The Era of Good Feeling & American Expansionism

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The Era of Good Feeling

James Monroe’s Era of Good Feeling included an aggressive campaign to annex Florida, strengthen American claims in Oregon, and promote Westward Movement.

In 1823, Francis Baylies, a member of the House of Representatives, declared in the Congress that, “…our natural boundary is the Pacific Ocean. The swelling tide of our population must and will roll on until that mighty ocean interposes its waters, and limits our territorial empire.” The period following the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 is often called the Era of Good Feeling. It was a time of disorganized growth, national prosperity, emerging materialism, and continued expansionism. The national forces that facilitated this success were driven by the unswerving belief that the United States had a special destiny.

Expansionism in the Era of Good Feeling

The expansionist views of the 1820s took their cue from the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. As the 7th Congress debated the proposition of acquiring New Orleans from France, ratified to include the entire Louisiana Territory by the 8th Congress, Georgia Senator James Jackson, seeking to include Florida, stated that, “God and nature have destined…the Floridas to belong to this great and rising empire.” (2nd Session) Jackson, representing Georgia, was more practically concerned with fugitive slaves that found refuge in Florida, but his words echoed sentiments shared by most lawmakers.

Following General Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 – after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, the Louisiana Purchase was legitimized in the eyes of many Americans. The nation, however, fully believed that the purchase should have included Florida and Texas. This view was based on statements like the one made by Gouverneur Morris much earlier, who declared that Florida “is joined to us by the hand of the Almighty.”

Treaties and Boundary Redefinitions

By early 1819, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams concluded the Adams-Onis Treaty, which enabled the legal annexation of Florida. American settlers had already occupied Alabama, jointly claimed by Spain and the United States. Spain, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and independence movements throughout the Central and Southern regions of the hemisphere, cut its losses. Additionally, Andrew Jackson’s foray into Spanish Florida, deemed war-like, against the orders and wishes of President Monroe, had created a volatile situation. Only Adams supported Jackson’s actions.

Separate agreements with Spain and Britain ceded Spanish claims to lands above California, not within the scope of the Louisiana Purchase and also claimed by Britain and Russia. The 1817 Rush-Bagot Treaty created the world’s longest demilitarized border between the United States and British Canada. Anglo-American agreements also provided for joint possession of Oregon, a decision that would lead to a crisis in the late 1830s highlighted by the 1840 presidential campaign slogan “fifty-four forty or fight.”

Expansionism and the Friendly Indian Tribes

The most serious threat to American expansion occurred in Florida with the resistance of indigenous Indians during the Second Seminole War. The other major southern nations, led by the Cherokee, endeavored to adopt the pastoral life, seeking an amicable accommodation that would allow them to live on their traditional lands.

Most Americans, however, refused to accept any accommodation. The example of the Black Hawk War illustrates deeply held animosities against Native Americans and a desire to purge the land of unwanted peoples. This near universal prejudice would find fulfillment in the policy of Indian Removal, decisively put into practice during the Andrew Jackson presidency and culminating in the tragic Trail of Tears. Expansionism was also exclusionary. The divinely destined mission of the Republic was limited to white, Christian America.

Geographic Predestination has no Limits

The European view of “natural boundaries,” traced back to Imperial Rome, had no place in American expansionism. Americans looked to the west, eager to trek onward to the Pacific and exploit fertile lands and bountiful natural resources. Daniel Webster once said that the port of San Francisco was more valuable than all of Texas. The March of the Flag, famously associated with later imperialism, began with the Westward Movement.

References:

  1. Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)
  2. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years, Vol. Four (McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1981)
  3. Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1958)