The New York Times
Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansionby Walter Nugent
Since its founding, the United States' declared principles of liberty and democracy have often clashed with aggressive policies of imperial expansion. In this sweeping narrative history, acclaimed scholar Walter Nugent explores this fundamental American contradiction by recounting the story of American land acquisition since 1782 and shows how this steady addition of territory instilled in the American people a habit of empire-building.
From America's early expansions into Transappalachia and the Louisiana Purchase through later additions of Alaska and island protectorates in the Caribbean and Pacific, Nugent demonstrates that the history of American empire is a tale of shifting motives, as the early desire to annex land for a growing population gave way to securing strategic outposts for America's global economic and military interests.
Thorough, enlightening, and well-sourced, this book explains the deep roots of American imperialism as no other has done.
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It has been written that the United States is an imperial nation, but Americans are loath to admit it. That is not the half of it. The United States has created three empires during its history. Thomas Jefferson, one of the few historic leaders to talk of empire, claimed that the United States should be an "empire for liberty." Since "liberty" is always equated with good, the word more than compensated for the bad associations of "empire." Most Americans remember Jefferson for writing "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence. Therefore they think of him much more as a defender of liberty, personal and public, than as an imperialist. But imperialist he was.So were Benjamin Franklin, John and John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and many other presidents and founding fathers. In recent years, the American empire and the popular acceptance of imperialism have been promoted chiefly under Republican guardianship; but Jefferson and Jackson, celebrated as the founders of the Democratic Party, were as good imperialists as they come. Neither party has had a monopoly. Nor has imperialism been an exclusively male activity. Granted, women have not been major names in the standard histories of American builders and defenders of empire; they were never the generals, diplomats, or officeholders, at least not until the Madeleine Albrights and Condoleezza Rices came along. Empire-building involved not only diplomacy and force, however. It involved occupation and settlement of the American continental landmass, and without women that would not have happened. In traditional histories the diplomacy, battles, and politics necessary for empire-building have been written about as if they had no relation to population and settlement. On the other hand, histories of the westward movement, the frontier, and economic expansion have been treated with little reference to how America's territories were acquired. But acquisition and settlement have been the right and left hands of the same imperial organism.Put most briefly, this book relates a continuous narrative of the territorial acquisitions of the United States and how that history instilled in the American people the habit of empire-building. It describes how Americans acquired each parcel of real estate: by diplomacy, filibustering, armed conquest, cheating and lying, ethnic cleansing, even honest purchase and negotiation. It also explains who the previous occupants were and how Americans displaced them and occupied the landthemselves.Many books have been written on individual acquisitions--the Louisiana Purchase, Oregon, Texas, the erstwhile Philippine colony, and the others. Here, however, is a continuous history, beginning with the peace treaties of 1782-1783, which ended the Revolutionary War and gave international recognition to the United States. It proceeds through each acquisition to the Virgin Islands in 1917 and the Northern Marianas in 1986. And it looks beyond them into the current global or virtual empire, the present "military hegemony." Telling the whole story reveals patterns that individual episodes do not. Central to Habits of Empire is the thesis that the acquisitions and occupations of transcontinental territory before the CivilWar not only forged the national boundaries as we know them, but also taught well-learned lessons of empire-building. All along, the United States was also a republic. "Republic" and "empire" have not always fit well together. Today there is a good chance that "empire" might eclipse "republic." Old habits can become unthinking practices.When I began this project, I intended to tie together the diplomatic and military history of the territorial acquisitions with the history of frontier settlement--two fields traditionally treated separately. In the nation's successive Wests, from Revolutionary times to the midnineteenth century, these were intimately related. Settlement--"westward expansion," historians used to call it--could not have happened without sovereignty, and sovereignty was empty without settlement.These acquisitions, from Transappalachia in 1782-1783 through Louisiana, Florida, the failed attack on Canada in 1812-1814, Oregon, Texas, and the Southwest, all required not only acquisition (by means fair or foul). They also involved Anglo-Americans displacing whoever was already there and occupying that land. This story, tying together acquisition, displacement, and settlement of the continental United States, is what I intend as the chief contribution of Habits of Empire, which is why it occupies most of the book.But reaching the Pacific was hardly the end of the story. New acquisitions, offshore across the Pacific and around the Caribbean, formed a second kind of empire, a continuation of the first but seldom involving any settlement. The reverse happened; Hawaiians and Filipinos, and later Puerto Ricans, migrated to the continental United States. For the most part, the offshore empire comprised colonies and protectorates. Only Alaska and Hawaii evolved into states, and they took an unusually long time to do so.Investigating the Alaska Purchase of 1867 made me freshly aware of the expansionism of its architect, William Henry Seward. Seward revived the word "empire" in connection with U.S. expansion as no one had done since Thomas Jefferson. The link between acquisition and settlement before the Civil War, and offshore acquisitions after it, became crystal-clear. The key was the concept and development of American empire. The United States' first empire-building took place from sea to sea and was completed just after 1850. A second phase began almost immediately with Midway and other small Pacific islands and, after the Civil War, with the purchase of Alaska. Offshore empire-building resumed in the 1890s, capturing Hawaii, Samoa, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal Zone. The final true territorial additions came in 1917 with the purchase of what became the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark and, after World War II, the Northern Mariana Islands. By then, several Caribbean and Central American republics had been adopted as "protectorates" by the United States, not to be given up until the Depression-ridden 1930s.With World War II and the ensuing Cold War, however, a third phase of American empire-building, still with us, came into being. An aspect of it is the current "war on terror." The lessons learned in the first phase (continental), and reinforced in the second phase (offshore), have been shapers of the third, the global or virtual empire of today. Thus we have always been an imperial nation, and remain so, but the shape of the American empire has shifted over time. Its present form is different from either our own past ones or historic ones like Rome or Britain. It is still developing.Books about the current empire appear virtually every day. I say little here about it. My purpose is to describe the long historical context. I conclude, therefore, with the briefest survey of recent times, to demonstrate its continuity with rhetoric, ideals, practices, strategies, and imperial tactics that extend back to the nation's very first days. Although recent history will be fairly familiar to today's readers, the habit-forming imperialism of pre-Civil War days will not be. Hence I treat the early,continental imperialism more extensively in the hope of promoting a better understanding of how Americans got to where we now are.The three historic American empires have all rested on an ideology of expansion. Military solutions, overlain by rationales and high ideals, have consistently been considered effective and justified. Expansion has also been premised on the conviction that America and Americans are not tainted with evil or self-serving motives. Americans, the ideology says, are exceptions to the moral infirmities that plague the rest of humankind, because our ideals are pure, a "beacon to humankind," and, as Lincoln said, "the last best hope of earth." The three successive empires, each molded by the circumstances and opportunities of its own times, share an imperialistic outward thrust, a commitment to militarism, and beneath everything a profound faith in the axiom of America's moral exceptionalism. As a result, Jefferson's phrase, "empire for liberty," rings just as true and right to Americans today as it did when he proclaimed it.In a short seven decades Americans exploded from thirteen colonies pinched between the Atlantic and the Appalachians and drove all the way to the Pacific. Theirs was a uniquely rapid extension of a national territory. It depended on good fortune and on aggressive force, on actions both clandestine and public, on grand ideals and at times on base deceit and hypocrisy. With it came the displacement or absorption of people already living there, with more success than most empires ever had. Finally, this empire depended for its success on lust and love, on a birth rate incredibly high. An Indiana congressman named Andrew Kennedy explained in 1846 how the United States would acquire Oregon:Our people are spreading out with the aid of the American multiplication table. Go to the West and see a young man with his mate of eighteen; after the lapse of thirty years, visit him again, and instead of two, you will find twenty-two. . . . We are now twenty millions strong; and how long, under this process of multiplication, will it take to cover the continent with our posterity, from the Isthmus of Darien to Behring's straits? . . . Where shall we find room for all our people, unless we have Oregon? Whatshall we do with all those little white-headed boys and girls' God bless them!Ñthat cover the western prairies? America's first empire was created, indeed procreated, by millions of young, ardent couples busily carrying out their own individual manifest destinies, filling up the land with farms and families, while the nation successfully pursued its grand, apparently inexorable, Manifest Destiny.It all began in Paris in 1782.Transappalachia, 1782: First Land, First Good Fortune This federal Republic was born a pygmy. . . . The day will come when it will grow up, become a giant and be greatly feared in the Americas. -Conde de Aranda, 1783 American Independence: Could It Extend beyond the Mountains? By the end of decisive combat operations in the Revolutionary War, October 1781, American forces with much French assistance had defeated the British in New England, Virginia, and the interior of the Carolinas. Britain continued to occupy New York, Charleston, Savannah, and several forts along the Great Lakes. Despite that, the former colonists had become independent Americans, governing themselves in the areas where they lived. Those areas extended from the Atlantic west to the Appalachian chain of mountains, with a few adventuresome souls beyond. They were, geographically, a nation between ocean and mountains. Only a few had ventured beyond the mountains into Transappalachia, the region running west from the mountains to the Mississippi and Spanish Louisiana, north to the Great Lakes, and south to Florida. Yet the peace treaty with Britain included Transappalachia within the new United States, even though hardly any Americans lived there. Nor did many British or other Europeans. At least two dozen Indian nations did. The peace treaty covered a number of points besides recognizing America's independence. The main ones were about fishing rights in the North Atlantic, debts owed by Americans to British creditors, and how, if at all, the Loyalists-those colonists who remained loyal to the king-might be compensated for property losses. The treaty also laid out the boundaries of the United States. Why did the treaty give Transappalachia to the new country when only a few thousand of its people lived there? How did the American negotiators-Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay-achieve that territorial coup? Given the lack of an American military or demographic presence, they got much more than they deserved. Why the great territorial success? The Declaration of Independence that the Continental Congress adopted on July 4, 1776, condemned George III for many things, but it said almost nothing about the boundaries of these self-styled United States of America. It referred to the native inhabitants as "merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions" (in other words, even old people and children, women as well as men, and slaves). Provinces to the north, now Canada, were invited to join, but declined. Britain scoffed at such "independence," and it took the Americans years of fighting to prove their point, that they were truly independent. In October 1781, six and a half years after the first shots at Lexington and Concord, near Boston, came the decisive battle of Yorktown in Virginia. Almost as many French troops as American fought there, while the French navy cut off British general Charles Cornwallis's evacuation by sea. A year later, on November 30, 1782, the Americans and British signed a "preliminary" peace treaty, which became final in September 1783 when France and Spain made peace with Britain as well. By this Treaty of Paris, the United States became a recognized entity in international law. It was an exceedingly favorable treaty for the United States. Among other things, it gave the new country a great deal of territory that it had scarcely begun to settle and would not fully occupy for decades. Without Transappalachia the western border of the United States would have been hundreds of miles east of the Mississippi River, leaving it in no position to buy Louisiana in 1803. Without Louisiana the borders would have been nowhere near Texas, the Southwest, or Oregon, and thus could hardly have been extended to these new territories in the 1840s. Without Transappalachia, the new United States would have been squeezed and hemmed in on three sides, as expansionists warned then and later. It would have been confined to the Atlantic seaboard and to transatlantic commerce, rather than to a future of transcontinental settlement. The United States might have acquired these regions later, but Transappalachia might well have become an independent entity, or might have linked up with Spain, or pursued some other path that would have prevented the United States from seizing the Louisiana opportunity that came its way in 1803. These centrifugal possibilities continued for years after the Revolutionary War, even beyond 1800. So the 1783 boundaries were an absolutely essential platform for America's further expansion. Yet at the close of the fighting between the Americans and the British in late 1781, the status of forces was such that the British, although defeated at Yorktown, continued to occupy Charleston, Savannah, and New York City, not to mention Canada and the West Indies and the forts along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes in what are now New York and Michigan. A few thousand settlers had ventured past the crest of the Appalachians into Kentucky, Tennessee, western Pennsylvania, and future West Virginia. A meager handful of French villages such as Vincennes in the "Illinois country" that had been French up to 1763 had come under American control. Looked at from London, Paris, or Madrid, Transappalachia had been French since the 1600s and became British and Spanish in 1763. In reality, however, it was Indian country. Americans were simply not present, aside from those few settlers and, to be sure, wealthy "owners"-Pennsylvanians and Virginians who hoped to get richer through sales of land to future settlers, land in the upper Ohio River valley. Why, if so few American forces or settlers were on the ground in Transappalachia in 1782, did the peace treaty bestow it on the new nation? How did the Americans acquire this huge region when they did not live there and did not in any physical way control it? How did Franklin, Adams, and Jay bring home such a good deal? Why did the Earl of Shelburne, George III's first minister and peace negotiator, give it to them? Where did the Americans' allies, the French and the Spanish, stand on the matter? The short answer is a timely combination of stubbornness on the Americans' part; the historic antagonism of Britain versus France and Spain; how those governments had to protect their own interests, of which North America was only one; some treachery by the American negotiators toward their allies; and large supplies of luck at several times and in several ways. To explain this combination of favorable circumstances is to tell the story of how the United States' boundaries in the 1783 Treaty of Paris came to be. As agreed to, it placed the eastern boundary at the Atlantic Ocean; the southern, along the north edge of East and West Florida (Spanish from 1511 to 1763, British from 1763 to 1783, and then Spanish again); the western, the Mississippi River from the edge of Florida northward to the river's source; and the northern, along the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River south of the forty-fifth parallel (the northern boundary of New York and Vermont today), and the north-jutting hump of New Hampshire and Maine. The western and eastern ends of the northern boundary were completely confused because of inaccurate geographical knowledge, though they were no real problem until such knowledge caught up with them decades later. The most important-the most surprising-feature of these boundaries is that they included all of the land west of the Appalachian chain of mountains, south of the Great Lakes and north of the Floridas, out to the Mississippi.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Walter Nugent taught history at the University of Notre Dame for sixteen years and at Indiana University for twenty-one years before that. As a visiting professor he has also taught, lectured, and lived in England, Israel, Germany, Poland, and Ireland. He has published eleven previous books and nearly two hundred essays and reviews. He is a past president of the Western History Association and a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He lives in Highland Park, Illinois, with his wife, the historian Suellen Hoy.
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