empire, always
Source Dan Scanlan
Date 05/06/19/00:20

Empire—American as Apple Pie
by A. Kent MacDougall

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 (1754­1761) 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.

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