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Empire—American as Apple Pie

A. Kent MacDougall is professor emeritus of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Bush administration’s denial of imperial ambitions clashes not only with what most of the world sees as this nation’s unprovoked aggression in Iraq and drive for global domination. It also departs from U.S. tradition established in the early years of the republic and the colonial era that preceded it.

Compare George W. Bush’s claim, “We do not seek an empire,” Colin Powell’s affirmation, “We have never been imperialists,” and Donald Rumsfeld’s clincher, “We don’t do empire,” with the Founding Fathers’ forthrightness in declaring their imperial aspirations. George Washington called the nascent nation “a rising empire.” John Adams said it was “destined” to overspread all North America. And Thomas Jefferson viewed it as “the nest from which all America, North and South, is to be peopled.”

Nor were the Founding Fathers coy about disclosing their priorities for territorial expansion. They proclaimed their intent to extend the new nation westward to the Mississippi River and beyond. They vowed to shake the Floridas loose from Spain’s feeble grasp. They agreed that Canada must be seized and annexed. As early as 1761, Benjamin Franklin targeted Cuba and Mexico for aggression, and he later joined Samuel Adams in agitating for grabbing the entire West Indies. Jefferson went so far as to assert that the United States had the right to prohibit other countries from cruising in Gulf Stream waters in both the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean on the spurious grounds that this warm-water current was really just an extension of the Mississippi River.

The Founding Fathers fit their actions to their aspirations. George Washington was instrumental in precipitating the French and Indian War in the name of King George II and on behalf of land-speculating gentry in Virginia. The gentry, Washington among them, had ambitions to sell land and form settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains. But Native Americans and their French allies already occupied the land. After the French spurned a demand that they withdraw from the Upper Ohio Valley, the twenty-two-year-old Washington led a detachment of 160 Virginia colonial militiamen into the disputed territory. Although no state of war existed, Washington’s men fell at night upon an encampment of thirty-one Frenchmen, who the French said were on a diplomatic mission, and killed ten of them, including their leader. This act of aggression triggered what American school books call the French and Indian War, but many historians refer to as the Seven Years War (1754–1761) and others as the Great War for the Empire, reflecting the fact that the conflict in North America was only part of an all-out war for world domination between Britain and France and their respective allies that was waged on three oceans and three continents.

The Treaty of Paris that concluded the war deprived France of all its territories on the North American continent and “fulfilled the fondest dreams of the American empire builders,” according to Richard W. Van Alstyne in The Rising American Empire (1960). “The entire future of the embryonic American empire rested upon the triumph of 1763.”

Several of the Founding Fathers benefited financially from the opening of western lands. Washington bought up land claims that had been given his soldiers in lieu of salary, and he also invested in other speculative real estate ventures of the period, including the Ohio Company, the Mississippi Company, and the Great Dismal Swamp Company.

Franklin also participated in western land speculations even as he declared to the House of Commons that his fellow Americans had lived in “perfect peace with both French and Indians,” had no concern with territorial disputes between the British and French, and had unselfishly come to Britain’s assistance in what had been “really a British war” to expand the market for certain English manufacturers. This falsification of motives and events helped establish a tradition of official cover-ups, distortions, and outright lies that have persisted and proliferated to this day.

Franklin, who deserves the title of “America’s first great expansionist,” according to Gerald Stourzh, author of Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy (1954), enthusiastically supported expansionism not just westward but northward and southward as well. As editor of the weekly Pennsylvania Gazette in 1741, he endorsed the participation of 3,600 fellow colonials, mostly from Pennsylvania, in a British attack on the Spanish port of Cartagena in Colombia. The three-month siege failed. But freebooting voyages to the Caribbean by vessels from Philadelphia and other ports captured nearly 2,500 Spanish and French merchant ships and reaped enormous profits for both the buccaneers and the colonial seaboard merchants who exported manufactured goods to the Caribbean in exchange for sugar and molasses to supply colonial distilleries.

Franklin regarded the output of these distilleries as useful in clearing North America of Native Americans impeding colonial expansion. “If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for the cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means,” he wrote. Fellow Founding Fathers joined Ben in justifying ethnic cleansing by demonizing Native Americans as “beasts of prey” (Washington), butchering “blood hounds” (John Adams), and “merciless Indian savages” (Jefferson).

Ethnic cleansing wasn’t reserved for Indians alone, however. French settlers in Acadia, as the maritime provinces of Canada were then known, were subjected to it as well. In 1613, only six years after its founding, the Jamestown, Virginia colony of English adventurers attacked and destroyed the French colony of Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia. In 1654, Massachusetts attacked several Acadian settlements. In 1690 and 1691, Boston organized invasions of Acadia. And in 1709, New Englanders joined British naval forces in an invasion of Acadia and seized the rebuilt Port Royal the following year.

British seizure of Acadia during the French and Indian War and mass deportations of French-speaking Acadians opened Nova Scotia to New England land speculators and settlers. “An inundation of farming families, chiefly from the Connecticut valley, ensued during the next few years so that Nova Scotia—‘New Scotland’—became in fact an extension of New England,” historian Van Alstyne noted.

Yet the Americans remained dissatisfied. They wanted all of Canada. The War for Independence gave them their opportunity. The Continental Congress passed resolutions favoring the “liberation” and annexation of Canada. Though Canada remained neutral in the quarrel between the colonies and Britain, the Americans invaded it nonetheless. The aim was territorial aggrandizement, as John Adams made clear when he wrote that “Canada must be ours; Quebec must be taken.”

After the invasions failed, Congress sent Franklin and two other commissioners to invite the Canadians into the American union—but to no avail. In negotiations for the peace treaty that ended the War for Independence, Franklin argued that Canada was absolutely necessary for American “security.” He said Britain ought to cede it to settle the issue of reparations, as a token of its sincerity regarding reconciliation, to avoid future discord and to cement an alliance with the new United States.

Frustrated by Britain’s refusal to give up Canada peacefully, Americans tried thirty years later to seize it by force. Former president Jefferson welcomed the War of 1812 as providing an opportunity to finally strip Britain “of all her possessions on this continent.” Yet several invasions of Canada proved futile, while the wanton burning of provincial parliament houses in York, now Toronto, prompted the British to retaliate by later setting fire to government buildings in Washington.

The United States government paid no more heed to the wishes of Canadians in 1812 than it had nine years earlier to the estimated 100,000 inhabitants of territories acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. In both cases, democratic principles of national self-determination and government resting on the consent of the governed were deemed not to apply. The supposedly equalitarian Jefferson opined that “our new fellow citizens are as yet as incapable of self-government as children.”

Jefferson considered expansion essential to perpetuating republican virtues in the “empire of liberty” he envisioned overspreading both North and South America with like-minded countrymen. He argued that expansion would neutralize or remove dangerous neighbors and provide a continuing supply of land to accommodate a growing population of American yeomen farmers. Accordingly, after the Louisiana Purchase doubled U.S. territory he insisted that “national security” demanded wresting West Florida from Spain as well.

Albert K. Weinberg, whose densely detailed Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History (1935) remains an indispensable chronicle of U.S. imperialism, noted, “Despite the doubling of America’s territorial domain, the accession of Louisiana was not followed by a subsidence of expansionism.” On the contrary, Americans continued to regard the nation’s natural boundary “to be far in advance of the boundary that they already had.” “Appetite had grown with the eating.”

And so it remains to this day. The focus of expansionism shifted over time from grabbing and colonizing contiguous territory to a compulsive drive for overseas markets, raw materials, and profitable investments. Throughout, the ruling elite’s appetite for economic and political domination has continued to expand in line with centuries-old tradition. Despite pretense from regime functionaries in Washington, now, as ever, empire is as American as apple pie.