The American National State and the Early West by William H. Bergmann (review)
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Westward expansion, Old Northwest Territory, Trans-Appalachian West, Native Americans

The American National State and the Early West. By William H. Bergmann. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 288. Cloth, $90.00.)

William H. Bergmann seeks to correct an allegedly pervasive misunderstanding, both popular and scholarly, of American westward expansion: “Most people, scholars included, rarely view the federal government as an important player in the development of the trans-Appalachian West. Rather they envision a country largely devoid of a powerful national government, with spontaneous, opportunistic, egalitarian, and racist forces shaping the early nation” (1–2). Bergmann promises to bring “the national state back into the story,” by emphasizing the federal role in stimulating commercial capitalism and national integration (2). The book’s title and introduction promise attention to the entire trans-Appalachian West, but Bergmann focuses almost exclusively on the Old Northwest Territory, north and west of the Ohio, to the exclusion of [End Page 776] the old Southwest. In sum, he dwells on the region where the federal government waxed strongest to the neglect of where it waned.

Bergmann tells a familiar story of a federal government struggling to gain control of the brutal warfare between natives and settlers in the Ohio watershed. After suffering crushing defeats in 1790 and 1791, the United States troops defeated a confederacy of native peoples in 1794 and compelled their chiefs to make sweeping territorial concessions in the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. After 1800, William Henry Harrison accelerated American expansion through a series of controversial land cession treaties bitterly opposed by the Shawnee brothers, Tenkswatawa and Tecumseh, who ultimately suffered defeat. Grateful settlers credited and embraced the triumphant federal government, which also provided economic stimulus through military supply contracts, post offices, and postal roads.

Evidence, however, often lags behind Bergmann’s most sweeping assertions. “The rise of a western market economy must be credited in large part to the intervention of the federal government,” he insists (171). But he does not provide statistical data to demonstrate the aggregate impact of the federal investment on the region’s economic growth. He describes the federal bureaucracy as “concentrated, penetrative, centralized, and specialized,” but neglects to specify the numbers of federal officials or their annual budgets (7). He does mention, in passing, that the postmaster general’s office employed just five others in Washington, DC, in 1798, which renders the federal government something less than “concentrated.” Such a government would also seem pretty paltry if compared to its southern neighbor, the Spanish Empire, in terms of size and expenditures. Bergmann does often digress to discuss the British colony of Upper Canada, but offers only anecdotal evidence drawn from official correspondence rather than a comparative analysis of bureaucratic structures and their budgets. The author also should have compared the federal government’s scale of operations to those of frontier state governments—for example Kentucky, Ohio, and New York—to measure which form of governance made the greater and more effective investment in economic development. I would bet on the states (prior to 1860).

Contrary to Bergmann’s opening straw-man argument, few current historians dismiss the federal government as insignificant to western expansion. To support his claim, Bergmann identifies only two allegedly offending books, published in 1953 and 1978, respectively, one of them [End Page 777] written by Malcolm J. Rohrbough, who is better known for a subsequent book that emphasized the leading role of federal land policy in shaping the West. Moreover, Bergmann offers a stark and misleading dichotomy in claiming that historians can either recognize the federal government as catalyst or emphasize the power of settler initiative.

In practice, most historians attend to the interplay of national initiatives and settler expectations. Fortunately, Bergmann usually does the same, moderating in most of the book the overstated argument of the introduction. After emphasizing the importance of the post office in stimulating western road construction, Bergmann concedes, “Despite these efforts, the federal government’s role should not be overstated. For the most part, the national government did not pay for the construction of post roads” (158). At its best, The American National State recognizes the make-believe quality of...