Richard H. Immerman, Empire for Liberty, A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz

By Branda, Oana-Elena | CEU Political Science Journal, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Richard H. Immerman, Empire for Liberty, A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz


Branda, Oana-Elena, CEU Political Science Journal


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

The academic profile of Richard Immerman places him in the field of US foreign relations research. That is why a book about the American Empire viewed from a conceptual and rather philosophical side came as a surprise. Empire for Liberty, A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz is an effort to build along a chronological line, the argumentation to support today's existence of an American Empire. The book focuses on the evolution of the idea of an American Empire from the 18th century to present day. According to Immerman, the American Empire was built in two centuries, with extreme strains made not only by decision makers, but also by the people.

The six chapters of the book include the stories of six men who influenced the rise of the American Empire. Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Seward, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Foster Dulles, and Paul Wolfowitz are powerful figures who have left a distinctive mark in the American history. With the exception of John Quincy Adams, who was the sixth president of the United States, all of them had remarkable positions in state affairs. What united them was the idea of building an Empire for Liberty, which was to extend the blessings of its nation to other nations worldwide and set an example as far as state evolution is concerned.

Immerman's choice of characters resides in each man's efforts made to accomplish this imperial dream. They were all true believers in America's exceptional destiny and each of them had pursued his own specific path to help turn the United States of America into an Empire. Franklin, for example, believed in the force of identity and citizenship, Quincy Adams advocated cementing liberty from slavery, Seward tried to establish a commercial empire, Lodge supported a US navy to pioneer US initiatives overseas, Dulles backed the idea of US leadership to ensure global peace and civilization and Wolfowitz embraced the credo that the US mission was to provide global democratization.

The topic is ambitious, being embedded in a wider literature characterized by similar endeavors. (2) The goal is to illustrate how these statesmen influenced and worked towards the goal of extending the newly forming United States to the status of an empire, within a dramatic historical context: slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq are a few examples.

An interesting approach that Immerman uses is to oppose antagonizing views; for instance, he contrasts the mere existence of the US Empire with the fact that the US always seemed reluctant to pose as just another empire. If George Washington and Benjamin Franklin started the development of an American empire, as the antidote and the superior of all other existing empires, George W. Bush tried to put an end to it by stating that there is no such thing, argues Immerman. However, he extracts brand new ideas which show the US as an expanding empire. Its inner growth and external expansion are concomitant and interdependent, and Liberty is an integral part of this empire

From Immerman's perspective, empire and liberty are mutually reinforcing. In the 20th century, the empire the US built, which according to Immerman is the most powerful in world history, was based on global leadership, military superiority and the worldwide spread of institutions that bear the US emblem: NATO, the UN, the IMF, the WTO and many others. Nevertheless, it appears that the 19th century was the climactic moment for this empire for liberty because, in the 20th century, America turned into an empire of liberty for its own people only. …

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