The American Empire? Not so fast.

Author:Schlesinger, Arthur Jr.

The one thing that Noam Chomsky and Paul Wolfowitz might agree upon is the reality of an American Empire. Of course, Chomsky regards the American Empire as a monstrosity and Wolfowitz regards it as the savior of humanity, but of its existence neither has any doubt. Commentators make comparisons to the great empires--to the Roman Empire; to the nineteenth-century British and French empires. Is the so-called American Empire a fitting successor to these historic empires? Certainly the overwhelming military, economic, and cultural power projected by the United States at the start of the twenty-first century should qualify as imperial. But does its history commit the United States to an imperial destiny?

Historians who believe in the American Empire, pro or con, think it does. Some cite the use of the word "empire" by Americans when the United States itself was struggling to be born. In 1783, George Washington called the infant republic a "rising Empire." A few years later in the Fourteenth Federalist, James Madison spoke of the "extended republic" as "one great, respectable, and flourishing empire." The case turns on the meaning of "empire" in the eighteenth century. If one consults the standard modern work on the subject, Richard Koebner's Imperialism: The Story and Significance of a Political Word, one finds that the Latin word "imperium" meant sovereignty, the exercise of authority, and that in the eighteenth century the word "empire" by no means implied territorial expansion. Look at a contemporaneous dictionary--say the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1771--and one finds "empire" defined as "a large extent of land under the jurisdiction or government of an emperor." The first European example mentioned is Charlemagne, of whom the Britannica says, "It is to be observed that there is not a foot of land or territory annexed to the emperor's title."

"Imperialism" did not appear as a word until the nineteenth century. Its first application was not to overseas expansion but to the domestic pretensions of Napoleon III, emperor of France. As late as 1874, when Walter Bagehot wrote "Why an English Liberal May Look Without Disapproval on the Progress of Imperialism in France," he referred to France's internal polity, not to its foreign policy. The contemporary meaning of imperialism as the domination of distant peoples appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century.

So evidence derived from the use of the word "empire" by Americans in the eighteenth...

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