Reconstruction, Not Empire: The Anticolonial 14th Amendment, 1868–98

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM
Room 201 (Colorado Convention Center)
Sam Erman, University of Southern California
Historians have long told the histories of U.S. empire and those of Reconstruction as though they proceeded along separate tracks.  On most accounts, the Spanish American War was the final nail in the coffin of Reconstruction.  Empire emerged phoenix-like from its ashes.  But strands of Reconstruction persisted well beyond 1898, and U.S. imperial impulses found expression long before.  During the three decades following ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, its guarantee of U.S. citizenship for all “born . . . in the United States” stood as a bulwark against colonialism.  Refracted through the Dred Scott decision that it partly overturned, the provision stood for the proposition that annexed lands were destined to become States of the Union with full political rights and that their residents were U.S. citizens with robust individual constitutional rights.  When expansionists proposed to acquire Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Hawai`i, opponents raised just this constitutional objection, the accuracy of which nobody challenged.  Of course, by 1898 the underpinnings of this constitutional theory had already eroded.  African Americans had long before discovered that U.S. citizenship did not necessarily bring them extensive rights.  Residents of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona territory had seen that statehood one day did not mean statehood soon, or even in one’s lifetime.  Yet even when the United States finally did annex Hawai`i in 1898, it did so despite the constitutional consequences that opponents again charged would follow.  It would not be until 1899 that prominent jurists, commentators, and politicians would begin to articulate an imperial alternative to the REconstruction-era constitutional settlement.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>