The Young American Empire


In American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier (Hill & Wang), Patrick Griffin, a historian at the University of Virginia, both re-examines the role of frontiersmen in the American founding and discusses the origins of modern imperial America. By his account, ordinary settlers at the Western edges of the colonies were disillusioned by Britain's failure to mediate their clashes with the Indians. Their complaints leaked eastward, eventually helping to precipitate the American Revolution. Frontiersmen got rights, and Indians got screwed.

Q: What's wrong with previous scholarship on the American Revolution?

A: There is a long tradition in American history of saying that the Founders aren't the only movers and shakers, that the common people had an important role to play in the American Revolution. But in that vein of thinking, what you often hear is that the Founding Fathers, instead of being these heroic characters, become these sinister characters who are trying to thwart women, trying to thwart African American, Indians, and common people living on the margins. They are seen as thwarting the real radical intent of what the Revolution was supposed to be.

Instead of seeing the Revolution as a morality play, I tried to step back and take a look in a more dispassionate light. To do so, I looked at the one people who didn't fit very well into any of the stories that we have about the American Revolution: common settlers who live along the frontier. Why is this? Some historians would say that these common people didn't have an important role to play. Others would say that common people had an important role to play, but when they become Indian killers it pushes them out beyond the pale. Some historians can't deal with common settlers who are both doing what we regard as important, influential things and on the other hand also killing Indians. They didn't fit into any of the master narratives we have of the American Revolution.

Q: How did these frontiersmen shape the American character?

A: The frontiersmen create a whole idea of what their society in the West has to be. And ultimately that has to be based on either the extirpation, as they would put it, or the removal of Native Americans. They're going to use these ideas the British had used to create empire in America, but they're going to see different implications.

Almost immediately after the Revolution, Americans start creating frontier myths. They start to privilege certain ideas about what these frontier people had done while they try to forget other things that they had done. We see a full blossoming of this idea of what the frontier was and what it meant to America. For the most part this myth was put in place so that officials wouldn't have to deal with the chaos that had defined the period during the Revolution.

The frontier from this point would be remembered as being a fundamentally important place, almost a crucible of American values. I really don't believe any of that, but Americans have to hold onto this because this is part of the covenant that keeps order and stability in society.

Q: How is the modern concept of an American empire connected to those beginnings?

A: America is, from its very origins, an imperial nation. It's an empire very different from Britain's because it was based on this idea of popular sovereignty. Empire was the ransom that was paid for a nation to come into being. In the American context, you couldn't have one without the other.