Empire of the People

Settler Colonialism and the Foundations of Modern Democratic Thought

Adam Dahl

American democracy owes its origins to the colonial settlement of North America by Europeans. Since the birth of the republic, observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecur have emphasized how American democratic identity arose out of the distinct pattern by which English settlers colonized the New World. Empire of the People explores a new way of understanding this process—and in doing so, offers a fundamental reinterpretation of modern democratic thought in the Americas.

In Empire of the People, Adam Dahl examines the ideological development of American democratic thought in the context of settler colonialism, a distinct form of colonialism aimed at the appropriation of Native land rather than the exploitation of Native labor. By placing the development of American political thought and culture in the context of nineteenth-century settler expansion, his work reveals how practices and ideologies of Indigenous dispossession have laid the cultural and social foundations of American democracy, and in doing so profoundly shaped key concepts in modern democratic theory such as consent, social equality, popular sovereignty, and federalism.

Empire of the People explicitly explicates the settler-colonialist subtexts beneath almost every aspect of post-1776 US politics and culture. Dahl contextualizes his use of Settler Colonial Theory by rereading older colonial theorists, and not only the oft-studied Locke and Rousseau, but also figures less known to Americanists, such as Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

—Early American Literature

“Dahl outlines theories of colonial dispossession that facilitate the ideological obfuscation of conquest, a foundational violence that ‘establishes the basis of democratic sovereignty.’

—Native American and Indigenous Studies
See all reviews...

To uphold its legitimacy, Dahl also argues, settler political thought must disavow the origins of democracy in colonial dispossession—and in turn erase the political and historical presence of native peoples. Empire of the People traces this thread through the conceptual and theoretical architecture of American democratic politics—in the works of thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Alexis de Tocqueville, John O’Sullivan, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and William Apess. In its focus on the disavowal of Native dispossession in democratic thought, the book provides a new perspective on the problematic relationship between race and democracy—and a different and more nuanced interpretation of the role of settler colonialism in the foundations of democratic culture and society.

About the Author

Adam Dahl is assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Additional Titles in the American Political Thought Series