Is America an Empire?

This painting shows "Manifest Destiny" (the belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. In 1872 artist John Gast painted a popular scene of people moving west that captured the view of Americans at the time. Wikimedia Commons

America’s zeal for anti-imperialist projects abroad has created a new imperialism of its own that is expansive and provocative of conflict.

November-December 2017

Is America an Empire?

By David C. Hendrickson

AMONG THE commanding symbols of American civilization, none are more important than empire and liberty. From George Washington’s journey to the Monongahela River in 1754 to George W. Bush’s conquests in Mesopotamia in 2003, observers have puzzled over the relationship between our thirst for dominion and our attachment to freedom. When Patrick Henry argued in 1788 against the “great and splendid empire” he espied in the vision of the Constitution’s architects, he set that in opposition to the liberty that was America’s original resolution:

*** “If we admit this Consolidated Government it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.” ***

Some variation on Henry’s theme has been played on every subsequent occasion in which the use of force figured—1798, 1812, 1818, 1830, 1846, 1861, 1898 and on to the wars of the American Century. As much as these debates might be dismissed as belonging to another age, without relevance to our globalized world, they express views that go to the core of the nation’s purposes and convictions today. The relation America bears to liberalism and imperialism, to use the modern terminology, is of intense interest in the contemporary world, but in a fundamental sense it has always been such.

DESPITE ITS centrality, the relation between empire and liberty is not easy to characterize. It is certainly complex. The debate over it can rise to great heights of eloquence; it can fall into the labyrinths of obscurity. Both imperialism and liberalism (and their cognates) have a multiplicity of meanings, employed in a multiplicity of contexts. Liberty, instantiated in “the American system,” referred to “written constitutions, representative government, religious toleration, freedom of opinion, of speech and of the press,” as a Kentucky ally of Henry Clay put it in 1822. But it has also signified collective freedom, especially independence from foreign rule, and the freedom reflected in the integrity of the nation’s political institutions.

Empire is an especially slippery concept, tending toward domination in theory but in practice displaying relaxations that concede much freedom to the periphery. While empire is typically defined in terms of alien control and domination, nearly all successful empires relied on indirect means of control. They usually required the cooption of local elites. They were often patchwork and incoherent affairs, with no clear delineation of the lines of authority. As Edmund Burke famously said, describing a world in which “seas roll, and months pass, between the order and the execution,” the first rule of empire was that it couldn’t control everything.

*** “The Sultan gets such obedience as he can. He governs with a loose rein that he may govern at all; and the whole of the force and vigour of his authority in his centre is derived from a prudent relaxation in all his borders. Spain, in her provinces, is, perhaps, not so well obeyed as you are in yours. She complies too, she submits, she watches time. This is the immutable condition, the eternal law, of extensive and detached empire.” ***

Burke reminds us that political structures have been called empires, and figured long in the mind as such, that do not comport with any simple portrait of sheer domination. Burke is one of a handful of great theorists of the empire of liberty, and his admonitions on how to run the British Empire, c. 1775, are not irrelevant to the administration of the American Empire today. Describing the relation England could bear to its American colonists, he wanted “to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith.” As long as England did this, the more friends among the colonists it would have.

*** “The more ardently they love liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain; they may have it from Prussia; but, until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you.” ***

Burke’s grand solution to the colonial crisis—keeping Parliament’s sovereignty but conceding the particular issues in the dispute, in the name of peace—fell on deaf ears in 1775, but something of its spirit lived on in the “union of the empire” Americans built for themselves. George Washington spoke with pride of the “stubendous fabrick of Freedom and Empire” created by the American Revolution, one that would be an asylum for the oppressed peoples of Europe. Jefferson wrote of an “empire of liberty” and an “empire for liberty,” neither of them having in their minds’ eye a system of domination. These expressions evoke themes that stubbornly resonate to this day.

Pages