paul kramer on settlers, empire, and a post-exceptionalist history of the united states


Paul A. Kramer, ‘Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World’, American Historical Review 116, 5 (2011).


What would a post-exceptionalist account of U.S. imperial history look like? It would purposively engage in dialogue with other societies’ globalizing historiographies, which have often involved imperial turns. One of the most striking and unremarked developments of the late 1990s and early 2000s was a serious misalignment between U.S. transnational history and a diversity of new imperial histories, richly informed by postcolonial studies, gender analysis, and cultural history, within British, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Japanese historiographies.33 Except where it referred to European colonial empires in the Americas, or to 1898, “empire” was almost entirely absent from the manifestos calling for a new transnational U.S. history, ironically reproducing an exceptionalism that was ostensibly its chief target. Perhaps, unlike everybody else, U.S. historians could venture outward from nation-based historiography without “empire.”

A post-exceptionalist history of the United States in the world, by contrast, employs categories used in non-U.S. histories precisely to align them for purposes of non-exceptionalist comparison. One concrete example involves the reframing of the “U.S. West,” which, incarnated as the “frontier,” long lived at the center of U.S. exceptionalist narratives. Rigged with impressive explanatory—and exceptionalist—power vis-à-vis the virtues of democracy, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier” parachuted U.S. history safely away from a universe of potential counterparts.

By contrast, some recent scholarship situates the United States within broader histories of modern settler colonialism. This concept, first used within Australian geography, has emerged as the hub of a comparative and inter-imperial history. Defined as the seizure of land and natural resources from indigenous populations, the politico-legal production of “territory,” and governance through the rule of colonial difference, settler colonialism has been identified by historians as a fundamental process in the making of numerous modern societies.

Understanding the U.S. West as the setting for a particular (that is, a unique but unexceptional) instance of settler colonialism raises comparative questions that were not easy to ask about Turner’s frontier: questions about comparative colonial violence, about economic exploitation and environmental management, about legal categories and the claims of subjects and citizens (particularly with regard to land), and about the balance of power between core and periphery during processes of territorial incorporation. Placed in this context, the U.S. West appears as a variation on a global theme, alongside Australia, Argentina, and Algeria.

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