American Leviathan Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier

Patrick Griffin

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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The war that raged along America's frontier during the period of the American Revolution was longer, bloodier, and arguably more revolutionary than what transpired on the Atlantic coast.

Between 1763 and 1795 westerners not only participated in a War of Independence but engaged in a revolution that ushered in fundamental changes in social relations, political allegiances, and assumptions about the relationship between individuals and society. On the frontier, the process of forging sovereignty and citizens was stripped down to its essence. Settlers struggled with the very stuff of revolution: violence, uncertainty, disorder, and the frenzied competition to remake the fabric of society. In so doing, they were transformed from deferential subjects to self-sovereign citizens as the British Empire gave way to the American nation. But something more fundamental was at work. The violent nature of the contest to reconstitute sovereignty produced a revolutionary settlement in which race and citizenship went hand in hand.

Patrick Griffin recaptures a chaotic world of settlers, Indians, speculators, British regulars, and American federal and state officials, all vying with one another to remake the West during its most formative period.


Praise for American Leviathan

"Patrick Griffin examines the development of society and political ideology in the trans-Appalachian West between 1763 and 1795. The book provides a comprehensive narrative of the impact of frontier warfare on western settlements from the Seven Years' War to the end of the eighteenth century. Yet this is much more than a simple narrative, for Griffin seeks to explain how 'common men and women helped construct new notions of sovereignty, and in the process gained unprecedented political rights' . . . Griffin's important contribution to the scholarship of the revolutionary frontier lies in his discussion of the processes that led to the development of a distinct frontier ideology. Griffin identifies both philosophical and ideological changes among frontier settlers. He argues that western settlers increasingly developed a philosophy similar to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, who had argued over a century earlier that where people were alone in a state of nature, society would be violent and disordered, and only a 'leviathan,' a powerful central state, could bring order and stability. Thus, rather than individualism being central to the creation of western identity and political ideology, Griffin argues that ultimately it was the role of the state . . . Griffin provides a compelling and convincing narrative . . . This work does make an important contribution to the study of the early West, and by reexamining the creation of a distinct western ideology Griffin has provided a new view of the role of the West in creating American identity that will influence many future studies."—Matthew C. Ward, University of Dundee, The Journal of American History

"This stimulating account of early American History focuses on the backcountry from 1763-95, and argues that violence was a key formative experience in the early west . . . Griffin's effective account ably captures the political culture of the West . . . A valuable contribution."—Jeremy Black, History Today

"In the popular imagination, American history apparently proceeds from the Revolution to the Gold Rush with few stops in between, and the West that had to be won is understood to begin at St. Louis and end at the Pacific. One of the pleasures of American Leviathan is the reminder that the original West was the backcountry just beyond the thinly settled Eastern Seaboard and particularly the 'dark and bloody ground' of the Old Northwest Territory. University of Virginia professor Patrick Griffin attempts to define that Western frontier in the years between 1763, with the end of the Seven Years' War, and the victory at Fallen Timbers (Ohio) in 1794 that solidified the American hegemony over the vast territory northwest of the Ohio Valley . . . It is a fascinating chapter in the nation's history, running parallel to the Revolution in the East and too little attended to by most conventional accounts. Griffin tells it well and makes clear the usual categories do not apply."—Keith Monroe, The Virginian-Pilot

"A simple narrative of the region west of the Allegheny Mountains in the second half of the 18th century would make for a dark and riveting tale. But Patrick Griffin, in his new history, American Leviathan, has a bolder aim in mind. As he sees it, when it came to the creation of the American state, what Washington fled in the west was almost as crucial as what he accomplished in the East. Mr. Griffin's argument, woven masterfully through a compact historical narrative, is this: During the late 18th century, settlers living on the western frontier inhabited a Hobbesian state of nature, 'where everyman is the Enemy of every man,' and all live in 'continuall feare and danger of violent death.' Neither the British, nor the colonists could pacify this tumultuous borderland. Ultimately, it took an intervention by an 'American Leviathan'—the newly formed United States—to bring order by eradicating Indians from the Ohio Valley once and for all. Mr. Griffin focuses on what is least republican about the early Republic. His America—authoritarian, forged in violence—is a beast future historians of the Revolutionary period will need to reckon with."—Justin Reynolds, The Sun

"In this book, Griffin aims to re-conceptualize the American Revolution in the West and his explanation of the ways Hobbesian disorder and violence on the American frontier escalated and laid the basis for the acceptability of federal state power in the West is very convincing." —Gordon S. Wood, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution

"In his first book, Griffin explores the nature of the settlers of the western frontier borderlands during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. While Alan Taylor's The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderlands of the American Revolution details the creation of borders between the Indian nations and the English Colonies/American states, Griffin contrasts the formative ideologies of western frontier settlers regarding American Indians with those of the British Empire and the American tidewater revolutionary elite. Frontier corn whiskey culture, partially descended from mid-17th century English revolutionary culture, helped foster an American complex of racial and multicultural relations that lionized even arguably psychotic slayers of Indians, who avenged personal losses and brought a sense of order based on racial divisions to violent new homelands. Recommended for libraries with research interests in civil rights and racial relations in the early American republic."—Nathan E. Bender, University of Idaho, Moscow, Library Journal

"Think not Melville but Hobbes: a provocative study of how the war-of-each-against-all on the western frontier of America shaped the revolutionary nation. It's understandable that Thomas Quick should have disappeared from the history books. Writes Griffin: 'The master narratives we have of the American Revolution fail to contain Tom Quick because they cannot contain him'—cannot, it seems, because we would not like knowing what he tells us about ourselves. Quick was a notorious Indian killer who 'trolled the woods for victims' and begged, on his deathbed, to have an Indian, any Indian, brought within shooting distance of him. Griffin notes that that western frontier, meaning mostly Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky, was a savage place, and the savage Americans who spilled out into the territory did not like to hear from the British crown that it properly belonged to the Indians. Britain attempted to maintain the peace by building a chain of forts and other 'pockets of civility' west of which civilians would not be allowed to settle, but a white populace, spurred on by Quick and the Paxton Boys and other frontier-tamers who were not inclined to 'wait for the day when civility would transform Indian culture,' slaughtered just about any Indian whose path they crossed. In the revolutionary and immediate post-revolutionary era, justice occasionally prevailed and such killers were punished; more usually, by Griffin's account, makeshift genocide was tolerated, so much so that it was almost sanctioned. Officially, the government may have tried to foster good relations with Indians on the frontier, but it made no effort to restrain the killers generically called 'the Virginians,' who had won the battle of hearts and minds among their fellow whites. A carefully framed examination of Indian-hating and the white savages who were 'in the service of white civilization.'"—Kirkus Reviews

"Griffin's history of the settlement process in the Ohio River Valley spans from 1763, when France ceded the region to Britain, to 1795, when Indian tribes ceded huge tracts of the region to the U.S. The intervening decades witnessed chronic frontier violence, and Griffin builds an inquiry into who would be sovereign over the area. Griffin highlights the lawlessness with which the nominal sovereign power contended. He details how neither Britain's Proclamation Line of 1763 nor the land-sale schemes of the world's George Washingtons succeeded in regulating its Daniel Boones, whose numbers increased remorselessly. Their welcome was the tomahawk, not the peace pipe, and these generally poor whites' appeals for protection occupy Griffin's intensive analysis of the responses they received from Virginia and Pennsylvania, similarly convulsed by the power shifts of the American Revolution. Readers drawn to a professional historian's critical appraisal of the frontier experience will discover in Griffin's book the limits of heroizing or demonizing it."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"Griffin's erudite account places ordinary settlers of America's frontier at the center of 18th-century political revolution. The British Empire's hold on the western edge of colonies like Pennsylvania was always tenuous, suggests the University of Virginia's Griffin. The frontier was beset by violence between Indians and white settlers, and the latter thought Britain appeased the Indians at their expense. These settlers' disgust with the inadequacies of imperial policy, says Griffin, fomented the American Revolution, a titanic political clash that ultimately gave ordinary frontiersmen new rights. But they gained those rights at the expense of Native Americans—whom they identified as irreconcilably other. Tensions continued after the revolution. The fragile new American government was unable to enforce order on the frontier, and settlers in the Ohio valley and other border regions believed the state had to eradicate Indians to secure a stable and safe society. (As Griffin puts it with elegant bluntness, the frontiersmen were building a commonwealth 'on the bod[ies] of . . . dead Indian[s].') Griffin judiciously weaves analysis into riveting stories of riots and unrest, and weds attention to race and marginalized people with traditional political and military history."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Patrick Griffin

  • Patrick Griffin is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia.