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First great triumph : how five Americans made their country a world power /
Warren Zimmermann.
1st ed.
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
xii, 562 p. : ill.
0374179395 (hc : alk. paper)
More Details
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
0374179395 (hc : alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
First Chapter

The Expansionist Impulse


Americans like to pretend that they have no imperial past. Yet they have shown expansionist tendencies since colonial days. As early as 1613 Samuel Argall, a Jamestown ship captain in the employ of the Virginia Company, raided the settlement of Port Royal in French Canada. Overland expansion, often at the expense of Mexicans and Indians, was a marked feature of American history right through the period of the Civil War, by which time the United States had reached its continental proportions.

The War for American Independence, which created most of the founding myths of the Republic, was itself a war for expansion. The American revolutionaries were fighting to acquire all of Britain's possessions in North America, including the territories in Canada that the British had recently seized from France. General George Washington's raiding parties captured Montreal but failed at Quebec.

Thomas Jefferson nursed even grander plans for empire. Twenty years before he commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he had pondered an exploration of the Pacific Northwest. He interviewed sailors and explorers who knew the area and amassed the most comprehensive library on it in North America. In 1793 he organized a privately funded but government-sponsored expedition to seek a water route across the continent. The expedition was aborted when Jefferson discovered that its leader, a French scientist, was spying for France. But his aim was already to link the Atlantic and Pacific coasts via the Missouri and Columbia rivers.

Jefferson's greatest coup, the purchase from France in 1803 of vast but undefined western lands misleadingly known as Louisiana, brought this dream much closer to reality. The American president, Francophile though he was, won Louisiana by threatening to annihilate the French fleet and to fight any French troops who landed at New Orleans. Napoleon I had his own reasons for selling Louisiana. He was at a military disadvantage and feared the Americans would occupy the territory before he could get his army there. He boasted that by strengthening American power, he had given Britain "a rival who, sooner or later, will humble her pride." It was a clever calculation, since the two countries were at war nine years later.

With the addition of the land west of the Mississippi River stretching all the way to the Rockies, the Louisiana Purchase turned the hitherto square-shaped United States into a huge rectangle. In Jefferson's extravagant view the American entitlement went still farther, to the Pacific coast. Even before the mammoth land deal with Napoleon was concluded, he had secured congressional funding for Meriwether Lewis's expedition to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean.

After Jefferson's triumph with the Louisiana Territory, American presidents seized other new opportunities to expand. In the War of 1812 with Great Britain, the Madison administration made no headway in its attack on Canada but consolidated its hold on the Mississippi Valley. John Quincy Adams, President James Monroe's acerbic, depressive, and brilliant secretary of state, scored successes on both ends of the continent. His treaty of 1818 with Britain established the northwest boundary at forty-nine degrees latitude, where it is today. Also, in 1819 Adams bought from Spain the Floridas, comprising a strip along the Gulf Coast reaching to New Orleans as well as to what is now the state of Florida itself, for the modest price of five million dollars.

Adams's main historical legacy was the Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed in 1823 as Spanish colonies in Latin America were culminating their drive for independence from Spain. Adams was determined to blunt the not necessarily firm Spanish intention to use military force, with French support, to reestablish colonial control. The doctrine consisted of four noes: no new European colonization, no extension of European political systems to the Western Hemisphere, no intervention to put down revolutions, and (the U.S. quid pro quo) no American interference in Europe's internal concerns.

The Monroe Doctrine was a unilateral U.S. policy, not a treaty. It bound no country but the United States, nor was it uniformly enforced or observed. It was "violated" by Britain in the occupation of the Falkland Islands in 1833, by Spain in the reassertion of colonial rule over Santo Domingo in 1861, and by France in Napoleon III's brazen attempt to turn Mexico into a French puppet state during the American Civil War. There were other examples as well. Nevertheless, the consequences of the Monroe Doctrine were far-reaching, for Latin America became effectively a U.S. sphere of influence, off limits to its European rivals.

John Quincy Adams was a reluctant imperialist. He had opposed the Louisiana Purchase, and twice he renounced the U.S. claim to the territory that was later to become Texas, once as secretary of state and again as an antislavery congressman. But the desire in the South for more cotton land and an additional slave state prevailed. The agent of pro-Texas sentiment was a humorless, puritanical small-town Tennessee lawyer and former U.S. congressman. James K. Polk, a believer in Jeffersonian republicanism and a protégé of Andrew Jackson's, had no qualms about expansion. In his inaugural address as president in 1845, he said: "It is confidently believed that our system may be safely extended to the utmost bounds of our territorial limits, and that as it shall be extended the bonds of our Union, so far from being weakened, will become stronger."

Polk, unmatched among American presidents in his xenophobic belligerence, warned Great Britain not to challenge America's title to the Pacific Northwest and threatened Mexico with war if it interfered with the U.S. acquisition of Texas. He abandoned his attempt to expand the northwest boundary of the United States to north of Vancouver Island, settling for the earlier delineation at the forty-ninth parallel. But he fought a successful war against Mexico for Texas. By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, Mexico recognized the Rio Grande as the international border and ceded to the United States what are now California, Nevada, and Utah, plus parts of the future New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming. Mexico had lost half its land, and Polk had added 1.2 million square miles to U.S. territory, an increase of more than 60 percent. This achievement was completed after his presidency with the addition of the southern portions of Arizona and New Mexico, bought from Mexico in 1853. Alongside his hero Jefferson, Polk can claim to be the greatest presidential expansionist in American history.

Starting from the thirteen original states, the expansion from one contiguous area to another owed much to the diplomacy of Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and to the war policy of Polk. But expansion came from below as well. In the incorporation of the states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River during the late eighteenth century, backwoodsmen like Daniel Boone were catalysts whose actions were far more important than the government's. In Texas the determination of its inhabitants to belong to the United States helped drive the U.S. government into war with Mexico.

From the very beginning of the Republic, American politicians debated whether new states should be permitted to enter the Union with the same rights as the original thirteen. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which Jefferson helped draft, provided for admission, with equal rights, of states between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. It proved to be one of the most important pieces of legislation passed under the Articles of Confederation. But it did not apply to not-yet-acquired territories west of the Mississippi.

Jefferson himself dithered about the western lands. His approach in 1780 was inclusive: "Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North or South, is to be peopled." As president he expressed the hope that the American continent would be settled by people "speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws." Yet he told Meriwether Lewis, as he sent him west, that the land beyond the Mississippi should become a giant Indian reservation and that whites, now free of the Indian threat, should limit their settlements to territory east of the river. Also, on Lewis's return, Jefferson seemed much more interested in exploiting the trans-Mississippi West for the fur trade than for settlement.

Jefferson's farsighted secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, knew that Americans would rush to the West. He made sure that Lewis had instructions to test the new land's agricultural possibilities. Though Jefferson took a more tolerant view of Indians than he did of blacks, his policy was to divest them of title to their lands-by purchase if possible, by war if necessary-and to drive them westward. Even that restrictive policy clashed with the growing demands for white settlement of the West. Napoleon had predicted what Gallatin also foresaw: Americans were not going to leave the West to the Indians. Attracted by cheap land, settlers would spread out across the continent and ultimately establish claims for new states on the same basis as the original thirteen.

The Northwest Ordinance became the working model for regulation of this westward expansion in the nineteenth century. There would be no colonies, no second-class territories, except on a temporary basis. As it turned out, states were admitted on an equal footing until 1896, when Utah was compelled as a condition of admission to outlaw the polygamy practiced by the Mormons who had settled there. The inhabitants of newly acquired territories, with the significant exception of Indians and slaves, were expected and encouraged to seek equal rights as citizens. They were seen as prospective Americans, not as colonial subjects of a continental American empire. There was no challenge to this principle until 1898, when the United States acquired territory that was not to be settled by Americans and a colonial population that was not to be granted the rights Americans enjoyed.

Some Americans tried to go even further and take all of Mexico and Canada. These historical might-have-beens would have more than doubled the area of the United States. Polk's cabinet actually considered the annexation of Mexico following the American victory, but the idea died with the signing of the peace treaty in 1848. The drawbacks to expansion proved too strong. One was opposition in the American South to conferring citizenship on nonwhites. Another was a reluctance to acquire territory against the wishes of its people. A captured Mexico would have been the first territory taken without a diplomatic agreement or a clear expression of its people's desire to join the United States.

Canada was a larger and even more important target. From the birth of their Republic Americans had assumed that the large territory to their north would become a part of it. Jefferson in 1775 expressed the belief that "the delegates of Canada will join us in Congress and complete the American union." The Articles of Confederation invited an application by Canadians to be "admitted into and entitled to all the advantages of the union." A strategic objective, to deny the British the St. Lawrence River, dictated the American occupation of Montreal and Benedict Arnold's unsuccessful raid on Quebec in 1775. Similarly, in the War of 1812 Henry Clay, speaker of the House of Representatives, saw an attack on Canada as a way to break the British alliance with the Indians and to challenge the British Navy. Jefferson from retirement said that the conquest of Canada was merely a matter of "marching." To Canadians the War of 1812 was not about abstract principles like neutral rights on the high seas. They saw it as an American invasion, and they pushed the attackers back across the border.

Early in the Civil War, Canada escaped another American invasion when the United States and Britain narrowly avoided going to war over the British ship Trent , which had given two Confederate envoys free passage to London. After the British North American Act of 1867 created the Dominion of Canada, increasing both its unity and its autonomy, tensions with the United States abated. Still, cross-border raids continued, often stimulated by Irish-Americans, and American politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, fulminated for annexation.

Why did the American appetite for Canada, often so rapacious during the century after the Revolution, go unsatiated? There are three main reasons. First, Canadians had no consistent desire to join the United States. Tens of thousands of Americans loyal to the British crown fled to Canada during the Revolution. They became a major political force in their rejection of American republicanism and produced in their descendants many of Canada's future leaders. The rhythm in the bilateral relationship discouraged merger of the two countries. Whenever the threat of annexation seemed strongest, as in 1775, 1812, and 1861, Canadians tended to band together.

Second, despite their annexationist jingoism in the early days of the Republic, Americans never reached a clear national position on Canada. In the War of 1812, Henry Clay's Kentucky urged attacks on Canada, but the New England states discouraged them. Over the issue of slavery, a triple dynamic led to standstill: Southerners opposed union with nonslaveholding Canada, northern abolitionists favored it, and most Canadians were appalled at the thought of joining a slaveholding United States. Rational American statesmen pursued moderate objectives. John Jay in 1795 and Daniel Webster in 1842 concluded boundary settlements with Britain; President Martin Van Buren enforced U.S. neutrality laws against American annexationists.

The third reason for Canada's independence from the United States was British power. For the British, retention of their primary territory in the Western Hemisphere was a high priority for which they were willing to fight. American presidents prudently refrained from challenging them directly. American imperialists had to rely on potential, rather than active, threats to ensure Britain's good behavior. For the United States Canada became a hostage instead of a target. It remained-along with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and a few Caribbean islands-one of the last European possessions left in the Western Hemisphere.


The United States that emerged from the Civil War concealed a paradox. With the Confederate states reunited in the Union, it was a continental country from sea to shining sea. But it was not yet a continental nation, in a governmental sense. Only ten of the thirty-six states lay west of the Mississippi, and five of those touched the river.


Excerpted from First Great Triumph by Warren Zimmermann Copyright © 2002 by Warren Zimmermann
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2003-05-01:
Retired diplomat Zimmerman traces US foreign policy from 1898 to 1903, the time when the US suddenly became a major player in world politics. The author ably organizes his narrative around five major figures: President Theodore Roosevelt, naval strategist Albert T. Mahan, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State John Hay, and Secretary of War Elihu Root. The work is beautifully written, offering deftly drawn portraits of the five men's early careers, mutual interplay, and prominent roles in such events as the Cuban crisis, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine insurrection, and initial colonial development. True, the book is one of synthesis, lacking grounding in manuscript sources and adding little to our general knowledge. Yet it should be a sheer delight to general readers and novice students. Though the bibliography is usually comprehensive in its listing of secondary works and published correspondence, the author's view of President McKinley's hesitancy in 1898 might have been modified by use of Louis L. Gould's The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (CH, Oct'91). Similarly, some reliance on Raymond A. Esthus's Theodore Roosevelt and Japan (CH, May'67) could have changed the picture of the Taft-Katsura and Root-Takahira agreements. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers and lower-and upper-division undergraduates. J. D. Doenecke New College of Florida
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-08-05:
Like Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, Zimmermann's account takes its readers deep into a small, captivating circle of figures instrumental in shaping American thought and history: in this case, the five men most responsible for making the United States a major player on the international stage at the start of the 20th century. The key players are Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge (Republican senator from Massachusetts), John Hay (enigmatic secretary of state to McKinley and TR), Elihu Root (hard-edged New York corporate attorney, later to serve as a gruffly paternalistic colonial administrator), and naval strategist Admiral Alfred T. Mahan. Mahan, perhaps the least well-known of the five, emerges as the group's touchstone. An ardent admirer of the standing British fleet and the British colonial system it helped police, Mahan believed the United States should institute similar military might to help administer an American world view. He aggressively lobbied for the establishment and maintenance of a large, well-funded navy and for strict enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, with U.S. domination of such strategically important outposts as Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. In this fascinating and engaging account, Zimmermann (Origins of Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers), a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia), does a brilliant job of showing how Mahan's views enabled the United States to bootstrap up to the status of world colonial power within the short space of just five years, from 1898 to 1903. Illus. not seen by PW. (Oct.) Forecast: The readers who made The Metaphysical Club and Theodore Rex bestsellers are the ideal audience for this outstanding history; if they learn of the book, expect healthy sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-10-01:
America's preeminence as a superpower has its roots in how corporate lawyer Elihu Root, naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan, U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State John Hay, and politician Theodore Roosevelt led the nation in articulating and shaping American imperialism. A career diplomat and a former ambassador to Yugoslavia, Zimmermann (Columbia Univ. and Johns Hopkins; Origins of a Catastrophe) argues that the "consequences right up to today" of American expansionism between the 1880s and 1910s "owes a great deal to" the five fathers of modern American imperialism. Part one comprises the biographies of these architects of an aggressive imperialist policy, and part two narrates mainly the war against Spain and TR's presidency. Zimmermann admirably presents complex individuals and their extremely complex historical era in a manner accessible to the layperson. This readable, richly detailed, scholarly work, based on primary and secondary sources, is rewarding to readers who want more than an introductory historical treatment of the origins of today's American foreign policy. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review Quotes
"Riveting . . . A fascinating visit to an era that has received far too little attention." -Foreign Affairs
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, August 2002
Publishers Weekly, August 2002
Library Journal, October 2002
Booklist, November 2002
New York Times Book Review, November 2002
Reference & Research Book News, February 2003
Choice, May 2003
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Main Description
"We were sure that we would win, that we should score the first great triumph in a mighty world-movement."Theodore Roosevelt, 1904 Americans like to think they have no imperial past. In fact, the United States became an imperial nation within five short years a century ago (1898-1903), exploding onto the international scene with the conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and (indirectly) Panama. How did the nation become a player in world politics so suddenlyand what inspired the move toward imperialism in the first place? The renowned diplomat and writer Warren Zimmermann seeks answers in the lives and relationships of five remarkable figures: the hyper-energetic Theodore Roosevelt, the ascetic naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan, the bigoted and wily Henry Cabot Lodge, the self-doubting moderate Secretary of State John Hay, and the hard-edged corporate lawyer turned colonial administrator Elihu Root. Faced with difficult choices, these extraordinary men, all close friends, instituted new political and diplomatic policies with intermittent audacity, arrogance, generosity, paternalism, and vision. Zimmermann's discerning account of these five men also examines the ways they exploited the readiness of the American people to support a surge of expansion overseas. He makes it clear why no discussion of America's international responsibilities today can be complete without understanding how the United States claimed its global powers a century ago.
Unpaid Annotation
A renowned diplomat and writer seeks to discover what inspired the United State's move toward imperialism nearly a century ago. He examines the lives and relationships of five remarkable figures: Theodore Roosevelt, Alfred T. Mahan, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State John Hay, and Elihu Root. Notes and index. of illustrations.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrationsp. xi
Introduction: Rising Empirep. 3
The Music Makersp. 15
The Expansionist Impulsep. 17
The Favor of Fortunep. 40
A Pen-and-Ink Sailorp. 85
A Lawyer's Dutyp. 123
Dauntless Intolerancep. 149
So Brilliant and Aggressive a Manp. 188
Imperial Americap. 231
Island Fortress, Cuban Bloodp. 233
The Supreme Triumphs of Warp. 268
Jingoes and Goo-goosp. 313
The White Man's Burdensp. 362
The Imperial Presidencyp. 418
America's Centuryp. 475
Notesp. 505
Bibliographyp. 537
Acknowledgmentsp. 549
Indexp. 553
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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