The March of the Flag Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By the close of the nineteenth century, Americans had done the impossible: they had occupied and settled an entire continent, and they had done it in a single generation. Beginning in the 1840s and completed by the 1890s, settlers and pioneers, mainly coming from the East, had rushed toward the Pacific in a mad orgy of construction, cultivation, and violence. Wherever they went they built towns and cities, laid track, and dispossessed what they considered to be a primitive native population. The force that drove them, beyond the promises of easy riches and the allure of fresh beginnings, was an absolute conviction that they were agents of God himself, tasked by holy writ to bring civilization to savagery. As the frontier finally closed and a new uncertain century loomed ahead, this sense of divine exceptionalism turned outward, toward places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, culminating in the birth of American imperialism.

Summary Overview

By the close of the nineteenth century, Americans had done the impossible: they had occupied and settled an entire continent, and they had done it in a single generation. Beginning in the 1840s and completed by the 1890s, settlers and pioneers, mainly coming from the East, had rushed toward the Pacific in a mad orgy of construction, cultivation, and violence. Wherever they went they built towns and cities, laid track, and dispossessed what they considered to be a primitive native population. The force that drove them, beyond the promises of easy riches and the allure of fresh beginnings, was an absolute conviction that they were agents of God himself, tasked by holy writ to bring civilization to savagery. As the frontier finally closed and a new uncertain century loomed ahead, this sense of divine exceptionalism turned outward, toward places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, culminating in the birth of American imperialism.

Defining Moment

Americans have always been fascinated by the West. The promises of opportunity, prosperity, and reinvention, along with the naturally fertile landscape of the Pacific coast, all coalesce to create an idea often too powerful to resist. Adventure, mystery, and danger, all serve to only sweeten the pot. In the mid-nineteenth century, a generation of Americans and newly-arrived immigrants took it upon themselves to follow the trails, or ride the rails, to a new, undiscovered country. Most of the pioneers who set off from places like Chicago and Independence, Missouri, went in the hopes of claiming a plot of land: a homestead that they could then pass on to future generations. Others followed news of gold and silver strikes, or promises of work in building the vast tracks meant to finally connect the two distant coasts.

All the while, as the government fanned the flames of expansion, as boosters drummed up excitement, a new philosophy was forming in the minds of many Americans, which aimed to explain what was fast becoming one of the largest migrations in human history. It was called Manifest Destiny, the singular belief that the United States generally, and Westward expansion specifically, were consecrated by the divine. Although the view was not universally accepted, most notably by many in the Republican party, the notion that God favored the growth of the United States over other nations, appealed strongly to those struggling to start over on the frontier. America was exceptional. Americans were exceptional, blessed by the Almighty in their deeds, whether that be building homesteads or driving Native peoples off their lands. Such notions of divine authority helped justify the annexation of Oregon Territory and the war with Mexico.

As the frontier finally closed in the 1890s, the notion of Manifest Destiny began to change. In this new version, America had a responsibility to spread its brand of exceptionalism beyond its shores. It was for the United States to civilize and pacify the savage world, to spread democracy, and further national interests. The argument made was that if America was destined to forever change the world, it needed to pursue a policy of perpetual expansion. In April 1898, bolstered by this new imperialist philosophy, the United States went to war against Spain. Officially sanctioned to liberate Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spanish rule, the move was really made to gain those territories in order expand American interests. Immediately afterward, debate erupted between those for and against annexation. The arguments used would set American foreign policy for the next hundred years.

Author Biography

Albert Jeremiah Beveridge was born in Ohio in 1862. Hailing from an English background, Beveridge was raised with the same frontier attitudes as millions of Americans. To gain success and achieve God's will, one had to work hard and take rather than wait for something to be given. Growing in prominence as a pro-expansionist orator, often speaking on behalf of political candidates for major office, Beveridge was elected to the US Senate under the Republican ticket in 1899. A loyal Roosevelt progressive, Beveridge followed his former commander-in-chief to the Progressive Party in 1912, effectively ending his own political career. Eventually, Beveridge became a historian, writing several highly influential works, including a biography of Justice John Marshall, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. By the end of his life, the former firebrand imperialist began to regret many of his former expansionist leanings, and before his death in 1927, he gave many speeches warning about the unchecked growth of American power.

Historical Document

It is a noble land that God has given us; a land that can feed and clothe the world; a land whose coastlines would inclose half the countries of Europe; a land set like a sentinel between the two imperial oceans of the globe, a greater England with a nobler destiny.

It is a mighty people that He has planted on this soil; a people sprung from the most masterful blood of history; a people perpetually revitalized by the virile, man ¬producing working ¬folk of all the earth; a people imperial by virtue of their power, by right of their institutions, by authority of their Heaven-directed purposes-the propagandists and not the misers of liberty.

It is a glorious history our God has bestowed upon His chosen people; a history heroic with faith in our mission and our future; a history of statesmen who flung the boundaries of the Republic out into unexplored lands and savage wilderness; a history of soldiers who carried the flag across blazing deserts and through the ranks of hostile mountains, even to the gates of sunset; a history of a multiplying people who overran a continent in half a century; a history of prophets who saw the consequences of evils inherited from the past and of martyrs who died to save us from them; a history divinely logical, in the process of whose tremendous reasoning we find ourselves today.

Therefore, in this campaign, the question is larger than a party question. It is an American question. It is a world question. Shall the American people continue their march toward the commercial supremacy of the world? Shall free institutions broaden their blessed reign as the children of liberty wax in strength, until the empire of our principles is established over the hearts of all mankind?

Have we no mission to perform no duty to discharge to our fellow man? Has God endowed us with gifts beyond our deserts and marked us as the people of His peculiar favor, merely to rot in our own selfishness, as men and nations must, who take cowardice for their companion and self for their deity—as China has, as India has, as Egypt has?

Shall we be as the man who had one talent and hid it, or as he who had ten talents and used them until they grew to riches? And shall we reap the reward that waits on our discharge of our high duty; shall we occupy new markets for what our farmers raise, our factories make, our merchants sell-aye, and please God, new markets for what our ships shall carry?

Hawaii is ours; Porto Rico is to be ours; at the prayer of her people Cuba finally will be ours; in the islands of the East, even to the gates of Asia, coaling stations are to be ours at the very least; the flag of a liberal government is to float over the Philippines, and may it be the banner that Taylor unfurled in Texas and Fremont carried to the coast.

The Opposition tells us that we ought not to govern a people without their consent. I answer, The rule of liberty that all just government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, applies only to those who are capable of self¬-government We govern the Indians without their consent, we govern our territories without their consent, we govern our children without their consent. How do they know what our government would be without their consent? Would not the people of the Philippines prefer the just, humane, civilizing government of this Republic to the savage, bloody rule of pillage and extortion from which we have rescued them?

And, regardless of this formula of words made only for enlightened, self-governing people, do we owe no duty to the world? Shall we turn these peoples back to the reeking hands from which we have taken them? Shall we abandon them, with Germany, England, Japan, hungering for them? Shall we save them from those nations, to give them a self¬ rule of tragedy?

They ask us how we shall govern these new possessions. I answer: Out of local conditions and the necessities of the case methods of government will grow. If England can govern foreign lands, so can America. If Germany can govern foreign lands, so can America. If they can supervise protectorates, so can America. Why is it more difficult to administer Hawaii than Nevs Mexico or California? Both had a savage and an alien population: both were more remote from the seat of government when they came under our dominion than the Philippines are to¬day.

Will you say by your vote that American ability to govern has decayed, that a century s experience in self¬rule has failed of a result? Will you affirm by your vote that you are an infidel to American power and practical sense? Or will you say that ours is the blood of government; ours the heart of dominion; ours the brain and genius of administration? Will you remember that we do but what our fathers did-we but pitch the tents of liberty farther westward, farther southward-we only continue the march of the flag?

The march of the flag! In 1789 the flag of the Republic waved over 4,000,000 souls in thirteen states, and their savage territory which stretched to the Mississippi, to Canada, to the Floridas. The timid minds of that day said that no new territory was needed, and, for the hour, they were right. But Jefferson, through whose intellect the centuries marched; Jefferson, who dreamed of Cuba as an American state, Jefferson, the first Imperialist of the Republic-Jefferson acquired that imperial territory which swept from the Mississippi to the mountains, from Texas to the British possessions, and the march of the flag began!

The infidels to the gospel of liberty raved, but the flag swept on! The title to that noble land out of which Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana have been carved was uncertain: Jefferson, strict constructionist of constitutional power though he was, obeyed the Anglo¬Saxon impulse within him, whose watchword is, “Forward!”: another empire was added to the Republic, and the march of the flag went on!

Those who deny the power of free institutions to expand urged every argument, and more, that we hear, to¬day; but the people's judgment approved the command of their blood, and the march of the flag went on!

A screen of land from New Orleans to Florida shut us from the Gulf, and over this and the Everglade Peninsula waved the saffron flag of Spain; Andrew Jackson seized both, the American people stood at his back, and, under Monroe, the Floridas came under the dominion of the Republic, and the march of the flag went on! The Cassandras prophesied every prophecy of despair we hear, to¬day, but the march of the flag went on!

Then Texas responded to the bugle calls of liberty, and the march of the flag went on! And, at last, we waged war with Mexico, and the flag swept over the southwest, over peerless California, past the Gate of Gold to Oregon on the north, and from ocean to ocean its folds of glory blazed.

And, now, obeying the same voice that Jefferson heard and obeyed, that Jackson heard and obeyed, that Monroe heard and obeyed, that Seward heard and obeyed, that Grant heard and obeyed, that Harrison heard and obeyed, our President today plants the flag over the islands of the seas, outposts of commerce, citadels of national security, and the march of the flag goes on!

Distance and oceans are no arguments. The fact that all the territory our fathers bought and seized is contiguous, is no argument. In 1819 Florida was farther from New York than Porto Rico is from Chicago today; Texas, farther from Washington in 1845 than Hawaii is from Boston in 1898; California, more inaccessible in 1847 than the Philippines are now. Gibraltar is farther from London than Havana is from Washington; Melbourne is farther from Liverpool than Manila is from San Francisco.

The ocean does not separate us from lands of our duty and desire—the oceans join us, rivers never to be dredged, canals never to be re paired. Steam joins us; electricity joins us—the very elements are in league with our destiny. Cuba not contiguous? Porto Rico not contiguous! Hawaii and the Philippines not contiguous! The oceans make them contiguous. And our navy will make them contiguous.

But the Opposition is right—there is a difference. We did not need the western Mississippi Valley when we acquired it, nor Florida! nor Texas, nor California, nor the royal provinces of the far northwest We had no emigrants to people this imperial wilderness, no money to develop it, even no highways to cover it. No trade awaited us in its savage fastnesses. Our productions were not greater than our trade There was not one reason for the land¬lust of our statesmen from Jefferson to Grant, other than the prophet and the Saxon within them But, to¬day, we are raising more than we can consume, making more than we can use. Therefore we must find new markets for our produce.

And so, while we did not need the territory taken during the past century at the time it was acquired, we do need what we have taken irl 18981 and we need it now. The resource and the commerce of the immensely rich dominions will be increased as much as American energy is greater than Spanish sloth.

In Cuba, alone, there are 15,000,000 acres of forest unacquainted with the ax, exhaustless mines of iron, priceless deposits of manganese, millions 0f dollars' worth of which we must buy, to¬day, from the Black Sea districts There are millions of acres yet unexplored.

The resources of Porto Rico have only been trifled with. The riches of` the Philippines have hardly been touched by the finger¬tips of modern methods. And they produce what we consume, and consume what we produce—the very predestination of reciprocity—a reciprocity “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” They sell hemp, sugar, cocoanuts, fruits of the tropics, timber of price like mahogany; they buy flour, clothing, tools, implements, machinery and all that we can raise and make. Their trade will be ours in time. Do you indorse that policy with your vote?

Cuba is as large as Pennsylvania, and is the richest spot on the globe. Hawaii is as large as New Jersey; Porto Rico half as large as Hawaii; the Philippines larger than all New England, New York, New Jersey and Delaware combined. Together they are larger than the British Isles, larger than France, larger than Germany, larger than Japan.

If any man tells you that trade depends on cheapness and not on government influence, ask him why England does not abandon South Africa, Egypt, India. Why does France seize South China, Germany the vast region whose port is Kaou-chou?

Our trade with Porto Rico, Hawaii and the Philippines must be as free as between the states of the Union, because they are American territory, while every other nation on earth must pay our tariff before they can compete with us. Until Cuba shall ask for annexation, our trade with her will, at the very least, be like the preferential trade of Canada with England. That, and the excellence of our goods and products; that, and the convenience of traffic; that, and the kinship of interests and destiny, will give the monopoly of` these markets to the American people.

The commercial supremacy of the Republic means that this Nation is to be the sovereign factor in the peace of the world. For the conflicts of the future are to be conflicts of trade, struggles for markets, commercial wars for existence. And the golden rule of peace is impregnability of position and invincibility of preparedness. So, we see England, the greatest strategist of history, plant her flag and her cannon on Gibraltar, at Quebec, in the Bermudas, at Vancouver, everywhere.

So Hawaii furnishes us a naval base in the heart of the Pacific; the Ladrones another, a voyage further on; Manila another, at the gates of Asia—Asia, to the trade of whose hundreds of millions American merchants, manufacturers, farmers, have as good right as those of Germany or France or Russia or England; Asia, whose commerce with the United Kingdom alone amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars every year; Asia, to whom Germany looks to take her surplus products; Asia, whose doors must not be shut against American trade. Within five decades the bulk of Oriental commerce will be ours.

No wonder that, in the shadows of coming events so great, free-silver is already a memory. The current of history has swept past that episode. Men understand, today, the greatest commerce of the world must be conducted with the steadiest standard of` value and most convenient medium of exchange human ingenuity can devise. Time, that unerring reasoner, has settled the silver question. The American people are tired of talking about money—they want to make it.


There are so many real things to be done-canals to be dug, railways to be laid, forests to be felled, cities to be builded, fields to be tilled, markets to be won, ships to be launched, peoples to be saved, civilization to be proclaimed and the Rag of liberty Hung to the eager air of every sea. Is this an hour to waste upon triflers with nature's laws? Is this a season to give our destiny over to word¬mongers and prosperity-wreckers? No! It is an hour to remember our duty to our homes. It is a moment to realize the opportunities fate has opened to us. And so is all hour for us to stand by the Government.

Wonderfully has God guided us Yonder at Bunker Hill and Yorktown. His providence was above us At New Orleans and on ensanguined seas His hand sustained us. Abraham Lincoln was His minister and His was the altar of freedom the Nation's soldiers set up on a hundred battle¬fields. His power directed Dewey in the East and delivered the Spanish fleet into our hands, as He delivered the elder Armada into the hands of our English sires two centuries ago [Note—actually in 1588]. The American people can not use a dishonest medium of exchange; it is ours to set the world its example of` right and honor. We can not fly from our world duties; it is ours to execute the purpose of a fate that has driven us to be greater than our small intentions. We can not retreat from any soil where Providence has unfurled our banner; it is ours to save that soil for liberty and civilization.


constructionist: one who adheres to a conservative legal philosophy which limits interpretation to a strict reading of the applicable text

contiguous: sharing a common border

protectorate: a state that is controlled and protected by another

Document Analysis

In a campaign speech given in late 1898, Albert Beveridge is arguing for annexation of the former Spanish colonies won during the Spanish-American War, but generally, he is also pushing for a policy of unrestrained imperialism. In his opinion, the United States has only to gain by expanding outward beyond its borders—new resources, new markets, and most importantly, a new progression in American authority.

The speech begins with the language of Manifest Destiny. God is invoked several times to describe the special place that America holds in the world. Americans are the chosen people, placed on Earth, on this continent to transform it into a new Eden and, from there, strike out to build God's kingdom across the whole of the world. Over the nineteenth century, Beveridge argues, thanks to the will of great thinking men such as Thomas Jefferson, the United States was transformed from a savage wilderness into a glorious new republic. But if the nation were to stop there, if expansion were to stop with the conquering of the West, Beveridge warns, America will slide backward, becoming something more closely resembling China, or India, or Egypt—a once great empire, now only a shadow of itself.

For Beveridge, the projection of American power is not governance of others without consent, it is the right and responsibility of the American people. How are the populations of places like Cuba and the Philippines to govern themselves when they are incapable of self-rule? Much like the civilized European imperial powers, America must serve as a shepherd, a parent caring for undeveloped children. In the process, the United States stands to gain wealth and resources, which it can then use to better rule over those inferior nations. This imperialist credo, Beveridge continues, is nothing new in American history. It has been a driving force since the nation's founding and must continue to be. Not only out of duty to God, but to the world as a whole. Because America is the driving force for good and freedom throughout the globe. Without the leadership of the United States, Beveridge hints, conflict may be unavoidable in the future.

Beyond Beveridge's arguments for God, for destiny, and markets, is the persistent use of the march as a rhetorical device: marching westward, marching forward, marching always toward progress. In this way, Beveridge is able to make an argument for imperialism based not just in a sense of Manifest Destiny, linked to the work of the Founding Fathers, but also as biological inevitability. To resist expansion is to resist the very course of social evolution. It is tantamount to reverting to a more primitive state.

Essential Themes

Drawing on the ideas comprising Manifest Destiny, but also Social Darwinism, evangelism, and patriotism, Albert Beveridge tried to pull together past, present, and future, to make a case for a new, aggressive American imperialism. Built on the foundation of America's breathtaking westward expansion, his speech made a case for a new world order, in which the somewhat isolationist United States would play the role of global leader. The benefits, according to Beveridge were clear: resources; new markets; safety; and, above all, progress. It was a vision of unrelenting, limitless progress, toward a sort of new American utopia. This new imperialism wasn't a choice. It had to happen. It would happen. The very forces of history demanded it.

This speech and others, given by the leading politicians of the time, served to slowly turn American foreign policy increasingly outward. Despite the inherent racism and militarism of such policies, defenders of American expansionism argued that it was a sort of benevolent imperialism. As the United States was a just and democratic nation, it would rule others in a just and democratic fashion. Not strictly for the benefit of the United States, but for that of all nations. Besides, the form of American rule would not be the type practiced by other nations. It would be less direct, more directorial.

After the Spanish-American War, which the expansionists upheld as a bright example of the righteousness of their ideology, America followed a course of increased internationalism, colored by imperialism. Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines all fell under the sphere of American influence, a state of affairs which served to create long standing resentments and, at times, even open conflict. Although official policy shifted over the course of the twentieth century from one of annexation to intervention, many of the same arguments made by the likes of Albert Beveridge—ideas that America was the sole champion of democracy and freedom, that American exceptionalism demanded that the United States serve as a global leader—remain central to American foreign policy to this day. Recent conflicts in the Middle East, interventions in Central and South America, even the War in Vietnam, are all legacies of America's imperial past, born out of the religious fervor of the settling of the West.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Braeman, John. Albert J. Beveridge: American Nationalist. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971. Print.
  • Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  • Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. New York: Time Books, 2006. Print.
  • Morgan, Robert. Lions of the West. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012. Print.
Categories: History