Empire for Liberty. Richard H. Immerman. Princeton University Press, 2010.

History takes on an interesting life when written as well as Richard Immerman’s new book Empire for Liberty, with the lengthy subtitle “A History of American Imperialism From Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz.” Immerman’s work ranges, as indicated, from the foundation of the United States to its second to last manifestation under the George W. Bush government. The six figures through whose lens the creation of empire is viewed are major figures in the era that they served, but only one actually served as president. This supports one of the main ideas of Immerman — and other historians — that it is not the presidency that defines a unique and particular paradigm or epoch with each change in government, but that there is a consistency with U.S. imperial/foreign policy that has existed since the foundation of the original United States.

At initial view, the trajectory of the six persons studied may appear subject to a disjointed story, yet the history flows from one person to the other not just on the consistency of the policy issues, but with the connections between the various persons via their families, friends, and political associates. They are all bred from the same elite group that has been in power from the beginning, undergoing political name changes and sometimes political rhetoric, but always with the same message: the empire for liberty.

What Immerman highlights within this theme is that the empire is much more about empire and much less about liberty. With that, he begins with a discussion on what an empire consists of and what liberty consists of, having more difficulty defining the latter than the former. His work “seeks to persuade the reader that America is and always has been an empire,” and that the “extension of America’s territory and influence has always been inextricably tied to extending the sphere of liberty.” He admits that liberty is interpreted “so broadly and in so many different contexts, that it all but loses its meaning.”

One of the “fundamental features of empire” identified by Immerman is that within an empire, “Centralization and integration are distinct from equalization…. Class and regional differences [remain].” Further, “Because of violence’s historic role in the establishment of empires, not all the people with 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.” After exploring the various permutations of empire, Immerman concludes that the U.S. “fit even the most restricted definition of empire by the outbreak of the Civil War.” His work takes a broader perspective, however, and sees the U.S. empire as roll-over from the intentions of the British Empire on the North American continent.

While introducing the six persons chosen for the essays, Immerman indicates that “Neither the formulation nor implementation of U.S. foreign policy is democratic. Only an elite few get a ‘Vote.’ By their rhetoric and by their values, these individuals gave voice” to the silent majority and “played pivotal roles in shaping the course of the American empire.” From his clearly developed thesis and his strong precis of the important players of his choice, the characterizations that follow provide a lively, entertaining, and informative package on the development of the U.S. empire of liberty.

Liberty…and racism

The central theme that keeps reoccurring is that of ‘liberty’, and how it is misused and abused as part of the rhetoric of empire. It begins initially of course with the obvious lack of liberty for the black slaves and the indigenous population, the sub-theme running throughout of this brand of liberty being racist (and thus unequal and non-democratic).

Benjamin Franklin is first on the list, at first an ardent supporter of the British Empire, who from circumstances changed allegiance to the new American Empire, “His choice of an American empire over Britain’s was his most difficult, agonizing decision.” Even here at the start, the concept of liberty was limited. Franklin’s goal for the American revolution was “to create the institutions under which ordered liberty could thrive” (italics in original), but while often speaking of liberty, it “was a means to an end, not an end in itself.” For the indigenous people, “it never occurred to him to grant Indians the liberty to remain on the land,” and “it never really occurred to him that Canadians were at liberty to resist envelopment by the American empire,” and he still denied liberty to his slave.

As the nascent empire expanded, it ran full on into the conflict between expansion and liberty. The concept of expanding one’s empire to protect the homeland is not a 21st century concept, but had its origins with the southward and westward expansion of the U.S. In the era of John Quincy Adams, the next of Immerman’s subjects, the acquisition of Florida involved inhabitants “sympathetic to the United States [who] would stage coups and then request U.S. annexation.” That successful paradigm was accompanied by “just war ideology” suffused with the “racism he shared with his countrymen” to articulate a doctrine of the right to defensive war.

These policies led to Adams prescient thoughts on the empire, that “by enlisting under other banners than her own…the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world.” During this era of the creation of the Monroe Doctrine, more contradictions rose, as “The more forcefully [Monroe] demanded the abolition of colonization, the more difficult it became to divorce the expansion of U.S. territory from the expansion of slavery.”

Slavery, insisted the southerners, “was the purest form of liberty.” While best remembered for his opposition to slavery and the annexation of Texas, at the end of his life and career, “Adams had yet to denounce slavery publicly. Union and empire always took precedence.”

Commerce and the military

The concept of liberty became conflated with commercial prosperity, as phrased by Immerman’s third candidate of empire, William Henry Seward, who proclaimed commerce “the chief agent of its [America’s] advancement and enlargement of empire.” This commercial empire, had the military to support it, as evident in “Admiral Matthew Perry’s coercive ‘opening’ of Japan in 1854 to American trade.” Seward was one of the first proponents who “advocated enhancing U.S. military, especially naval, capabilities, and signaling America’s willingness to use force to buttress its diplomacy,” and thus its commercial control.

Following Seward, Henry Cabot Lodge championed the same militant perspective, one that continued especially through the Latin Americas. During this era, secretary of state James Blaine “marked the shift toward the aggressive global posture that portended America’s emergence as an overseas empire.” Hawaii, the Philippines, and Venezuela all were subject to the more aggressive posturing. Liberty, for Lodge, “was never more than an abstraction.”

The acquisition of Hawaii was represented through the commercial interests of white sugar agribusinesses, but for Lodge “military and strategic concerns were paramount,” concerns that “were inseparable from America’s national character…the character of force.” Lodge became the “point man for American imperialism,” who was not concerned about possible damage to the domestic sugar industry; nor were there any “considerations of the native Hawaiian’s liberty,” as “upon these islands rest a great part of the future commercial progress of the United States.”

Lodge’s rhetoric played the race card as well, as the U.S. imperial drive “makes for civilization and the advancement of the race.” His rhetoric also included the arrogance and conceit of empire, boasting “We have a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequalled by any people of the nineteenth century.” Lodge perceived the U.S.’s mission as “a mission of freedom”, yet the contradictions of freedom with the obvious racist overtones of statements made about the Philippines “demonstrated a remarkable facility for intellectual gymnastics.”