This thoughtful—and thought-provoking—book intertwines the history of settler colonialism and the law in Oregon Territory. Well known for its restrictions on African Americans, the territory’s legal apparatus not only excluded Blacks and dispossessed Native people but also introduced novel conceptions of land ownership and forged specific visions of education and citizenship defined by race and gender.
Leveraging an Empire rightly envisions Oregon’s territorial laws as a complicated settler expression combined with older Anglo legal traditions. But the ultimate significance of the Oregon experience centers on the “transmission of legal influences from a colony to the empire” (p. xxx). Legal formulations invented in the context of the Pacific Northwest borderlands became powerful precursors to the specific forms of exclusion and discrimination to come. Local laws shaped the emergent settler state.
Clear organization and direct prose frames careful intersectional analysis. An overview of Oregon Territory is followed by chapters on Native dispossession, Blackness and enslavement, property rights, education, and suffrage. Settlers created “several provincial laws” that “ran contrary to established policies and conflicted with constitutional amendments.” Nonetheless, “Oregon lawmakers consistently leveraged their location in the Far West and their role as colonizers to keep their controversial laws” (p. 25). Timing and location mattered greatly. In every case, questions of race and gender shaped and were shaped by lawmakers into lived realities. The book ends with an examination of settler colonialism’s ongoing manifestations in Oregon.
The careful and extensive use of primary sources is balanced by the appropriate citation of relevant secondary sources. Characterized by the close reading of legislative debates, manuscript collections, and newspapers, the book dives deep into the archives. It also draws on the growing literature on settler colonialism. Finally, the narrative deploys the latest scholarship on continental expansion and federal struggles over the inclusion of slave and free territories.
This fine-grained analysis of the Oregon Territory’s legal regime reminds us of the power of local dynamics to shape regional and national norms. Even as the book’s focus on structure leaves out tantalizing questions about how white women, Blacks, Pacific Islanders, Asians, and Indigenous people responded to and resisted settler colonial laws, Leveraging an Empire does exactly what it says it will do with vigor and care.