- American Empire in Global History ed. by Shigeru Akita
American Empire in Global History
New York: Routledge, 2022. 254 pages.
Over the past years, scholars have found themselves engaging once more in debates on the history of America’s ascendance and dominance as a global power. Several continue to highlight principles such as democracy, liberty, and freedom and juxtapose these against European autocracy and fascism. The publication of A. G. Hopkins’s American Empire: A Global History (Princeton University Press, 2018) provides new ways of conceptualizing the American empire. In his work, Hopkins not only challenges the concept of American exceptionalism but also constructs a timeline spanning three centuries and uses a thematic approach in tracing the origins and development of the American empire. The work has elicited different reactions from scholars around the globe, including Shigeru Akita, editor of the anthology American Empire in Global History. The anthology is a collaboration among several European, American, and Asian scholars whose essays present different perspectives on the historical meanings, development, and significance of the American empire. As Akita clearly states, the aim of the anthology is to “locate and interpret familiar features of US history as crucial components of global history” (4).
In the first three chapters, scholars analyze the development of the American empire throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. All support Hopkins’s argument that the US remained dependent on the Anglo-American [End Page 275] connection even as it created its economic, political, and cultural institutions after the American Revolution. Great Britain remained the main market for American raw materials, and immigrants coming from England were granted easy access and citizenship. However, Hopkins’s claim that American imperial formation only began after the Spanish–American War has generated different reactions from other scholars, including Patrick Griffin, Max M. Edling, and Jay Sexton.
Griffin believes that the development of the US as an empire caused scholars to debate on the entanglement of the “post-colonial” and “post-revolutionary” state of America (21). He argues that America was born in both a “colonial and revolutionary age,” making Americans both “colonists and imperial people” (22). Since Americans became colonists first and imperialists later, they could not “accept that they were creating something that resembled an empire” (31). Griffin concludes that Thomas Jefferson’s idea of an “empire of (and for) liberty” already represented the shaping of America’s imperial character through the concept of “settler colonialism.” He claims that when territorial expansion took place during the time of Jefferson, America was a “sovereign expansive state,” which exerted its hegemony over indigenous communities (31).
Edling, expanding on Griffin’s “empire of liberty” argument, contends that the US acted as a “settler colonial state towards native people” (51) in the so-called long nineteenth century. He questions the use of the term “empire” in describing American territorial expansion, although seemingly conceding that the incorporation of territories and people into the Union is “close to establishing a formal empire” (50). He states that during the nineteenth century the US conquered, annexed, and purchased overseas territories with the aim of expanding its territorial domain, not of establishing a formal empire (40). The process, according to him, was through incorporation or cloning (47), whereby the US took possession of the lands of the indigenous people, stripped them of their autonomy, and transformed them into “Americans,” paving the way for the entry of white migrants and the formation of settler colonies that were incorporated into the Union. The federal government made sure that peoples and the states being incorporated were “fit” and “worthy” as demonstrated in their allegiance to republican ideals and principles. The Union rejected other territories deemed unfit like the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. Edling argues that the “unwillingness to incorporate the new dominions [End Page 276] into the Union made overseas expansion qualitatively different from western expansion” (57). Nevertheless, while the idea of “empire of liberty” was rooted in the principles of popular sovereignty, constitutional government, and representative democracy, the nation also promoted a specific racial hierarchy. The empire of liberty affirmed white supremacy and extended its dominion over the North American continent.