Book Review: Habits Of Empire

Habits Of Empire: A History Of American Expansion, by Walter Nugent

This book is an interesting one. The author seems to view empires as a bad thing, which I do not necessarily think is the case. The author notes that Americans from very early on in our history did in fact think like imperialists without having thought themselves to be, although the empire that America created through demographics was something like Germany’s during the Middle Ages, or that of Russia in expanding towards Siberia or Australia, Argentina, and Chile in moving from densely settled coastal areas towards less heavily settled hinterlands. The author makes the note that America’s imperialism is hardly as exceptional as is sometimes claimed, although the fact that no other examples are included in detail does not give the book as much a flavor of comparative imperialism as one might hope. Imperialism certainly appears different to peoples who settle an area and change it demographically as opposed to leaving a population present in areas that remains restive (see Poland for Russia, Austria, and Prussia, for example, or the Balkan Christians for the Ottoman Empire, or Ireland for the English). The author does at least comment somewhat on this, but makes it clear that empires feel the same for those being steamrolled by them, and that is worth taking into consideration as well.

This book is a bit more than 300 pages long and looks mostly at various key periods within American history. The book begins with a list of maps and a foreword. This leads the author to talk about the first imperial possession of the American republic, Transappalachia, and the food fortune at Paris that led to American possession of his land (1). After that the author discusses the good fortune or divine providence that led to American rule over the Louisiana Purchase (2). This led into the failed aggression of America against Canada during the War of 1812 that confirmed Canada’s existence (3). After this comes a look at the southern aggression that led to the cession of Florida in 1819 (4). This is followed by a chapter about how Texas was overpopulated and conquered by American settlers (5) between 1811 and 1845. After that there is a discussion of the fixing of the Canadian border from 1818 to 1846 in the Oregon country (6). After that the author discusses more southward aggression in California and New Mexico during the Mexican-American War (7). From this point the author discusses issues like the population of the frontier (8), the purchase of Alaska and further imperialism (9), Caribbean imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (10), and the global empire after World War II (11), after which the book ends with notes, a bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index.

How does one acquire the habits of empire? One could argue that it came about from the very beginning of the American experience, as people came to lands that had been emptied out by disease and lived there and gradually pushed to expand their farms, buying or conquering land and pushing its remaining inhabitants westward before them. Empire need not be something that requires treaties, but rather demography is a major element. America’s expanse westward was also helped out by the weakness of its imperial rivals, whose demographic strength was far inferior to that of the United States, and also to the diplomatic strength of the early American generations in particular. By the time that America finished populating its original continental imperial possessions it was able to project a great deal of strength into other areas. Further gains, including influence over Cuba, were all argued for before they happened, evidence that the habits of empire long preceded the existence of America’s imperial control over much of the Western Hemisphere and far beyond. Whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how you feel about empires, I would suppose, and about America being one for its entire history as an independent nation.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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