The United States Is a Colonial Empire, and an Extremely Successful One
For those who remember their high school textbooks, the issue of America’s imperial history is very clear cut. American imperialism, the textbooks told us, was that fairly brief period in American history that lasted from 1898 to 1945. This was the period during which the United States acquired a number of overseas territories, including the Philippines and Puerto Rico, among others. The era of imperialism, we are told, ended in 1945 when the Philippines was finally granted full independence from Washington. Even more dubious—the textbook writers tell us—is the idea that the US is or has been a colonial empire. After all, American citizens did not set up any colonies in the Philippines or in Puerto Rico in the way that British migrants populated Virginia or New England.
For those familiar with military conquest in North America during the nineteenth century, however, it seems a bit odd that so many historians have agreed that the American empire did not begin until 1898. After all, if an empire is an expansionist state that annexes territories and rules over the inhabitants found there, the Mexicans and Apaches—to name just two conquered groups—will likely disagree with the textbooks.
Indeed, the colonial and imperial status of many polities over time and place has been hotly debated. For example, some scholars claim Ireland was never a colony of the United Kingdom.1 Nor can many scholars decide if Siberia was part of a colonial Russian empire.2 In the minds of many, Washington’s imperial acquisitions are similarly ambiguous.
Yet, any frank assessment of American political history should lead us to conclude that yes, the United States was very much a colonial empire throughout most of its history. What is different about the United States, however, is that it has been a fabulously successful colonial power. It is so successful, in fact, that the territories that used to be obvious colonies have ceased to have a distinct identity incompatible with the metropole’s preferred political and cultural institutions. Those former colonies have now been fully merged into the metropole itself. Thus, commonly used definitions of “colony” or “colonialism” no longer describe these conquered territories in the twenty-first century. The methods by which these areas were acquired, however, were clearly methods of colonial imperialism. Ironically, the very success of American colonization efforts has hidden the empire in the mists of the past.
What Is a Colonial Empire?
It seems we have to supply our own definition of colonial empire since scholars can’t agree on one.3 To help us, we can draw on the work of Michael W. Doyle in his book Empires.4 According to Doyle, one primary aspect of imperial relations is clear: there is an asymmetrical relationship between the colony and the metropole. The metropole is much more powerful in terms of its military and economic resources. A second key aspect is that political entities within the colonies are clearly distinct from the metropole. Doyle also states that these territories are not free to leave the metropole’s control; they are maintained by coercion within a political union. Moreover, these subject territories are defined by a local lack of cohesion, especially compared to the metropole itself. Finally, the imperial territories contain a population—often a minority group—that has a stake in expanding the metropole’s power.
Clearly, the US’s frontier territories during the nineteenth century nearly all fulfill these requirements in the period following annexation and preceding admission as states. For example, in territorial areas that later became Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and surrounding areas, decades passed between the time these lands were annexed by the US, and the time when they became full states.
During this period, these territories existed in a clear asymmetric relationship with the US government in which the residents did not possess the same legal rights as residents of states. Territorial residents did not have voting representation in Congress or the electoral college. Territorial legislatures were not constitutional bodies and did not possess the legal prerogatives of state governments. These territories were, in all topics that really mattered, ruled directly from Washington. Moreover, political control within the territories was heavily fractured. Indian tribes and the white populations all vied for power and territorial control. In the southwest, these groups were joined by former Mexican citizens who competed with both the Anglo population and the tribal populations for power within the new borderland territories. All were dominated by the metropole’s power, and none enjoyed the full legal rights of state residents.
Importantly, these territories were maintained by coercive means. No areas claimed by the Washington metropole, whether states or not, were permitted to leave the Union.
Article from LewRockwell
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