Empire-American as Apple Pie

By MacDougall, A. Kent | Monthly Review, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Empire-American as Apple Pie


MacDougall, A. Kent, Monthly Review


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. …

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