Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz

By Richard H. Immerman | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
Contending with the American Empire

In 1783, the year the United States formally gained its independence from Great Britain, George Washington described the newborn republic as a “rising empire.” He elaborated a few years later, as the fledgling nation struggled for viability under the restraints imposed by the Articles of Confederation and the constraints imposed by the European powers. America was but an “infant empire,” Washington conceded to his former comrade–in–arms, the Marquis de Lafayette. “However unimportant America may be considered at present,” he nevertheless predicted, “there will assuredly come a day, when this country will have some weight in the scale of Empires.”1

Washington could not have been more prescient. Yet it remained for the young Alexander Hamilton to capture the complexity of what would become the American experience. For the purpose of generating support for the new Constitution, Hamilton characterized the United States in the lead Federalist Paper as “an impire [sic] in many ways the most interesting in the world.” That it was, and that it still is.2

Little about the history of the United States is more contested than the question of whether it warrants the label empire. It took eight years of bitter war to liberate America from the shackles of the British Empire. To classify the United States with its imperial ancestor, let alone more recent exemplars and wannabes—the Germans and Soviets, for example—seems perverse, an affront to America's self–identity as well as history. Former president George W Bush is but one among many to scoff at the suggestion that the United States should be tarred with the imperial brush. “America has never been an empire,” he proclaimed indignantly when campaigning for the presidency in 1999. This denial was not enough. Bush added, “We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused—preferring greatness to power, and justice to glory.”3

Allowing for political hyperbole, Bush expressed American orthodoxy at the dawn of the twenty–first century. A small minority did

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