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First Few Pages: How to Hide an Empire

First Few Pages: How to Hide an Empire

How to Hide an Empire

A History of the Greater United States

By Daniel Immerwahr

In How to Hide an Empire, Daniel Immerwahr tells the fascinating story of the United States outside the United States. In crackling, fast-paced prose, he reveals forgotten episodes that cast American history in a new light. We travel to the Guano Islands, where prospectors collected one of the nineteenth century’s most valuable commodities, and the Philippines, site of the most destructive event on U.S. soil. In Puerto Rico, Immerwahr shows how U.S. doctors conducted grisly experiments they would never have conducted on the mainland and charts the emergence of independence fighters who would shoot up the U.S. Congress.

In the years after World War II, Immerwahr notes, the United States moved away from colonialism. Instead, it put innovations in electronics, transportation, and culture to use, devising a new sort of influence that did not require the control of colonies. Rich with absorbing vignettes, full of surprises, and driven by an original conception of what empire and globalization mean today, How to Hide an Empire is a major and compulsively readable work of history.



The thirteen colonies that would make up the United States declared independence from Britain in 1776. Freedom, however, takes many forms. Just a year earlier, the hunter Daniel Boone and thirty or so followers asserted an independence of a different sort. Plagued by debt, Boone left his home on the Yadkin River in North Carolina and wandered west. His party took advantage of a convenient notch in the Appalachian mountain range, the Cumberland Gap. They traveled some two hundred miles in a month, cutting through thick brush, cane, and reed in search of better land.

Boone and his followers found what they sought in the plains of Kentucky. The Shawnees who lived there had carefully culled the area’s trees, letting the grass grow high and the herbivores graze. For men used to a hardscrabble life, this was paradise. “So rich a soil we had never seen before; covered with clover in full bloom,” gaped one of Boone’s axmen. “The woods were abounding in wild game.” They named their new settlement Boonesborough, after the man who had brought them there.

Oases in the desert often vanish upon inspection, and it didn’t take long for Boone’s followers to reconsider their rapture. The teeming meadows were no mirage, but those meadows were the hunting grounds of the Shawnees, whose presence made it difficult for Boone’s party to venture beyond Boonesborough’s defended perimeter. Confined to their few rudimentary structures and beset on all sides, many of the town’s residents lost heart and returned home before the year was out.

Boonesborough’s achievements were, on the face of it, modest. Yet if the what of Boonesborough was underwhelming, the where carried a larger significance. The settlement was situated on the far side of the Appalachians, which for more than a century had formed a barrier—in law and practice—to British settlement in North America. By blazing his trail through the wilderness, Boone had opened a channel through which hundreds of thousands of whites would soon pour, dragging enslaved blacks along with them. Boone wasn’t exactly the “first white man of the West,” as one of his biographers insisted. But he was an early drop from a faucet that was about to be turned on full blast.

For European intellectuals, the rough-hewn, frontier-dwelling Boone was catnip. Enlightenment philosophes regarded him as man in his natural state, Romantics as a refugee from civilization. An obscure biographical account of Boone, originally published as an appendix to a history of Kentucky, made the rounds in Europe, where it was republished and speedily translated into French and German.

Boone showed up in European literature, too. The British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft had an affair with one of Boone’s acquaintances and, with him, published a fictionalized account of Boone’s life. The French Romantic François-René de Chateaubriand lifted passages from Boone’s biography for his influential epic, Les Natchez, about a Frenchman living among the North American Indians. Lord Byron, the leading poet of the age, devoted seven stanzas to Boone (the “happiest amongst mortals anywhere”) in his poem Don Juan.

Yet, oddly, Boone saw almost none of this. Though celebrated abroad, he wasn’t much revered at home during his lifetime. He died at the old age of eighty-five in 1820. That was the same decade Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died, both, as it happened by near-inconceivable coincidence, on the same day—the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The country went understandably crazy when Jefferson and Adams died. “Had the horses and the chariot of fire descended to take up the patriarchs,” a New York paper wrote, “it might have been more wonderful, but not more glorious.”

But for Boone’s death? Nothing of the sort. He died in the Territory of Missouri, west of St. Louis. He had no money and no land—he was living as a pensioner on his son’s small estate. Territorial legislators in Missouri wore black armbands in Boone’s honor, but the eastern papers took well over a month to even acknowledge his death, which they generally did with short notices. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

How could that happen? Why didn’t someone do something? Did the leading men of the country not know about Boone? They knew. Did they not understand what he represented? They understood.

They just didn’t like it.

* * *

The disregard in which Daniel Boone was held may come as a surprise. The United States, as the story is often told, was a buoyantly expansive nation from the start. Its founders had wrested liberty from an oppressive empire—turning subjects into citizens and colonies into states—and were eager to push their republican form of government westward across the continent, from sea to shining sea. Men like Daniel Boone, it would seem, were vital instruments of that national mission.

Yet Boone’s path was strewn with obstacles. The British had set the ridge of the Appalachians as the boundary to white settlement, making Boone’s journey west a crime. The end of British rule did little to improve Boone’s standing. The founders viewed frontiersmen like him with open suspicion. They were the nation’s “refuse” (wrote Ben Franklin), “no better than carnivorous animals” (J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur), or “white savages” (John Jay). George Washington warned, after the revolution, of the “settling, or rather overspreading the Western Country … by a parcel of banditti, who will bid defiance to all authority.” To prevent this, he proposed drawing a settlement boundary, just as the British had, and prosecuting as a felon any citizen who crossed it.

Part of the objection was social; the founders were men of culture and sophistication who found rough frontier life troubling. Yet there was a deeper issue involved. As Boonesborough’s settlers had discovered, the United States wasn’t the only country with claim to the land west of the Appalachians. Native peoples—organized as nations, tribes, confederacies, and other durable polities—had their own cartography, their own way of mapping North America. And, in the late eighteenth century, they could back their maps with force.

This was the raw nerve Daniel Boone had touched. By hauling white settlers west, he was invading Indian lands. That meant fighting, fighting of the sort that might easily draw the United States government in. It also meant a discomfiting blurring of the lines between European and Native. Boone had killed Indians, been captured by them many times, and seen a brother and two sons die by Indian hands. But he had also, during one of his stints in captivity, been adopted into a Shawnee family, receiving the name Sheltowee (meaning “Big Turtle”) and becoming “exceedingly familiar and friendly,” as he put it, with his “new parents, brothers, sisters, and friends.”

This was exactly the sort of business that put Washington in favor of enforcing a British-style settlement boundary. The matter wasn’t merely philosophical for him; it was also personal. Much of Washington’s wealth lay in large tracts of western land. That land would hold its value only if he could control its sale and settlement. “Banditti” such as Boone, who took land without consulting its eastern owners, were a threat. Boone himself was a particular threat, since his claims on Kentucky conflicted with Washington’s own.

Paper claims to distant land, such as Washington’s, were hard to maintain from the East. During the Revolutionary War, Washington had left his considerable estate in the unsteady hands of his distant cousin Lund Washington. Under Lund’s less than entirely watchful eye, squatters took up residence on Washington’s western holdings (not the Kentucky claims, but others farther north). Irate, Washington set out to put things right, crossing the Appalachians himself on a sort of landlord’s vengeance mission.

The expedition did little to temper his disdain for frontiersmen. He recorded that their clashes with Indians had incited “murders, and general dissatisfaction.” They “labour very little,” he harrumphed, and the merest “touch of a feather” would turn their loyalties away from the United States.

Washington set his affairs in order, but he remained doubtful about westerners’ political allegiances. His fears were confirmed in the 1790s, when backcountry men in Pennsylvania refused to pay a federal tax on alcohol and threatened armed secession. It was the Boston Tea Party all over again, this time with whiskey. Yet, notwithstanding his own recent leadership of a revolution against the financial machinations of a distant government, Washington’s sympathy for the rebels quickly ran dry. Their opposition, he complained to Jefferson, had “become too open, violent and serious to be longer winked at.”

Once again, Washington rode west across the mountains, this time to quash a rebellion. In the end, the uprising dispersed before Washington’s forces arrived. But the episode remains, as the historian Joseph Ellis has observed, the “first and only time a sitting American president led troops in the field.”

* * *

Washington’s impatience with frontiersmen didn’t mean that he opposed expansion. In the long term, he depended on it, both to strengthen the country and to profit from his western estates. The issue was the short term. The country was vast, but its government was weak. Squatters who rushed over the mountains were impossible to govern, and the wars they inevitably started were expensive to fight. Washington thus insisted that settlement proceed in a “compact” manner, under elite control. That way, the frontier would be not a refuge for masterless men like Boone but the forefront of the march of civilization, advancing at a stately pace.

To realize their vision, the founders created a distinct political category for the frontier: territory. The revolution had been fought by a union of states, but those states’ borders became ill-defined and even overlapped as they reached westward. Rather than dividing the frontier among the states, the republic’s leaders brokered deals by which none of the Atlantic states would extend to the Mississippi, which marked the western edge of the country. Instead, western land would go to the federal government. It would be administered not as states, but as territories.

The government accepted control of its first territory in 1784, when Virginia gave up its claims to a large swath of land north of the Ohio River. This cession came not two months before the United States formally received its independence when Britain ratified the Treaty of Paris. This meant that, from day one, the United States of America was more than just a union of states. It was an amalgam of states and territory.

By 1791, all Atlantic states except Georgia had followed Virginia and given up their far western claims. As a result, in that year only slightly more than half of the country’s land (55 percent) was covered by states.

What was this non-state territory? The Constitution was notably close-lipped, discussing the matter only in a single sentence. It granted Congress the power “to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” Thus the founding document, which went into extravagant detail about amendments, elections, and the division of power, left wide open the question of how much of the land was to be governed.

Territorial policy was set, instead, by a series of laws, most famously the Jefferson-inspired Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which covered a large part of the present-day Midwest (similar laws covered other regions). The Northwest Ordinance has become part of the national mythology, celebrated in textbooks for its remarkable offer of statehood on “an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever.” The territories merely had to cross a series of population thresholds: five thousand free men, and they could have a legislature; sixty thousand free inhabitants (or sooner, if Congress allowed), and they could be states.

But the operative word was could. None of this was automatic, for Congress retained the power to advance or impede territories, both of which it did. Sometimes it denied, ignored, or deflected statehood petitions. That is why Lincoln, West Dakota, Deseret, Cimarron, and Montezuma—all of which sought admission to the union—did not become states.

Moreover, Congress’s discretionary authority meant that until territories became states, the federal government held absolute power over them. Initially, territories were to be ruled by an appointed governor and three judges. Even after they gained legislatures, the governor retained the power to veto bills and dissolve the legislature.

“In effect,” wrote James Monroe, who drafted the ordinance, it was “a colonial government similar to that which prevail’d in these States previous to the revolution.” Jefferson conceded that the first stage resembled a “despotic oligarchy.”

That was an apt characterization. The first governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, a conservative Scotsman who’d been Washington’s aide-de-camp, had little patience for the rambunctious frontier. He saw himself as a “poor devil banished to another planet.” The territory, in his eyes, was a “dependent colony,” inhabited not by “citizens of the United States” but by its “subjects” (“white Indians” is how one of the territorial judges described them). Feeling the territorial inhabitants too “ignorant” and “ill qualified” to govern themselves, St. Clair used his wide discretionary powers to impede the formation of states.

The same pattern held in Louisiana Territory, the land Jefferson acquired in 1803 from France. Eastern politicians fretted about the newly annexed land’s inhabitants: Anglo settlers, Catholics, free blacks, Indians, and mixed-race folk. “This Constitution never was, and never can be, strained to lap over all the wilderness of the West,” warned Representative Josiah Quincy, the future president of Harvard.

Jefferson understood the sentiment. The people of Louisiana were as “incapable of self-government as children,” he judged, adding that the “principles of popular Government are utterly beyond their comprehension.” Rather than putting Louisiana through the normal Northwest Ordinance procedures, Jefferson added a new initial phase, military government, and sent the U.S. Army to keep the peace. By 1806, the Territory of Louisiana hosted the largest contingent of the army in the country.

Jefferson’s appointed governor to Louisiana Territory, like Arthur St. Clair, griped about the “mental darkness” of Louisiana’s inhabitants. Allowing them to vote, he believed, “would be a dangerous experiment.”

Louisianians protested their disenfranchisement. “Do political axioms on the Atlantic become problems when transferred to the shores of the Mississippi?” they asked on a trip to the capital. Jefferson shrugged his shoulders and did nothing.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Immerwahr

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