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American Literature 73.1 (2001) 47-83

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American Imperialism UnManifest:
Emerson’s “Inquest” and Cultural Regeneration

Jenine Abboushi Dallal

Mr. Calhoun: [T]he single question is, does the constitution extend to the territories, or does it not extend to them? Why, the constitution interprets itself. It pronounces itself to be the supreme law of the land.

Mr. Webster: What land?

Mr. Calhoun: The land; the territories of the United States are a part of the land.—Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, Senate session, 24 February 1849

This amusing moment in the 1849 congressional debate between John Calhoun and Daniel Webster on the status of the Oregon territory illustrates the degree to which the extraordinary expansion of the United States in the 1840s made questions about the nation’s physical boundaries moot.1 But it is Webster’s ironic “What land?” that inadvertently suggests the most distinctive and persistent characteristic of U.S. imperialism: like Calhoun’s personified Constitution that “interprets itself,” it acquires a kind of self-sufficiency.2 The conquest of the Oregon territory here takes the abstract form of an in-house conflict over legal status, transcending time and resistance (time, because conflicts over annexation occur after territory is largely secured by settlers—the fait accompli on which Calhoun relies; resistance, because in debates over territory, expansion is subsumed under other issues, such as slavery, becoming not a war between the United States and its rivals over land but an internal conflict: Will the nation be slaveholding or free? A colonial empire or a democracy?)3 As long as seized territory was purged of Native Americans and of slavery [End Page 47] (immediately or eventually), expansionism and democracy could be perceived not as contradictory but as complementary. It is precisely through the domestication of conflict, in fact, that expansionism becomes the great antithesis of both colonialism and slavery. Thus the United States is an “empire of free men,” as Zachary Taylor memorably exclaims in the opening words of his “First Annual Message” as president in 1849.4

In Calhoun and Webster’s Senate debate, ethical and legal questions about land seizure are circumvented by the premise upon which the debate relies, for pro- and anti-expansionists alike: Oregon is not out there but in here, already part of the United States. The “single question” remaining, then, concerns constitutional jurisdiction: how will Oregon now be administered?5 The battleground is thus not the material land but a document—the Constitution—and the players are not rival claimants to the land but two Americans defending the document’s integrity. Likewise, in the official discourse on expansion, the conquest of North America is typically dramatized as the process of U.S. self-definition. The conflict between self and other is thus refigured as an internal struggle.6 With the subject changed from territorial conquest to domestic issues of constitutionality, slavery, and democracy, the land itself can remain beyond dispute, entirely present because it is subsumed.

U.S. expansionist ideology thus translates conquest into “inquest,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s term for self-inquiry, which appears in “The American Scholar” as he urges Americans to venture alone into “unhandselled savage nature” to seek “periods of solitude, inquest, and self-recovery.”7 In this context, inquest is an inward search for what is already there—a tautological process of “self-recovery” (my emphasis). For Emerson, a successful inquest occurs at the moment of greatest cultural power and self-possession, when one’s perception absorbs nature (the body and untouched landscape) by dissolving it. In his famous passage from Nature on the transparent eyeball, not only the eyeball but also the landscape itself becomes transparent. Emerson “see[s] all” by seeing nothing (EL, 10). This process of inquest and U.S. expansionist ideology both generate a paradox of possession through what might be termed de-Manifestation. The Emersonian inquest in nature is thus a symbolic counterpart to U.S. expansionism; moreover, this reciprocity is largely concealed by precisely the same conceptual strategies of displacement, abstraction, and internalization. [End Page 48] This shared conceptual space...


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