Fighting for America: The Struggle for Mastery in North America, 1519-1871

Fighting for America: The Struggle for Mastery in North America, 1519-1871

by Jeremy Black


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Prize winning author Jeremy Black traces the competition for control of North America from the landing of Spanish troops under Hernán Cortés in modern Mexico in 1519 to 1871 when, with the Treaty of Washington and the withdrawal of most British garrisons, Britain accepted American mastery in North America. In this wide-ranging narrative, Black makes clear that the process by which America gained supremacy was far from inevitable. The story Black tells is one of conflict, diplomacy, geopolitics, and politics. The eventual result was the creation of a United States of America that stretched from Atlantic to Pacific and dominated North America. The gradual withdrawal of France and Spain, the British accommodation to the expanding U.S. reality, the impact of the American Civil War, and the subjugation of Native peoples, are all carefully drawn out. Black emphasizes contingency not Manifest Destiny, and reconceptualizes American exceptionalism to take note of the pressures and impact of international competition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253014818
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/21/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 1,012,409
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is author of more than 100 books including War and Technology (IUP, 2013). Black received the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize from the Society for Military History in 2008.

Read an Excerpt

Fighting for America

The Struggle for Mastery in North America 1519â"1871

By Jeremy Black

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Jeremy M. Black
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35660-4



North America was created as a geopolitical issue by Europeans. Such a stark remark is subject to criticism on the grounds of Eurocentricity, and certainly risks underplaying the vitality of Native American states and peoples, let alone the extent to which the overwhelming majority of those who lived in North America in 1700 still had their origins in the Americas, with a more distant source in those who had once crossed from Asia across a Bering Strait land bridge. Yet, once in the Americas, these peoples had not interacted with the outer world. Instead, they had followed their own course of development, with distinctive outcomes in terms of religions, technological bases, and military methods. Exceptionalism is an overused concept, but, if the Americas were exceptional, in the sense of different, then this was far more the case in 1450 than in 1870.

Crucially, the Americas did not see long-range maritime activity, and certainly not activity comparable to some of the Pacific peoples, or Indian Ocean, East Asian, and European traders and states. Instead, American states were centered inland, as with the Aztec and Inca empires or the less-famous North American peoples that left extensive settlements reflecting a considerable degree of organization, notably in the Mississippi Valley, such as Cahokia. The same was true of areas of dense village settlement as in Huronia, the region of Huron settlement north of Lake Ontario where the results of archaeological work do not challenge Samuel de Champlain's estimate of a population of about 30,000 in 1615.

There were a number of probable reasons for this inland focus, including the tendency of coastal lowlands, for example near the Caribbean to the east of the Aztec heartland, to attract the vectors of disease, such as mosquitoes, as well as the difficulty of working many of these lowlands for farming. Environmental determinism, however, will not suffice, as such conditions do not describe all of the American coastlines. More significantly, there was also a lack of maritime activity and infrastructure that reflected the nature of economic development, specifically the absence of large-scale, long-range trade, as well as of polities capable of developing naval forces.

As a result, the geopolitics at the oceanic level was a case of Europeans reaching the Americas, and not vice versa, a case of expansion and pressure between continents that continued to be an issue until the close of our period. Moreover, the other key aspect was that East Asian maritime links with the Americas were very restricted. Their extent is controversial, but the key point is that whatever knowledge of the Americas existed in East Asia, it was not exploited. There was no inherent reason for this. The northeastern quarter of the Pacific is particularly empty as far as islands were concerned, thus limiting the potential for island-hopping across the ocean, but the Russians were to show in the eighteenth century that it was possible to develop maritime links in the Aleutian chain and along the Alaskan coast, links that eventually reached modern California. Earlier, China, Japan, and Korea each had large navies, and long-range naval and maritime activity had proved possible, notably for the Chinese into the Indian Ocean. However, China abandoned this naval activity in the fifteenth century, and in the 1590s the East Asian powers concentrated on a major struggle for dominance centered on Korea.

There was no inherent reason why this struggle should have prevented power projection into the Americas. Indeed, Portugal's (eventually unsuccessful) commitment in Morocco and, even more, Spain's central role in European conflict in the sixteenth century did not prevent their conquest of a large part of the Americas. This ability existed despite the extent to which Spain also played the leading role in confronting the deteriorating position created by the rise, from the 1520s, of Ottoman naval power and capability in the central and western Mediterranean. The manpower for activity in the Americas could certainly have been spared by the East Asian powers. Yet, this was not a prospect, and that is central to the geopolitics of our story. It is a geopolitics read from east to west and not vice versa, and this point remains the case throughout. In the seventeenth century, Japan abandoned power projection completely, while, once the Manchu had conquered Ming China, the Chinese power projection was directed into Central Asia.

The priorities and roles of outside powers are also at stake when considering the geopolitics of European commitment. Although the Iberians greatly benefited in their location from the direction of the ocean currents when crossing the Atlantic to the Caribbean, it was not inevitable that they should lead this commitment. Indeed, leaving aside fictional accounts, for example Barry Fell's series beginning with America B.C. (1976) or Clive Cussler's depiction of a Roman voyage to the Americas, the Vikings, in about 1000, were the first to cross the Atlantic, benefiting from the way stops provided by Iceland and Greenland, where settlements had been established in about 860 and in 986 respectively. Such stops were valuable not only for the functional reasons of providing water and sustenance for the crew, but also because they created successive stages of possibilities for future voyages. The same was to be true for the Iberians and their use of islands, notably the Canaries, Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, and the Azores. The sagas indicate that there were four expeditions to North America, two of which carried settlers. A settlement was established new L'Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland in about 1000. However, although the expedition stayed at least a year, the remote and forested coast was not suitable for the creation of a pastoral economy able to trade with Greenland. The native population was also unfriendly. After the Vikings left, L'Anse aux Meadows was reoccupied by Natives.

Viking voyages show what could be achieved with maritime technology prior to the fifteenth century and indicate that, although the technology was an important constraint, it did not prevent long-range activity. However, these voyages were peripheral to the main thrust of Viking activity which, instead, focused on nearby targets, such as invasions of England in the 1010s (successful) and 1060s (unsuccessful), and of Scotland in the 1260s (unsuccessful). Moreover, the peripheral character of the North Atlantic, with both the Faroe Islands and Iceland under the distant Danish crown, was accentuated by the deterioration in climate and related problems with food supplies and disease that hit the Viking settlements and acted as a structural change. Combined with attacks by the native population, and the fall in trade in Europe, these problems led to the end of the Viking settlements on Greenland in about 1500.

The contrast in scale with subsequent developments in North America is readily apparent, but there are interesting questions as to why the Greenland natives were more successful than their Native American counterparts in the early seventeenth century. The key feature appears to have been the ability of the Europeans, in the face of a hostile ecology, to sustain new settlement, an ability that reflected both the availability of settlers and the extent to which they could readily trade with Europe. In the case of Greenland, the hostile demographic regime in both Europe and the North Atlantic settlements stemming from climatic deterioration and disease ensured that these push-and-pull factors were absent, while Greenland drew on the very limited population resources of Iceland, in contrast to the far more plentiful resources of France, England, the Netherlands, and Spain in the seventeenth century.

Nor were push-and-pull factors revived for the Scandinavians in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Instead, internal Scandinavian power politics linked to the collapse of the Union of Kalmar and the Protestant Reformation played a central role, and, although both Denmark (the kingdom that ruled Norway and Iceland) and its rival Sweden each pursued transoceanic schemes, they did not do so with the energy or resources seen from the other Western European maritime states. Denmark was a major naval power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was to establish bases in West Africa, India, and the West Indies, but Danish interests in the North Atlantic did not lead to the pursuit of a North American destiny. Explaining a negative is problematic, but, in the Danish case, the commitment to alternative goals does appear to have crowded out North Atlantic interests, in part because there were fewer spare resources, less entrepreneurial mercantile enterprise, and more central control than in the case of the other maritime states. Yet, these factors did not prevent Sweden in 1638, at a time when it was heavily involved in the Thirty Years' War in Europe, from establishing a colony, New Sweden, in the lower Delaware valley on the mid-Atlantic coast of North America, a colony, however, that was to be conquered by the Dutch in 1650.

The Vikings were not the sole Northern Europeans interested in the Atlantic. Seafarers from the British Isles also sailed far in pursuit of fish, although the extent of their voyages is unclear. In part, this lack of clarity reflected their limited ability to disseminate whatever knowledge they acquired. Moreover, although profitable, fishing generally did not attract the government attention, or large-scale investment, necessary to develop initiatives. Crucially, fish did not lead to commitment by the metropolitan interests that were so significant in aligning political support with necessary investment.

Thus, a key factor in the geopolitics of European interest was to be that European knowledge of North America developed from south to north, with the initial contact coming first from Christopher Columbus's arrival in the West Indies in 1492. His voyages were part of a pattern of Iberian expansion, with, as an important element, non-Iberian navigators and economic interests taking advantage of the support of the expansionist crowns of Portugal and Castile. These rulers, in turn, sought to supplement their own resources with those they could recruit to their service.

This expansionism was territorial and religious as well as economic. Drawing on their longstanding role in driving the Moors and Islam from Iberia, a task apparently achieved with the fall of the last Moorish kingdom, Granada, in 1492, the crowns of Portugal and Castile had already taken the fight into North Africa and also had seized the islands of the eastern Atlantic, the Canaries, Madeira, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands which served as important stopping places on the route to the West Indies and South America and were therefore important to the geopolitical history of the New World. Portugal, moreover, established bases in West Africa, from which it obtained gold and slaves and sought allies against the Moors, and went on to explore the route around southern Africa into the Indian Ocean.

In contrast, following Columbus, Castile made the running in the Americas, with, as a result, Portugal restricted there to Brazil. Moreover, Portugal did not seek to establish a territorial presence in North America to the north of the Castilian zone; although Portuguese interests were to play a role there, notably in fishing. More recent Portuguese influence is readily found in maritime New England. In the Papal division of the New World by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, North America was allocated to Castile, or Spain as it can be termed after the union of the inheritances of Castile and Aragon. North America's relative lack of appeal to contemporaries was shown by the absence of Portuguese attempts to circumvent this restriction, although, in addition, Portugal was not well placed to defy neighboring Spain in this, while from 1580 to 1640, after a successful invasion, the kings of Spain were also kings of Portugal.

The Spanish conquest of the Caribbean was incomplete, with only some of the larger islands, principally Hispaniola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico seeming attractive for seizure and settlement, which left later opportunities for other European powers, notably France, England and the Dutch. However, the Spaniards brought European diseases, and the inroads of disease helped ensure that the demographic balance in the West Indies rapidly changed, and also greatly demoralized the native population. Once seized, these islands, especially Cuba, where a harbor was developed at Havana from 1511, became important bases for Spanish activity, fulfilling a role that was lacking as far as the Atlantic seaboard of North America was concerned: offshore islands, such as Newfoundland and Bermuda, played only a minor part as far as English settlement was concerned. In contrast, Cuba provided Spain with a springboard for the invasion of Mesoamerica.

In 1519, Hernán Cortés landed at Veracruz with about 450 soldiers, 14 small cannons, and 16 horses. His overthrow of the Aztec Empire, based in Mesoamerica in what is now Central Mexico, was rapidly achieved. Montezuma, the panicky Aztec leader, was fascinated by Cortés, worried that he might be a god or an envoy from a powerful potentate, and was unwilling to act decisively against him. Cortés reached Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, without having to fight his way there. In 1520, the situation deteriorated from the Spanish point of view. A massacre of Aztec nobles in the courtyard of the Great Temple helped lead to an Aztec rising. Cortés had to flee Tenochtitlán having had Montezuma killed. Cortés had to fight his way back into Tenochtitlán in 1521.

In some respects, this was a remarkable achievement, but it was also part of a wider pattern of territorial change in 1515–30. The Ottoman Turks, under Selim the Grim, conquered the Mamluk Empire of Egypt and Syria, while Selim's son, Suleiman the Magnificent, pressed on to overthrow Hungary, capturing Belgrade in 1521 and defeating Louis II of Hungary at Mohács in 1526. That year in India, the Mughals conquered the Lodi Sultanate of Delhi. Earlier in the century, the Safavids had conquered Persia. Each, in its way, was a remarkable achievement, and, together, they serve as a reminder of the possibility of change and, in particular, of the extent to which states that lacked any real grounding comparable to the engaged and mobilized mass publics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could readily fall when their rulers and élites were overthrown. This process was eased, and, in part, achieved, by recruiting part of the existing élite and reconciling it to the new rulers. Thus, the Rajputs were recruited by the Mughals. The Spanish conquest of much of Central and South America in the early and mid-sixteenth century fits into this pattern. The Spaniards exploited existing divisions within central Mexico, notably forming an alliance with the Tlaxcaltecs, a people surrounded by Aztec territory, subordinated to the Aztecs, and resentful. They and allies provided significant numbers to help in the conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521. Native support was essential in order to match the massive numerical superiority of the Aztecs, who learned to alter their tactics to counter European arms, especially firepower.


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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
List of Abbreviations
1. Sixteenth-Century Background
2. Creating New Frontiers, 1600-74
3. Britain, France and the Natives, 1674-1715
4. Multiple Currents, 1715-53
5. War for Dominance, 1754-64
6. Britain Triumphant to America Independent, 1765-76
7. Britain Defeated, 1775-83
8. Flexing Muscles, 1783-1811
9. Florida, But Not Canada: From the War of 1812 to the Monroe Doctrine, 1812-1823
10. Expansionism and its Problems, 1823-43
11. From the Oregon Question to the Gadsden Purchase, 1844-53
12. A Great Power in the Making? America, 1853-61
13. America Divided, 1861-63
14. Winning the War, 1863-5
15. Settling the North American Question, 1865-71
16. Postscript, 1871-2010
Notes Index

What People are Saying About This

author of Into the West: The Story of Its People - Walter Nugent

A refreshing take on Manifest Destiny. . . . American (and Canadian) readers will learn a lot of new things and be led into new ways of viewing old ones. An important contribution.

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