The Seeds of Empirebuilding

The western tribes -- the Sioux, Blackfoot, Ute, Shoshoni, Navaho and Apache -- would each attempt independently to resist the relentless westward advance of the European-Americans. They would be pressed from the east and the west, and the movement of settlers and soldiers would be facilitated by the age of steam and the railroads. With the indigenous tribes defeated and the Union stretching across the continent, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner reflected on the century about to close and raised serious concerns over the socio-political arrangements and institutions established on the heels of conquest:

Up to the close of the War of 1812, this country was involved in the fortunes of the European state system. The first quarter of a century of our national existence was almost a continual struggle to prevent ourselves being drawn into the European wars. At the close of that era of conflict, the United States set its face toward the West. It began the settlement and improvement of the vast interior of the country. Here was the field of our colonization, here the field of our political activity. This process being completed, it is not strange that we find the United States again involved in world-politics. The revolution that occurred four years ago [1899], when the United states struck down that ancient nation under whose auspices the New World was discovered, is hardly yet more than dimly understood. The insular wreckage of the Spanish War ... are indications of the new direction of the ship of state, and while we thus turn our attention overseas, our concentrated industrial strength has given us a striking power against the commerce of Europe that is already producing consternation in the Old World. Having completed the conquest of the wilderness, and having consolidated our interests, we are beginning to consider the relations of democracy and empire.

The indigenous tribes were too small in population and lacked the knowledge to develop an industrial system of production necessary to carry on modern warfare. And yet, they were fearsome opponents whose conquest required the maintenance of a large, standing army. As in all other societies, the presence of a permanent military, with its own institutions and leadership hierarchy separate from the civilian government, has had dire consequences. The seeds of empire-building grew out of the very process of conquering the indigenous tribes long after the threat of European domination disappeared. A national agenda, in direct opposition to the transnational sentiments from which liberty and equality of opportunity arise, found early expression in The Federalist papers. Arguing on behalf of the need for a standing army and a strong naval fleet, Alexander Hamilton reminded his fellow citizens of very real external dangers for which they must ever be prepared:

Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, yet there are various considerations that warn us against an excess of confidence or security. On one side of us, and stretching far into our rear, are growing settlements subject to the dominion of Britain. On the other side, and extending to meet the British settlements, are colonies and establishments subject to the dominion of Spain. ...The savage tribes on our Western frontier ought to be regarded as our natural enemies, their natural allies, because they have most to fear from us, and most to hope from them. The improvements in the art of navigation have, as to the facility of communication, rendered distant nations, in a great measure, neighbours. ...These circumstances combined, admonish us not to be too sanguine in considering ourselves as entirely out of the reach of danger.

Here was the essential dichotomy associated with the European conquest of the Americas subjugation of the continent's indigenous population. As the second and third and fourth generations of European-Americans migrated beyond the eastern seaboard, the society they created combined the best and worst characteristics of rugged individualism and cooperative enterprise. In many cases and for prolonged periods they lived in a state of cooperative anarchy. Intense land speculation opened a continuously moving frontier, while access to virgin land expanded the participatory (if not wholly democratic) experiment on the basis of near-universal titleholdings in landed property. A hierarchical structure emerged, nonetheless, with people of color largely unprotected from exploitation.