William Bennett Munro History Seminar

Tuesday, March 7, 2017
4:00pm to 5:00pm
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Dabney Hall 110 (Treasure Room)
The Expenses of Sovereignty: Federal Finance, Dependence, and Allegiance in the Early U.S. Territories
Greg Ablavsky, Assistant Professor of Law, Stanford Law School,


This paper explores how Natives and non-Natives in the early U.S. territories triangulated their relationship through the federal government.  Focusing on the Northwest Territory (the present-day Midwest) and the Southwest Territory (present-day Tennessee) in the 1790s, it begins by stressing the failure of federal criminal law to stanch endemic interracial borderlands violence.  Frustrated federal officials turned instead to the public fisc, offering compensation to both Natives and U.S. citizens for harms caused by the other.  The result was the creation of an administrative system in which the federal government bore the costs of an illicit borderland economy, particularly the trade in horses and slaves.  Federal officials also used the national treasury to try to purchase the uncertain allegiances of both Natives and the nation's own citizens, who both routinely flirted with Spanish, French, and British patronage.  Large sums of money flowed westward as so-called "Indian presents" to try to placate Native demands rooted in diplomatic custom.  Even more federal money went to the territories' white inhabitants as payments for defense, especially to the territorial militia.

The paper concludes by situating this history within the historiography of federal authority in the United States.  Traditional dichotomies between "weak" and "strong" states poorly capture the federal role in the territories, where federal authority was ubiquitous and yet federal officials were often powerless to control events.  This history also prefigures later developments labeled as the rise of the national welfare state.  In the territories, white citizens attacked federal largesse toward Natives as both unearned and evidence of Indian "dependence" on the federal government, yet naturalized their own reliance on federal aid as merely the fulfillment of the national government's responsibility to protect its own citizens.

For more information, please contact Sini Elvington by phone at x1724 or by email at elvington@caltech.edu.