Olympian Fire: Dewey at Manila Bay
By Wade G. Dudley
Rear Admiral George Dewey's flagship, USS Olympia (lower left), fires on the Spanish fleet during the May 1, 1898, Battle of Manila Bay. (Courtesy of U.S. Naval Historical Center)
Dewey turned to Olympia’s Captain Charles Gridley and spoke the few words that doomed a Spanish squadron and opened the door to an American empire: ‘You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.’
In the early morning darkness of May 1, 1898, nine American warships sliced the weak chop of Boca Grande, one of two main passages into the Philippines’ Manila Bay. Distance and steel hulls attenuated the thumping of steam engines, and darkness swallowed the smoke from funnels as the ships’ crews crouched at their loaded guns, sweating in the tropical heat. Flanked by Spanish batteries on the islands of Caballo and El Fraile and tense with fear of mines thought to litter the channel, the American sailors were grateful for the darkness and the clouds that blocked moon and starlight.
Then, just as the ships passed El Fraile, flames flared from the funnel of the revenue cutter Hugh McCulloch. Instead of the good Welsh anthracite taken on by other vessels in British Hong Kong, the cutter’s bunkers held bituminous coal from its last port of call in Australia. Soot from the soft coal accumulated in the funnel and periodically burst into flame. Sailors cursed McCulloch as muzzle flashes marked a Spanish battery on El Fraile, and shell splashes stirred the waters of Boca Grande.
Four of the American warships opened fire and quickly smothered the enemy battery with shells as the column broke from the passage into the bay proper. On the cruiser USS Olympia, flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron and leader of the column, Commodore George Dewey watched. Orders already given, he spent long minutes waiting for gun flashes or dawn to reveal an enemy squadron. Perhaps Dewey filled a few of those minutes with memories of the past that had led him to penetrate the stronghold of his nation’s latest enemy.
Born in Montpelier, Vt., on Dec. 26, 1837, to Dr. Julius and Mary Perrin Dewey, George was the youngest of three boys. Mary died before George turned 6, so his upstanding and hardworking father became the central figure in his life. Other male figures also shaped Dewey, from public school teacher Z.K. Pangborn to his teachers at Norwich University and the professors and officers of the U.S. Naval Academy, to which he received an appointment in 1854.
George appeared to love neither the discipline nor the academics at Annapolis, as he piled demerits atop poor grades in his first year. Despite ranking just two places from the bottom of his class, he survived for a second year. Then, somehow, Dewey found a measure of maturity. Perhaps it was in the Bible classes he taught to local youths, in the letters he exchanged with his father or in the growing threat of civil war that haunted his nation. Whatever the reason, in June 1858 George and 14 others (all that remained of the 59 appointees of 1854) graduated. He, proudly, stood fifth in his class.
Following a two-year cruise on the steam frigate USS Wabash, flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, Dewey took his examination for lieutenancy and was commissioned in the dark month of April 1861. Mere weeks later, he paced the deck of the steam frigate Mississippi, a 23-year-old executive officer untested in battle and assigned to blockade a rebellious Gulf coast. A year later, Dewey received his blooding, as Mississippi joined then-Captain David Farragut’s fleet in the assault on New Orleans.
Protected by a large garrison, the heavy guns of two forts and other batteries, and a small Confederate fleet that included the ironclad ram CSS Manassas—plus the Mississippi River currents, twists and treacherous snags—New Orleans seemed impregnable. But, as Dewey later wrote about the man who became his role model, “Farragut always went ahead.” From Farragut, Dewey learned not to overrate an enemy’s strength, enhanced as it usually was by fear and rumor. He also learned the import of decisive action when Manassas tried to ram Mississippi. Only a quick command from Dewey to the helmsman turned a potentially deadly direct hit into a glancing blow.
Over the course of the Civil War, Dewey was executive officer on six ships, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant commander. Despite his service in four campaigns (efficiently and even heroically at times), Dewey wasn’t given his own command. But he did learn well the skills of command: leadership, intelligence, logistics, focus on the objective and decisive action. Unfortunately for Dewey, three decades would elapse before he could employ these skills to prove himself an outstanding fleet commander. Fortunately for the United States, Dewey persevered in his chosen career across those 30 years, despite the best efforts of his nation to virtually eliminate its own Navy.
As the years of fratricide ground toward Appomattox, the 700-ship U.S. Navy blockaded the Rebel coast, patrolled rivers, supplied Union forces and combed the high seas for the remaining Confederate raiders. But navies are expensive, and within days of the Confederacy’s final collapse, the Union began to divest itself of its old, converted merchantmen. Its ironclad monitors, designed only for coastal and riverine operations, followed—some sold for scrap but most laid up to be reactivated if war threatened. More ships met their end as Congress focused on Reconstruction, the Western frontier and internal expansion. By 1870 only 52 vessels (including auxiliaries) remained for sea and coastal duties, and those were far from the state-of-the-art warships then sliding down the ways in Europe.
The Navy returned to its overseas stations in the late 1860s. From those stations (established in and dependent upon foreign ports), lone ships cruised distant waters to show the flag and assist American merchantmen and civilians. There was no American “fleet” and little in the way of squadron training. Furthermore, the penny-pinching Congress relegated steam to secondary propulsion. Older warships (including USS Wampanoag, launched at war’s end and recognized as the world’s fastest warship under steam) saw their engine plants reduced in size and their spread of canvas increased. Naval regulations permitted the use of coal only under extreme conditions. Research into armament, armor and ship design languished. The state of strategic thinking matched the deterioration of warships and tactical capability. In essence, the United States returned to the outmoded doctrines of 1812, relegating its ships to coastal defense and commerce raiding.
This does not mean the Navy was inactive after the Civil War. In 1867 “gunboat diplomacy” opened two Japanese ports to American commerce; in 1871 a squadron attacked and destroyed several Korean forts, hoping to force that country to open its ports to trade; in 1883 the Navy protected foreign interests against Chinese rioters; and Marines and sailors debarked at various times in South and Central America to protect those citizens and their property. These were invariably small affairs—or at least incidents that did not threaten to escalate into war with major powers. Such was not the case in 1873 when Spanish authorities seized Virginius, a former Confederate blockade-runner supplying guns to Cuban rebels under a false American registry (see story this issue). The Spanish executed its crew, which included several Americans, notably Captain Joseph Fry, a Naval Academy graduate and former Confederate officer. American sympathies lay with the rebels and gunrunners, but cooler heads in Washington and Madrid avoided escalating tensions into war.
However, the Virginius Incident was a wakeup call for the naval establishment. In preparing for war, it found many of the mothballed monitors decayed beyond use. The following year, maneuvers incorporating reactivated vessels revealed a top fleet speed of less than five knots. Consensus held that one modern cruiser could sink the entire American force. Still, reaction from Congress proved slow and less than satisfactory.
In 1883 Congress finally authorized construction of four steel-hulled vessels: the protected cruisers Atlanta, Boston and Chicago (each featuring an armored deck at the waterline to protect magazines and engines from plunging fire) and the dispatch boat Dolphin. Known as the “ABCD Squadron” for their names or the “White Squadron” for their gleaming hulls and white canvas, these vessels captured the popular support needed for naval expansion. From 1885 to 1889, Congress authorized 30 additional warships, ranging from gunboats to the small battleships Texas and Maine. Building delays ensued when Congress mandated in 1886 that all naval vessels be built with domestic materials. At the time, American manufacturers could not provide the necessary guns, armor or steel plating. An immediate boost to industrial infrastructure set the first firm foundation for warship production in the nation’s history. Other warships, increasing in size and potential, followed the first 30.
As the new ships entered service, world events lifted American eyes from their own shores to blue waters. The close of the nation’s “frontier period” prompted the rise of a New Manifest Destiny, imperialistic in nature. But imperial ventures required a rethinking of naval strategy, and in 1890 Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, then-president of the U.S. Naval War College, provided a concise guide to that strategy in his seminal The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. His treatise not only supported trade-based imperialism, it provided a naval theory and strategy that guided industrialized seafaring nations for several generations. With the great wars of France and Britain as his canvas, Mahan developed a theory of sea power rooted in squadrons of capital ships aggressively attacking the enemy’s navy or confining it to port. Naval officers worldwide welcomed this concept of firepower projection (and, of course, the many ships required to carry that firepower), while the eyes of statesmen glistened at the thought of colonies to be gained and raw materials to be exploited.
Cuba and the remaining Spanish possessions in the Caribbean attracted American interest for a variety of reasons. Some pointed to Spanish cruelty and the brutalized people who desperately sought the caress of democracy and the guidance of Republican values. Navalists sought an American base in the Caribbean from which to enforce the old Monroe Doctrine. Industrialists desired sugar and markets. Shipping magnates resented searches by Spain’s Guardia Costa and navy alike, particularly when those searches involved seizure of goods being smuggled to Cuban rebels. Last, the American press wanted to sell newspapers—and greedy publishers did not hesitate to juggle facts to ensure those sales. By Feb. 15, 1898, fertile ground existed for war between the United States and Spain. All that was needed was a spark, and the spark that ignited a coal bunker and the adjacent magazine on the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor served nicely, especially when a naval court of inquiry quickly blamed the resulting deaths of some 270 American sailors and officers on the explosion of a Spanish mine.
As the Navy evolved, George Dewey quietly persevered. Many officers abandoned the slow promotion schedule and other frustrations of service life, turning their talents to the civilian world and its monetary rewards. But something drove Dewey, likely the desire to make his mark on history in the names of his heroes, Dr. Julius Dewey and Admiral David Farragut. Civilians seldom garnered such fame.
Finally, in 1870 Dewey was given his first command, the sloop-of-war USS Narragansett. A few years later, as the Virginius Incident unfolded, Narragansett was assigned to survey the Pacific Coast of Mexico and Lower California. Dewey’s officers and men worried they would miss the brewing war, but Dewey smiled and predicted they would simply steam across the Pacific and capture Manila. No one hearing his words could imagine their prophetic nature.
A full captain by 1884, Dewey served in various capacities before becoming head of the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting in 1889, followed by stints as president of both the Lighthouse Board and the Board of Inspection and Survey. His energy, efficiency, professionalism and skillful leadership amidst the often-confused rush to build modern warships did not go unnoticed. Yet, Dewey felt some degree of despair when he reached the permanent rank of commodore in 1896, only four years from forced retirement. No war seemed in the offing, and should war break out, he knew that other deserving officers waited for fleet and squadron commands.
But Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt had marked Dewey as a man of action. Roosevelt expected war with Spain and felt that the Asiatic Squadron, operating some 7,000 miles from homeports, needed a strong, aggressive hand at the helm. Roosevelt pressured President William McKinley to appoint Dewey to the key command, and in October 1897 McKinley ordered the secretary of the Navy to make it so. Fate waited to present Commodore Dewey with his chance for greatness.
Dewey did not wait on fate. Gathering every available scrap of information on the Philippines to supplement a file provided by the Navy, he ordered ammunition rushed to his squadron in Yokohama, Japan. Dewey arrived in Yokohama in late 1897, and his men loved him from the beginning. Extremely fit, handsome, and always neatly dressed, their commodore seemed as comfortable with the common Jack as with his officers. His white walrus mustache and piercing blue eyes seemed to dominate the decks of his flagship. Within days of his arrival at Yokohama, this outstanding leader had gained the full support of his gathering squadron—and well that he did, for much hard work remained to ready his people and ships for war.
As soon as sufficient ammunition arrived in Yokohama, Dewey ordered his squadron to make for Hong Kong. An alert from Roosevelt followed news of the sinking of Maine in February. As Dewey waited for his remaining ships to concentrate in Hong Kong, he plumbed the American consul in Manila for information. He left no stone unturned, even dressing an aide as a civilian to wander the docks and solicit information from incoming vessels. As his warships arrived, Dewey purchased the freighter Zafiro and the collier Nanshan from British sources and registered them as American merchant vessels, so they could enter neutral ports should war be declared. (The closest American base lay 7,000 miles away.) He then dry-docked each of his ships for last-minute scraping, repair and a coat of dark gray paint.
Finally, on April 25, Dewey received a telegram confirming the declaration of war. Within hours the British invited his squadron to leave neutral Hong Kong. As the Asiatic Squadron steamed from port, its officers and men understood the sortie would end in absolute victory or utter defeat. They threw themselves into battle preparations, stripping flammable material from the ships, dry firing guns, studying signals and planning for damage control.
Off the Philippines on April 30, Dewey dispatched two ships to search Subic Bay, but the Spanish fleet had abandoned it, as it lacked supporting land batteries. The commodore called together his captains before sailing on to Manila. He knew the islands guarding Boca Grande held at least six guns that outranged his own. He also knew the Spanish expected his fleet and had possibly mined the channel. Given the circumstances, Dewey felt only an audacious night passage could succeed—and he planned to lead the column in Olympia. Like his hero Farragut, Dewey brooked no argument from his gathered captains.
As midnight approached, Olympia led the protected cruisers Baltimore and Raleigh, gunboats Petrel and Concord, protected cruiser Boston and revenue cutter Hugh McCulloch into the passage, followed closely by Zafiro and Nanshan. Following the burst of inaccurate fire from the quickly silenced battery on El Fraile, the column broke into Manila Bay. Dewey slowed to 4 knots to delay until dawn his engagement with the Spanish squadron of Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón. Some of Dewey’s men even managed to nap at their guns before the galley delivered hot coffee at 0400.
Commanding from aboard the unarmored cruiser Reina Christina, Montojo knew that his seven old vessels did not rate half the displacement of the modern American ships and that his largest 6.2-inch guns could not match the Americans’ 8-inchers. The Spanish admiral positioned his ships in a half-moon formation across the harbor at Cavite rather than subject the Manila waterfront to “overs” from an American attack. The old wooden cruiser Castilla could not maneuver, but would still attempt to support the small cruisers Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon, Don Antonio de Ulloa and Don Juan de Austria. The gunboat Marques del Duero completed Montojo’s defensive line. In an effort to offset American firepower, the admiral anchored lighters alongside his larger vessels to absorb enemy fire. Gun emplacements at Sangley Point supported the west flank of the squadron. Four additional gunboats, stripped of weapons to fortify the harbor, hid in the shallow waters behind Cavite. Warned by telegraph at 0200 of the American approach, Montojo had few illusions about the coming battle, but he sent his sailors to their guns to fight with honor in defense of Spain.
Sending his collier and freighter clear under the escort of Hugh McCulloch, Dewey first cruised the Manila waterfront in search of the Spanish squadron. At 0505 batteries near Manila opened on the Americans; Boston and Concord answered their inaccurate fire. Shortly afterward, Olympia observed explosions near Cavite, some two miles away. Dewey assumed panic on the part of the Spanish, but Montojo had ordered a minefield detonated to provide maneuver room for his flagship. At 0515 both ship and shore batteries at Cavite opened on the Americans. Dewey, with no rounds to spare, held his fire and maintained a converging course for the next 25 minutes. Then, at a range of 5,000 yards, Dewey turned to Olympia’s Captain Charles Gridley and spoke the few words that doomed a Spanish squadron and opened the door to an American empire: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”
One minute later, Olympia’s four 8-inch guns spoke. Its 5-inchers and the smaller rapid-fire guns of the starboard battery quickly added their din and smoke to the combat, a scene repeated as each American vessel spotted the enemy. Dewey’s squadron exchanged fire with the Spanish ships for more than an hour, describing almost three complete circles in front of the enemy position at ranges from 2,000 to 5,000 yards. Two Spanish torpedo boats raced toward the squadron—one was sunk by American fire, while the other, wreathed in flames, beached itself. Don Juan de Austria also attempted to close on the American fleet before concentrated fire saw it off. Then Montojo ordered Reina Christina into the harbor in a valiant attempt to ram Olympia. Heavy shells slammed into it, and the Spanish flagship limped back to its anchorage.
At 0730 Dewey received word that each of Olympia’s 5-inch guns was down to 15 remaining rounds. Fearing his other guns might also be low on ammunition, and prevented by heavy smoke from accurately assessing the damage he’d inflicted on the Spaniards, Dewey reluctantly signaled his ships to withdraw. As firing ceased, it became obvious he had severely punished the Spanish squadron, leaving some vessels in flames and others listing or settled in the shallow harbor.
With Reina Christina’s steering destroyed and magazines flooded, Montojo ordered the vessel scuttled and switched his flag to Isla de Cuba. As the Americans paused to enjoy a belated breakfast, he surveyed the wreckage of his squadron. Don Antonio de Ulloa had settled in the harbor, its captain and half its crew dead or wounded. Old Castilla, beaten to pieces and afire, sank at anchor. Both Isla de Luzon and Marques del Duero had lost men and guns, and little fight remained in them. Montojo ordered all able vessels to retreat to the bay behind Cavite and fight if possible, scuttle if not. By the end of the day, the Spanish admiral listed all ships lost and 381 men dead or wounded.
Aboard Olympia, Dewey had been delighted to discover the message regarding his ammunition reversed: Each gun had expended only 15 rounds. Even more astounding, only nine men had suffered wounds during the action (another, Hugh McCulloch’s chief engineer, died of a heart attack on the approach to Manila). After allowing his men to finish a well-earned breakfast, Dewey ordered a final pass at the Spanish squadron. Only one vessel, Don Antonio de Ulloa, showed any sign of resistance, and that was quickly eliminated. Fire from Baltimore silenced the guns on Sangley Point and a battery near Cavite. With no apparent resistance remaining, Petrel’s captain accepted the surrender of Cavite’s garrison, several gunboats and a transport. By mid-afternoon of May 1, 1898, the Battle of Manila Bay was over.
Despite open rebellion, led by Filipino Emilio Aguinaldo and supported by Dewey, and the closure of its harbor by American warships, the Spanish garrison at Manila managed to stave off starvation and defeat until the arrival of American troops later that summer. Commodore (soon to be Admiral) George Dewey had at last emulated his hero, David Farragut, and laid the ghost of his father to rest by crushing the Spanish squadron. But on August 13, as Manila surrendered, he became forevermore the man who first opened the door for an imperial America.
For further reading, Wade G. Dudley recommends: A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902, by David J. Silbey. To experience the Spanish-American War through the words of the participants (and to explore USS Olympia), visit the Spanish-American War Centennial Web site.
Manifest Destiny, in U.S. history, the supposed inevitability of the continued territorial expansion of the boundaries of the United States westward to the Pacific and beyond. Before the American Civil War (1861–65), the idea of Manifest Destiny was used to validate continental acquisitions in the Oregon Country, Texas, New Mexico, and California. The purchase of Alaska after the Civil War briefly revived the concept of Manifest Destiny, but it most evidently became a renewed force in U.S. foreign policy in the 1890s, when the country went to war with Spain, annexed Hawaii, and laid plans for an isthmian canal across Central America.
Origin of the term
John L. O’Sullivan, the editor of a magazine that served as an organ for the Democratic Party and of a partisan newspaper, first wrote of “manifest destiny” in 1845, but at the time he did not think the words profound. Rather than being “coined,” the phrase was buried halfway through the third paragraph of a long essay in the July–August issue of The United States Magazine, and Democratic Review on the necessity of annexing Texas and the inevitability of American expansion. O’Sullivan was protesting European meddling in American affairs, especially by France and England, which he said were acting
for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.
O’Sullivan’s observation was a complaint rather than a call for aggression, and he referred to demography rather than pugnacity as the solution to the perceived problem of European interference. Yet when he expanded his idea on December 27, 1845, in a newspaper column in the New York Morning News, the wider audience seized upon his reference to divine superintendence. Discussing the dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Country, O’Sullivan again cited the claim to
the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.
Some found the opinion intriguing, but others were simply irritated. The Whig Party sought to discredit Manifest Destiny as belligerent as well as pompous, beginning with Massachusetts Rep. Robert Winthrop’s using the term to mock Pres. James K. Polk’s policy toward Oregon.
Yet unabashed Democrats took up Manifest Destiny as a slogan. The phrase frequently appeared in debates relating to Oregon, sometimes as soaring rhetoric and other times as sarcastic derision. As an example of the latter, on February 6, 1846, the New-Hampshire Statesman and State Journal, a Whig newspaper, described “some windy orator in the House [of Representatives]” as “pouring for his ‘manifest destiny’ harangue.”
Over the years, O’Sullivan’s role in creating the phrase was forgotten, and he died in obscurity some 50 years after having first used the term “manifest destiny.” In an essay in The American Historical Review in 1927, historian Julius W. Pratt identified O’Sullivan as the phrase’s originator, a conclusion that became universally accepted.
A history of expansion
Despite disagreements about Manifest Destiny’s validity at the time, O’Sullivan had stumbled on a broadly held national sentiment. Although it became a rallying cry as well as a rationale for the foreign policy that reached its culmination in 1845–46, the attitude behind Manifest Destiny had long been a part of the American experience. The impatient English who colonized North America in the 1600s and 1700s immediately gazed westward and instantly considered ways to venture into the wilderness and tame it. The cause of that ceaseless wanderlust varied from region to region, but the behaviour became a tradition within one generation. The western horizon would always beckon, and Americans would always follow. After the American Revolution (1775–83), the steady advance of the cotton kingdom in the South matched the lure of the Ohio Country in the North. In 1803, Pres. Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country with the stroke of a pen. Expansionists eager to acquire Spanish Florida were part of the drive for the War of 1812, and many historians argue that American desires to annex Canada were also an important part of the equation. Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Florida in 1818 and the subsequent Transcontinental Treaty (Adams-Onís Treaty) settled a southern border question that had been vexing the region for a generation and established an American claim to the Pacific Northwest as Spain renounced its claim to the Oregon Country. The most consequential territorial expansion in the country’s history occurred during the 1820s. Spreading American settlements often caused additional unrest on the country’s western borders. As the United States pacified and stabilized volatile regions, the resulting appropriation of territory usually worsened relations with neighbours, setting off a cycle of instability that encouraged additional annexations.
Caught in the upheaval coincidental to that expansion, Southeast Indianssuccumbed to the pressure of spreading settlement by ceding their lands to the United States and then relocating west of the Mississippi River under Pres. Andrew Jackson’s removal policy of the 1830s. The considerable hardships suffered by the Indians in that episode were exemplified by the devastation of the Cherokees on the infamous Trail of Tears, which excited humanitarian protests from both the political class and the citizenry.
Finally, in the 1840s, diplomacy resolved the dispute over the Oregon Country with Britain, and victory in the Mexican-American War (1846–48) closed out a period of dramatically swift growth for the United States. Less than a century after breaking from the British Empire, the United States had gone far in creating its own empire by extending sovereignty across the continent to the Pacific, to the 49th parallel on the Canadian border, and to the Rio Grande in the south. Having transformed a group of sparsely settled colonies into a continental power of enormous potential, many Americans thought the achievement so stunning as to be obvious. It was for them proof that God had chosen the United States to grow and flourish.
Yet in a story as old as ancient Rome’s transformation from republic to empire, not all Americans, like the doubters of Rome, found it encouraging. Those dissenters saw rapid expansion as contrary to the principles of a true republic and predicted that the cost of empire would be high and its consequences perilous.
The end of Manifest Destiny
Realizing its Manifest Destiny with triumph over Mexico in 1848 gave the United States an immense domain that came with spectacular abundance and potential. (Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, the United States acquired more than 525,000 square miles [1,360,000 square km] of land, including present-day Arizona, California, western Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah.) California’s climate made much of it a natural garden, and its gold would finance decades of impressive growth. Burgeoning Pacific trade required opening diplomatic relations with heretofore isolationist Japan and created American trade in places that before had always been European commercial preserves. Yet the dispute over the status of the new western territories regarding slavery disrupted the American political system by reviving arguments that shattered fragile compromises and inflamed sectional discord.
In fact, those disputes brought the era of Manifest Destiny to an abrupt close. Plans to tie the eastern United States to the Pacific Coast with a transcontinental railroad led to the country’s final land acquisition before the Civil War when U.S. Minister to Mexico James Gadsden purchased a small parcel of land in 1853 to facilitate a southern route. For that reason alone, the Gadsden Purchase provoked the North, and Americans soon found themselves embroiled in additional arguments that foiled the railroad while killing any possible consensus for further expansion.
The New Manifest Destiny
After the Civil War, reconstructing the Union and promoting the industrial surge that made the United States a premier economic power preoccupied the country. In the 1890s, however, the United States and other great powers embraced geopolitical doctrines stemming from the writings of naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, who posited that national greatness in a competitive world derived from the ability to control navigation of the seas. The coincidence of Mahanian doctrine emerging in tandem with Herbert Spencer’s belief that unfettered competition promoted progress led to a naval arms race that revolutionized seagoing architecture and hastened the replacement of sail with steam. Although they accommodated bigger guns and could meet schedules regardless of weather, fuel-hungry steamships required far-flung coaling stations, which encouraged naval powers to plant their flags on remote outposts and define their interest in places never before connected to their security or commerce.
Americans dubbed this freshly found national endeavour the “New Manifest Destiny.” As before, it was a way of clothing imperial ambitions in a higher purpose ostensibly decreed by Providence. The Spanish-American War of 1898 arose from popular outrage over Madrid’s reportedly barbarous colonial policies in Cuba and, more immediately, in response to the destruction of the U.S. battleship Maine, but it ended with the United States acquiring remnants of Spain’s dwindling global empire. Similarly, the annexation of Hawaii in 1898 provided the United States Navy with the desirable port facilities at Pearl Harbor.
The New Manifest Destiny curiously reversed the political lines of support of its forbearer. In the 1840s Manifest Destiny was primarily a Democrat Party doctrine over Whig dissent, but the New Manifest Destiny was a Republican program, especially under Pres. Theodore Roosevelt’s vigorous promotion of it, and Democrats tended to object to it. The Progressive wings of both parties, however, gravitated to advancing American idealism, which led to intervention in World War I and Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points as a statement of high globalism. Wilson’s program ultimately failed to sustain a consensus among the American people. Just as expansionism before the Civil War collapsed under the press of the slavery controversy, Wilsonian internationalism retreated before the United States’ traditional isolationism after the war.
Manifest Destiny has caused controversy among historians trying to sort out its origins and assess its significance. In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner put forth what proved a durable interpretation in his seminal essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In Turner’s view, taming the western wilderness shaped the pioneers as much as they shaped the land they settled, making them robust and capable in continuing the American tradition of pacifying and inhabiting whatever lay beyond the western horizon. In that regard, Turner provided an explanation for American exceptionalism, but, beginning in the mid-1980s, scholars styling themselves New Western Historians challenged his ideas. They rejected the view that Americans were agents of change, let alone purveyors of progress. Rather, the New Western Historians stressed the role of the coalition of government and influential corporations in overwhelming indigenous populations. In addition, they did not see the West fundamentally shaping American exceptionalism, the existence of which they doubted in any case. They focused instead on how competing cultures melded to create a singular heritage that was nevertheless broad and varied.
Whatever the validity of those conflicting views, in the simplest interpretation Manifest Destiny expressed the American version of an age-old yearning for improvement, change, and growth. Those who promoted it might have done so from venal or virtuous motives, and those who opposed it were seemingly vindicated by the Civil War in their grim warnings about the steep costs of a spreading imperium, but the events of American expansionism were a tale more than twice-told in the course of history.David S. HeidlerJeanne T. Heidler