Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Walter Nugent's "Habits of Empire"

Walter Nugent is Tackes Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion, and reported the following:
Habits of Empire has a very simple thesis: that our relatively easy and astonishingly rapid acquiring of a continental empire from Atlantic to Pacific between 1782 and 1848 instilled in us, as a people, the bad habit of empire-building. After we acquired California and Oregon in 1848, we kept on going across the Pacific and around the Caribbean, creating our second, offshore empire, and since 1945 we’ve been building a third one, military and economic, around the world. The book focuses chiefly on constructing the first, continental, empire, when in successive episodes the U.S. gained title to land, then removed or repressed the previous occupants, and finally settled it. It’s the historical foundation of our present imperialism.

Page 99, early in my discussion of how we acquired Florida, is very representative of that process. Florida was the third of our continental acquisitions (the first and second were Transappalachia in 1782 and Louisiana in 1803). How we acquired it from Spain, then prostrate and powerless from Napoleon’s invasion, involved filibusters in both West and East Florida covertly supported by the Madison White House; demographic invasion of Americans from neighboring slave states; military conquest (without a declaration of war) by Andrew Jackson, “the American Bonaparte;” and unparalleled chutzpah from Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in his defense of Jackson and in negotiations with Spanish envoy Luis de Onís. The Adams-Onís Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 gave the United States not only the Floridas but also a boundary line along the 42nd parallel all the way to the Pacific, for the first time. Spain’s grip began weakening in 1795 thanks to incompetent rulers in Madrid disregarding the pleas of Spanish governors on the ground. American uprisings began in what is now the Louisiana Panhandle in 1810, extended along the Gulf coast and East Florida from 1811 on, and along the way brought about the defeat and dismemberment of the Creek nation.

The chapter (#4) which includes page 99 is entitled “Florida, 1810-1819: Southward Aggression I” (II being California and New Mexico, discussed later). Page 99 includes a subtitle, “The First Nibble: West Florida, 1810-1813,” and from there the page reads as follows:

By 1810, the Louisiana Purchase was seven years old, and Anglo-Americans clearly dominated the government, commerce, and population of New Orleans, St. Louis, and the riverine settlements in between. The U.S. Census in that year found 77,000 diverse people in the Territory of Orleans (soon to become the state of Louisiana). Thousands of white, free black, and slave refugees from war-shredded Haiti and Santo Domingo swelled the city and the land around the great river as far north at Natchez and beyond. In adjacent parts of the United States, the 1810 census counted 262,000 in Tennessee, 407,000 in Kentucky, 252,000 in Georgia, and 40,000 in the Mississippi Territory, which included present Alabama – and none of these figures included Indians. The Creeks alone numbered over 15,000, most of them living along the Alabama and Chattahoochee Rivers.

The whites and blacks, moreover, were newcomers. Georgia and the Mississippi Territory, Tennessee and Kentucky, and, west of the river, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri were all places where slavery flourished and where the influx of settlers multiplied state populations by three, six, even twelve times in a decade. These were frontiers of settlement, southern-style, filling up with new people unknown in Europe since the Middle Ages, if ever. Whoever was already there was under severe pressure to get out of the way. There was no time for assimilation and in any case it was not wanted, since the “whoevers” were Indians and free blacks, and, in the Floridas, the Spanish.

The governors and garrisons of Spanish Florida had been aware of this population onslaught since at least the 1780s……
Read an excerpt from Habits of Empire, and learn more about the book at the Knopf website.

--Marshal Zeringue