Atlantic History USA and Empire in the 19th Century
by
Christa Dierksheide
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0327

Introduction

During the course of the 19th century, the United States forged an empire on a continental scale and also made significant territorial gains overseas. While it had taken the British Empire a little over two centuries to settle the swath of land stretching between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, the fledgling postcolonial American nation managed to colonize a land mass several times larger in a fraction of the time. But all this expansion came at an enormous human cost, resulting in the death or removal of countless native peoples, the enslavement of millions of African Americans, and sectional tensions that led to the American Civil War. During the latter part of the century, Americans began pursuing an imperial project beyond the continent, waging war or initiating annexation projects in Santo Domingo, Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The sources collected here reflect the dynamism, contingency, and tragedy of American colonization efforts between 1776 and 1900.

General Overview

With the notable exception of Williams 2009 (originally published in 1959), most scholars balked at labeling the United States as an empire for much of the 20th century. But in the last several decades, historians have changed their tune, increasingly asserting that America is—and was—an imperial power. Scholars now emphasize that applying the lens of imperialism to American history helps globalize a historiography that has remained stubbornly tethered to the history of the nation-state, a problem that the transnational turn did not manage to remedy (Kramer 2011). The links—and disparities—between American claims to anti-imperialism and the realities of empire have been deftly treated in Sexton and Tyrell 2014. A seminal work, Stephanson 1995 interrogates American imperialism through the lens of “manifest destiny,” a concept that the author argues has informed US history from the Puritans to Reagan. Immerwahr 2019 shows how the United States managed to “hide an empire” in the 19th and early 20th centuries by acquiring or annexing territories without granting rights to the non-white peoples who lived there. The author of Maier 2006 uses a macrohistorical approach to situate American imperialism in a comparative framework. Immerman 2010 traces the evolution of ideas of US empire and pays particular attention to how they intersected with ideas of liberty.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Traces the American empire from its origins at the founding of the nation and shows that US politicians perennially used the rhetoric of liberty to further their imperial ambitions.

  • Immerwahr, Daniel. How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues that American imperialism was rooted in the imposition of US sovereignty over non-self-governing territories and non-white peoples in American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and elsewhere in the long 19th century.

  • Kramer, Paul A. “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World.” American Historical Review 116.5 (December 2011): 1348–1391.

    DOI: 10.1086/ahr.116.5.1348E-mail Citation »

    Follows the ebb and flow of use by historians of the term empire in American historiography, and calls for the application of imperialism to help globalize the history of the United States.

  • Maier, Charles S. Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674040458E-mail Citation »

    Situates the exercise of US power in the 19th and 20th centuries in the context of other imperial powers in world history.

  • Sexton, Jay, and Ian Tyrell. Empire’s Twin: U.S. Anti-imperialism from the Founding Era to the Age of Terrorism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.

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    Examines the important trope of anti-imperialism in American history, which underlays the persistent view of American foreign intervention as benign and rooted in freedom and equality.

  • Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right. New York, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues that between 1600 and 1990, what would become the United States was viewed as both a providentially sanctioned religious project and a secular nation committed to safeguarding the “liberty” of mankind.

  • Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1959 (Cleveland: World Publishing). Challenges traditional orthodoxy by asserting that the Cold War was not a result of Soviet aggression and the expansion of communism but rather of American “open door” imperialism.

  • Winks, Robin W. “The American Struggle with ‘Imperialism’: How Words Frighten.” In The American Identity: Fusion and Fragmentation. Edited by Rob Kroes, 143–177. Amsterdam: Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    Offers a highly illuminating critique of American historians’ ambivalence about using empire as a category of historical analysis.

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