Consensus for Empire: American Expansionist Thought and Policy, 1763-1789

Calabro, David Joseph, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Graebner, Norman A., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

This essay is a study in ideas. It seeks to identify the intellectual consensus within America which first conceptualized and then articulated the nation's expansionist purpose. In addition, the need exists to link this nation's formative continental efforts of the 18th and 19th centuries to their beginnings in American thought. The published and spoken words of the early American leadership exposed the exclusive relationship between colonial thought and the accompanying circumstances of politics and diplomacy. In a very real and determined sense, these perceptions of the country's territorial requirements involved considerations of the future size and nature of America.

Continental expansion was the product of no single ideological, doctrinal, or institutional heritage. Rather, the American search for continental empire was the offspring of a variegated national character. Religion, economics, security concerns, and nationalism all helped underwrite America's expansive demeanor, By consensus, American thinkers recognized the relationship between these forces and expansion. Functionally, the early search for a continental dominion suggested an extensive enterprise of settlement governed by a unified authority, first British then American. Conceptually, however, it represented a protracted system of territorial control affixing more comprehensive definitions to the land's occupation. Continentalism, as such, meant more than a preoccupation with the mainland. It represented a complex attitude which, over time, repudiated British imperial policy, invoked agrarianism as a motivating creed, and prescribed the blueprint for an interdependent system of commercial, political, and cultural pursuits across a vast continent. By studying the Americans whose minds forged the governing precepts of expansion, it is possible to suggest how continental theories kept pace with subsequent changes in the national attitude. Ultimately, expansionism revealed America's desire to reinforce its republican character as well as project its geographic limits.

This essay is a study of those diverse forces and an inquiry into the roots of America's continental aspirations. It integrates the history of ideas and the history of public policy to examine America within the context of expansion. The distinctive beliefs of Americans regarding the continent formed the nucleus of"the first American statement of empire. The thoughts of certain 18th century Americans, exposed in pamphlets, treatises, sermons, and other tracts, depicted the requisite conditions for expansion and nourished such ideas among the citizens of revolutionary America.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American history, ideas, public policy
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