Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire

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The U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848) brought two centuries of dramatic territorial expansionism to a close, and apparently fulfilled America's Manifest Destiny. Or did it? Even as politicians schemed to annex new lands in Latin America and the Pacific, other Americans aggressively pursued expansionism independently. In fact, an epidemic of unsanctioned attacks by private American mercenaries (known as filibusters) occurred between 1848 and 1860 throughout the Western Hemisphere. This book documents the potency of Manifest Destiny in the antebellum era, and analyzes imperial lust in the context of the social and economic transformations that were changing the definition of gender in the U.S. Amy S. Greenberg is Associate Professor of History and Women's Studies at Pennsylvania State University. She is also the author of Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City (Princeton, 1998). She has served on the governing boards of the Urban History Association, and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, and on the editorial board of Journal of Urban History. She is the recipient of the Pennsylvania State University George Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching, as well as numerous fellowships.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Amy Greenberg's fascinating account casts new light on Manifest Destiny expansionism by showing how martial conceptions of manhood animated the enthusiasm for territorial annexation in the 1850s. Filibustering, she finds, stemmed not only from economic and political ambitions but from widespread male desires for adventure and romance. Although more restrained visions of manhood also influenced expansionist ambitions, particularly in Hawaii, Greenberg demonstrates that aggressive conceptions of manhood shaped foreign relations long before Theodore Roosevelt rallied the Rough Riders." -Kristin Hoganson, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

"In this thoughtfully constructed and informative book, Greenberg develops a highly original thesis about American territorial expansionism and destroys the common wisdom that Manifest Destiny was in its death throes by the Civil War. Providing the most penetrating analysis, to date, of filibustering's ramifications for U.S. culture, Greenberg convincingly highlights the significance of gendered images, arguments, and ambitions within imperialist and anti-imperialist discourse alike. This book, in engaging prose richly informed by theory but refreshingly free of jargon, makes use of a treasure of source material, especially travel accounts and magazine pieces and convincingly illuminates hitherto unexplored connections between filibustering abroad and urban life at home, while also connecting U.S. military aggression against Latin America with America's imperial record in the Pacific. This is an insightful and provocative take on nineteenth-century American aggression overseas that has implications for the nation's modern plight abroad." -Robert May, Purdue University

"This work is a gender study of American expansionism during the period from 1848 to 1860." -Antonio Rafael de la Cova, The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"...a fine book that will be useful in many contexts." -Mark Jaede, Journal of the Early Republic

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521840965
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2005
  • Pages: 323
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Amy S. Greenberg is Associate Professor of History and Women's Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She is also the author of Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City (1998). She has served on the governing boards of the Urban History Association, and the Society for Historians of the Early America Republic, and on the editorial board of the Journal of Urban History. She is the recipient of the Pennsylvania State University George Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching, as well as numerous fellowships.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521840961 - Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire - by Amy S. Greenberg


John Gast's 1872 American Progress is perhaps the best-known image of the nineteenth-century American concept of Manifest Destiny.1 Painted twenty-four years after the United States literally "won the west," taking half of Mexico's territory as spoils of war, and eighteen years before the U.S. Census Bureau proclaimed that there was no longer an identifiable American frontier, Gast's vision of Manifest Destiny is both self-confident and self-congratulatory. American territorial expansion literally brings light to darkness in this painting. An allegorical female representation of " American Progress" (with the "star of empire" on her forehead) leads the pioneers westward, schoolbook in hand, along with the great technological advances of the era, the telegraph and railroad. Wild animals flee as she nears, and bare-breasted Native-American women make way for a white family in a covered wagon. American Progress was widely circulated in print form, and it quickly became one of the preeminent artistic visions of westward expansion (Figure 0.1).2

FIGURE 0.1. American Progress (George A. Crofutt chromolithograph, 1873, after an 1872 painting of the same title by John Gast). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-737].

Image not available in HTML version

The first thing that strikes the viewer, of course, is the scantily clad and well-formed flying woman who dominates the painting. So focused is Gast's allegorical figure on her civilizing project that she fails to note that her translucent gown is in imminent danger of sliding off. Why did Gast represent "American Progress" as a woman, when so many of the iconic nineteenth-century images of western settlement were male? The gold-rush migrant, the U.S.-Mexico War solider, the fur trapper, and the frontiersman were all exemplars of masculinity in the middle decades of the century. Yet it is difficult to envision "American Progress" in any of these forms, indeed in any male form at all. It is the benign domestic influence of our allegorical figure, and of the white women in that covered wagon, Gast seems to indicate, that is responsible for the smooth and uplifting transformation of wilderness into civilization. The benevolent domestic presence obscures the violent process through which the United States gained control of the region.3

Was Manifest Destiny gendered?4 It is the argument of both this image and this book that it was. Gender concerns shaped both the popular understanding of the meaning of Manifest Destiny and the experiences of men and women abroad in the antebellum period. Expansionism in this painting is justified largely because it is domesticated. This illustration resonated with U.S. residents in the post-Civil War era in part because the vision of expansionism as "progress," and progress defined as the introduction of domesticity to the wilderness, fit with the hegemonic gender norms of the era. After the upheaval and staggering violence of four years of Civil War, survivors turned away from heroic individualism and looked toward work and home for meaning. The growth of the country, "from sea to sea," in the decades before the war was idealized as an essentially peaceful process, a period when harmony reigned and Americans were unified in pursuit of their destiny. American Progress is a vision of expansionism, both domesticated and restrained.5

As this study will explore, expansionism didn't always look this way. In the antebellum era, many Americans justified territorial expansionism precisely because it was not domesticated.6 Potential new American territories were embraced by some American men because they offered opportunities for individual heroic initiative and for success in love and war, which seemed to be fading at home. They might not wish to gaze upon an antebellum version of "American Progress," featuring a bloody soldier floating over the "new frontiers" of Central America, the Caribbean, and Hawaii, but the violent implications of such a scene would not be incompatible with their vision of America's territorial future.

While domesticated expansionism, as pictured by Gast, had its antebellum proponents, many others embraced a more aggressive expansionism, in which Manifest Destiny would be achieved through the direct and rightful force of arms. Consider the gendered resonances of an 1849 poem written by Francis Lieber, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and respected intellectual.

Long indeed they have been wooing,
The Pacific and his bride;
Now 'tis time for holy wedding -
Join them by the tide.
When the mighty God of nature
Made his favored continent,
He allowed it yet unsevered,
That a race be sent,
Able, mindful of his purpose,
Prone to people, to subdue,
And to bind the lands with iron,
Or to force them through.

Lieber's verse in honor of a newly contracted canal project in Nicaragua initially renders the relationship between the oceans in a romantic fashion; they are a couple to be joined in holy matrimony after a lengthy courtship. But the tone of "The Ship Canal" soon shifts. Rather than peacefully supervise the ceremony, the vigorous American race subdues not only nameless people but the entire continent as well. God may have created the Western Hemisphere, Lieber suggests, but he left it to the American man to remake through force. It is the American who binds the lands with iron before forcing the oceans through them, with the inter-oceanic wedding reception effectively co-opted in a narrative of indomitable American will.7

Lieber suggests here that this Central American canal was a part of America's Manifest Destiny, the next stop, after victory against Mexico, in the unfolding process of American domination of the continent and hemisphere. In retrospect, of course, he would be proved wrong. By the time Gast painted American Progress, Americans realized that antebellum territorial expansionism ended at the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande. But it was not at all obvious in 1848 that the "continental frontier" marked a natural limit to the growth of the republic.

Manifest Destiny was alive and well after the U.S.-Mexico War, and the majority of Americans continued to hold expansive plans for the United States. Many Americans became commercial expansionists, and they envisioned American domination of the hemisphere or world emerging through the growth of a commercial empire. Others, who this study will term aggressive expansionists, advocated using force of arms to obtain new territories in Latin America and the Pacific. Aggressive expansionists were especially influential in their support for the controversial but widespread practice of filibustering. In the nineteenth century, a filibuster was not a long-winded speech in the Senate. Filibustering referred to private armies invading other countries without official sanction of the U.S. government. Filibusters were men who on their own initiative went to war against foreign nations, often in the face of open hostility from their own governments. The term also was used for the invasions themselves. Although the actions of these mercenaries were clearly illegal, they received the praise and even adulation of aggressive expansionists. Given that the United States has just won an enormous territorial concession from Mexico, the enthusiasm of Americans for aggressive expansionism seems, upon first examination, perplexing. It is only upon placing Manifest Destiny in its social and cultural context that enthusiasm for continued territorial annexation begins to make sense.8

This study investigates the meaning of Manifest Destiny for American men and women in the years between the U.S.-Mexico and Civil wars, based on written accounts from letters and journals to political cartoons and newspapers.9 Travelers to the California gold rush left a large body of documents in which they expressed their often candid views of the lands and peoples they encountered on their voyages. Although these travelers were far more likely male than female, and were likely also to be more adventurous sorts than the neighbors they left behind, the men who crossed the isthmus on their way to California were otherwise a heterogeneous group in terms of occupation, age, and ethnicity.10 Travel narratives and travel fiction, published in book form and in popular periodicals, proliferated during the antebellum period and were devoured by readers. At the same time, letters from foreign correspondents became a staple of the penny press, and travelogues became a staple of magazines like the North American Review and Harper's New Monthly Magazine.11 During the decade or so before the Civil War, politicians actively debated whether further territorial expansion was desirable, and many political tracts were published either supporting or opposing expansionism.12

This study argues that the American encounter with potential new territories in the antebellum period was shaped by concerns at home, especially evolving gendered ideals and practices. Dramatic changes in American society, economy, and culture reconfigured the meanings of both manhood and womanhood in the 1830s and 1840s. Antebellum Americans lived through an astonishing array of changes, including mass immigration from Europe; the emergence of evangelical Christianity in the Second Great Awakening; the end of bound labor in the North; the beginnings of a "market revolution," including specialization in agriculture and dependency on wider markets in even rural areas; changes in print technology; the decline of the artisan workshop; increasing class stratification; and universal white manhood suffrage. All of these transformations shaped the ideology and practices of womanhood and manhood, and the meaning of Manifest Destiny, as well.13

The reigning view of American womanhood in the early years of the republic, that of "republican motherhood," had, by the 1830s, been overshadowed by a new and contested ideology of domesticity. Republican motherhood posited that maternal influence would emanate outside the family home to the frontier, uplifting the values of new Americans and support- ing male-initiated attempts to expand westward.14 Domesticity idealized women as virtuous domestic beings who could change society for the better through their positive moral influence on their husbands and children, while it simultaneously demonized women who worked outside the home. By conceptualizing women as essentially domestic beings, the reigning ideology of the "woman's sphere" could isolate the wife and mother within her home, in a form of "imperial isolation."15

At the same time, however, women successfully used their elevated status within the home to effect change outside it. Women played key roles in many of the most significant moral and social reform movements of the antebellum era, including evangelical and anti-slavery reform, and, most notably, the Woman's Rights movement. Although by the 1850s, voting rights for white adult males had become nearly universal, women could not vote, and their legal rights in marriage were extremely limited, since it was understood that a woman transferred her civic identity to her husband in marriage. In 1848 200 women, and 40 men, gathered at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York, and adopted a statement based on the Declaration of Independence that called for expanded rights for women, especially in the areas of marital and property law. Feminists continued holding conventions on a regular basis afterwards.16

Although delegates at Seneca Falls were split on the issue of women's suffrage, domesticity provided alternative means for women to influence the political process. The Second Party System accepted female partisanship, and the Whig Party, which blended evangelical religion with politics, was especially welcoming to women, including women as part of their vision of politics as "secular revivalism." Although Democrats initially critiqued Whig women's involvement in campaigns, slurring the party as effeminate, William Henry Harrison's victory in 1840 taught them the error of their ways. As Elizabeth Varon has shown, both parties in the 1840s and into the 1850s courted women's approval and used women in their campaigns.17

The economic and social upheavals that transformed the practice of womanhood had an equally profound effect on the practice of manhood, as did, of course, the new challenges to the gender order posed by female activism and the elevation of women through domesticity in the 1840s and 1850s. Competition and economic transformations eroded traditional routes of occupational advancement and made the process of both choosing a calling, and succeeding at it, more contentious and demanding for men of all walks of life.18 A split emerged in patriarchal masculinity in the nineteenth century, as "practice organized around dominance was increasingly incompatible with practice organized around expertise or technical knowledge." For men the experience of work and home life, of social interactions, even of citizenship, was dramatically transformed from the 1830s to 1850s.19

Historians of gender have generally posited the crucial shift in male gender ideology in the late nineteenth century, when a "crisis of manhood" led men to reconceptualize proper male behavior.20 In the early years of the republic, men had grounded their own sense of manliness in virtue, honor, and public service. By the late nineteenth century, these ideas were being supplanted by a new vision of "primitive masculinity," grounded in a selective reading of Charles Darwin's 1859 theory of evolution. Whereas an early nineteenth-century ideal of manly behavior resided largely in the life of the mind, by the end of the century, historians argue, the preeminent masculine ideal had gained important physical criteria. Middle-class men were encouraged to embrace their animal nature, to improve their physical strength, and to develop their martial virtues so that they could successfully compete with men of less-refined classes and races. Late nineteenth-century nostalgia for the sacrifices of the Civil War generation also supported the contention that middle-class men were growing soft and needed to reanimate their essential masculine virtues.21

In the middle decades of the century, however, there was not yet a hegemonic "primitive" masculinity. In a period before America's distinctive three-class structure had fully formed, when a middle class was only beginning to coalesce out of the transformations of work practices under industrialization, both class norms and gender norms were in flux.22 During the period covered by this study, as Clyde Griffin has written, "markedly divergent conceptions and styles of masculinity co-existed, not only between social classes but within them."23 In the 1850s, there was no single ideal of masculinity, like the "primitive manhood" of the 1890s or the "gentry masculinity" that historians have described in the eighteenth century, that dominated expectations for American men's behavior. On the contrary, a whole range of practices of manhood competed for men's allegiances.24

White American men of diverse occupations could and did embrace a wide range of masculine practices in the middle decades of the century. Laborers could locate their manhood in bare-knuckle boxing, in the sentimental ideals of melodrama, or in the very different theatrical genre of minstrelsy. Some urban workers, influenced by the spread of evangelical Christianity, internalized self-restraint and moral self-discipline, while others reveled in pre-industrial work habits and physical, often bloody cultural expressions drawn from Europe. Merchants could self-identify as militia members or could join socially exclusive men's clubs. Southern gentlemen upheld dueling as a key expression of their own culture of honor. Abolitionists embraced one another as well as the language of Christian fraternal love, while some professional men embraced competitiveness and political realism. Temperance cut across the economic spectrum, as did other reform movements of the period. The preeminent social organization of the antebellum city, the urban volunteer fire company, was explicitly heterogeneous in its membership, and it unified American men, from merchant to manual laborer, Irish immigrant to native born, in a celebration of strength, camaraderie, and social service in the interest of their city. An urban sporting culture brought together young men of different occupations in the shared enjoyment of urban entertainments, including prostitution. America's mass political culture of parades, marching, elaborate ritual, and alcohol consumption likewise unified men across occupation and ethnicity. Free black men in the North also drew on different gendered practices.25

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. The 'New Frontier' as safety valve: the political and social context of manifest destiny, 1800–60; 2. An American Central America: boosters, travelers, and the persistence of Manifest destiny; 3. American men abroad: sex and violence in the Latin American travelogue; 4. William Walker and the regeneration of martial manhood; 5. The irresistible pirate: Narciso López and the public meeting; 6. American womanhood abroad; 7. Manifest destiny and manly missionaries: expansionism in the Pacific; Conclusion: American manhood and war, 1860 to the present.

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