The destructive premise at the core of the American settler narrative is that freedom is built upon the violent elimination of other peoples.
“The challenges of undoing settler ethics have never been higher.
In the spring of 1774, two members of the Shawnee tribe allegedly robbed and murdered a Virginia settler. As Thomas Jefferson recounts in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), “The neighboring whites, according to their custom, undertook to punish this outrage in a summary way.”
In their quest for vengeance, the white settlers ambushed the first canoe they saw coming up the river, killing the one, unarmed man as well as all of the women and children inside. This happened to be the family of Logan, a Mingo chief, Jefferson says, “who had long been distinguished as a friend of the whites,” but who now took sides in the war that ensued. The Mingos fought—and lost—alongside the Shawnees and Delawares against the Virginia militia that fall, and Logan’s letter to Lord Dunmore after the decisive battle is, according to Jefferson, a speech superior to “the whole orations of Demosthenes and Cicero.”
“There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature,” Logan says of his decision to fight the white men. “This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many: I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbor a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one.”
Logan’s speech went viral by eighteenth century standards; it was reprinted in newspapers across the country and admired for its tragic eloquence. Its popularity and resonance among white colonialists illustrate a defining aspect of settler storytelling: an acknowledgement of the injustice of Indian killing alongside an affirmation of its inevitability and salience as a guide to action. In their authenticity, Logan’s words validated a structuring precept of the white settler colony: that those who are violently displaced and eliminated are distinct from kin, whose passing should be mourned, and also opaque to posterity because they are sundered from webs of social relatedness.
“The settler mindset consciously blurs the lines between preemption and self-defense.”
Through this sleight of hand, the settlers achieved a unique perspective—one that justified violence because it afforded them a certain freedom, the productive freedom of a blank slate. As historian Patrick Wolfe famously described it, settler colonialism is thus a “structure, not an event.” Its mindset is not backward but forward looking as it consciously blurs the lines between preemption and self-defense, allegation and retribution, dispossession and property right.
Consider Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence. A defining feature of life in the “free and independent” states, he wrote, was constant warfare with the denizens of a vast territorial frontier, “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction, of all ages, sexes and conditions.” From its inauguration, then, American freedom was founded on this unrelenting vision of a frontier populated by unjust enemies. Jefferson’s founding brief for continuous expansionary warfare in the name of collective freedom has animated the country’s sense of itself ever since. It is, as political theorist Aziz Rana has noted, a foundational yet unexamined precept within U.S. accounts of political liberty—one that continues to define practices, institutions, and American ways of living that exact a violent toll.
Not least, the Indian wars bequeathed a lasting military orientation—one that extended and codified ethical, legal, and vernacular distinctions between civilized and savage war as a core national experience and conceit. Settler militias invested expansive police power in ordinary citizens as a corollary of collective security, and justified practices of extirpative war focused on populations and infrastructures, without distinction between combatants and civilians. Through the more than two centuries of frontier and counter-insurgency wars that the United States has fought (and continues to fight) the world over, the elimination or sequestration of “savages” has been represented, Jodi Byrd argues, as integral to the transit and development of American security, power, and prosperity.
At the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, claimed that “control of this continent is to be, in a very few years, the controlling influence in the world.” Following the last Indian wars and the closing of the territorial frontier at the end of the nineteenth-century, President Theodore Roosevelt romanticized “the winning of the west” as the arc of progressive history. He ridiculed the anti-imperialists of his day who criticized brutal U.S. counter-insurgencies in the Philippines and Cuba as sentimental dreamers who would give Arizona back to the Apaches. The settlers’ outlook and its understanding of freedom poses the question “would you want to give it back?” to demonstrate an absurd proposition. The idea that there could be such a thing as settler decolonization is not only impossible, but also unthinkable.
“American freedom was founded on the unrelenting vision of a frontier populated by unjust enemies.”
By connecting the concept of democratic self-rule with a continual project of expansion, the settler narrative shaped collective institutions, ways of war, visions of growth and prosperity, and conceptions of political membership that still run deep. Indeed, our own period has not been immune. Describing the supposedly unmatched achievements of liberal-democratic society at “the end of history” in 1992, Francis Fukuyama reached back to the frontier allegory: “mankind will come to seem like a long wagon train strung out along a road. . . . Several wagons, attacked by Indians, will have been set aflame and abandoned along the way. . . . But the great majority of wagons will be making the slow journey into town, and most will eventually arrive there.” A decade later, following 9/11, the mood had shifted, but not the narrative reflex. As George W. Bush put it on October 6, 2001, “Our nation is still somewhat sad, but we’re angry. There’s a certain level of bloodlust, but we won’t let it drive our reaction. We’re steady, clear-eyed, and patient, but pretty soon we’ll have to start displaying scalps.”
Defending the launching of the global War on Terror, U.S. diplomatic historian John Gaddis gave scholarly imprimatur to the settler idiom: the borders of global civil society were menaced by non-state actors in a manner similar to the “native Americans, pirates and other marauders” that once menaced the boundaries of an expanding U.S. nation-state. Foreign affairs writer Robert Kaplan concurred: “The War on Terrorism was really about taming the frontier,” as he heard U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq repeat the refrain, “Welcome to Injun Country.”
The reference, Kaplan insists, echoing Jefferson’s homage to Logan, “was never meant as a slight against Native North Americans.” It was merely a “fascination,” or an allusion to history—indeed, one that fits nicely with our aptly named Tomahawk missiles and Apache helicopters. But these comments and this history reflect a deeper, more sinister truth about the American dependence upon expansionary warfare as a measure of collective security and economic well-being.
The history of the American frontier is one of mounting casualties and ambiguous boundaries, of lives and fortunes gained and lost. In the settler narrative, “collective security” never meant just the existential kind of safety, that is, situations where material survival and self-defense were mainly at stake. Freedom is essential to the equation, and freedom in this conception is built once again upon dreams of a blank slate—this time cheap, empty, exploitable lands and resources that must be cleared of any competing presence. Indeed, the settlers’ conception of freedom belies the commercial interests in protecting an investment prospectus: the speculative value of the land itself—what surrounds it and what lies beneath it—is of paramount importance.
“The idea that there could be such a thing as settler decolonization is not only impossible, but also unthinkable.”
The main colonial enterprise, after all, was risky and speculative land merchandising. Early American governance was arguably more preoccupied with mundane simplifications of deed and title, mapping, parceling, and recordkeeping than it was with Indian fighting. From inception, the U.S. founders envisioned the land west of the Alleghenies as a great commercial estuary, one that was gradually emptied of any other human claimant. As George Washington, the land speculator turned general, wrote upon resigning his command of the victorious continental army in 1783 (which included organizing a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Iroquois), “The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency.”
Geographer Thomas Hutchins echoed Washington’s sense of America as a world brimming with valuable resources and directing human enterprise toward uncertain boundaries. In An Historical Narrative and Topographical Description of Louisiana and West Florida (1785), he takes stock of the land’s bounty: grapes, oranges, lemons, cotton, sassafras, saffron, rhubarb, hemp, flax, tobacco, and indigo. Although enslaved Africans, the producers of most of these agricultural commodities, go unmentioned, Hutchins pauses impassively every few pages to observe a curious feature he also attributes to the landscape: this or that “once considerable” nation of Indians “reduced to about twenty-five warriors,” or “only about a dozen warriors.” Indigenous expiry is thus quietly inscribed as necessary to the continent’s supposedly inexhaustible riches.
U.S. military pacification was only one tool for the diminution of Indian sovereignty and the subsequent sequestration and marginalization of tribal remnants. Extensions of federal plenary power, the legal recasting of Indian political life as a peculiar subordinated status of domestic dependency, and redefinitions of indigenous resistance and counter-violence as crime were also central. Woven throughout was the settlers’ forward-looking framework: there is no alternative. In his 1835 letter to the Cherokee people, for example, President Andrew Jackson framed Indian removal as an essential by-product of commercial growth. “Circumstances that cannot be controlled and which are beyond the reach of human laws render it impossible that you can flourish in the midst of a civilized community.” The true nature of those circumstances was revealed five years prior in an address Jackson made to Congress: “what good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people?”
“Freedom in this conception is built upon cheap, empty, exploitable lands and resources that must be cleared of any competing presence.”
As the Indian wars began drawing to a close in the late nineteenth century, the North American territorial frontiers closed as well. Understood to be an event of world-significance, it forced settler thinking to confront new challenges. Diplomat Paul Reinsch, who was a student of Frederick Jackson Turner and an early theorist of U.S. global reach, observed that expansion through overseas colonialism would be uniquely difficult: “we have to deal with a fixed element, the native population, long settled in certain localities and exhibiting deeply engrained characteristics; a population . . . that cannot be swept away before the advancing tide of Caucasian immigration as were the North American Indians.”
In the ensuing decades, then, a host of morbid symptoms arose from similar perceptions that while expansion was necessary, it would never again be so easy and unproblematic. For thinkers such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard (both prominent eugenicists) the limitation of territories for future white settlement and a “rising tide of color” threatened the supremacy, even survival, of Western civilization. This meant that the United States itself needed to seal its borders against unwanted detritus from the outer world. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, along with the subsequent Immigration Act of 1917 (which established an “Asiatic barred zone”), conjured fears of a “yellow peril” that threatened to reverse the ordering virtue of white settlement in western lands. Ruling on Chinese exclusion in 1909, the U.S. Supreme Court was explicit, describing “foreigners of a different race” as “potentially dangerous to peace” even in the absence of “actual hostilities with the nation of which the foreigners are subject.”
In the lead up to World War I, the challenge of how to continue a dynamic of economic expansion in the wider world without becoming corrupted politically by proximity to savage and inferior, non-white subjects was a central preoccupation of U.S. thinkers. John Carter Vincent, a confidante of the Roosevelt family and later a U.S. foreign service officer, suggested a vision of the western hemisphere as the model for a “painless imperialism,” where nominal sovereignty and separation from mestizo populations was underwritten by strategically placed Marine barracks. This would ensure the smooth passage of commerce and security for propertied interests and what Woodrow Wilson called the election of “good men.”
In May of 1942, after the United States had entered World War II, the editors of Fortune, Time, and Life magazines published a joint statement titled “An American Proposal” that echoed Vincent and Wilson. They observed that the United States was not “afraid to help build up industrial rivals,” which they saw as a virtue: “American ‘imperialism,’ if it is to be called that” is “very abstemious and high minded . . . because friendship, not food, is what we need most from the rest of the world.” These leading business ideologues laid their cards on the table: an age governed by aviation and “the logic of the air,” Fortune’s editors observed, would need an extensive network of strategic bases and technical facilities similar to “the colonies and dominions” that supported imperial Britain during its age of maritime power. “In the world-to-be,” they warned, “a dozen or more equivalents of Pearl Harbor may be simultaneously possible. . . . Our problem, therefore, is not to restore the status quo ante, but to break out.”
“The Chinese Exclusion Act conjured fears of a ‘yellow peril’ that threatened to reverse the ordering virtue of white settlement.”
Settler colonial narratives thus needed to be rewritten to suit extra-territorial and global purposes. To be clear, rising U.S. globalism and imperialism were not simply an extension of settler freedom, but nor should we lose sight of how they were intertwined with it. As Fortune’s writers insisted: “The U.S. economy has never proved that it can operate without the periodic injection of new and real wealth. The whole frontier saga, indeed, centered around this economic imperative.” As such, “The analogy between the domestic frontier in 1787 when the Constitution was formed and the present international frontier is perhaps not an idle one.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself viewed the 1940 “destroyers for bases” agreement with Great Britain—which saw the exchange of U.S. naval ships for land rights on British possessions—as the most important action in “the reinforcement of our national defense . . . since the Louisiana Purchase.”
A decade later, as historian Megan Black has recently shown, engineers from the U.S. Department of the Interior—with longstanding expertise charting Indian reservation lands for hidden energy and mineral resources—were dispatched the world over to survey sources of strategic minerals required to defend “the free world.” In short order, U.S. military forces were calling Vietnam “Indian Country,” forcibly sequestering its peasants on reservations, while fighting to ensure its reserves of tungsten and tin didn’t fall to the red tide of international communism.
U.S. imperialism abroad, however, did not erase the influence of settler ethics and practices closer to home. As Time Magazine magnate Henry Luce suggested, even as non-interventionist sentiment ran high in the run up to World War II, “Americans had to learn how to hate Germans, but hating Japs comes natural—as natural as fighting Indians once was.” In turn, few events evoked the Indian removal of the 1830s more than the 1940s herding of 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans into camps in the Western interior while many of their white neighbors avidly claimed their farmlands and possessions.
An expansive and celebratory vision of white settlement also retained its purchase: by the 1950s, Andrew Jackson’s studded republic was remade through the promise of homeownership on “the crabgrass frontier.” Working in conjunction with real estate and banking industries, federal housing authorities drew up “residential security maps” that identified with stark red-lines where the valued property, credit, and people needed go—and where untrustworthy denizens should remain fixed.
By the late 1960s, as sharply racialized contests over public space and civic belonging gave way to the “wars” on crime and drugs, sociologist Sidney Willhelm foresaw that urban blacks in particular, who were no longer required for industrial labor, were “going the way of the American Indian” into carceral warehouses. It is hardly incidental that Michigan’s Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson thought it apt, quite recently, to characterize inner city Detroit as a “reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and the corn.”
This push and pull of U.S. settler ethics, narratives, and corollary institutions of violence in the name of freedom has yielded a distinctive and multi-layered carceral history and geography, at once domestic and transnational: a global archipelago of prisons, internment camps, and detention centers. In the past years, at Standing Rock, its raw circuitry of indigenous sequester and citizen protection was once again laid bare as state police and U.S. military forces had tense stand-offs with thousands of Sioux and supporters who were blocking construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline through Indian reservation lands.
Here, we might observe how settler ethics and practices continue to create liberated citizens and subordinated subjects together; the former are defined by democratic, formally egalitarian claims to nationhood, legal status, consumer choice and protection, and the latter defined as atavistic, backward, passively disappearing, slated for elimination, subject to sequestration, or bound by what is thought to be permanent inferior status. “Savagery,” in short, has been a fungible and centrifugal construct, with fears of the native fueling racism as well as nativism, while a recursive, blank-slate conception of settler primacy and preeminence animates movements, programs, and policies for eliminating or warding off alien or foreign presence.
“Settler ethics and practices continue to create liberated citizens and subordinated subjects together.”
The inceptive structuring of indigenous elimination as a condition of the settlers’ freedom has yielded an enduring tendency among American officials, and among the publics they conscript, to think of democratic self-rule as interdependent with expansive and coercive rule over alien subjects. After 9/11, this historical subtext returned to the foreground as Americans were told not only that fighting terrorists overseas meant not having to fight them at home, but also that continuing to shop and spend at home was no less the duty of a civilized and prosperous people. The term “enemy combatant” itself was a neologism invented for “unlawful” fighters, those deserving no legal standing or status—those who could be detained (and tortured) with impunity—those subject to an unlimited deprivation of freedom, one whose avowed legal precedent, once again referred back to the Indian wars.
As inhabitants of a finite and ecologically stressed planet, the challenges of undoing settler ethics—its ways of war, its presumptions about a need for limitless growth, its hostile vision of blank slate autonomy without dependency, and its delimitations of social and political membership—have never been higher. For more than simple racism or discrimination, the destructive premise at the core of the settler narrative is that freedom itself must be built upon eliminationism, and that growth therefore requires expiry.
And it this temptation—to remain on the right side of might that makes right—that stalks the future of a planet in the grips of climate destruction, secular stagnation, and unevenly distributed misery. Earthly co-existence, material subsistence, and ecological sustainability demand nothing less than a new dispensation of human freedom. Otherwise, there truly will be none left to mourn.
Nikhil Pal Singh is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University and Faculty Diretor of the NYU Prison Education Program. His most recent book is Race and America’s Long War.
This article previously appeared in Boston Review.
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