The Growth Economy Begins

Walter LaFeber
The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898

It’s interesting, given Walter LaFeber’s reputation as a critic of American Empire, that he refaces this book by saying “I have been profoundly impressed with the statesmen of these decades [the last of the 19th century]…I found both the policymakers and the businessmen of this era to be responsible, conscientious men who accepted the economic and social realities of their day, understood domestic and foreign problems, debated issues vigorously, and especially were unafraid to strike out on new and uncharted paths in order to create what they sincerely hoped would be a better nation and a better world” (ix). This sincere appreciation on LaFeber’s part for the people whose decisions he will be criticizing so thoroughly, suggests his story is much more subtle than the standard good guys vs. bad guys approach taken in many texts (and unfortunately, often by critics of the establishment).

Similarly, LaFeber begins his first chapter by debunking the myth of antebellum isolation. “Between 1850 and 1873,” he says, “despite an almost nonexistent export trade during the Civil War, exports averaged $274,000,000 annually; the yearly average during the 1838-1849 period had been only $116,000,000” (1-2). So while it is true, LaFeber admits, that “until the 1890’s the vast Atlantic sheltered America from many European problems,” the fact that we were not drawn into European wars does not mean that many Americans (especially businessmen and financiers) were not intimately connected with the continent. The histories of businesses such as J.P. Morgan's Anglo-American financial empire are ample proof that American businessmen considered themselves players on the Atlantic stage. Even my western New York Peppermint King, Hiram Hotchkiss, made his name by taking his peppermint oil to London's Crystal Palace in 1851 and getting a first prize medallion with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's images on it! These long-standing connections had important implications in politics and diplomacy, as the twentieth century began.

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LaFeber says William Henry Seward “deserves to be remembered as the greatest Secretary of State in American history after his beloved Adams. This is so partially because of his astute diplomacy, which kept European powers out of the Civil War, but also because his vision of empire dominated American policy for the next century” (25). “Grant, Hamilton Fish, William M. Evarts, James G. Blaine, Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, and Thomas F. Bayard assume secondary roles,” LaFeber says (24). He notes also that Seward suggested “Mexico City was an excellent site for the future capital of the American empire” (28). This is interesting, not only because it implies some type of U.S. annexation of Mexico, but because Mexico City has
nearly always been the largest city in the Americas. It was in 1490, and again in 1600, 1800, and 2000. Seward also predicted that “Russia and the United States may remain good friends until, each having made a circuit of half the globe in opposite directions, they meet and greet each other in the region where civilization first began” (30).

LaFeber’s point is that American empire was seen by nearly every influential contemporary as an inevitable result of the economic changes of the late nineteenth century. LaFeber says there was very little pressure to “occupy every piece of available land in the Pacific,” but I’d add there was clearly pressure to
control many of those islands and their resources, as shown by the Guano Islands Act of 1856. There was also a general understanding that “Latin-American and Asian markets were vitally important to the expansive American industrial complex” (416). The machine, late-nineteenth century policy-makers seem to have realized, needed to be constantly fed with both raw materials and new markets. The growth economy had begun.