A Brief History of American Imperialism

Editor’s Note: In response to the “celebration” of Columbus Day La Jicarita is reprinting this first (October 2009) in a series of articles that explored the causes of indigenous peoples’ land dispossession in the United States with particular regard to what occurred in New Mexico. This article details the founding fathers’ expansionist drive west that “dispossessed or murdered everyone in its way.”


Modern scholarship has demonstrated that the American Revolution was not an anticolonial liberation movement as it has traditionally been portrayed, but rather the process by which the American mercantile elite threw off the yoke of the British mercantile elite (See William Appleman Williams, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Ann Laura Stoler, Amy Kaplan, and R.W. Van Alstyne to name just a few scholars whose work supports this thesis). It was, in essence, a battle between two rival factions within the British Empire for control of the land, resources, and markets of North America that resulted in a bifurcation of that empire. Cultural historian Stanley Cavell states the argument bluntly, “. . . America’s revolution never happened. The colonists fought a war against England all right, and they won it. But it was not a war of independence that was won, because we are not free; nor was even secession the outcome, because we have not departed from the conditions England lives under, either in our literature or in our political and economic lives.”

U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In point of fact, the “founding fathers” were English ancestored, white male slave owners who employed a rationale of white supremacist entitlement to initiate a policy of colonial expansion that drove the national boundary west to the furthest limit of the North American continent and dispossessed or murdered everyone in its way. As early as 1751, Benjamin Franklin counseled the English Crown, “. . . the Prince that acquires new Territory, if he finds it vacant, or removes the Natives to give his own People Room . . . may be properly called Fathers of their Nation . . . .” By 1783 George Washington was referring to the United States as a “rising empire” and in 1809 Thomas Jefferson wrote James Madison, “. . . I am persuaded no constitution was ever so well calculated as ours for extensive empire . . . .” The expansionist drive gained such momentum that in 1823 when President James Monroe famously declared to Congress that “the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers . . . .” (quoted from Monroe’s December 2, 1823 speech before Congress later known as the “Monroe Doctrine”), he was not seeking to protect the western hemisphere from further colonization but proclaiming the United States’ hegemony over the region.

That hegemony exacted a terrible toll on the Native American and Indo-Hispano people who resided on the lands into which the United States expanded. As the eminent American historian William Appleman Williams has noted, the “assertion that Americans enjoyed free security as well as free land throughout most of their history, and that these factors explain the nation’s development is hardly half the story. What is missing is the pattern of total war developed and put into operation against the Indians and then transferred to later opponents.”

Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz asserts: “Thomas Jefferson . . . was the real architect of the genocide and confiscation of the land of indigenous peoples. . . .” An 1801 letter to James Monroe outlined Thomas Jefferson’s Anglo-centric expansionist vision. “However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface.” This “blot or mixture” Jefferson could not “contemplate with satisfaction” included Native Americans, blacks (as free men), and Indo-Hispanos.

Jefferson both vilified and elegized Native Americans in a schizophrenic attempt to, on the one hand, justify their extirpation and obtain their lands and, on the other, salve his pious conscience. Historical anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace suggests, ” . . . Jefferson appears both as the scholarly admirer of Indian character, archaeology, and language and as the planner of cultural genocide, the architect of the removal policy, the surveyor of the Trail of Tears.” In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson refers to Native Americans as “. . . the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” By contrast, in a 1797 letter to James Wikinson Jefferson wrote, “When we contemplate the Fortunes of the Aborigines of our Country, the Bosom of Philanthropy must heave with sorrow, and our sympathy be strongly excited —what would not that man, or that Community merit, who reclaims the untutored Indian — opens his mind to sources of happiness unknown, and makes him useful to society? Since it would be in effect to save a whole race from extinction, for surely — if this people are not brought to depend for subsistence on their fields instead of their forests, and to realize Ideas of distinct property, it will be found impossible to correct their present habits, and the seeds of their extinction, already sown, must be matured.”

The notion that “untutored” native communal populations must yield to the “enlightened” institutions of western civilization, particularly yeoman husbandry and its corollary, private property, would be repeatedly invoked as a rationale for their dispossession. It formed, as I shall demonstrate, the basis upon which judicial decisions and Congressional acts that legitimized and institutionalized land theft and racism were predicated.

Jefferson’s expansionist agenda included not only aggressively encouraging settlement of the land west of the Alleghenies (which had been forbidden under British rule and in which he had a personal investment), with its consequent dispossession of thousands of Native Americans, but the 1803 acquisition from France of the land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Gulf of Mexico to what became the Canadian border through the Louisiana Purchase. Astonishingly, though he himself questioned the constitutionality of the purchase, he managed to finesse the treaty that authorized this enormous land acquisition through Congress despite vehement opposition from the federalists. Regarding his “democratic” political ideals, which have been held sacrosanct by revisionist historians, Jefferson himself remarked, “what is practicable must often control what is pure theory.” His immediate successors, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson also embraced Jefferson’s oxymoronic credo that the government was constructing an “empire for liberty” predicated on the dispossession of indigenous peoples.

Monroe and his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams solidified the United States’ hold on the eastern portion of North America with the acquisition of the “Spanish Floridas” from the crumbling Spanish colonial empire, severely weakened by continental wars in 1819. As early as 1786 Jefferson had shrewdly spelled out the government’s long range intentions for the Spanish colonies in the western hemisphere: “Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest, from which all America, North and South, is to be peopled. We should take care too, not to think it for the interest of that great continent to press too soon on the Spaniards. Those countries cannot be in better hands. My fear is that they [the Spanish] are too feeble to hold them till our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece.”

Article II of The 1819 Treaty of Amity, Settlement, and Limits between the United States and His Catholic Majesty ceded “. . . all the territories that belong to him [the King of Spain], situated to the eastward of the Mississippi, known by the name of East and West Florida” and fixed the boundary between Spain and the United States west of the Mississippi at the Sabine River, which ultimately became the boundary between the states of Louisiana and Texas. Although the United States accepted this limitation, according to historian Richard Van Alstyne, Jefferson maintained that the land he had procured [through the Louisiana Purchase] extended westward to the Rio Grande and politicians, including Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton asserted that the United States had actually given away territory with the treaty. It would only take a generation, however, to “correct” this mistake.

Spain’s increasingly tenuous hold on its colonies in the new world, coupled with the Mexican mercantile’s dissatisfaction with the Spanish colonial system draining the wealth of Mexico, led to an insurrection culminating in Mexico declaring its independence in 1821. In an effort to protect its northern territorial frontiers from further incursion by the United States, the newly established Mexican government began issuing what it termed “empresario” grants to Anglo land speculators. These grants, which included enormous tracts in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado, were made with the understanding that the empresarios, who included, among others, Stephen Austin in Texas and Charles Beaubien, Gervais Nolán, Ceran St. Vrain, and Charles Bent in New Mexico and Colorado, would import settlers whose communities, theoretically, would act as buffers against United States’ expansion.

Austin’s colony, which was located in the fertile river bottom between the Brazos and Colorado rivers south of the El Camino Real, offered free land in a temperate climate while the United States government was charging $1.25 an acre for land in much harsher environments. Thus, Austin was able to induce an enormous influx of Anglo settlers, who quickly outnumbered the indigenous population, while maintaining their allegiance to the United States.

Now, with an established Anglo population, the United States renewed its efforts to acquire the territory. President John Quincy Adams, still stinging from the political controversy that festered over the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase he helped negotiate in 1819 with Spain when he was Secretary of State, offered the Mexican government $1 million for the Texas territories, which included much of New Mexico and southern Colorado, in both 1825 and 1827, to no avail. Adam’s successor, Andrew Jackson, raised the offer to $5 million but was also unsuccessful.

The Mexican government, realizing the United States was intent upon annexing Texas, attempted to stem the flow of Anglo immigration by statute in 1830 and, when that proved ineffective, it tried to crush Anglo Texans’ efforts for self-determination by force of arms. Santa Ana’s victory at the Alamo in February of 1836 was short lived, however, as the cry of “Remember the Alamo” ignited a wave of xenophobic support that allowed for a quick reprisal. Led by Andrew Jackson’s protégé and James K. Polk’s close friend, Sam Houston, an army of eight hundred Texans decimated Santa Ana’s forces at the Battle of San Jacinto six weeks latter, resulting in the independent Republic of Texas. While Mexico refused to acknowledge the new country’s sovereignty, it was powerless to intervene.

Annexation of Texas by the United States then became a hotly debated subject with the northeastern manufacturing interests fearful that the addition of Texas would strengthen the southern slave based agricultural interests in the economic and political tug of war that had developed between the two capitalist factions. Northern opposition, however, was tempered by fears that the Britain wanted to maintain an independent Texas as a potential market for British goods, free from American protective tariffs as well as a source of cotton for its textile mills. In the meantime, the Republic of Texas was being deluged by American immigrants seeking free or cheap land, and the annexation debate was ultimately decided by the overwhelming support of the land hungry residents of the established western states. Running on a platform that endorsed the annexation of Texas and the Oregon Territory, James K. Polk, a man who would acquire more territory during his four year presidency than any other president before or after, managed a slim victory over Henry Clay, who opposed both acquisitions. The debate fueled the mounting frenzy of jingoistic support for expansion, which was given moral and judicial justification through the racist conceit of “Manifest Destiny,” and the stage was set for the Mexican-American War.


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