- Path of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush, and: Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion
Whither the course of empire. Thomas Cole transfixed the American art world in the mid 1830s with a series of allegorical paintings that suggested that the course of empire was inexorable, a cyclical decline from the idyllic pastoral state into ruin. The historiography of empire has not followed this neat linear trajectory. Only slowly has empire crept back into the history of the early American republic from the more immediate past. For decades, diplomatic historians treated America's imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as an unfortunate digression from an otherwise noble history of idealistic settlement-driven expansionism. The idea that antebellum Americans pursued empire was openly rejected by scholars: Didn't the United States incorporate the Spanish, French, British, and Mexican settlers in newly acquired territories into the polity? Weren't politicians and citizens of the period openly disdainful of England's empire? If the United States was imperialist, why didn't it annex all of Mexico when it had the opportunity? Why did it wait until 1898 to annex Hawai'i? Why didn't it grab Cuba in the 1850s? [End Page 546]
All these questions have answers, and none of them includes altruism on the part of American politicians. Were it not for sectional tensions in the 1850s, the United States would certainly have pursued further territorial acquisitions, and extending full citizenship rights to the peoples of those territories was hardly the only option politicians debated. Indeed the Mexicans of America's new Southwest never enjoyed the full citizenship rights promised them in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The fact that antebellum America was imperialistic is not only acknowledged but also central to the theses of two recent publications. Path of Empire is an innovative transnational history of Panama during the U.S. Gold Rush, and Habits of Empire is a traditional narrative history of American foreign relations published by a trade press. Vastly different, both adopt a perspective that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.
Aims McGuinness's Path of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush is a remarkable first book, a revised University of Michigan dissertation that quite literally approaches an old topic from a new direction. Utilizing a wide array of sources, many unearthed at great pains from archives in Colombia and Panama, McGuinness asks a provocative question: What did the Gold Rush look like from the perspective of Panama? Panama was a key transit route for Gold Rush travelers from the eastern United States, and the site of the first transcontinental railroad, built decades before the Panama Canal. Like other Latin American countries, it was also targeted by filibusters in the 1850s. Thus a very small country took on outsized international significance in the 1850s.
Not surprisingly this transformation had profound internal ramifications for Panama. The railroad, which was originally embraced by the ruling elite as a panacea, instead destroyed the local economy by quickly transporting travelers from one coast to another, completely undermining the indigenous transit system. Growing tensions between Panamanians and Americans ultimately exploded in an 1856 incident over a slice of watermelon that left seventeen people dead outside the Panama City railroad station. In Panama the Tajada de Sandiacute;a, as it is known, is embraced as a heroic act of resistance against an occupying force. Mc Guinness uses the incident as a framing device for a complex history in which the meanings of events of international significance were actively contested on both sides of Panama's borders.
This book's virtues are many and varied. McGuinness does a remarkable job charting the effects of American imperialism in Panama, showing [End Page 547] through concrete examples the profound effect of the American presence on the everyday life of average Panamanians, from female...