Original review here.
The first skill that historians drill into their students is how to distinguish argument from fact. Gregg French shies away from this task in his analysis of American Umpire.
For example, French criticizes my book for not acknowledging “the fact that the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was an imperialistic doctrine that legalized the establishment of America’s transcontinental empire and the advent of American settler colonialism throughout the nineteenth century.” This is a fact, he admits, that most historians of the United States somehow overlooked until the 1990s.
Is this “truth” genuinely incontrovertible? A document that admitted future states on a basis of perfect equality with the thirteen former colonies, and banned the extension of African slavery into new territory, was actually a plan for imperialism? Is that how Thomas Jefferson understood the document he penned? Is it conceivable—does it remain even debatable—that Jefferson understood it instead as a way to extend liberty?
Apparently not. French offers as proof of imperialist intent and effect that the hundreds of thousands of square miles brought into the Union overnight by the 1783 Treaty of Paris were not “automatically” divided into sovereign states. What would have been their names, if such states had appeared? Would their borders have followed their unmapped rivers and mountains, or would they have reflected an arbitrary grid, like a plat map laid across the Rockies? Would the automatic states have had automatic state flowers and flags? Would they have been the size of Rhode Island or Virginia? As the distinguished historian Peter Onuf documents in Statehood and Union, the Northwest Ordinance was one of the most radical political documents of the eighteenth century: a plan for a process by which new sovereign territories could enter the quasi-international union on a basis of equality.
Of course, Peter Onuf’s interpretation might be wrong. Just as Julian Go’s, Amy Kaplan’s, Gregg French’s, or my interpretation might be wrong. We all agree that Native Americans suffered terribly and unjustly, as multiple generations of historians have testified. But it is not “fact” that the transcontinental United States was therefore an empire. This is a recent interpretation (verging on dogma) at odds with another possible interpretation consistent with world history that is much less exceptionalist than the narrative Gregg French extols: namely, that the U.S. was a nation-state like other anti-colonial nations of the Americas that formed at the expense of indigenous peoples. If one wishes to define George Washington as an imperialist, so must one define Simón Bolivar, José de San Martín, and Bernardo O’Higgins. All of them paradoxically advanced nationalism and democracy while speeding the subordination of natives begun by European empires (and by some native ones like the Aztec, Inca, and later the Comanche). Coercive republics that aspired to democracy and self-determination were a new phenomenon in world history. As so happened, they pioneered the form of government that has since become the dominant type worldwide, replacing empires.
Yet my supposed factual inaccuracies are not Gregg French’s primary beef with American Umpire. It is the political consequences that haunt his review. This is where his mistaking interpretation for fact is compounded by yet another pitfall: presentism. French’s agenda is to bring down the putative American Empire. Any piece of evidence that might corroborate “exceptionalism” has no place in decent scholarship, according to this way of thinking. In the case of my book, French fears a naïve reader might walk away believing the United States got some things right as well as wrong. America might be misconstrued as a leader, not merely an oppressor. For this reason, American Umpire should be read alongside a corrective text, he asserts. Indeed, books like mine “are a major reason why the American Empire is allowed to continue to exist.” (Allowed to exist by whom? Would its demise require turning California back over to Mexico, which seized it from Spain, which seized it from the Kumeyaay, Wappo, and Nomlaki?)
Many of the leading lights in the literature of American imperialism are not trained historians. Sociologist Julian Go, literature professor Amy Kaplan, and linguist Noam Chomsky are frequently cited as primary authorities. Of course, professional historians have no monopoly on wisdom. We sometimes get even facts wrong. (I am mortified anew whenever I think of an inaccuracy I caught in my own monograph. Comically, it concerns a man about whom I previously wrote nearly an entire book!) But historians generally do apply the rules of evidence in their own profession more thoroughly than do sociological, literary, and linguistic theoreticians. There is no need to take their models as fact. Some historians agree with Go, Kaplan, and Chomsky, of course, but it is also reasonable to examine their broad propositions with a healthy skepticism.
My critic is spot-on about one thing, however. American Umpire fails to line up with “the historiography of US imperialism that has developed over the past twenty-five years.” That may be one of the best reasons to consider its arguments, and the painstaking global evidence offered in their support, with an open mind.
Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman
Texas A&M University