The Long Land Grab
How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea
By Richard Kluger
Knopf. 649 pp. $35
In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson called the U.S. government "the world's best hope." What chutzpah! Twenty percent of the population in 1801 was enslaved, and free African Americans faced grinding exploitation. The new president himself held more than 100 people as chattel. What is more, for 200 years generations of settlers had remorselessly pushed Native Americans off their tribal lands. Indians who resisted were killed or sold into slavery. If a country with such a track record was the world's best hope, God help humanity.
What truly set America apart, Jefferson believed, was its virtually unlimited supply of land, for he was convinced that if most free Americans became landowners, the new nation's experiment in republican government could succeed. Land was foremost among the enticements luring Europeans to say goodbye to all they had known, make a perilous ocean crossing and settle in a forbidding wilderness.
Those who obtained land were on the fast track to a better life. Their housing and diet usually improved, they accumulated more possessions, and they were first-class citizens with suffrage rights. Americans pursued this dream with a mixture of idealism and brutish self-absorption.
Between Capt. John Smith's arrival in 1607 and Col. George Washington's first war in the 1750s, Virginians fought five wars with their Indian neighbors, virtually liquidating entire tribes as the settlers advanced from Jamestown to beyond the Shenandoah. No less inclined toward expansion, the Puritans who founded New England fought six wars with the Indians in the same period. This was just the beginning. Following the War of Independence, settlers pushed onto the fertile lands beyond the Appalachians. Over the next century, the United States repeatedly battled Indians, fought Great Britain in 1812 (this time partly in the hope of taking Canada), and in 1846 went to war with Mexico to gain yet more territory.
Along the way, the settlers hit upon cash crops that made their land more valuable. To maximize profits, farmers who raised tobacco along the Chesapeake, rice in the Low Country and cotton in the Deep South turned to slave labor, which had not existed in supposedly benighted western Europe. Furthermore, American farmers stopped lavishing the care they had been forced to use on timeworn fields in Europe. They became wastrels, ruinously exploiting the soil before hurrying on to another patch.
This is a story that has been told many times, not infrequently in the most labored fashion and usually from the sole point of view of the victors. Thankfully, Richard Kluger's Seizing Destiny does not fall into that category. It emphasizes the rapacity of Americans who, through daring, cunning, double-dealing and sometimes pitiless force, took possession of nearly 4 million square miles within three centuries. Their first concern, he emphasizes, was always for their private property, not the public welfare.
Kluger, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for A shes to Ashes, his critical history of the tobacco industry, focuses less on rank-and-file soldiers and settlers than on how leaders encouraged the steady expansion. Britain's imperial rulers and later the Founding Fathers saw possession of trans-Appalachia as essential for the elimination of European rivals and for tightening the loosely federated union. Jefferson saw the infinite western lands as the best chance for the survival of republicanism. Party and sectional leaders before the Civil War glimpsed political advantages from opening new tracts.
Seizing Destiny is a well-crafted and readable narrative of this often sordid, sometimes forgotten side of the American past. In places, it is overly long -- more than 15 pages on Napoleon's career and dozens to rehash the negotiation of the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War, for example. More disconcerting is Kluger's apparent reluctance to explore the lasting political and psychological impact of the long land grab. It is unlikely that three centuries of self-assuredly taking the land of others did not leave their mark on American culture or the nation's moral character. Today, many around the globe view the United States as greedy and intrusive. They might well see Kluger's book as the story of a predatory people, insensitive to the pain caused by their covetous habits.
Seizing Destiny features a rich narrative that includes wonderful vignettes about Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson. But this good book would have been better had Kluger seriously analyzed the legacy of America's historic aggressiveness. ·
John Ferling is the author of "Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence."