Empires and the American imagination, c. 1763- c.1900

Course Material 2022/23

For decades, American historians have argued about whether the United States should be considered an empire, or about when its transition to imperial status took place. Much less attention has been paid to how Americans themselves understood and encountered imperialism, especially during the high-water mark of European empires in the nineteenth century. This course invites students to examine imperialism through the observations and engagements of Americans both at home and overseas. Through close scrutiny of a wide range of primary sources, we will consider how other people’s empires affected American ideas about how the world should be governed. We’ll also try to determine how American journalists, missionaries, businessmen, diplomats and politicians –not to mention the readers of U.S. magazines and newspapers –came to see a role for the United States within a world in which empire seemed normative.

The course begins with a consideration of the imperial crisis which produced the United States, and asks whether the American Revolution should be viewed as a truly anti-imperial moment. (Put more crudely: did Americans rebel against British mismanagement of empire, or the concept of empire itself?) Other seminars will consider American vantages on a wide range of imperial activity. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, we’ll examine how Americans assessed the claims and actions of the Spanish in Latin America, the Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean, and the British and French in Africa, Asia and beyond.We’ll also look at how Americans applied imperial technology and precedent within North America, along with fledgling plans for U.S. colonies or protectorates in Liberia and the Caribbean. The course concludes by considering the fierce public debate over the U.S. acquisition of overseas territories in the 1890s. We’ll compare this ‘imperial awakening’ with U.S. perspectives on Britain’s (nearly contemporaneous) involvement in the Boer War, and with American views of European imperialism more generally.

Sources range from private letters and journals to published travelogues, newspaper and magazine articles, government reports and documents, and congressional speeches. Although the majority of our sources were written by white men, the question of empire engaged female missionaries and suffragists, black nationalists and abolitionists, Cuban and Puerto Rican exiles in New York, and a variety of other voices. The readings will incorporate these diverse viewpoints, and students will be invited to consider how the production of ideas about empire in the United States was inflected by race and gender.


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Image: Sketche of the combatants in Cuba during their revolution against Spain for independence by Frederic Remington.