In 1983, the political scientist Benedict Anderson famously pointed out that nations “are to be distinguished … by the style in which they are imagined.”
And in a similar vein, John Betancur and Janet Smith wrote in their 2016 book, Claiming Neighborhood: New Ways of Understanding Urban Change, that “language is both a tool used to describe space and a means to generate space.”
Take George Washington, for instance. The father of American independence favored “enforcing a British-style settlement boundary” in order to secure “large tracts of western land” that constituted much of his wealth,” Daniel Immerwahr writes in his 2019 book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.
Washington’s putative ownership of the land meant nothing if he couldn’t control its sale and settlement, and that meant fighting off the threats of encroachment posed by “white savages,” “banditti” like Daniel Boone, “who took land without consulting its eastern owners.”
Washington and other landed elites despised people like Boone, who were appraised to be ungovernable, wild, lawless — just like the western land that these elites were struggling to control. Washington had tasked his cousin, Lund Washington, with keeping watch over his vast western holdings, but under “Lund’s less than entirely watchful eye, squatters took up residence” on the Founding Father’s property.
As he did upon learning that one of his cherished slaves, Ona Judge, had escaped to freedom, Washington set out on a warpath (in the case of his Kentucky holdings — quite literally).
“Washington rode west across the mountains, this time to quash a rebellion,” Immerwahr writes. “In the end, the uprising dispersed before Washington’s forces arrived. But the episode remains, as the historian Joseph Ellis has observed, the ‘first and only time a sitting American president led troops in the field.’”
Despite the failed uprising, squatters like Boone had a key advantage over the Founding Fathers — numbers. From 1790 to 1890, the population of the United States “increased sixteenfold,” doubling every 25 years, Immerwahr notes.
Roughly during that period, in order to deal with untamed land and untamed people like Boone, the Founding Fathers styled themselves a nation through the language of statehood and citizenship, and in laws and policies like the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Washington and other elites imagined a political category for the frontier called the territory. According to U.S. policy, territories were basically frontier lands that were equivalent to dependent colonies, inhabited “not by ‘citizens of the United States’ but by its ‘subjects’ (‘white Indians’ is how one of the territorial judges described them).”
A territory could cross into statehood, which put it on equal footing with the original states of the union, only if it met the following thresholds: “five thousand free men, and they could have a legislature; sixty thousand free inhabitants (or sooner, if Congress allowed), and they could be states.”
The Founding Fathers’ goal of keeping the country’s expansion at a “stately pace” with this territorial policy, however, ultimately failed in face of the growing white population, which Immerwahr writes “would explode the founders’ vision of the country.”
“The great Jeffersonian system that had prevailed in the first decades, with western subjects semi-colonized, simply could not hold,” Immerwahr points out. “There were too many Daniel Boones. The government gave up prosecuting squatters by the 1830s and instead let them buy their land. In the 1860s it began giving away parcels of public land as ‘homesteads’ to nearly any citizen willing to live on them.”
The operative word, in this case, is “citizen.” Before the close of the 20th century, whites like Boone who had been considered savages and “banditti” would be reimagined as “pioneers.” And once wild, untamed and unruly frontier would slowly transform into governable states. Citizenship for Blacks and natives, however, was largely foreclosed.
That’s how a country, a legally defined territory, became a nation, which is the style by which a country is imagined. The U.S., the history clearly shows, was imagined and shaped as a white settler state. And that’s the nation we currently inhabit.
In his 2019 work, Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, Mahmood Mamdani provides a rather concise breakdown of the historical contour that Immerwahr shapes in his book.
The whites who inhabited this country that would eventually become the U.S. were not merely immigrants.
“Immigrants join existing polities, whereas settlers create new ones,” Mamdani writes. “If Europeans in the United States were immigrants, they would have joined the existing societies of the New World. Instead they destroyed those societies and built a new one that was reinforced by later waves of settlement. The conflation of settlers and immigrants is essential to settler-colonial nation-state projects such as the United States and Israel. Through this historical error, settlers wrongly justify their claims to the land and their positions in society on the basis of a rule of law.”
The dispute between the Boones and the Washingtons of late-18th century America was only resolved when might joined imagination — and the resolution would favor white settlement, which is premised on a specific imaginative order (fixed into place by white landowning men). The rule of law is merely the means to that end.
Mamdani explains that the cultural foundation of the white settler state that would eventually become the U.S. empire (it’s hidden, in large part, because Americans are conditioned to think they don’t live in one, Immerwahr notes) was built in 1492, the year “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” (as the age-old grammar school poem goes) and the year that Mamdani pegs as “the founding moment of the modern state.”
By marking 1492 as the founding of the modern state (instead of 1648, the year of the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended years of warfare and supposedly created the modern state through religious tolerance and mutual sovereignty), the author attempts a course correction and an opportunity for a potential imaginative reckoning with the ugly truth of the past. The nation-state was actually born of two developments in Iberia, he argues.
“One was ethnic cleansing,” which is what the Castilian monarchy carried out in order to create a homogenous national homeland for Christian Spaniards like Christopher Columbus by “ejecting and converting” Moors and Jews. The other development was “the taking of overseas colonies in the Americas by the same Castilian monarchy that spearheaded ethnic cleansing.”
Nationalism and modern colonialism “were born together,” they were “co-constituted,” Mamdani argues. Territorial expansion, domination, slavery, genocide, conversion, cultural homogeneity — these all comprise the essence of the modern nation-state, Mamdani argues. In this sense, Columbus prefigures Washington.
In our American democracy, citizenship, if you can buy it, requires a conversion ritual not altogether unlike that forced onto the natives by Columbus. In the American case, white settlers like Boone (and in later generations white ethnic immigrants from Europe) underwent a ritual “forgetting” (of the particularities of their ‘savage’ pasts, of prior injustices) in order to be welcomed into civilized society. They were baptized into the amnesia of whiteness, so to speak.
“In the act of reconstituting the self into a civic self, forgetting becomes a rite of passage and as such a condition of membership,” wrote the late philosopher Sheldin Wolin.
Even remembering serves the purpose of forgetting. We commemorate Columbus in order to forget the brutal world he and his ilk imagined into existence and in order to avoid confronting the ugly truth about how the U.S. was actually constituted.
This is why some people are so afraid of current efforts to “cancel” Columbus Day and to remember indigenous people. This revisionist wave to remember the past differently is a threat to the social structure of white settlement.
“A civic celebration organizes forgetfulness so as to ward off the return of the repressed, which, though overcome or rejected, is still perceived as threatening,” Wolin writes.
History is written by the victors, but when they feel this capability is under threat, they get very mad and show their true colors — like Washington on a warpath.