insulted by a salesman.

Nor are we under any necessity to prepare for war by building a large navy. For the reasons given, every nation will avoid war with us, and we should not seek it with any one. Moreover, no sensible Government, unless driven by the necessities of its situation, will undertake extensive naval construction while the modern war fleet is still in the experimental stage. No living authority can with assurance predict how the great modern battle-ships will prove themselves in actual combat. We know for a certainty only how they sink one another at maneuvering drills. Why should we waste millions and risk human lives in experiments entirely useless to us while the race between armor and ordnance is still going on, and nobody can tell whether after the first great naval engagement the unwieldy steel-plated monsters will not be discarded, as the mailed soldier has been dispensed with in consequence of the progressive perfection of the firearm? With entire safety we may content ourselves with a moderate number of swift cruisers, capable of doing high police duty, and with some floating batteries and a good supply of torpedo-boats, and other contrivances for coast defence sufficient for the first necessity, if indeed any trouble should happen.

In another respect a large navy might prove to the American people a most undesirable luxury. It would be a dangerous plaything. Its possession might excite an impatient desire to use it, and lead us into strong temptations to precipitate a conflict of arms in case of any difference with a foreign Government, which otherwise might easily be settled by amicable adjustment. The little new navy we have has already perceptibly stimulated such a spirit among some of our navy officers and civilian navy enthusiasts, who are spoiling for an opportunity to try the new guns. We remember their attitude during the late Chilian difficulty, when it was absolutely certain to any candid mind that our little sister republic would, after a little bluster, ultimately make every apology demanded. And there is no project of territorial acquisition or of “vigorous foreign policy” ever so extravagant that does not find hot advocates in navy circles. Every new warship we build will be apt further to encourage this tendency; and nothing will be wanting but the growth of the belief among navy officers that they can make themselves heroes of a new era by using their opportunities for carrying on some vigorous foreign policy on their own motion to render the navy the more dangerous to the peace and dignity of this Republic the more ships we have. No great Power can do so much among the nations of the world for the cause of international peace by the moral force of its example as the United States. The United States will better fulfill their mission and more exalt their position in the family of nations by indoctrinating their navy officers in the teachings of Washington's farewell address than by flaunting in the face of the world the destructive power of rams and artillery.

Nothing could be more foolish than the notion we hear frequently expressed that so big a country should have a big navy. Instead of taking pride in the possession of a big navy, the American people ought to be proud of not needing one. This is their distinguishing privilege, and it is their true glory

The advocates of the annexation policy advance some arguments which require but a passing notice. They say that unless we take a certain country offered to us—Hawaii, for instance—some other power will take it, and that, having refused ourselves, we cannot object. This is absurd. Having shown ourselves unselfish, we shall have all the greater moral authority in objecting to an arrangement which would be obnoxious to our interests.

We are told that unless we take charge of a certain country it will be ill-governed and get into internal trouble. This is certainly no inducement. This Republic cannot take charge of all countries that are badly governed. On the contrary, a country apt to get into internal trouble would be no desirable addition to our National household.

We are told that the people of a certain country wish to join us, and it would be wrong to repel them. But the question whether a stranger is to be admitted as a member of our family it is our right and our duty to decide according to our own view of the family interest.

We are told that we need coaling stations in different parts of the world for our navy, even if it be a small one, and that the rich resources of the countries within our reach should be open to American capital and enterprise. There is little doubt that we can secure by amicable negotiation sites for coaling stations which will serve us as well as if we possessed the countries in which they are situated. In the same manner we can obtain from and within them all sorts of commercial advantages. We can own plantations and business houses in the Hawaiian Islands. In the American tropics we can build and control railroads; we can purchase mines, and have them worked for our benefit; we can keep up commercial establishments in their towns—in fact, we are now doing many of these things—and all this without taking those countries into our National household on an equal footing with the States of our Union, without exposing our political institutions to the deteriorating influence of their participation in our Government, without assuming any responsibilities for them which would oblige us to forego the inestimable privilege of being secure in our possessions without large and burdensome armaments. Surely the advantages we might gain by incorporating the countries themselves in the Union appear utterly valueless compared with the price this Republic would have to pay for them.

The fate of the American people is in their own wisdom and will. If they devote their energies to the development of what they possess within their present limits, and look for territorial expansion only to the north, where some day a kindred people may freely elect to cast their lot with this Republic, their “manifest destiny” will be the preservation of the exceptional and invaluable advantages they now enjoy, and the growth on a congenial soil of a vigorous nationality in freedom, prosperity and power. If they yield to the allurements of the tropics and embark in a career of indiscriminate aggrandizement, their “manifest destiny” points with equal certainty to a total abandonment of their conservative traditions of policy, to a rapid deterioration in the character of the people and their political institutions and to a future of turbulence, demoralization and final decay.

  1. Published in Harper's Magazine for October, 1893. Hearty thanks are given to Harper & Brothers for generous consent to this reprint.