Editor’s Note: The following is part of a series of excerpts adapted from Rich Lowry’s new book The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free. Read the previous excerpt here.
On October 20, 1842, Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones, commander of the U.S. Pacific Squadron, ordered 150 U.S. troops ashore at Mexican-held Monterey, Calif. They seized a fort without resistance, and the Stars and Stripes went up over the Monterey customhouse.
Jones mistakenly thought that hostilities had commenced between Mexico and the United States. Yes, the commodore had begun the conquest of California . . . by accident.
As I argue in my new book, The Case for Nationalism, the American continental drive was an important nationalist project. Nothing so starkly illustrates its ambition than our immediate focus on gaining California, a territory separated by vast, unoccupied spaces from the rest of the nation.
President James Monroe’s envoy to Mexico made the case in 1822 for a border that would give us California, Texas, and other territories in northern Mexico. President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state instructed our chargé d’affaires in Mexico in 1835 to explore the idea of offering $5 million to secure “within our limits the whole bay of St Francisco.”
The key thing to know about the conquest of California, when it eventually came about in earnest in 1846–47, is that there was not much conquering to speak of. The province was lightly populated and barely governed. Few from Mexico settled there. At one point, the Mexican government sent convicts to try to populate the place, and soldiers stationed in the province were often drawn from jails. In 1835, the Mexican army had a little more than 300 men in California. As of 1842, the company stationed in San Diego had all of 14 unarmed men.
FDR had it right when he wrote in an introduction to a book about the California naval battles, “Incapable of united resistance from within and devoid of any protecting power from without, the vast territory of California lay an easy prize to any strong power that might wish to seize it.” Or, as a French diplomat observed at the time, California was ripe for the picking of “whatever nation chooses to send there a man-of-war and two hundred men.” As it happened, that was pretty much what the United States did.
If America is an idea, it’s one that has shown itself remarkably adept at eliminating threatening foreign powers from our vicinity and expanding our territory through calculation, artifice, and force. We were never content to huddle against the eastern seaboard thinking philosophical thoughts. We cared deeply about territorial questions and wanted to ward off geopolitical challengers and increase the extent and power of the nation. Our people ceaselessly strained against any western boundaries short of the Pacific Ocean, and almost all our statesmen — of all parties and dispositions — considered it a given that we would spread across the continent (and perhaps extend our northern and southern borders, too).
Jefferson wrote to James Monroe in 1801 in a letter regarding the ultimate fate of the Indians and Spaniards, “However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, & cover the whole Northern, if not the Southern continent with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, & by similar laws: nor can we contemplate, with satisfaction, either blot or mixture on that surface.”
For anti-nationalist conservatives, much of the story of our westward push is to be passed over in silence. For the Left, it shows the nefariousness, even the illegitimacy, of the American nation.
There is obviously much that is regrettable, especially in our treatment of the Indians, but we should always remember the bottom line of our expansion: It was a stupendous boon to our nation, to our people, to our interests, to our wealth, and to our power. We wouldn’t be nearly as affluent or influential today without it.
Try to imagine an America without free navigation of the Mississippi, without New Orleans or Seattle, without Florida or Texas or California, without unified control of the Great Plains, without a secure continental base, free of foreign adversaries, from which to pursue our commerce, protect our national security, and project our power.
With the obvious and very honorable exception of Great Britain, none of the foreign nations we contended with for territory has a consistent track record of competent, liberal governance. Does anyone believe that Texas and California would be better governed, freer, or more prosperous under the control of Mexico?
As for the Indians, our treatment of them was often shameful, but there was an ineluctable culture clash between premodern, warlike tribal peoples, who by and large wanted to hunt and roam over vast spaces, and a technologically advanced, property-centered civilization. One way or the other, the tribes were going to give way.
The fact is that this has always been a land-hungry, land-obsessed, land-enchanted country that considered itself bigger and better, more beautiful and more blessed, than anywhere else — truly a Promised Land.
If anti-nationalists doubt it and are certain that this country doesn’t care about territory, they should propose giving an acre of land in the middle of nowhere back to Mexico as symbolic compensation for the Mexican–American War, and see how it goes over. One can safely assume, very poorly.
This essay is excerpted from The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free, out Tuesday from Broadside Books.