When I teach American history to international students, I want to make sure they learn how the United States spread out across this continent and expanded overseas. Understanding this tells them a lot about America’s national character and personality. There are definite patterns to our expansion westward.
One pattern was through purchase. America has benefited from Europe’s distresses. The French emperor Napoleon sold us the Louisiana Territory for $15 million because he needed the cash to fight the British at the turn of the 19th century. It was one of the greatest land deals in world history, doubling the size of our nation without firing a shot. This bargain gained us some of the richest farmland on the face of the earth for less than 3 cents per acre.
A second example of this pattern was the purchase of Alaska. We bought Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million in 1867 (less than 2 cents per acre). The Russians knew the land was valuable but they, too, needed the cash to pay off war debts incurred when fighting the British over access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean in the 1850s. The American Secretary of State William H. Seward was derided in the press for this deal — it was called Seward’s Folly. In retrospect it was both a financial and strategic coup, which this nation has benefited from ever since.
We obtained a section of Mexico as well at the cost of $10 million so we could build a southern railroad line linking the east with California. This land now makes up part of southern Arizona and New Mexico. It is called the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 and gave us almost 27,000 square miles.
We also obtained land through negotiation. The Pacific Northwest came to us this way. The British wanted the border of Canada to be at the Columbia River, but President James K. Polk demanded it be at the southern border of Alaska (“54˚ 40’ or Fight!”). Sensibly, a compromise was reached at our current 49th parallel, just north of Blaine.
Another pattern in the acquisition of land was through American settlement in a foreign nation. American settlers rebelled against that nation, became independent and then finally were annexed into the U.S. Texas, California, and Hawaii were obtained this way. Americans, for instance, moved into the Mexican state of Texas. They settled, but found they didn’t like the Mexican government’s way of doing things, so the American immigrants rebelled and won independence. They then set up a nation and were eventually annexed into the United States.
In two cases, the United States just invaded a foreign nation, took the part we wanted and then paid money to the aggrieved nation with a “take it or leave it” attitude. Gen. Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida in 1818 because runaway slaves and rebellious Georgian Indians were using Florida as a sanctuary. Jackson invaded in violation of his president’s direct orders as commander-in-chief. Rather than admit error and court martial Jackson, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams convinced President James Monroe to offer payment of $5 million to the angry Spanish who were too weak to wage war with us.
Polk obtained the American Southwest in a war with Mexico between 1846-48. He provoked the Mexicans to attack the United States because of a dispute over the southwestern boundary of Texas. Polk sent American soldiers into Mexican-claimed territory. He hoped the Mexicans would be so angry they would attack and kill American soldiers, giving him an excuse to declare war against Mexico and take half of their country. We accomplished this in a very bloody war.
To win, the U.S. army had to conquer Mexico City. Then the U.S. government dictated a peace treaty. We forgave $18.25 million in Mexican debt for this acquisition. Mexicans still are resentful over this war. Lincoln strongly opposed this acquisition.
By learning how the borders of our country were formed you, like my international students, can gain a better understanding of how the world perceives the U.S.
It’s a not a perspective most Americans are aware of and it doesn’t always portray us in the best light, but it does give us a deeper sense of who we are and what we have done in our past. It also gives us pause to consider when we condemn territorial expansion and aggression of other countries. Like all nations, we act and have acted according to what we perceive to be our best national interests.