How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 1

This essay will also appear in boundary 2 later this year.

How much can a reader guess about a book just from its title? I place on your desk a volume whose title reads, in part, Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 – 1815, and wonder what sort of expectations it raises in you, before you’ve even flipped it open.[i] There is already much that you’ll be able to anticipate, just by reading those nine words—or there will be if your old American history courses have stuck: that the book will offer an account of the French colonial Midwest, surveying the further reaches of the French sphere of influence in North America, in the regions we now call Wisconsin and Michigan and Illinois and Ohio, though perhaps you’ll have noticed that the book has already pledged to accord the native peoples a certain primacy and to make the Europeans go second: Indians, then empires. The Huron, Delaware, and Iroquois come first. French Canadians and their British rivals will have to wait their turn. The dates, meanwhile, should lead you to expect a chronicle of the long eighteenth century, and this might be enough to suggest a sequence of events: French and then British settlement in the American interior, beyond the Appalachians; the Seven Years’ War; Pontiac’s Rebellion; post-revolutionary wrangling over the British-held forts at Detroit and Niagara; the making of the Northwest Territory; early US campaigns to subdue the Indians of the Ohio Valley and beyond. Those events are no sooner listed than they suggest a classic imperial series: from the uninvaded and indigenous Midwest to the French-imperial Midwest to the British-imperial Midwest to the US Midwest, this last terminal because held in apparent perpetuity.

But what if the book in question is actually called The Middle Ground, as, indeed, it is, before the subtitle that your eyes happened upon first? The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650 – 1815 (White 2010). This is, of course, a book that one might well know about, first published in 1991, a widely acknowledged classic in the field of ethnohistory, written by the historian Richard White, then at the University of Washington, later at Stanford. White has made a career out of writing detailed, methodologically innovative books about how the US ruined its West—more precisely, about the effects of the centralized state (“the federal government”), corporate capitalism, and reckless white settlement on the old landscapes and peoples of Arizona and the Plains and the Pacific Coast. This is a story that White has told at least eight times, five times in duodecimo (in a short book recounting the eco-history of two islands in the Puget Sound, in a second book doing the same for the Columbia River, as well as in extended case studies of the Choctaw, Pawnee, and Navajo), and three times in folio (in a 700-page takedown of nineteenth-century railroad capitalism and in two wide-angle textbooks, A New History of the American West and the volume on the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States) (White 1979, 1996, 1983, 2011, 1991, 2017). Generically, then, White is of abiding interest as a writer of anti-Westerns, the scholar who has figured out how to re-do Arthur Penn movies in abundantly footnoted prose.

By these standards—by the benchmark, I mean, furnished by his own work—The Middle Ground stands out as something a little different. For it is the sole entry in White’s bibliography to present an account of the American West—here the Midwest, the first West, the old Northwest—that is not programmatically demystified and downhearted. Here, for once, amidst the clear-cut forests and the buffalo carcasses, is an American social formation that seems to have gotten something right—and not a strictly aboriginal formation either, but a colonial formation, with Europeans in positions of dominance and Native Americans in positions of submission. The book’s most enticing suggestion—and this, one suspects, has been the secret to its longevity as an academic monograph—is that North America might have been colonized otherwise, or, indeed, that it was for a period so colonized. What most interests White is how the French, in the late seventeenth century, forged a successful alliance out of the otherwise hard-pressed Indians of the Great Lakes region—a looser version of the Iroquois Confederation, if you like, made up of the Iroquois’s traditional enemies to the west, and sustained by ongoing diplomatic improvisation, with the French in the role of leading tribe, hence with Montreal or Quebec City in the place of Onondaga. White means us to grasp that the French were not, under these circumstances, performing what the casual student of history assumes is the ordinary labor of colonization. They were not building Francophone courts in Indian country to enforce French-style laws issued in France. Nor were they enclosing the forests and fields of aboriginal Michigan in order to transfer that land, tract-wise and as private property, to French owners. Nor were they building the schoolhouses in which Ojibwa and Potawatomi children were expected to read Molière. Instead, the French placed themselves at the head of something that very much resembled an indigenous political formation, which they then put to French-imperial purposes, with mixed and temporary success. In the process, they introduced to the shores of the big lakes European goods and European warfare and a more or less modified version of Catholicism, and these each to be sure induced innovations in native society. But at the same time, the French leadership had to adjust to Indian understandings of justice (no trials!) and to Indian understandings of the economy (trade involves giving lots of stuff away!). The French, in other words, quickly realized they had no chance of remaking Indian villages into Little Gasconies and so learned to adapt, with the European governor of Canada functioning not as imperial sovereign, but merely as a kind of super-chief. From this baseline, the rest of White’s story is quickly told: The British eventually claimed control over the region, but didn’t have the same knack for accommodation and cultural reinvention. The Anglo-Americans, when making states out of Michigan and Illinois, rejected this mode altogether.

The other thing to know about The Middle Ground is that it was a sensation when it was first published, at least in the corner of the academy where its arguments most mattered, passed around by graduate students, the immediate occasion for conference panels and redesigned syllabi. It went on to win four major awards—including, maliciously, the Francis Parkman Prize—and was nominated for a Pulitzer. In 2010, it was accorded a twentieth-anniversary edition. But none of this can be gleaned from its title alone. The list of awards you would have to look up. Just by itself, however, the phrase “middle ground,” communicates three meanings, which it thereby conjoins.[ii]

First, the term “middle ground” calls to mind the Midwest, even though that designator has been officially banished from the book as an Americanizing anachronism. Detroit didn’t use to lie in the Midwest, a term that becomes intelligible only once there are more remote American Wests to set it off against, after the US has raised its flag over Colorado and Oregon. The term “middle ground” gets close to “Midwest” but doesn’t use the word and is thus how White insinuates a certain proleptic Americanism without committing an outright gaffe. If I recall now that the term Middle West used to co-exist with Midwest, as variant, then we can see just how clearly White is flirting with twentieth-century nomenclature, though it is doubtless striking that it is the second word—the compass point—that this great historian of the West has elected to drop. This, of course, is a function of his making native Americans central to his story—of his needing us to grasp what it was that drove some people, indigenous people, to enter eastwards into Ohio—though it may also reflect the exasperation of a professor on the Pacific Coast weary of reminding his students that most of the Midwest lies east of the Mississippi.

Second, the term “middle ground” calls to mind the frontier, though this term, too, appears nowhere in the book, expunged, one assumes, for its unshakeable associations with Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, and cowboy lore. The term frontier, near-Gallicism though it is, beating out words like borderlands and marches to name territories once claimed by the French, has come to mean “the advance guard of Anglo-Saxon civilization” and so gets struck from this otherwise Francophile book. Such, at any rate, has been the polemically revisionist appeal of White’s title, which promises to teach readers how to conceive of the pioneer zones of white settlement, especially those regions where indigenous people continued to outnumber Europeans, as something other than “the frontier,” though one is obliged to note that for this substitution to take, the term “middle ground” has to preserve core features of the concept it is claiming to negate. “The middle ground,” whatever its nifty trick of turning edge into center, has to be enough like “the frontier” to fit into the slots vacated by the now superseded term. In the American context, after all, “the frontier” has always meant “regions where European-style institutions are present but weak,” and this remains one of the most salient features of Richard White’s account. The phrase “middle ground” both overwrites the word “frontier” and compulsively restates its claims. Anyone unable to appreciate this quandary might pause here to consider how the term middle ground renders its two geographical flanks, whatever is not middle—on the one side, the Indian country of Minnesota, Iowa, and points further west, on the other side, the Europeanized territories of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, &c. What we’ll want to note first is that the term “middle ground” tends to render equivalent these two outlying regions, as though white settlers occupied the Atlantic Coast on roughly the same terms that Native Americans occupied the trans-Mississippi. Each group then exited what we are encouraged to think of as its home base and entered a third space, a neutral tranche belonging to neither of them, like a family from New Jersey and a family from southern Virginia agreeing to meet for a weekend in Washington, DC. This, to say the least, is a tendentious way of conceptualizing the arrival of Europeans in the aboriginal American interior. We’ll want to note, for a start, how much the notion of “the middle ground” cedes to the Europeans, not least by conceptually giving away the East Coast, which no longer counts as “middle” and so barely even registers as colonized, even though White’s chosen period also includes King Philip’s War, the re-settlement of the Mohicans in Berkshire County, MA, colonial border wars in New Hampshire and Maine, and the creation, on Martha’s Vineyard and in New Jersey, of the northern continent’s first Native American reservations. What “the middle ground” takes away from white settlers in Ohio and Michigan, it gives back to them in Connecticut and the Carolinas.[iii]

Third, the term “middle ground” is the figure of speech most associated with political moderation—with triangulation and the Third Way and (paradigmatically Midwestern) swing voters. This gets us to the remarkable point that readers might be able to guess before they’ve even opened the book: that Richard White has produced an account of the frontier designed to make it attractive to centrist liberals. The title alone tells you as much, though the rest of the book bears the hunch out. This is a bit odd, naturally, because we can be sure that, if our subject is Lake Erie circa 1690, there were no liberals on the scene. That the task of White’s book is nonetheless to turn the frontier into the home of a certain liberalism is confirmed by dozens of formulations: “Compromise,” we read, was both “typical of” and “intrinsic in” “the middle ground.” (112, 518) When historians and anthropologists first reviewed White’s book in the early 1990s, it was the analgesic pluralism of his argument that they tended to emphasize, a pluralism that they typically framed in cultural terms: the book documents “interchange” among “the melding societies of Europe and America,” a “continual process of discovery, learning, and adaptation” or, again, a world of “intercultural experimentation and adaptation.” There was a period in the late twentieth century when a person could make his career as a historian by applying to the earliest stages of white settlement language manifestly borrowed from study-abroad recruitment literature. Even so, we can be sure that the political idiom is not foreign to White’s purposes, because he speaks openly of the “political [and not just the cultural] middle ground.” (224) The territorial middle ground hosts the ideological middle ground; the colonial periphery produces tolerance and political reasonableness. The book functions accordingly as one big sorting mechanism for dividing the imperialists who pursued what it calls a “moderate course” (the French most of the time, the British sometimes) from those who didn’t. (203) Eventually, White will conclude that the French lost their empire in North America because they “abandoned the politics of the middle ground.” (227) And with that observation, the historian discreetly delivers his communiqué to the contemporary reader. The via media is how a great power hangs on to its overseas possessions. Moderation is the imperial virtue. One is thereby reminded just how often the language of moderation coincides with the language of empire and westward expansion. A “concession” is a British trading enclave in China. If you and I have negotiated our way out of a dispute, then we have reached a “settlement.” One of the words that most often modifies “compromise” is “Missouri.”



[i] I would like to thank the essay’s first readers: Alicia Maggard, Richard King, Vivasvan Soni, and the editors of boundary 2.

[ii] Daniel Richter describes the buzz around the book’s publication in his review in the William and Mary Quarterly (Richter 1992: 715). The prizes were: The Francis Parkman Prize, the Albert J. Beveridge Award, the Albert B. Corey Prize, and the James A. Rawley Prize.

[iii] On indigenous New England in the period, see, among many others: Mandell 2010, Frazier 1994, Clark 1970, Railton 2012.

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