The main idea behind this post is that the United States came into existence as a fully functioning American empire, rather than as the ideal republic it has been made out to be by historians. Granted, the national government wouldn’t take control of the new nation’s imperial efforts until the 19th-century, but I think there’s an argument to be made that the ‘fathers’ of America (men like Washington, Adams, and Franklin), saw an opportunity to turn the United States into a New World, American empire of its own. With that said, the now famous founding fathers had virtually nothing to do with the conquest of Native Nations like the Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee who lived in and beyond the western border of the Appalachians. It was, instead, the common American citizen, newly empowered with Republican fervor, who would go on to claim the land east of the Mississippi and west of the Appalachians ceded to the U.S. by Britain and wrest the lands of this American empire from the hands of its true owners and occupants.
The story, however, starts before the Revolution. For a long time, Euro-American colonists had been itching to go beyond the Appalachians and into ‘the frontier.’ Desirous of holding onto trade with the Native American Nations that lay beyond the border of the colonies, the British did their best to restrain the westward movement of the colonists. This came to a head with the Proclamation of 1763, “which was designed to keep the American settlers east of the Appalachian Mountains and physically separate from the main Indian settlements.”1 This move was none-too-popular among the citizens of the older Atlantic colonies, many of whom, like George Washington, had fought in the French and Indian war as a means of gaining more land for themselves out west.2
The final nail in the coffin for many soon-to-be revolutionaries was the Quebec Act of 1774, part of the now infamous Intolerable Acts. The land that made up the expansive ‘Ohio Country’ was placed under the governorship of the newly won British colony of Quebec. To many in the older colonies further south, such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, this seemed to be a cession of land that had long been charted to their colonies by the crown.3 The Americans’ annoyance with this Act was made evident in the Declaration of Independence:
“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.”4
In the above quote (to which I have added the emphasis on ‘enlarging its Boundaries’), Britain’s claim on the land of the Ohio Country clearly irked the seceding colonists, as they had hoped those enlarged boundaries would belong to, and benefit, them. Indeed, American frontiersman and land development companies had already been making their way into territories across the Appalachians for years.5
When the Revolution broke out, many Native Nations (though not all) sided with British. Needless to say, when the war went the Americans’ way, this decision (combined with the memory of the French and Indian War) ensured there was no love lost between the newly minted Americans and the trans-Appalachian nations. Further compounding the problem, following the Treaty of Paris, the Americans believed they had legal claim to land occupied by over a half-dozen Native American nations like the Miami, Illinois Confederation, Creeks, and Shawnee (to name only a few).
This attitude emanated from events that unfolded half a world away. Sitting in the Hotel d’York in Paris, on September 3, 1783, five American delegates signed the Treaty of Paris to end the Revolutionary War. Determined to get as good a deal as possible, these delegates, headed by John Jay, had sent a dispatch to London, telling George III’s government they were willing to negotiate without their French and Spanish allies. Thus, on September 3, Jay and his team of American diplomats (which included future president John Adams as well as Benjamin Franklin), met with the British and came away with all the land on the North American continent east of the Mississippi, south of Canada, and north of Florida.6
Hoping to be seen as equals by the great nations (and empires) of Europe, the Americans felt they needed an empire of their own to win prestige and advance their claims for dominance in a turbulent western hemisphere. Knowing the people at home itched to get at the fertile lands of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, Jay and his team negotiated their way to doubling the size of the American nation upon its birth. A nation that would go on to one stretch from ‘sea to shining sea’ after many bloody wars with Spain, Mexico, and the Native Nations of the American Plains.
The American empire was born.