It’s popular today to picture the American Indians tribes as though they were all 19th century, nomadic Plains Indians. However, at the time of 17th and 18th century colonial settlement the native inhabitants, particularly east of the Mississippi, were far from our caricature of migrating hunter-gatherers. Instead, North America was a complicated political network of Indian states and kingdoms. The continent was dotted with large fortified settlements, whose inhabitants had such a way with agriculture that they shaped the American landscape into a cultivated breadbasket.[1] As settlers arrived in the New World, the English government, and later the U.S. government, adopted a foreign policy that recognized the Indians as landowners of the North American continent and that required settlers to purchase property if they desired to live on it.[2] However, both governments also desired to spread western civilization over the continent. And so they had to find a way to balance this desire with a foreign policy that recognized the diverse and independent nature of the Indian nations.[3]

At the time of America’s founding the U.S. government and the American people commonly held that individual Indians were their equals in the sight of God and United States law. But as American political power expanded, their cultural rhetoric increasingly became condescending towards the Indian tribes.[4] Although the term “manifest destiny” wasn’t coined until the 19th century, Americans had always believed that their nation was destined to expand from sea to sea. For the early Americans, this was less about military conquest and more of a desire to remake Indian society based on Anglo-Protestant culture.[5] Much like Darwin’s theory of genetic evolution, political theorists and philosophers believed that cultural evolution, or “culturalism,” was both natural and necessary to human progression. Later the theory of culturalism became combined with Darwinism, eventually leading to racist ideas of the “white man’s burden.” But in the late 18th century the claims of cultural superiority were not based around racial studies in skin tones and genetics, but around anthropological studies of the products of human society.[6]




The American claim to a cultural destiny was not a new theory invented by Americans. They had inherited it from England’s own sense of purpose and identity. England’s belief in their own exceptionalism really came to fruition during the reign of Elizabeth I, and helped drive the English to establish the first American colonies and spread their culture beyond the known world.[7] The English believed it was all part of a long and natural progression of human history. Just as the Romans had civilized the ancient inhabitants of Britain, so now the English would bring to the New World barbarian tribes the modern fruits of Protestant, Anglo-Saxon culture.[8]

As high minded as this all sounded at the time, conquered people very rarely responded favorably towards cultural re-education. The English therefore concluded that these uncivilized people were incapable of recognizing what was in their best interest, and so they required English leadership to help instruct them in the ways of self-governance.[9] Despite claims made by  the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, and Cornish to the contrary, the English believed that conquest and domination of lesser developed tribes was actually beneficial, and an act of kindness.[10] Civilization and education would bring a truer form of freedom than that brought by political independence. And by the time England reached the shores of the New World, the Indians had merely become the next in a long line of “barbarous” people visited with England’s manifest destiny.

While implementing manifest destiny often required violence, the English and Americans did not embrace the bloodshed; in fact, they did not see themselves as the aggressors.[11] When English settlers first came to the American shore they were outnumbered by potentially threatening natives, who in turn often saw the newcomers as an invasive species. And so ironically both sides understood their actions as defensive.[12] The frightened settlers appealed to their government to send troops to defend them from Indian harassment and attacks, which in turn caused further expansion into Indian lands, requiring further defensive actions to secure an ever-growing border. Thus began a vicious cycle of defensive advancement. In the words of Catherine the Great of Russia: “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.” Unfortunately, pursuing security through expansion inevitably came at the expense and destruction of neighboring people.

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[1] For pre-Columbian American history see Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 41-49. For more regarding the “Native New World” following colonial expansion, see Michael Witgen’s An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[2] This is not to say that this official policy was followed by the settlers, nor that land was purchased honestly (Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2007], 10ff).p

[3] Throughout this story it is essential to always remember that the Indian tribes and city-states were as much a cultural and political kaleidoscope as the nations of Europe. Concerning the decision by Indians to sell their lands,  Banner writes:  “Whites were never a single bloc with uniform interests, and neither were Indians. At all times there have been Indians with good reasons to sell land and others with good reasons not to sell. Many Indians opposed policies like removal and allotment, but many others supported them as the least bad of the available options, and those were not unreasonable positions at the time Indians were no more monolithic in their views than whites” (Ibid., 6). And while it is true that the westward expansion was often brutal, and characterized more by conquest than negotiation, the transferal of land from Indian ownership to the U.S. was a complex affair in which Indians asserted their independence in political negotiations. Referring to the Anishinaabeg Chief, Flat Mouth, Witgen writes: “Flat Mouth was not a simple son of the forest. Neither was he a conquered Indian chief, nor the leader of a dying people dependent on American handouts” (Witgen, An Infinity of Nations, 6).  

[4] Ibid., 7. This paternalism was present in nearly all American interactions with less developed nations. Theodore Roosevelt once remarked that it was America’s job in the Caribbean to take “responsibility for all these little states,” a statement that defined his foreign policy and that of his successors (Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World, from it’s Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century [New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2006], 92-93). As Woodrow Wilson said on the eve of the invasion of Mexico in 1913: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”

[5] Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998), 8-11.

[6] Kagan, Dangerous Nation, 131.

[7] A. L. Rowse, The Expansion of Elizabethan England (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) 158; Christopher Hodgkins, Reforming Empire (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002) 27, 55-57, 84-85.

[8] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975), 47; Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land, 5.

[9] Jack P. Greene, “Empire and Identity from the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution,” in The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 2: The Eighteenth Century, ed. P. J Marshall (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 218; Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 15.

[10] The English did also recognize the personal profits to be gained from having a cultural destiny. The distant lands of the New World were covered in untapped resources, populated with uncivilized barbarians, and at risk of falling under “wicked,” Catholic, Spanish and French domination (Lepore, The Name of War, 8-11). English settlement was thus believed to be  mutually beneficial to both the mother country, and the distant inhabitants of America’s far shores (Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, p. 47).

[11] Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land, 6, 83-84.

[12] Kagan, Dangerous Nation, 11-12.