Building an American Empire

The Era of Territorial and Political Expansion

By Paul Frymer

Westward expansion of the United States is most conventionally remembered for rugged individualism, geographic isolationism, and a fair amount of luck. Yet the establishment of the 48 contiguous states was hardly a foregone conclusion, and the federal government played a critical role in its success. This book examines the politics of American expansion, showing how the government’s regulation of population movements on the frontier, both settlement and removal, advanced national aspirations for empire and promoted the formation of a white settler nation.

Building an American Empire details how a government that struggled to exercise plenary power used federal land policy to assert authority over the direction of expansion by engineering the pace and patterns of settlement and to control the movement of populations. At times, the government mobilized populations for compact settlement in strategically important areas of the frontier; at other times, policies were designed to actively restrain settler populations in order to prevent violence, international conflict, and breakaway states. Paul Frymer examines how these settlement patterns helped construct a dominant racial vision for America by incentivizing and directing the movement of white European settlers onto indigenous and diversely populated lands. These efforts were hardly seamless, and Frymer pays close attention to the failures as well, from the lack of further expansion into Latin America to the defeat of the Black colonization movement.

Building an American Empire reveals the lasting and profound significance government settlement policies had for the nation, both for establishing America as dominantly white and for restricting broader aspirations for empire in lands that could not be so racially engineered.


  • Winner, 2018 J. David Greenstone Book Prize, Politics and History Section of the American Political Science Association
  • Winner, 2018 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship, Political Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association


  • “Groundbreaking. . . . The book’s central contribution is to show how the adaptations of American institutions intersected with America’s racial orders.. . . . It will be essential reading for scholars and students, graduate and undergraduate, of APD, American politics, and of the legacies and contemporary practices of settler colonialism in other countries.” — David Bateman, Journal of Politics
  • “Paul Frymer has written one of the best available accounts of the United States’ long and troubled history as a white settler nation. For anyone wanting to know why that particular form of nationalism continues to resonate so forcefully today, Building an American Empire should be required reading.” — Eliga Gould, Diplomatic History
  • Building an American Empire is, in short, a terrific book — important, thoughtful, provocative, and seminal.” — Todd Estes, American Political Thought
  • “Paul Frymer’s excellent new book interrogates our most enduring myth — the Taming of the West — and in its place delivers a rich analysis of how U.S. leaders decided which territories and peoples would be included in the American civilizational project. His account puts original insights about space and race . . . at the center of our national story.” — Thomas Ogorzalek, Political Science Quarterly
  • Building an American Empire is a valuable contribution to the conversation on the rise of the American national state.” — William H. Bergmann, American Historical Review
  • “Ranging across a wide array of topics and scholarship, this book remaps large parts of American history. In Frymer’s telling, the nation’s territorial expansion emerges as a far more fascinating and perilous journey than we had imagined.” — Edward L. Ayers, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863
  • Building an American Empire is a profound achievement in the study of American state formation. Through a dazzling array of sources and a painstaking analysis of federal land policy, Frymer beautifully demonstrates how the ‘weak’ American state could nonetheless pursue a project of dramatic territorial expansion. In the process, he both highlights the centrality of settler notions of membership to the path of American political development as well as the ideological and racial diversity that persisted at the edges of federal power. This is a foundational work that all students of American politics will have to reckon with, one that links the national experience to global projects of colonial state formation and that captures the deep interrelation between race, empire, and state building in U.S. history.” — Aziz Rana, author of The Two Faces of American Freedom
  • “In this sweeping, authoritative, clearly written, and bracingly revisionist history of the formative era of American land policy, Paul Frymer shows how governmental institutions worked, often in hidden ways, to create a settler society dedicated to white supremacy. It has been 50 years since a scholar has analyzed the mechanisms of territorial expansion in such detail, making Building an American Empire essential reading for specialists in the history of immigration, state building, race relations, and American political development.” — Richard R. John, Columbia University, author of Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications
  • Building an American Empire is full of interesting ideas, facts, and insights. Frymer argues that the American state vigorously engaged in acquiring and governing land, and built a predominantly white society that employed racial removal and envisioned a marginal role for Native Americans and free Blacks.” — David Brian Robertson, author of The Original Compromise: What the Constitution’s Framers Were Really Thinking
  • “Frymer has crafted an intellectually ambitious, important book that addresses one of the most significant questions in American history: how did a tiny coastal federation with a weak state effectively settle a rich and contested — not to mention already occupied — land mass?” — Brian Balogh, author of A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America