Lecture 3: Imperialism


This lecture introduces the concept of imperialism as it applied to the European occupation of the Americas and traces the expansion and rivalries of the European imperialist powers—concluding with the Treaty of Paris in 1763.


Outline of Lecture


Imperialism is one nation or people exploiting another for its own gain. Spain, France, England, and a number of other European powers sought to establish empires in the New World. Much of the formative history of the United States, therefore, is a matter of imperial rivalry and struggle.

Spanish & French Imperialism

Spanish conquistadors subdued the great Indian empires. Spanish explorers also sought new wealth in the interior of North America—with poor luck there. Thus to the Spanish, North America remained a frontier. This left the country open for French penetration. Meanwhile, Spanish wealth also prompted an imperial challenge from England.

English Colonization

The Chesapeake colonies (Virginia and Maryland) were the first English center on the North American coast. New England then developed rapidly as a second English center. English colonists thwarted challenges by the Dutch and the Swedes before facing the final, climactic confrontation with the French.

Struggle in the Wilderness

American historian Francis Parkman, writing of the great battle for control of North America, referred to that bitter conflict as a “struggle in the wilderness.” A series of imperial wars culminated in the Seven Years War, called here the French and Indian War. This ended with the Treaty of Paris, 1763—marking victory for English imperialism in North America.

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1. Origin of the Anglo-Americans

The lecture deals with European colonization in general, whereas this chapter of Tocqueville focuses specifically on the English, but he does provide some clues as to why the imperial designs of the European nations might not be fulfilled the way they wish.


·         Tocqueville begins this chapter with a theory of how to explain national character—why nations are the way they are. What is his theory? What is peculiar about the US in respect to this theory?

·         Why was it impossible for Europeans to impose a social class system on the American colonies?

·         What were the differences between the Southern colonies and the New England colonies? Tocqueville obviously prefers New England—what was the contribution of that region to American development?

·         Near the end Tocqueville discusses "the spirit of Religion and the spirit of Liberty." What fundamental American principles is he dealing with here?


A cool website to browse in connection with this lecture: brought to you by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, it's the Jamestown Rediscovery site. The APVA folks say, "We found the fort!"

Film Review

1492: Conquest of Paradise

Released on the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World.  Critics object that the film seems to absolve Columbus for his poor treatment of natives.

The New World

Critics disagree whether the film is confused or sublime, but it treats controversial aspects of the native-colonist encounter, focusing on the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith.

Cabeza de Baca

The survivor of a Spanish shipwreck treks across the Gulf Coast and Southwest to return to New Spain.

Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale

Kidnapped by English settlers, Squanto learns English at a monastery, then jumps aboard a ship bound for his homeland.

Book Review

Copland, The Burden of Empire


Raskin, The Mythology of Imperialism


Jennings, The Invasion of America