Review: Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S. National Space

Rifkin, Mark. Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S. National Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 290 pp. Paperback. $26.96.

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Mark Rifkin’s Manifesting America is a pathbreaking and discipline-shattering examination of 1810 to 1850s imperial and subaltern rhetoric between U.S. national authorities and marginalized populations such as Amerindians, early Californios, and ethnic Mexicans. Rifkin extrapolates American legal documents such as the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo to illustrate how the imperial structure of U.S. jurisdiction over the last two centuries created a “simulation of consent” between marginalized peoples and the state (5). He argues that the ways “internalized populations” appropriated and contested North American geographies in a range of “non-fictional writings” demonstrates how U.S. imperial hegemony became embedded in the very language and society of these peoples (6–7).

Manifesting America is divided into four complementary chapters, each examining the manner in which the government articulated sovereignty and authority over contested lands. The first part deconstructs the rhetoric of the 1830 Indian Removal Act and how the U.S. framed “a certain geopolitical grammar” to justify America’s forced migration of Amerindians, especially Cherokees (49, 57). The second chapter examines the rhetoric of popular American figures like Thomas Jefferson and explains how war and expansion exacerbated the legal “inbetweeness” of Anglos and Amerindians (78). The next section investigates Texan property holdings and draws connections between the political identity and economic privilege of ethnic Mexicans, Comanches and Tejanos. The last chapter inspects Californio land claims with the “reservation-paradigm” that allowed the vehicle of violence to legally place indigenous land in the ownership of Anglos and Californios. Each segment of the book provides the reader with several examples of how American imperial rhetoric placated and abused marginalized peoples, and irrevocably appropriated land into national space.

Rifkin not only draws on a collage of primary and secondary sources to articulate his thesis, he employs historiography, literary analysis, cultural studies, law, ethnography, and sociology to construct a multi-layered narrative. Each chapter examines various documents – whether pamphlets, national treaties, or laws – through the lenses of race and empire to demonstrate the U.S.’s imposing national supremacy. In addition, Rifkin provides a historiography for each chapter that adds a higher level of contextualization and comprehension for the reader. And so, while Rifkin interrogates the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, he bolsters his analysis with theory and studies by sociologists and historians like Simon Ortiz and Ana Maria Alonso who have analyzed the wide-ranging impact of the treaty.

While Manifesting America details the racial injustice of American imperial policy, it also proposes that imperial policy grew in tandem with the development of cultural identity. The main criticism of the book stems from the vocabulary, which at times becomes somewhat convoluted. If some of the book’s arguments could be simplified, readers outside the academy may find the monograph more accessible. Still, the root ideas and the style in which Rifkin engages sources to craft his argument is nothing short of remarkable.

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