Annexation of Territory

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ANNEXATION OF TERRITORY. The United States originally comprised thirteen states hugging the Atlantic seacoast of North America. The Treaty of Paris (1783), ending the war of independence, provided the new nation with more land for continued westward settlement. The accord with Britain gave the republic all lands westward to the Mississippi River and north to the Great Lakes. Americans wanted the Floridas too, but Spain reclaimed that area, and the southern boundary was set at the thirty-first parallel.

Although American leaders had misgivings about the expansion of the union to the uncharted territory beyond the Mississippi, within half a century the nation's land holdings stretched across North America to the Pacific Coast. The question of whether slavery should be extended to the West was one of the central causes of the Civil War. During the three decades following the end of the war, the United States expanded no further. But by the turn of the twentieth century, America had joined the ranks of an imperial power with offshore territorial possessions as well.

Annexation of territory was accomplished by purchase, conquests from Native Americans, treaties with European powers, joint resolutions of annexation, and presidential proclamation.

Louisiana Purchase

The United States had gained trading rights along the Mississippi River and free access to the port of New Orleans when it signed Pinckney's Treaty with Spain in 1795. The administration of President Thomas Jefferson believed the United States might lose these vital interests when Spain handed over its Louisiana territory to France in 1800. When France cut off river trade, Jefferson sent envoys to Europe who were instructed to offer to buy New Orleans and the Floridas for as much as $10 million. Meanwhile, the president built up army posts along the Mississippi in case war broke out against French forces.

Such a crisis was averted when Napoleon turned his imperial ambitions from the New World back to the Old World, for war against England. In 1803, Napoleon decided to sell the 828,000 acres comprising the Louisiana territory to the United States for $15 million. The resulting treaty (1803) guaranteed U.S. trade on the Mississippi and seemingly limitless space for future settlement and commerce. The annexation doubled the size of the country so that it now extended west to the Rocky Mountains, north to Canada, and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Natural Dominion

President James Monroe's selection of John Quincy Adams to be his secretary of state made it possible for the United States to extend what Adams called America's "natural dominion" farther west and south. A brilliant diplomat, Adams was also an imperialist who believed that eventually all of North America would fall into American hands. In 1818, Adams succeeded in wrangling from England a joint occupation agreement for Oregon, opening the way for settlement in the Pacific Northwest. The forty-ninth parallel to the Rocky Mountains became the border between the U.S. and Canada.

A year later, Adams was able to gain diplomatic advantage over Spain, which was focused on repressing revolutionary struggles in South America. The secretary of state successfully negotiated the Transcontinental or Adams-OnÍs Treaty. In the deal, Spain agreed to cede the Floridas to the United States and give up its claims to Oregon north of the line of forty-two degrees latitude. In return, the United States relinquished any claims to Texas and agreed to pay Spain $5 million. Despite the favorable nature of the treaty, some segments of the American public were distressed by the "loss" of Texas. The persistent migration of Americans to Texas over the next two decades gave rise to expectations that Texas would one day be added to the union.

Tribal Lands

For over two centuries, white pioneers and Native Americans had been at war with one another for possession of North American land. In the late 1820s, under President Andrew Jackson, the U.S. government sought to force Indian tribes to surrender their tribal lands and move west beyond the Mississippi River to isolated western territory. Some tribes regretfully migrated but others resisted these efforts and ended up being killed in conflicts with U.S. militiamen. According to the historian Frederick Merk, in one five-year period, between 1832 and 1837, 2 million acres of land in the northern plains of the Great Lakes were ceded to the U.S. government by Native American tribes.

Texas and Manifest Destiny

In the mid-1840s, many Americans became convinced that it was America's "manifest destiny" to expand across the continent and provide a haven to peoples willing to practice self-government and live in freedom. Thousands of U.S. settlers sought to fulfill the notion of manifest destiny by settling in Texas. Mexico initially encouraged the migration with offers of free land. After winning independence from Mexico under the leadership of General Sam Houston (1836), residents of the self-proclaimed Republic of Texas decided to request annexation by the United States. Their repeated requests to join the union were rejected until President John Tyler brought a formal annexation resolution before Congress in 1843. However, concerns about the spread of slavery to Texas and the risk of war with Mexico doomed the effort. The Senate rejected the original Texas annexation treaty.

The Texas issue was quickly revived. The presidential election of 1844 turned out to be a mandate on the issue of annexation. Because pro-Texas annexation candidate James K. Polk was victorious, lame-duck President Tyler felt justified in bringing the question of annexation back to Congress. On this occasion, Tyler asked the representatives to approve a joint resolution to annex Texas. After incoming president Polk allayed Congress's fears about the impact of the annexation on relations with Mexico, both houses approved the annexation resolution.

Congress's concerns about Mexico's negative reaction to annexation were confirmed. Mexico failed to accept the loss of Texas. Relations between the two countries deteriorated in light of Polk's efforts to purchase additional land from Mexico west of Texas as well as California. War erupted in 1846 when Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to occupy disputed territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. The Americans won the war with Mexico, and in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 1848) Mexico surrendered not only California but also New Mexico and what is now Arizona, as well as parts of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Mexico was also forced to accept the Rio Grande as the border between the United States and Mexico. The United States paid Mexico $15 million for the land and assumed unpaid damage claims by American citizens against Mexico for up to $3.25 million.


Since the Adams-Onís agreement, the British and the Americans had jointly occupied the Oregon territory. During the Polk administration, expansionists took up the battle cry "Fifty-four forty or fight." They wanted the United States to seek possession of the entire Oregon territory up to latitude 54© 40©, which would include what is now Washington State as well as present-day Idaho, Oregon, and British Columbia. Although Polk attempted to satisfy these expansionist aims, eventually he decided not to provoke war with England over Oregon. In 1846, the United States and Great Britain signed the Oregon Treaty that set the border between America and Canada at the current forty-ninth parallel. The Senate ratified the treaty.

Land for Transcontinental Railroad

In 1853, President Franklin Pierce gave authority to James Gadsden, a railroad developer, to purchase a 30,000-square-foot strip of Californian land south of the Gila River, today's southern New Mexico and the southern quarter of Arizona. The area was considered ideal as a gateway for a transcontinental railroad to the Pacific Coast. For $10 million, the United States also gained the right to pass across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In addition, the remaining border disputes were settled with Mexico.

Cuba Considered

In the 1850s, American expansionists looked south of America's borders for new territory to acquire. Mostly Southerners, they targeted Cuba, a slave-holding Caribbean island held by Spain located ninety miles from the Florida coast. In 1854, President Franklin Pierce instructed his minister to Spain, Pierre Soule, to try to buy Cuba from Spain. But Soule was a poor diplomat and outraged Spain by issuing threats. Afterwards, Pierce organized a conference in Ostend, Belgium, led by future president James Buchanan. Buchanan and pro-slavery diplomats produced the Ostend Manifesto, which suggested the United States seize Cuba by force if Spain refused to sell it. When the manifesto became public, a national debate began over the South's efforts to extend slavery. The controversy led one of the manifesto's authors to repudiate it, and the U.S. government formally ended its pursuit of Cuba. Too many voices were raised over the wisdom of annexing a territory with so many inhabitants who were neither white nor Protestant.

While the United States failed to take Cuba, it did acquire a series of sparsely populated or uninhabited islands in the Caribbean and North Pacific in the 1850s. These possessions included Navassa Island, a tiny Caribbean island used for guano mining, and Baker Island, and the Johnston Atoll in Oceania. They were annexed through presidential proclamation.

Seward's Folly

After the Civil War, one of the few U.S. leaders who retained enthusiasm for continental expansion was Secretary of State William H. Seward. In 1867, the Russian tsar offered to sell Alaska to the United States. Russia had profited little from the 586,412 square miles of territory and preferred that Americans, rather than the British Navy, take possession of it. Few in the United States could see the wisdom of buying what appeared to be a barren chunk of ice, even if it was going cheap at the price of $7.2 million. After all, this was the era of Reconstruction. But Seward, a diehard believer in "manifest destiny," recognized that Alaska could be a useful outpost for the growing trade with the Far East as well as a wellspring of natural resources. The statesman hoped that the United States would subsequently seek territorial possessions in the Caribbean, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico. He found few supporters for these acquisitions. Yet Seward did succeed in obtaining what he believed were strategic posts in the Pacific: the tiny Midway Islands north of Hawaii. He predicted that the United States would someday be called on to aggressively defend its interests in Asia.

New Imperialism

In the 1890s, the United States began actively pursuing overseas expansion and risking conflict with European powers. A variety of factors drove the United States to become more assertive abroad. Advances in transportation and communication had shrunk the world, giving foreign events a heightened importance. More importantly, the growth in industrial production led to an increased demand for overseas markets. To protect its interests, the United States built up the nation's naval forces. According to historian Julius Pratt, officials came to think of the United States as a great power entitled to compete evenly with the other powers of the world for "naval and commercial supremacy of the Pacific Ocean and the Far East."

This new imperialism was plainly evident in America's war against Spain in 1898, the nation's first foreign conflict in over half a century. Although the 17,000 American troops were not well equipped, they easily defeated the Spanish in what diplomat John Hay called a "splendid little war." U.S. troops seized Cuba and Puerto Rico and Commodore George Dewey dramatically defeated the Spanish fleet at Manila in the Philippines. After the United States pretended to attack Spain itself, the Spanish agreed to an armistice. Under the terms of the peace treaty settling the war, the U.S. annexed Puerto Rico and Guam and purchased the Philippines for $25 million. Cuba became an American protectorate.

Also in 1898, the United States sought to finalize the annexation of Hawaii, a move that had been twice rejected by the Senate during the previous five years. Out of concern that the annexation treaty would once again be turned down, President William McKinley sought annexation through a joint resolution requiring only a majority vote by the Congress. McKinley's supporters argued that possession of Hawaii would help secure the West Coast and prevent foreign incursions in America's sphere of influence in the Pacific. Congress approved the annexation on a vote of 209 to 91.

Virgin Islands

The United States' last major land purchase was the 352 square miles comprising the Danish West Indies. On 27 March 1917, America acquired the "Virgin Islands" of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix from Denmark.


Beisner, Robert L. From the Old Diplomacy to the New, 1865–1900. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1986.

LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1963.

Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. The original edition was published in 1963.

Ellen G.Rafshoon

See alsoGadsden Purchase ; Indian Land Cessions ; Louisiana Purchase ; Mexican-American War ; Spanish-American War .

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Annexation of Territory

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