Global Policy Forum

The Making of The United States:


By Geoffrey Barraclough (ed.)*

The following text is an excerpt from The Times Atlas of World History (London: Times Books, 1978) pp.220 – 221.

The expansion of the American republic was sustained by its vast abundance of physical resources. As the great powers of Europe pursued their imperial dreams in Africa and Asia, the United States enjoyed the luxury of a built-in empire. The westward movement may be understood as a type of domestic imperialism, with many of the same motives as the imperialist movement in Europe, but with profoundly different results. The native culture of North America was not merely conquered but destroyed; an integrated capitalist democracy developed in its place.

In 1783 the United States had an area of approximately 800,000 square miles, much of it rich arable land. That immense territory was soon enlarged by other tracts, even larger and more fertile. The Louisiana Purchase (827,000 square miles) was a mighty windfall which dropped into the hands of an astonished President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. West Florida was taken by force during James Madison's administration and East Florida (60,000 square miles) by purchase, with the threat of force, during the presidency of James Monroe.

A second set of acquisitions in the period 1843-53 completed the contiguous area of the continental United States. Protracted negotiations for the territory of Oregon (285,000 square miles) finally ended in a compromise in 1846. The Texas republic (390,000 square miles) was annexed in 1845, and the vast Mexican cession (529,000 square miles) was a spoil of war in 1849. Finally, there was the Gadson Purchase in 1853, bought from Mexico to control a promising railroad route. Compared with other acquisitions it was trivial in size – a mere 30,000 square miles, approximately the area of Scotland.

This enormous landmass was occupied almost as swiftly as it was acquired. Before 1776, the Americans had been slow to settle the interior, which they called the 'back country'. After 1800, the 'back country' became the frontier' in American speech, and the line of settlement advanced westward with astonishing speed. By its conventional definition, the `frontier' is commonly understood to be the outer edge of the area with a population density of at least two persons per square mile. Before 1783 that line was still largely east of the Appalachian mountains except for a small settlement on the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky. Thirty years later, the great centre of the continent was occupied. By 1820 the frontier had crossed the Mississippi. And by 1840 it had reached the 100th meridian. The plains beyond were subdued after 1865 with the aid of a new technology – the steel plough, the six-shooter, and the barbed wire fence. After the census of 1890, the superindendent of the census observed that for the first time in American history, a single frontier line was no longer visible on the map. The frontier, in that sense, had come to an end.

But as an experience, myth and symbol, the frontier continues to dominate American thought even today. The movement, progress, energy, expectation, confidence, prosperity and hope which it engendered still remain central to American culture. The unique experience of a built-in empire made it especially difficult for Americans to understand the conditions of other less fortunate people, and for others to understand America as well.


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The Fate of the Indians

For the indigenous Indians, every American cliché ran in reverse: expansion became contraction, democracy became tyranny, prosperity became poverty, and liberty became confinement. Before 1800, a million Indians lived north of the Rio Grande, speaking 2000 languages and subsisting in small villages on maize, game and fish. The coming of the Europeans caused a flowering of Indian culture. From whites, the Sioux obtained their horses, the Navajo their sheep, the Iroquois, their weapons. But destruction quickly followed. The New England tribes, hard hit by disease, were broken in the Pequot War (1636) and King Phillip's War (1675-6). In the middle colonies, the great Delaware nation was defeated by the Dutch in the Esopus War (1660), disgraced by the Iroquois (who made all the Delaware into "honorary women"), and cheated by Quakers. The Delaware began a great diaspora; today they are scattered from Canada to Texas. For the southern tribes another fate was in store. Planters, led by Andrew Jackson, obtained a law for their "removal." Despite the opposition of the Supreme Court, some 50,000 Cherokee were collected in concentration camps and sent on a winter march to Oklahoma in 1836. Many died. The Choctaw, Creek and Chiksaw suffered equally. Only the Seminole resisted for long in the Florida swamps.

About the Author: Geoffrey Barraclough is one of the UK's most distinguished historians. He held the Chichele Professorship of Modern History at the University of Oxford.


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