William McKendree Gwin and the Mutability of North American Borders

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:50 AM
Scottsdale Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Rachel St. John, Harvard University
Over the course of his life and the nineteenth century, William McKendree Gwin, a landowner, politician, and expansionist, pursued a wide-ranging series of schemes to remake the boundaries of North America.  With connections to the Confederacy, French intervention in Mexico, and a proposed independent republic on the Pacific coast, as well as plans for U.S. expansion in the Mississippi River Valley, Texas, California, Hawaii, Alaska, Panama, and Mexico, Gwin serves as a valuable guide through nineteenth-century North America’s landscape of shifting national identities and blurred boundaries.  This paper will recount Gwin’s biography in order to explore the many different national and imperial configurations that were possible in nineteenth-century North America.  At no time was this more apparent than in the years surrounding the Civil War when the neat narrative of United States territorial expansion became fragmented.  Gwin’s territorial ambitions throughout this period remained remarkably consistent, but as a result of changing historical circumstances, some of his schemes would become part of the familiar narrative of Manifest Destiny, while others would be condemned and forgotten.  By following Gwin’s pursuit of wealth, power, and territory across the the North American continent and the nineteenth-century, it is possible to gain insight into the complicated relationships between individuals, nations, and expansion and to better understand the landscape of possibilities that existed during this definitive era of nation-building and boundary-making.