Even when they understand America’s westward expansion as a process offoreign policy and imperial development, students remain reluctant to abandon entirely the edifice of American “isolation.” In part this is justified, given the highly ideological emphasis on political “non-entanglement” put forward by many American statesmen into the early twentieth century. Many Americans contrasted their nation’s “republican” foreign policy with the “Old Diplomacy” of Europe, allegedly dominated by power and self-interest. U.S. expansion, its defenders claimed, served to expand the “Empire of Liberty” or at least represented the divinely ordained fulfillment of “Manifest Destiny.” The implication is that even when the United States became an overseas empire in 1898, it followed different rules and acted for different motives than Europe. While I push students to consider what makes U.S. foreign relations unique, it is important to emphasize the continuities as well. The history of international law helped me to make this connection by linking America to a broader vision of empire as a “civilizing” and “humanitarian” mission.
Early in the semester, we read John Quincy Adams’s 1841 address on the Opium War. Adams is the perfect messenger for this theme of transatlantic imperial continuity because he is so often associated with its opposite. As secretary of state, he authored most of the Monroe Doctrine, that quintessential statement of American hemispheric separation and anti-colonial sentiment.
Adams begins his speech by noting that determining the justness of the Opium War is not merely important to Britain and China but is “of deep interest to the whole human race” (303). He proposes the Law of Nations as the best arbiter of the cause. In so doing he reveals two important facets of this law. First, Adams admits that there is no single, universal, agreed-upon code, but rather the existence of “a system of Rules, varying according to the character and condition of the parties concerned” (306). Thus he distinguishes the law between “Christian communities” from that governing “our intercourse with the Indian tribes of our own Continent” (307). There is “another Law of Nations between us, and the woolly headed natives of Africa; another with the Barbary Powers and the Sultan of the Ottoman empire…” (307). International law, in other words, is circumscribed by race, nation, religion, and culture.
Adams then sidesteps what he has just said and claims that there is in fact a General Law of Nations, applicable to all. Citing Vattel (though ultimately disagreeing with him), Adams argues that all nations must recognize the equality of all others, and must balance self-interest with the need to “contribute to the happiness of all” (312). By refusing to open its ports fully to British trade, and by requiring the “ko-tow,” China “utterly denies the equality of other Nations with itself” (313). This “enormous outrage upon the rights of human nature…should cease” (313). Thus Adams sides with England on the grounds of humanity:
“I cannot forbear to express the hope that Britain, after taking the lead in the abolition of the African Slave trade and of slavery; and of the still more degrading tribute to the Barbary African Mahometans, will extend her liberating arm to the farthest bounds of Asia…” (313)
Thus the principles of equality and selflessness become the rationale for a war of drug-pushing and empire! While Adams’s views were somewhat out of place in his time (and the address was not published for nearly seventy years, by the Massachusetts Historical Society), they are nonetheless useful pedagogically.
Viewed from a modern perspective, Adams’s sophistry is plain. Students are tempted to dismiss international law altogether as a mere rationalization of power. But this would be too easy. Rationalization—whether through public speech or private self-justification—is necessary for the consistent expression of power. And the American myth of selflessness and Right makes it especially important in this country. Adams is worth reading because his appeals to universal principles foreshadow the later legal justifications for empire in the late nineteenth century.
To understand the American imperial expansion of the 1890s in light of European colonialism, we devoted a later class to the legal concept of civilization in the late-nineteenth century. I assigned Gordon Chang’s “Whose ‘Barbarism’? Whose ‘Treachery’? Race and Civilization in the Unknown United States-Korea War of 1871” in order to emphasize the rhetorical importance of “civilization” at the time, and to highlight its contested nature. But I argued that the concept of civilization was not merely rhetorical, but was inscribed into the legal expression of colonialism. For instance, “uncivilized” or partially civilized states often were forced to grant extraterritorial jurisdiction to foreign powers. Granted, the definition of civilization was fuzzy. We discussed how international law treatises defined civilization sometimes in terms of religion (with Christian=civilized, on the model presented by John Quincy Adams), sometimes in terms of race (Francis Lieber claimed “Internationalism is part of a white man’s religion”), and more generally in terms of behavior. As Gerrit Gong has explained, Japan became “civilized” in international law treatises in part when its diplomats adopted Western practices, but also because its victory over China in 1894-95 marked it as an imperial power. American leaders did not fail to understand the linkage between imperial power and civilizational status.
The civilizing mission also figured directly in legal documents. We read excerpts from the General Act of the Congress of Berlin (1885) that set out legal rules for the colonial partition of Central Africa. Signatories promised to “watch over the preservation of the native tribes, and to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being…” Notably, an American delegate attended the meeting—surprising on its face, considering America’s anti-colonial rhetoric and lack of African colonies. But the class understood that this was made possible by the way that the Congress explained colonialism as a civilizing project that seemed to fulfill many of the traditionally “republican” aspects of American foreign policy: it committed the signatories to free trade in the region, emphasized neutrality, and guaranteed openings to missionaries and scientific expeditions. In short, the Berlin Congress reveals late-19th century European colonialism as rationalized in ways quite compatible with how Americans understood their own imperial expansion.
Establishing this history of colonialism through law helps to prepare the class to understand the American imperial expansion of 1898 not as an “aberration” to past US practice, nor as an exceptionally American event. Other types of sources help to substantiate this, of course, including this cartoon. But the legal background is especially useful. It also helps to explain why the US found law so essential to the development of its empire in the early 20th century, a subject of my next post.