Walter L. Hixson. American Settler Colonialism: A History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. xii + 253 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-37424-0; $28.50 (paper), ISBN 978-1-137-37425-7.
Reviewed by Gregg French (Western University)
Published on H-USA (May, 2014)
Commissioned by Donna Sinclair
The Long and Violent History of the United States as a Settler Colonial Society
According to Walter L. Hixson in American Settler Colonialism: A History, the United States has always been a settler colonial society. Since the first Anglo-American settlers set foot on the continent of North America, Hixson argues that they envisioned themselves as the divinely chosen discoverers of a “virgin land” that was theirs for the taking. Drawing on the racial, gender, and religious beliefs that they developed during their colonization of Ireland, Anglo-American settlers perceived the culturally diverse indigenous tribes of North America as being inferior occupiers of land that they could not claim as being legally theirs. In an attempt to justify the westward expansion across the continent of North America, Anglo-Americans created their own ideas of entitlement, particularily that of Manifest Destiny, which continued to emphasize the belief in the colonizer’s divine mission. In turn, this led to ethnic cleansing projects and genocidal acts throughout the continent of North America and followed American colonialism into America’s overseas empire. Therefore, Hixson contends that unlike previous “conventional” colonial projects, Anglo-American settler colonialism was determined to occupy vast portions of land and eliminate the native societies that existed in the area, creating a violent, militaristic practice of warfare that continues to characterize the American military experience to this day (p. 5).
Drawing on the diverse works of Russell F. Weigley, Anne McClintock, Edward W. Said, and many other established scholars, Hixson presents a well-structured and thought-provoking work that conceptualizes American settler colonialism as a “continent-wide and centuries-long” experience that was, and continues to be, an overlooked but integral part of the American experience (p. x). Frustrated by the “Balkanization” of the study of American history, Hixson, a historian of American diplomacy, outlines in the preface and the introduction of his work that he intends to present his book as a settler colonial study that draws on postcolonial, borderlands, and genocide studies, as well as cultural history, diplomatic history, psychoanalytic history, and ethno-history, in the hopes of further integrating the study of American settler colonialism into the narrative associated with American history. Far from a unique American experience, Hixson also positions his work as a transnational experience by arguing that settler colonialism occurred throughout Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa primarily during the nineteenth century, and throughout Eastern Europe during the Second World War. Although this may seem like an overly ambitious attempt to present the reader with a chronologically organized history of America’s transcontinental empire, Hixson’s theories and methods are presented in a clear and concise fashion within the introduction. This allows the reader to fully understand Hixson’s beliefs that although no single “frontier” existed, brutal violence characterized the relationship between Americans and the indigene throughout the continent of North America, and that it was this relationship that characterized American foreign policy from the colonial period up until the present.
The introductory chapter outlines the historiography surrounding the study of settler colonialism as well as the main themes of the book. Here, Hixson successfully integrates American settler colonialism into the larger narratives of America’s westward expansion and the study of the American Empire. Scholars of American foreign relations and postcolonial studies will find this portion of the work enlightening, as Hixson discusses the degree of ambivalence that existed among the colonizers and the colonized; both groups changed and were affected by their colonial encounters.
In chapters 2, 3, 4, and 6, Hixson thoroughly examines the movement of Anglo-Americans across the continent of North America and the subsequent removal of the indigenous groups in the regions, a process he accurately portrays as a combination of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Within these chapters, he vividly describes the atrocities committed by both Anglo-Americans and Indians along the constantly moving borderland regions of North America. By thoroughly describing these atrocities, Hixson shows that the indigenous people of North America were not passive subjects in America’s march westward. In reality, Indian groups committed many atrocities. These acts of violence reinforced American fears in the “savage” Indian and eventually led to the “boomerang of violence,” a term Hixson uses to reference the violence that occurred throughout the borderland regions and would define American actions in future domestic and foreign conflicts (p. 1).
In chapter 5, Hixson integrates the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War into the narrative of settler colonialism by arguing that both Mexicans and Confederates, much like Indians, did not have a place in America’s imagined community. Therefore, violent crimes were committed against citizens and soldiers by military units primarily made up of volunteers, and many of these volunteers made reference to their previous experiences fighting Indians on the frontier. Social and cultural historians, particularly those who study race, have made the connection between the white American view of Indians and Mexicans for some time, thus connecting borderland wars with the Mexican-American War. However, Hixson’s integration of the American Civil War into the narrative of settler colonialism is controversial and unique, and may invoke contention and debate among both scholars and members of the general public who continue to allow the conflict to promote the belief in American exceptionalism within the American historiography.
Moving away from the practice of settler colonialism in the continental United States, Hixson shifts the focus to the American colonial experience in Alaska, Hawai’i, and the Philippines in chapters 7 and 8. Although these three regions differed greatly, Hixson argues that the experience of settler colonialism shaped American practices and ideologies in the regions, particularly when it came to racial ideologies and land claims. Since the advent of American studies and the integration of America’s imperial past into the narrative of American history and imperial history, historians have continually made connections between America’s transcontinental empire and America’s overseas empire in the Philippines. Comparatively speaking, little work has been done on America’s colonial projects in Hawai’i and Alaska. Therefore, Hixson should be commended for his integration of these two former territories into the narrative of American settler colonialism, and the academic community should expect to see more historians focus on this aspect of American history in the near future.
Hixson concludes his work by explaining that postcolonial history has not come to an end and that indigenous people have not disappeared. Rather, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, Indians have participated in world wars, obtained the right to vote, reclaimed a fraction of the land that was taken from them, and have continued to struggle to bring their stories of colonialism and genocide to light. However, as Hixson points out, work is still left to be done and his hope is that forcing Americans to come to grips with their settler colonial past will allow for “the construction of a more peaceful future” (p. 200).
Throughout the work, Hixson’s ability to study settler colonialism at the microscopic and macroscopic levels makes the book an engaging and interesting work. The historiographical introduction allows the work to appeal to a broad audience but will most likely interest historians of borderland studies and the American Empire. The author’s discussion of America's Civil War and imperial projects in Hawai’i and Alaska, within the larger narrative of American settler colonialism, must be applauded; although more work is still left to be done. This book will make an excellent resource for an advanced undergraduate course or a graduate-level course that focuses on a variety of topics, including American foreign policy, borderland studies, and genocide studies. However, an academic reader familiar with America’s movement westward across the continent may become detached from the work by the repetitive listings of names, conflicts, and dates, particularily in chapters 2, 3, 4, and 6; but they prove to be a necessary evil when writing a book of this nature. With that being said, this remains a thought-provoking, interdisciplinary study of American settler colonialism, which is sure to encourage future debate and discussion about America’s violent and far too often ignored past.
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Gregg French. Review of Hixson, Walter L., American Settler Colonialism: A History.
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