Political Science The Politics of Internal Conquest in the United States and Canada
William D. Adler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0106


A subject sometimes relegated to the sidelines in favor of a focus on exclusively external battles, internal conquest is in fact at the heart of both the American and Canadian nations. Neither nation could exist without having first undergone a long process of internal colonization and conquest of its indigenous populations. In both nations, initial white settlement on the boundaries of native-controlled regions gradually led to a takeover of the entire continent by the new colonial populations. Both used a mixture of diplomacy and force to gain the territory and resources they desired. In the end, however, coercion was regularly used to remove natives to remote territories, and then later into reservations. Though these removals were not entirely uncontroversial, majorities in both nations supported such projects as inevitable for the further development of white civilization. Scholarship on the subject of internal conquest has shifted in recent decades away from the celebratory narratives of the earlier period toward a multilayered perspective that incorporates local settler and native views, not merely accounts of inevitable progress on the frontier. This deeper understanding has led to a resurgence of fascinating work on the development of nationalism (especially in the United States) and how violence produced today’s cultural values. There are also new works that explicitly compare the United States and Canada and open a window into the unexceptional nature of American conquest.

General Histories (United States)

Many historians and social scientists have written about various aspects of internal conquest, often in the context of larger works that cover long periods of time or focus on some general issue of concern. Understanding this subject requires exploring aspects of military history, the history of the American West, and diplomatic relations with native tribes and other dispossessed peoples. The books listed here provide a useful starting point for considering this issue from a variety of perspectives. Weigley 1973 provides the classic statement of “the American way of war” as one of large battles and grand strategy, paying little attention to internal conflicts. Kohn 1975 focuses on the institutional building of the American military in the Federalist period, a story developed to a much greater extent and in broader context in Elkins and McKitrick 1993. White 1991 is a seminal treatment of the American West, with important chapters on conquest and land management. Millett and Maslowski 1994 is a general history of the US military and its wars, while Anderson and Cayton 2005 focuses specifically on great military leaders and their impact on America identity. See also Eisenhower 1990 and Merry 2009.

  • Anderson, Fred, and Andrew Cayton. The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500–2000. New York: Penguin, 2005.

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    NNNAnalyzes warmaking in early America through the lens of famous leaders and their times, such as George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant. Anderson and Cayton argue that war and military conflict have been central to American history and identity.

  • Eisenhower, John S. D. So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846–1848. New York: Anchor Books, 1990.

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    NNNThe best available overview of the American war with Mexico. Studies the politics that led to the war, disputes over command arrangements, and the ultimate disposition of the war.

  • Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    NNNA general overview of politics in the Federalist period. Contains substantial material on initial efforts at expansion, relations with Indian tribes, and the development of national military capabilities.

  • Kohn, Richard H. Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America. New York: Free Press, 1975.

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    NNNDescribes how the Federalists built the American military establishment. Includes an examination of early wars against native tribes.

  • Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

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    NNNDescribes the administration of James K. Polk and his push to start the war with Mexico, along with the consequences of the new territorial expansion.

  • Millett, Allan R., and Peter Maslowski. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. New York: Free Press, 1994.

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    NNNThe preeminent survey of US military history. Includes discussion of major interstate conflicts as well as wars of internal conquest.

  • Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.

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    NNNA broad overview of views about military strategy across American history. Portrays internal conflicts as wars of attrition that are outside the norm of most wars.

  • White, Richard. “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

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    NNNA survey of the American West, with particular focus on relations with Indian tribes and the role of the federal government in western development.

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