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 Crvecur 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 is a capacious tour de force. In a sweeping historical account, Dahl illuminates the violent structure of settler colonialism in the United States. The chapters explore, and powerfully unsettle, prevailing assumptions in American political thought, vividly taking stock of the narratives of native absence that underpin the democratic thought in the west. The book is an impressive contribution to the florescence of counter-narratives that are preparing new ground for an urgent and emergent political theory of decolonization.”

—Alexander Keller Hirsch, University of Alaska

“What if the foundation of democracy is not ‘the people’ but the dispossession of land from its rightful inhabitants? Adam Dahl transforms our understandings of American political thought, showing how it deliberately ignores Native American presence and practices. Dahl deftly illuminates how democratic theory—from Jefferson to Tocqueville to Emerson—cannot be separated from its settler-colonial roots. By turning to the Pequot theorist William Apess, Dahl identifies a solution—to take indigenous thinking and nations seriously as alternative, equal nations.”

—Kennan Ferguson, director of the Centerfor 21st Century Studies, University of WisconsinMilwaukee

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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