Boutin-Bloomberg on Dahlm, 'Empire of the People: Settler Colonialism and the Foundations of Modern Democratic Thought'

Adam Dahlm
Eric Boutin-Bloomberg

Adam Dahlm. Empire of the People: Settler Colonialism and the Foundations of Modern Democratic Thought. American Political Thought Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. 272 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2606-9; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7006-2607-6

Reviewed by Eric Boutin-Bloomberg (University of Houston) Published on H-War (May, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Defining itself as an ideological history, rather than an intellectual history, Adam Dahl’s Empire of the People: Settler Colonialism and the Foundations of Modern Democratic Thought transcends discursive and linguistic framing, focusing more on the “social and material contexts of political ideology” (p. 14). Through this methodological strategy, Dahl challenges the idea that settler colonialism and American democratic thought were incompatible, or that the dispossession of Indigenous lands was merely “an unfortunate by-product of modern democracy” (p. 5). Instead, Empire of the People contends that settler colonialism “infused into and constituted the basic conceptual logics of democratic theory” (p. 16).

In part 1 of this three-part monograph, Dahl explores two important concepts. The first is the “principle of imperial equality,” which the author defines as “a new world conception of empire that privileged the equality of the constituent units of empire” (p. 25). Dahl shows how the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established the framework through which territories under American rule could establish self-government and reach eventual statehood, avoiding the indefinite period of dependence that defined so many colonial relationships. Although the land ordinance did not allow slavery in the territory it applied to, it did ultimately allow for the institution’s expansion into other territories, as well as the expropriation of Indigenous land, rendering it a settler colonial document. The first chapter, which is perhaps the book’s strongest, also introduces Dahl’s important transnational lens. Exploring how agents of British imperialism in North America, such as Edward Gibbon Wakefield and John George Lambton, Earl of Durham, helped employ similar ideas and institutions in what would become Canada, Empire of the People contributes important analyses that transcend the nation-state, highlighting “the cross-national circulation of colonial practices and ideologies” (p. 16).

The second concept explored in part 1 is the “coloniality of constituent power,” which “entails the sovereign power of the people to constitute a new political order.” This belief allowed colonists moving onto expropriated Indigenous lands to justify their newly created governments, by asserting that Indigenous peoples had not created governing structures sophisticated enough to make a claim on the lands, rendering the frontier a “state of nature.” By exploring the examples of the Vermont Constitution of 1777 and Thomas Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty concept, Dahl shows how both sought to create democratic societies for white settlers in the frontier by perpetuating the “conceptual erasure of native political forms” (p. 48).

Part 2 of Empire of the People seeks to “fundamentally recast Tocqueville’s notion of the democratic social state as a settler-colonial social formation” (p. 78). In the three chapters that comprise this section, Dahl explores what he calls the “settler social state.” One aspect of this was how both thinkers and settlers used ideas like terra nullius to justify their violent colonization of Indigenous land, arguing that it lacked the governing structures that constituted legitimate land claim. This, as well as the subsequent establishment of American government institutions, in their eyes rendered their claim to the land fair and lawful. John O’Sullivan, the originator of the term “Manifest Destiny,” used such approaches in his rhetoric. He justified the American conquest of Mexican land by racializing Mexicans as Indigenous, so as to represent “colonization not as a process of colonial dispossession but as the creation of egalitarian social conditions on top of vacant land” (p. 115). This strategy framed settler colonialism and imperial conquest as magnanimous and proper. The close of the Mexican-American War, however, made internal debate about settler colonialism in the United States more contentious. The expansion of slavery into the newly acquired territories caused two competing settler colonial visions to emerge, one setting out to create an empire for slavery and the other a free-soil ideology that sought to establish western territory as a white space for white labor.

In the third and final part of this work, which includes only one chapter and an afterword, Dahl seeks to fill the gap in scholarship regarding Indigenous political thought. To achieve this, he explores the writings of a Pequot man, William Apess, who was involved in the conflict between the state of Massachusetts and a group of Wampanoags living in the town of Mashpee. When the state rescinded the group’s right to self-government and instituted a guardianship system wherein their land could be sold to white settlers without their consent, conflict emerged. Apess became involved in 1833 and introduced the idea of “Indian Nullification” so as to void this guardianship system and the power it wielded over this group of Wampanoags. Dahl argues that Apess “sought to displace and dislocate rather than extend the universality of American democratic ideals by exposing” how connected settler colonialism was to American democracy (p. 159). His strategy, which used the language of constitutionalism, was ultimately a rejection of the settler colonialism that American democracy was founded upon. This is a fitting end to an important book that offers useful theory and impactful insight into how settler colonialism is integral not only to democratic theory in the United States but to other settler colonial nations too. Empire of the People contributes to ongoing debates occurring in myriad disciplines, including political science and history, and this scholarly breadth is one of its primary strengths.

Citation: Eric Boutin-Bloomberg. Review of Dahlm, Adam, Empire of the People: Settler Colonialism and the Foundations of Modern Democratic Thought. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.