Building an American Empire: The Era of Territorial and Political Expansion

By Rouleau, Brian | The Historian, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Building an American Empire: The Era of Territorial and Political Expansion


Rouleau, Brian, The Historian


Building an American Empire: The Era of Territorial and Political Expansion. By Paul Frymer. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. Pp. vii, 295. $35.00.)

Paul Frymer's newest book examines US territorial expansion over the course of the long nineteenth century. In seven well-written chapters, the author seeks to address several separate (though broadly connected) issues. First, he examines the contours of contact and confrontation between settlers and Native Americans. Second, Frymer places government, federal policy, and policymakers at the center of a transcontinental process that is too often discussed in terms of inevitability. In doing so, he then inserts himself into a still-raging debate over how "active" a state the early republic possessed; his answer to that question, meanwhile, is satisfyingly nuanced.

Along the early American frontier, Frymer finds power and weakness bound together in what became a potent combination. In other words, state actors at the time often understood the relative impotence of their various offices, and that incapacity restrained territorial growth at critical junctures. The real "strength" of the United States, then, came in the recognition of its own weakness. Settlement policies were devised that incentivized the spread of relatively compact units and prevented the nation from, in most cases, overtaxing its modest capacities. Reductive rhetoric regarding "manifest destiny" helps to elide key moments in American history when the expansionist impulse failed to triumph. Finally, the author makes a strong case for the centrality of race in shaping land policy--and thus empire--in the United States.

Indeed, it is that focus on policy detail that sets Frymer apart from many other scholars who have examined the subject of early American empire. Some of the book's best sections carefully delineate the ways in which visions of an exclusively white settler nation drove (and at other moments curbed) the country's expansion. Frymer digs deep into policy debates at the time, and, as a result, unearths fascinating details regarding the republic's racial formulations. He rightly chides historians for their fixation upon slavery as the wellspring from which virtually all of American race relations emerged. Instead, the author contends, the country's status as a settler colonial state was generative of key components in national racial discourse. Frymer chronicles the ways in which the West represented an active laboratory in the science of racial engineering. …

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