How Westward Expansion Strengthened the Federal Government

[Dangerous Ground: Squatters, Statesmen, and the Antebellum Rupture of American Democracy

by John Suval, Oxford, 2022, 281 pp. ]

Historian Charles Tilly once famously described the origins of the state as this: “war made the state and the state made war.” Tilly also understood, however, that the process of building and consolidating state power involved much more than simply waging wars against competing states. As Tilly notes in his book Coercion, Capital, and European States, states engage in several other activities to consolidate and expand their power. For example, states are greatly concerned with expanding their monopoly on coercion within a territory by “attacking and checking competitors and challengers within the territory claimed by the state.” Tilly further notes that state power is enhanced by “extraction” of resources from populations subject to the state power. Once extraction takes place, the state can proceed further to “distribution” which includes “the allocation of goods among members of the subject population.”

These methods of state building apply to nearly all modern states, and they certainly apply to the United States. Much of this can be seen in how the United States expanded in the nineteenth century. Many Americans, however, remain in the grip of fanciful myths about the growth of the American state. For example, these myths often perpetuate the idea that the federal government’s expansion into new territories west of the Appalachians after the American Revolution was generally non-violent, passive, and laissez-faire.

This naïve view of American frontier expansion generally leaves out most of the details about how the US’s central government—from the early nineteenth century onward—took a very keen interest in how the American frontier was settled, and by whom. Indeed, Congress spent many hours debating and passing legislation designed to ensure that the frontier was settled in a way that served the interests of powerful lobbies and individuals in Washington.

Many of these forgotten details are explored in John Suval’s 2022 book Dangerous Ground: Squatters, Statesmen, and the Antebellum Rupture of American Democracy. Suval’s book is fairly unusual among frontier history books in that it generally does not focus on conflicts between settlers and indigenous tribes, or on the process by which the settlers arrived on the frontier. Rather, Suval focuses on the relationship between settlers and the federal government, and on how federal policymakers in Washington viewed the settlers.

In the process, Suval provides a helpful case study in how the American federal government carried out a campaign of state building in frontier lands. From Washington’s perspective, frontier settlement was about more than mere domestic policy. Settlement was also an important geopolitical tool.

The Geopolitics of Frontier Settlement

As with all states, the American state has sought to expand its own power at the expense of other states. In the nineteenth century, this meant expanding US influence and monopoly power westward across North America. At the time, the largest competitors were foreign states like Britain, Spain, and Mexico. More informal competition came from the quasi-states that were the Indian tribal governments.

After Spain lost most of its American colonies in the secession movements of the 1820s, the most significant foreign competition for the US regime in North America became Britain and Mexico. Subsequently, American settlers often worked in an informal partnership with the US federal government to assist the US regime in annexing Mexican and British lands. Suval illustrates how American settlers in California paved the way for US annexation of California in the Mexican War: American settlers moved into California with the assumption that the American regime would soon follow and absorb these lands into the United States. Indeed, the rhetoric of westward settlement was often militaristic in nature. Suval writes:

The mystical rhetoric about Manifest Destiny had positioned California as the promised land of an “irresistible army” of Anglo-Saxon farmers who, by virtue of being white American cultivators, would naturally come to possess the region and spread enterprise and republican institutions.

In the minds of most settlers, this also meant annexation by the United States. Moreover, the fact that “Anglo” settlers had become so numerous in California by 1848 further motivated the Mexican government to give up its claim to California during negotiations over the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. An ongoing flood of settlers after 1848 would also ensure that there would be no ambiguity about who controlled California. That is, American settlers helped seal the geopolitical fate of California.

Similar methods were employed to “encourage” the British state to give up its claims to much of Oregon Country in the late 1840s. After 1818, the US and Britain shared joint control over Oregon Country which extended hundreds of miles north and south of what is now the US-Canada border. After 1843, however, sizable factions in Congress pushed for new policies designed to make Oregon part of the United States. Democrats pushed for grants of 640 acres to American settlers with the understanding that settlers would be assisted by the US government in resisting any intervention from either British or indigenous residents. It was assumed US military intervention was only a matter of time once the benefits of “US control and protection” were promised to settlers. According to Suval, the scheme’s supporters feared “Nobody would go [to Oregon] without the inducement of land” and that without free land for American settlers, “England would be left to occupy the whole country.”

In the early 1840s, much of this legislation languished in Congress, but the message had been sent to settlers who now believed it was only a matter of time. Promises from leaders in the Democratic party meant many settlers believed they would be—to use a modern policy term—”backstopped” by the US government were they to settle on lands of dubious legal status.

Eventually, this symbiotic political relationship between settlers and the US government worked as planned. Pro-settler factions in Congress assured settlers that the US government would not be far behind them. In turn, settlers poured into new regions which then gave the US government an excuse for expanding its military and diplomatic role in the disputed territories.

Similar methods were employed in assisting settlers with efforts to seize tribal lands from the indigenous population. From the very beginning, tribal governments had presented a threat to the consolidation of the federal government monopoly over frontier lands. Moreover, policymakers in Washington could not decide if tribal governments were truly sovereign entities whose relationship with the United States was governed by bilateral treaties. By the time of Andrew Jackson, however, most national policymakers had come around to the idea that Indian groups were fully subject to the whims of the US Congress and ought to be treated accordingly. By the early 1830s, the US had already created a system of Indian “reserves” set aside or tribal groups where they would be insulated from white settlement.

These “reserves,” however were soon targeted by Jacksonians. Suval illustrates the methods by which the American state systematically employed tactics of sticks and carrots to “convince” tribal groups to move West of the Mississippi. This began with promises of free land further west in exchange for abandoning the tribes’ current homelands. If that did not work, US representatives then explained to tribal representatives that a rising ride of whites would soon overwhelm them. These warnings then turned to threats. Tribes that persisted in staying put were then threatened with military action as a last resort. Needless to say, the treaties that came after this array of threats were effectively signed under duress.

The subsequent “removal” of many tribes soon followed, including those tribes that had adopted written languages and constitutions, such as the Cherokee. The fact that many of these tribes lived in permanent agricultural settlements was not enough to save them from settler claims that all Indians were nomads with no understanding of property or land.

Land Redistribution as Public Welfare

Forcing tribes to abandon their lands for smaller and more remote “reserves” served an important geopolitical function by removing challengers to federal supremacy within the American territorial heartland.

Indian removal served an important domestic function, as well. Pushing Indians westward opened up new lands that were then handed over to white voters. This served to buy votes from poor white voters looking for cheap land. Then as now, members of Congress knew the political value of free handouts to voters. As Suval notes, “The journals of the House and Senate from the 1830s abound with bills providing for the relief of destitute white settlers and for the extension of preemption laws [i.e., legally recognizing illegal settlement] even to those claiming Indian reserves.”

In the 1830s a model was thus created that would be used for decades. Foreign claims on various lands—whether British, Mexican, or tribal—would be ignored or abolished by the US government with the purpose of making those lands available to white American settlers. The political party that could present itself as the greatest supporter of “free” land for settlers—usually the Democratic party—would then be rewarded with new loyal voters. This political mechanism was captured in a new catchphrase that appeared in 1845: “Vote Yourself a Farm.” Voters understood that with the right pressure tactics, settlers could obtain “free” land complete with federal assurances of legal and military support against any other claims to those lands from non-Anglo American settlers. Politicians in Congress were happy to play along.

Using Frontier Settlement to Carry out National Policy

The myth of a laissez-faire federal government in frontier policy is also contradicted in the ways frontier settlement was managed to serve national domestic concerns. Chief among these was slavery. Those familiar with US debates over slavery between 1820 and 1860 know that settlement of the frontier was at the center of the fight between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. Not surprisingly, then, the federal government frequently intervened to decide if newly settled territories would allow slavery or not. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, of course, required federal intervention to ensure that slavery policies in new states and territories reflected deals struck by federal policymakers in Congress.

Moreover, federal positions on new territorial acquisition in the west often reflected debates in Washington over maintaining a balance between slave and free states. For example, Suval shows how after the US annexed Texas in 1845, the annexation of Oregon as a free territory became a priority for anti-slavery forces. Thus, land giveaways in Oregon functioned as both public welfare and as a tool against the Slave Power. The idea that local residents could simply create their own institutions and decide for themselves on slavery matters was largely dismissed in Washington. It was only with the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854 that Congress experimented with the idea of true local sovereignty. Suval provides an extensive discussion of how Kansas essentially served as a national referendum on whether or not so-called “popular sovereignty” would be allowed to frontier settlers. Even on the distant plains of Kansas in the 1850s, there was no escape from national politics.

Federal State Building on the Frontier 

Although Suval does not address or employ the theoretical framework of state building as imagined by Tilly, Suval nonetheless shows how the US in the nineteenth century was engaged in typical state-building activities. The federal government in this period was immensely successful at excluding potential rivals from the desired territories. Concomitantly, the federal government employed these powers to seize and redistribute resources to favored populations that could, in turn, help in consolidating federal power. Far from ignoring frontier settlement or allowing the frontier to “organically” develop, the US government was careful to manage frontier lands in ways that enhanced federal power and helped federal politicians address national political goals.  Dangerous Ground should be required reading for students of American political history looking for a more complete picture of frontier politics in the nineteenth century.

Originally Posted at https://mises.org/

By Mises