The Settlers’ Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest by Bethel Saler (review)
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State, Old Northwest, Empire, State formation, Colonialism, Wisconsin

The Settlers’ Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest. By Bethel Saler. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 392. Cloth, $45.00.)

The State is back in. Scholarship on the American state has blossomed in recent years, with Brian Balogh, William Bergmann, Max Edling, Patrick [End Page 189] Griffin, Richard John, and William Novak, among others, helping to bust the ‘‘myth of the weak American State.’’ In no time and place was the influence of the American state more evident than the early American West. The central role of the state in U.S. territorial expansion is a key tenet of the New Western history, which seeks to replace the triumphal Turnerian narrative that the West was won solely through the efforts of rugged frontier individuals. If the state was anywhere, it was in the West.

Bethel Saler’s excellent new book enters the familiar territory of American state formation by offering a fresh perspective on the ‘‘Old Northwest.’’ The Settlers’ Empire focuses on Wisconsin, the last of the five territories, and later states, carved from the Northwest Territory. Saler argues that shifting scholarly attention away from the more familiar developments in Ohio and the lower Northwest and toward the region west of Lake Michigan offers a better appreciation of the protracted colonial development of western state formation. Wisconsin provides a ‘‘genealogy’’ of earlier territorial development, having been included in all four preceding territorial jurisdictions before statehood in 1848, while also offering insight on future territorial rule in the trans-Mississippi West (4-5). Despite the blueprint for political and economic development laid out in the various territorial and land ordinances of the 1780s, Saler makes it clear that place matters in understanding state formation in the Old Northwest.

The central question driving The Settlers’ Empire is how the United States navigated the ‘‘peculiar situation’’ of being a postcolonial republic while simultaneously claiming a contiguous domestic empire. Americans conceived of their nation in light of their experiences as British colonial subjects. Like other settler nations, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and others, the United States possesses ‘‘an ambivalent double history as both colonized and colonizers’’ (2). Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, however, achieved self-government and independence from Great Britain in a very different way to the American Republic. Saler identifies a particular struggle in the United States between the fledgling republic’s commitment to postcolonial republican ideals and the reality of federal, colonial rule over territorial populations. She argues that this duality manifested itself in the emergence of two different legal jurisdictions over Euro American settlers and Indian nations. Federal efforts to extend political authority over Euro American settlers depended on gender and racial constructs, while the United States created a diplomatic ‘‘treaty polity’’ to establish its authority over native [End Page 190] peoples and to put in place mechanisms for transforming Indian homelands into public lands.

The most innovative aspect of The Settlers’ Empire is its explication of the intertwined nature of culture and politics in the American colonial project. The imperial blueprints framed by the Confederation Congress in the 1780s aimed to re-make the economy and society of the Northwest Territory by promoting patriarchal, white, agrarian households. The future socioeconomic structure envisioned by American policymakers bore little resemblance to conditions on the ground at places like Green Bay and Prairie du Chien, where a multi-ethnic population of French communities, dispersed American colonists, and native peoples engaged in economic relations governed by reciprocity and informal social and family structures. Saler significantly broadens our understanding of the activities underpinning American colonialism. The state transformed social relations through economic regulations that invested value in depersonalized private property rather than reciprocal relationships between individuals and families. Missionaries, as agents of empire, helped to ‘‘civilize’’ Indians and construct permanent Euro American communities, while marriage licenses regulated sexuality, reinforcing the racial division between Indians and Euro Americans that underpinned U.S. colonialism. At the moment of Wisconsin statehood Wisconsinites simultaneously imagined the future, in framing their state constitution, and constructed the past, by forming the State Historical Society of Wisconsin...


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