How Presidents Sell War: Part 2

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

I have two tasks for you before you read the rest of today’s post. First, read yesterday’s introductory post.

Second, do this five-minute trivia quiz, which asks you to list all the armed conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved.

How many did you guess? Ten? Maybe 20? There were 35! And this Wikipedia list of wars involving the U.S. is considerably larger. In either case, it’s evidence of something we already knew: the U.S. is no stranger to conflict.

Late Eighteenth Century

It’s also worth noting that U.S. conflict is not a recent phenomenon. We were, after all, a nation baptized in blood. As soon as we could walk, we were picking up guns.

Our father would not have been too happy.[1] Though a general and able commander-in-chief, President Washington did his best to steer the fledgling ship of state from the rocky shores of war. Despite inevitable conflicts with Native American tribes on the frontier, the President avoided any true international struggles. It wasn’t that he was lacking opportunity. His own Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, lobbied to help the French in their revolutionary struggles against other European powers.[2] Much of the country agreed with Jefferson — the French, after all, helped us in our own uprising against monarchical oppression. Washington demurred, however, and declared neutrality.

Two years later, as he was about to vacate the presidency, he issued his hallmark Farewell Address. Two pieces of advice from the Father of Our Country rose above the rest: avoid political parties and stay out of foreign entanglements.[3] For more than a century afterward, the second suggestion was cited by American isolationists of all political stripes. His successor as chief executive, PPFA man-crush John Adams, was the first to heed Washington’s advice when he stayed out of direct conflict with France despite its aggression toward American merchant ships. Most of the country, including his own party, begged to let slip the dogs of war. Adams, foreseeing disaster if his young republic challenged an established European power, refused to unleash them, partially by channeling his inner Washington.

As Adams’s presidency ended, so did the tumultuous eighteenth century. However, a new century of tumult awaited.

Nineteenth Century

Let’s take a look at those quiz answers. (Last chance to do the quiz before it’s spoiled! I’ll wait….

Okay, here we go.)


Down the left-hand column we see our nineteenth century conflicts. We squared off against a mixed bag of opponents, including Native American tribes, North African pirates, and, hilariously, Mormons. With one notable exception, we also see that we generally followed President Washington’s advice; until the end of the century, we didn’t embroil ourselves in international war.

That one exception — the War of 1812, which inconveniently lasted until 1815 — helped prove Washington right. We picked another fight with Britain over its meddling in American affairs — most notably its impressment of American merchant sailors and support of native tribes hostile to the U.S. — and lived to regret it.[4] Though a disastrous war followed by an anticlimactic stalemate, it did signify a slightly more feisty foreign policy. Within a decade, President Monroe issued his eponymous doctrine, which vowed to protect the American continents, including their many freshly emancipated countries, from European recovery.

But again, that was the exception to Washington’s rule. What Washington never quite warned us against was poking around the North American continent. Despite America’s eclectic series of foes, one dominant theme underlined nearly every American conflict of the 1800s: manifest destiny.

Manifest destiny imprinting onto the nation’s worldview was a crucial pivot point in the evolution of American foreign policy. For the purposes of this series, it provided a framework for American leaders trying to sell a war to the American people. We’ll see several themes surface as later presidents find their inner hawk and ask Americans to go to war.

  • Theme 1) The national interest is at stake (examples so far: Quasi-War with France; War of 1812).
  • Theme 2) The U.S. acts meritoriously, including the defense of the “good” side in foreign conflicts. The U.S. does not relish the role of interventionist, but will do what is right nonetheless. (Example: Monroe Doctrine)
  • Theme 3) The U.S. must act in defense or propagation of law, order, and/or American values.

Manifest destiny, which suggests that the U.S. was a virtuous nation with a destiny to expand west and transform conquered areas to fit the mold of America, ushered in Theme 3. President Jackson justified taking Native American land because the U.S. should “extend the area of freedom.” President Lincoln justified the Civil War by, among other arguments, describing our country as “the last, best hope of Earth.” In both cases, these leaders were channeling an American exceptionalism that dated as far back as the founding of Massachusetts.

At the time, manifest destiny specifically referred to lands west of the growing country, hence President Polk’s execution of the Mexican-American War and a dozen other conflicts against western native groups by presidents throughout the century. However, just because the Pacific Ocean was eventually reached did not mean that our country’s yearning to expand its sphere of influence had as well. Fortunately for American imperialists, manifest destiny had been ingrained into the American consciousness and could be co-opted by more international aims.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 can be seen as a harbinger of what the twentieth century had in store for American foreign policy. With sea to shining sea conquered, Americans inevitably looked beyond the water’s edge. In this war with a dying European empire, the victorious Americans, led by President McKinley, stripped Spain of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.[5] Careening into the next century at full steamships ahead, the country graduated from a regional power to a global one.

The echo of President Washington’s words were fading. McKinley’s successor offered surprisingly combative language from an American commander-in-chief. His name was Theodore Roosevelt, and his Corollary was the most aggressive step yet in American foreign policy.

To read about that, check back for Part 3.


[1]But a late eighteenth century version of the NRA would have been thrilled.

[2]I know this because Hamilton.

[3]Like good children, we’ve followed that advice 100 percent. To this day we have no partisanship and never go overseas to wage war.

[4]For the first and only time, the President of the United States had to flee Washington as an enemy invaded the homeland. The British ended up burning the city down, including the White House and Capitol building. We have video footage of a retreating President Madison and his cabinet here.

[5]I compare this war to a hungry, up-and-coming boxer against an aged heavyweight on his last legs. For a century the U.S. had readied itself for a fight beyond the continental U.S., whereas Spain — a few hundred years since its fearsome sixteenth century Spanish Armada was the envy of Europe — had spent the same century losing nearly all its possessions in the Western Hemisphere. Spain has since been placed in a nursing home and talks about the glory days to anyone who will listen.


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