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Newcomb: A brief story about the American Empire

In an address to the U.S. Military academy at West Point in June 2002, President Bush made the comment, "America has no empire to extend..." Perhaps Bush should go back and review history. President George Washington and the other founders of the United States very clearly understood that it was an empire they were founding.

"However unimportant America may be considered at present?," said George Washington, "there will assuredly come a day, when this country will have some weight in the scale of Empires..." Washington also referred to the United States as "an infant empire."

A number of years ago, while researching the early development of the American empire, and the dispossession of Indian nations from the Ohio River valley, I came across the little-known story of George Washington and the Society of the Cincinnati. Cincinattus was a Roman dictator, consul, and farmer who rose to fame as a victorious general. Instead of permanently taking the seat of power as emperor, he modestly returned to a life of farming. After the Revolutionary War, Washington was regarded as an American Cincinnatus, for he too returned to a life of "farming" (not to mention his life as an extremely profitable whiskey merchant and slave owner) in the newly independent United States.

When word that the Revolutionary War was almost over reached the cantonment in Newburgh, N.Y. - where Washington and his officers were camped - men such as Brigadier General Rufus Putnam eagerly turned their attention to the topic of the lands in the Ohio River Valley. This was the region where Putnam and many others wished to settle on lands still held by Indian nations.

At the beginning of the war, the Continental Congress had pledged that men who served for a specific length of time fighting the British would be awarded land in return for their service. In fact, in 1776 Congress had made this pledge in the form of a resolution, though Congress didn't specify what lands would be given to the soldiers. Putnam and many others were eager to make good on Congress' promise.

The founders of the United States saw the sale of Indian lands in the Ohio River valley as a major means of paying down the mountain of debt that the United States had incurred during the Revolutionary War. Thus, this provided an extra incentive for Congress to provide an opportunity for soldiers and their families to become settlers and colonizers. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was passed to provide for a methodical process of colonization and future statehood. Indeed, historian George Bancroft referred to the Northwest Ordinance as "the colonial system" of the United States.

In May of 1783, 228 Continental Army officers signed the Newburgh Petition, which called on Congress to provide them with the land promised in the resolution of 1776. Around the same time, a number of officers formed The Society of the Cincinnati, which they dedicated in part to "the future dignity of the AMERICAN EMPIRE." (It is interesting that The Society of the Cincinnati still exists to this day. I have visited its headquarters at a mansion on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.)

This mention of the American empire is quite instructional with regard to the nature of the political society that Washington and his military officers envisioned, namely a federal empire modeled after "the Roman Empire during the Age of Augustus," according to one historian. We ought to remain ever mindful that the American empire is the political context and basis of federal Indian law and policy.

By definition and by practice empires expand through colonization. Washington and other American founders planned for their "infant empire" to begin its colonial expansion by taking over the Ohio River Valley and pushing the Indians out. They set out quite methodically to achieve this end. However, guided by the leadership of the Miami Chief Little Turtle, the Indian warriors were able to beat back the American forces, costing the U.S. two huge military defeats.

Ultimately, under the leadership of General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, who employed a scorched earth policy of burning villages and vast corn supplies, the United States coerced many Indian leaders into signing the 1795 Treaty of Greenville. (Wayne's troops are said to have destroyed an estimated 10,000 bushels of corn).

By the Treaty of Greenville, Indian nations in the region essentially lost possession of most of what is now regarded as the state of Ohio. A plan to encircle the Indian nations that Rufus Putnam expressed in May of 1783 was successfully carried out by August of 1795. (The Shawnee leader Tecumseh and a few others refused to sign the treaty).

Coincidentally, General Wayne was a Society of Cincinnati member. Washington, now the U.S. President, was also president of the Society of the Cincinnati. And both Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton were members of the Society. With the Treaty of Greenville, the Washington administration had successfully completed a major policy victory for "the future dignity of the AMERICAN EMPIRE," and thereby instituted the beginnings of a colonial policy with regard to the Indian nations that still exists to this day, though now it is euphemistically and insultingly called a "trust relationship."

In the town of Marietta, Ohio, near the location where Rufus Putnam and his fellow colonists first landed at the juncture of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers, Congress erected a stone column in 1938. An inscription on the column reads: "Here with the founding of this Nation's first colony and establishment of the first American civil government west of the thirteen original states, began the march of the United States of America across a continent to the Western sea." (emphasis added).

This stone column was erected as part of the 150th anniversary of the Northwest Ordinance and of Putnam's landfall in April of 1788. Leading up to the commemoration, Congress passed H.J. Resolution 208 on Aug. 2, 1935. With this resolution Congress described the Northwest Ordinance as making "a complete change in the method of governing new communities formed by colonization."

Prior to becoming Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall was an envoy working for the U.S. State Department. During that time, he told Talleyrand of Great Britain in 1798, three years after the Greenville Treaty, that the United States would attain greatness "by a different kind of conquest." As one writer said of Marshall, "And thus a great and expanding republican empire would be America's future ? Phrases like 'this our wide-spreading empire,' came easily to Marshall."

President Bush may claim that the United States has "no empire to extend," but history does not back him up. Even the U.S. Supreme Court - first in Loughborough v. Blake (1820), and again in Downes v. Bidwell (1900) - has referred to the U.S. as "the American empire." From its founding, the American empire successfully designed a colonial policy well calculated to deprive our respective Indian nations and peoples of our ancestral lands and resources, and to rob us of a free and independent existence.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape), columnist for Indian Country Today, is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, a Native peoples' policy research and human rights organization. He has been researching and writing in the areas of Indigenous law and politics, federal Indian law, and international law for more than 20 years.