Empire for Liberty PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Tuesday, 29 March 2011 08:35

Richard H. Immerman, Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz.  Princeton University Press, 2010.

George W. Bush expressed an article of American faith when he declared during the 1999 Presidential campaign, “America has never been an empire” and added, “We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused – preferring greatness to power, and justice to glory.” Newt Gingrich certainly agrees: America has “no interest in conquering territories,” he has stated, though we do have “every interest in getting people to believe in their freedom and getting people to govern themselves.” This reading of American history cuts across the political spectrum: We were born out of resistance to empire, President Obama has reminded hostile audiences.

Common as they are, such statements would have perplexed the Founders. Washington described America in 1783 as a “rising empire,” and later predicted that the “infant empire” that was born from the revolutionary war would one day “have some weight in the scale of Empires.” In Hamilton’s opinion, expressed in Federalist #1, America was “the most interesting” empire in the world. “Empire for Liberty,” the title that Temple University’s Richard Immerman chose for his book, is from Jefferson, who also described the United States as an “Empire of Liberty.”

Allowance must be made for changes in the meaning of the word. In early modern usage, “empire” was virtually synonymous with “rule,” “state,” or “nation.” By the time we get to the American founding, though, the word had taken on a good bit of its current meaning. Immerman writes that “When George Washington used the word empire, he meant a polity that exercise sovereignty over and was responsible for the security of a large expanse of territory that, composed of previously separate units now subordinate to the metropolis . . . included many peoples of diverse ‘races’ . . . and nationalities.” Washington’s definition of the term assumed that “not all the people within the heterogeneous population could qualify as citizens, not all were equal, not all could or would assimilate, and not all consented to the rule of the sovereign.”

Far from eschewing empire, many of the Founders aspired to build a “particular ‘genre’ of state that would grow in size, strength, and prosperity, exercise influence over populations that either considered themselves autonomous or resided beyond America’s political boundaries . . . and possess a centralized government.”  What the Founders did reject was colonization. They expected and wanted the US to expand, definitely to fill up the North American continent, and they were willing to fight Indians to achieve that aim. But they regarded colonization with abhorrence.

Immerman’s rich and detailed book examines six major players in the formation of the American empire.  Only one of the six was a US President (John Quincy Adams), several were powerful Secretaries of State (Adams, William Henry Seward, John Foster Dulles), another was an American diplomat (Benjamin Franklin), another a foreign affairs leader in the Senate (Henry Cabot Lodge), and the last a policy intellectual who has held second-tier posts in various recent administrations (Paul Wolfowitz). All of them were theorists as well as practitioners, and because the intellectual influence runs down the line from Franklin to Wolfowitz, Immerman’s book amounts to a brief history of American foreign policy.

One of the important lessons that emerges from the book is that American empire has had several different shapes. Franklin’s ambitions were impelled by demographic considerations; the United Stated had to expand to ensure that there would be sufficient land for American farmers. As Secretary of State throughout the 1860s, Seward believed that the key to American greatness was commercial expansion and he worked to form an “informal” empire of influence. During the “Great Aberration” of late nineteenth-century American colonization, Lodge banged the drum for a “national greatness” empire that would prove to the world that America was all growed up. Dulles’ main concern was security and he sought to extend the sphere of American influence in order construct a world where the US and nations like ours set the rules for everyone else.

Whatever form American empire has taken, though, it has always foundered on the clash between imperial aspirations and our commitment to liberty. If it is an empire for liberty, we should be conquering to liberate.  Yet, this impulse has tangled with American exceptionalism, which has sometimes implied that Americans are uniquely suited to be free. Blacks and Indians are the heart of the dilemma: How could the US expand into a vast empire without depriving Native Americans of liberty (not to mention land and life)? And how could the US claim to be an empire for liberty when a large number of states depended on slave labor?

The tensions between empire and liberty are particularly acute in Adams. Capitalizing on Andrew Jackson’s shenanigans in Florida, Adams brought East and West Florida into the American orbit. He also worked out a US claim to the Northwest and formulated the earliest form of what history knows as the “Monroe Doctrine.” Yet, Adams was a resolute opponent of slavery and the extension of slave-holding into new territories, and he insisted that America ought not stalk the world searching for monsters to fight.

Immerman makes his own opinions clear. Though America has brought benefits to the world, he argues that “by building an empire through either direct conquest or informal control the United States has frequently done evil in the name of good.” He closes the book hopeful that Obama will correct the excesses of the Bush administration. Yet, the book is fair and balanced. Immerman doesn’t demonize any of his subjects, even Wolfowitz, who in the end comes across as more pathetic than demonic. Because Immerman keeps close to the ground – sticking close to the sources and combining biography, political history, and the history of ideas – his book is an immensely valuable study of a contentious, and often misunderstood topic, and an antidote to the dangerous historical ignorance of too many Americans, even those in high places.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 29 March 2011 08:37