To Dream a World American: An Empire State of Mind

Man, with his divine endowment of agency, will seek power inevitably. Stemming from a renaissance dating even to the neolithic era in which the human recognized his ability to act, make changes, and influence, the quest for power continues unquenched. History of man and his civilizations illustrates even for an untrained intellect that the empire, in all its glory, was not merely an end like so many great ones envisioned. The fragility of this existence of power invites us to ponder where exactly we fit in to it in modern times, and seek evidence of that imperial state of mind in the world today, specifically in the ever youthful United States of America . In selected readings of his 2010 book Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, author Jackson Lears does just that: empire as a way of life, and the rise of the American.

Historically, the idea of empire is not foreign nor does it go unmentioned or unnoticed on the tapestry of our human identity. The ancient Chinese dynasties, Holy Rome, Britain under King George, Hohenzollern Germany, and others in many ways propelled humanity forward and to greater heights, but they never lasted. With the relative advent of the American form of republican democracy, independence, popular sovereignty, separation of church and state, and a publicly ratified constitution, seeds of an imperial state were undoubtedly sowed as this American way gained momentum, inciting new attitudes of liberty and even rebellion in peoples across the globe. The birth of the United States ushered in a new kind of free humanity, but the rebirth Lears mentions helped define its place in the world.

Lears suggests in his book that the American empire “[was] indeed…different from the older European model – but only in its form, not in its essence…Progressive reformers sought regeneration by building a kingdom of God on Earth.” Interestingly enough, the nature of these ideas of the American ideology as a form of “savior” for the savage and degenerate populations of the world is a major element of American imperialism and often considered to be among the most important of elements, second maybe only to economic interests. The author spends multiple pages illustrating the Roosevelt style of proliferating this Americanism. Writers published works on the topic as tensions rose across the globe, most notably Rudyard Kipling recommending even, though satirically, to “Take up the white man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed, go send your sons to exile to serve your captives’ need.”

In the end, despite populist suspicions of overseas adventure, one conclusion is inescapable: the American empire was not simply an imposition by old elites eager to preserve and extend their power. It was also a new way of life. Lears delineates his point with several relevant examples, namely president Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal, crops in the Caribbean, and the view of the United States as the police of the world. U.S. “police power” would come to the aid of “civilized society,” combating not only “chronic wrongdoing” but also social chaos and political “impotence.” This was not old-style, corrupt European imperialism but a new, morally invigorating American version.

The historical significance of the budding American empire is clear when we consider the repercussions of many political, economic, and military maneuvers performed around the turn of the twentieth century. Many would argue that presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson were simply testing the capabilities of the American system abroad having so recently repaired it and redefined it domestically. Much like an Evangelical religious revival or “spiritual rebirth” in which the converted seek to convert, the United States showed signs of its own imperialism by the obvious increase in presence internationally as well as the acquisition of new territories in close proximity to continental shores. That is why Lears refers to it as part of the “rebirth.” 

The imperial side of the United States, as well as countless other bonafide empires throughout the history of mankind provides us insight into that part of humanity often most difficult to explain: intentions as civic altruism or simple political aggrandizement of the power seeking man. The United States certainly represents more of a grey area considering the evidence provided by Lears in his book, but let us remember that the American way is still very much a work in progress, and though in many ways we find ourselves today in better shape than those Americans a century ago, it would be naive to ignore the possibility of complete and utter demise should we not keep ourselves in check with our role in the world today, no matter how Americanized it may seem.

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