Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (Part One)

[Indians] are combated by the habits of their bodies, prejudice of their minds, ignorance, pride, and the influence of interested and crafty individuals among them, who feel themselves something in the present order of things, and fear to become nothing in any other. These persons inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatever they did must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, oral, or political condition, is perilous innovate that their main duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and knowledge full of danger. In short, my friends, among them is seen the action and counter-action of good sense and bigotry they too have their anti-philosophers. (Thomas Jefferson, 606)


This—from Jefferson’s second inaugural address—is how a philosopher president justifies conquest.

In the third volume of his history of the United States from 1800 to 1817, Henry Adams continues to focus his attention on foreign affairs. In my last post, I dwelled on how the Louisiana Purchase (or Jefferson’s first term in general) oversaw the emergence of the United States as a self-denying but no less openly imperial nation. Of course, Jefferson would continue these denials throughout his presidency and the nation would follow his lead. There are still those who deny this brutal truth. Adams himself seems unaware that the events he was recounting were describing the rise of an imperial nation. In Jefferson’s second term he was forced to face this by forces much more honest than he was. The first challenge was Aaron Burr, who should be given credit for calling a spade a spade as he attempted to carve our his own little empire. The second challenge, to dominate Jefferson’s second term was the European empires who knew very well that the United States was in the game and refused to allow the United States to pretend to be a passive bystander. I will deal with the embargo crisis later. For now, I will focus on Adams’ account of Aaron Burr’s conspiracy.

The official reading of the Burr conspiracy is that Aaron Burr was attempting to create an independent nation in the frontier areas, in places controlled by Spain. Immediately this seems to be an interesting historical coincidence since this is almost exactly what the U.S. settlers in Texas did in the 1840s. In a sense, they were much worse than Burr, even brining the United States into a war with Mexico. Evidence that Burr was after a private empire was that he collected military forces for the expedition down the Mississippi and had a massive holding (40,000 acres). Burr’s point of view was that he was renting the land from Spain and just planned to work it. In that case, he would have been a predecessor to the Bonanza farms of the later nineteenth century. Although he claimed he was not treasonous, he never claimed that he was not after a private demesne, just that his would be legally defined by the typical language of capitalist exploitation.


Adams takes on the position of the government that Burr’s plan was a grandiose effort at creating an empire in the west, even going so far as to kidnap people in Washington in order to effect his scheme, if he could not get the required aid from Britain or Spain. Adams gives a detailed history of the conspiracy that is a quite a lively read, covering a handful of chapters. When the conspiracy finally fell apart, as such wild dreams almost must when not backed by the authority of the state, it is reworked too the interests of political power. Adams points out that the trial of Burr became more of a fight between Jefferson and his enemies than a dialog on the costs and consequences of expansion and conquest. In re-reading, I find Aaron Burr’s honesty about the nature of the game fascinating and refreshing.

Adams seems quote sympathetic to the rolling of civilization across the continent. This enthusiasm for empire (never called that) is a bit strange coming from the same man who praised the virtues of the Middle Ages against modern civilization. He was simply not equipped to look at the expansion west of the United States in anything but the language of Manifest Destiny. This is him on the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was apparently great except for its modesty.

Creditable as these expeditions were to American energy and enterprise, they added little to the stock of science or wealth. Many years must elapse before the vast region west of the Mississippi could be brought within the reach of civilization. The crossing of the continent was a great feat, but was nothing more. The French explorers had performed feats almost as remarkable; but, in 1805, the country they explored was still a wilderness. Great gains to civilization could be made only on the Atlantic coast under the protection of civilized life. For many years to come progress must still centre in the old thirteen State of the Union. (751—752)

lewis and clark

What might a more honest republican empire had looked liked? Perhaps not much different. It may have faced the Napoleonic wars with more of a spirit of realpolitik. Perhaps it was this self-denial about empire that allowed Indians to sustain their autonomy as long as they did, but I doubt that. On the contrary, perhaps seeing Indians as colonial subjects, rather than people uncivilized by choice (as Jefferson’s inaugural stated) may have ensured a more honest and less destructive policy toward them. In any case, we still see shadows of Henry Adams when we read history textbooks today.




Francis Parkman, “The Conspiracy of Pontiac: Volume Two,” (1851)

“Along the Western frontiers of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, terror reigned supreme. The Indian scalping-parties were ranging everywhere, laying waste the settlements, destroying the harvests, and butchering men, women, and children, with ruthless fury.” (640)

Parkman wrote this of the Indians, galvanized by Pontiac, to resist white settlement into the West in 1763. He wrote it after two decades of violence aimed at Indian removal from the frontier. He wrote it at a time that the US army was completing its conquest of Mexico and setting the stage for the violent usurpation of Indian homes. In fact, a simple change of a few nouns and we can turn the above into an accurate description of formal US government policy in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Additionally, at the time of Pontiac’s rebellion the same could be said of white vigilante groups along the frontier.

Volume Two of Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac covers the suppression of the Indian uprising, the explosion of vigilant violence that touched on the Pennsylvania government itself, and the consequences of the failure for the Indians in the American West after the Seven Years War. The final point is the easiest to see, in part because it was implied by the reasons for the uprising itself. Pontiac saw clearly that the French withdrawal from Canada and the Great Lakes meant the eventual settlement of these areas by the English, but more importantly, the loss of the major diplomatic strategy that the Indians enjoyed, that of the “middle ground.” The fact that the British imposed limits on western settlement after the war (as a cost saving measure and to avoid wars like Pontiac’s from reoccurring) provided some breathing space for Indian autonomy and the possible resurrection of the “middle ground” when the American Revolution broke out.

The major point I would like to explore today has to do with the morality and violence of rebellion. The quote I opened with is about the Indian violence, but the war was closer to gang violence on both sides, with the Indian raiding parties juxtaposed to the Paxton Boys and other vigilante groups. Now just to be clear, I am not necessarily opposed to vigilantism, as long as it is not a cover for violence and theft. As a form of self-defense, it seems some form of vigilantism is required, especially in a revolutionary context. (Worker’s councils of strikers preventing scabs from entering a factory may be one example.) If vigilantism just becomes an extension of the arm of the state, by filling in for the state where it is weak, it is just another statist organization. That seems to be what was going on with the Paxton Boys.

Parkman presents the “Paxton Men” as a group of frustrated frontiersman unable to accept their loss of life and property and driven to violence by the inability of the Pennsylvanian government to protect them. He justified their violence in a way that actually justifies the desperate acts of Pontiac and his followers. Driven to the wall, people are capable of horrible things. “It is not easy for those living in the tranquility of polished life fully to conceive the depth and force of that unquenchable, indiscriminate hate, which Indian outrages can awaken in those who have suffered them. The chronicles of the American borders are filled with the deeds of men, who, having lost all by the merciless tomahawk, have lived for vengeance alone’ and such men will never cease to exist to long as a hostile tribe remains within striking distance of an American settlement.” (702) Again, a few changed nouns and we see that Parkman’s claim, if applied universally, will explain the Pontiac uprising itself. Parkman should know better, having live with various besieged Indian groups while investigating the Oregon trail. Readers in our time need only look back at centuries of vigilant racial violence and violence against labor unions to know the consequences of uncritical acceptance of the mob.


Eventually, the Paxton vigilantes turned on the Quaker government, due to their apparent unwillingness to deal with the frontier attacks. As time went on, various vigilante groups fought amongst themselves. It seems that this is the great fear of the defenders of the state? How to respond to this? These vigilantes were certainly motivated by racism (not unlike in Bacon’s Rebellion), their violence was indiscriminate, we rightfully have little sympathy left for the occupying gangs of state-organized police. Untying this knot is the realization that what both Pontiac and the Paxton vigilantes wanted was a baseline of security of their life and homes. Perhaps there was a missed common ground here.

When not bashing heads, the Paxton Boys were quite polite and formal

When not bashing heads, the Paxton Boys were quite polite and formal

A real response, however, is that both Pontiac and the vigilantes were seeing like a state. This is clear in a later chapter when we learn that government fully embraced brutal policies toward the Indians in an effort to end Indian attacks. “So fierce and active were the war-parties on the borders, that the English governor of Pennsylvania had recourse to a measure which the frontier inhabitants had long demanded, and issued a proclamation, offering a high bounty for Indian scalps, whether of men or women; a barbarous expedient, fruitful of butcheries and murders, but incapable of producing any decisive result.” (762) Even if this is explained away as the pressure of the mob, the powers that the various colonial governments and the British state collected to smash Pontiac was impressive and not ever moderate. The problem, it seems, comes from seeing like a state and solving problems like a state would, whether we are state actors or not.


Despite my hostility to much of Parkman’s prejudice and his narrative which suggested that anything that was in the way of the progress of Protestant, English civilization should be opposed for the betterment of the future, there is much that is attractive in this account and I am glad I read it. The chapter on the “Desolation of the Frontier” is particularly moving in its description of the lives of people on the frontier and the horrible situation they were put into, working, in effect as unwitting agents of empire.