Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



Between 1800 and 1850, the United States built a continental empire that stretched from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean. As scholars have come to realize over the past three decades, this expansion was not a peaceful movement of American settlers into virgin wilderness. Instead, it involved the conquest and subjugation of diverse peoples in Louisiana, Florida and the northern provinces of Mexico, and forced the United States to interact aggressively with the European empires of Great Britain, France, Spain, and eventually Mexico. My work helps to explain how Americans in the early republic reconciled this militant expansion with their professed democratic and republican values. By studying the rhetoric of American expansion, I found their justifications rooted in the unexpected person of Napoleon Bonaparte. Americans often saw similarities between continental expansion in the old and new worlds. Both the United States and Bonaparte’s France started as republics, and both actively expanded beyond their borders during the first decades of the nineteenth-century. Even after the expansion of Bonaparte’s France was halted prematurely after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, Americans continued to use him debate the merits of an imperial republic. In other words, they asked if a nation could retain its republican principles and still engage in continental conquest. In the early era of American expansion—between about 1800 and 1820, Napoleon served as a bogeyman, a negative example, which first expansionists and then anti-expansionists both used to justify their positions. But by the 1820s, as more sympathetic material flooded American print culture, his image changed. By the end of the Mexican American War in 1848, Bonaparte had been elevated into the perfect prototype for Americans to follow in their quest for continental domination. Bonaparte had largely become a positive symbol of military and national greatness.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Isenberg, Nancy



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History Commons