The idea of an American “empire” is not new to the twenty-first century. In fact, it is as old as the Republic itself. What some today call the “American Empire” emerged gradually and in two separate phases. The first phase began immediately after the War of Independence and lasted until the late nineteenth century. The second phase began around the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and continues to this day. Each phase of empire began with an idea championed by brilliant, articulate, and persuasive proponents.
One proponent was an illegitimate child born on an island in the Caribbean Sea who came to the American colonies, fought in the War of Independence, wrote insightful and influential articles about the structure of the new United States government, financial institutions, and commercial industries, advised the president of the United States, and rose to the high office of Treasury Secretary. The other was born on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, fought in the American Civil War, wrote brilliant articles and books about naval history and strategy, advised the president of the United States, and rose to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. Respectively, their visions and ideas provided the intellectual foundations for the 13 original American states to expand into a continental empire in the nineteenth century, and for that continental empire to emerge as a global superpower in the twentieth century.
Hamilton’s approach to economic and foreign policy was based on his belief and hope that the United States could emerge as a great empire, rivaling, and someday surpassing, the empire of Great Britain. Indeed, Great Britain was his model for shaping U.S. economic policies and institutions. Hamilton greatly admired the British Empire for its unparalleled financial and commercial power and its preeminent global position. As Treasury Secretary he generously borrowed British financial practices and encouraged trade with our former colonial masters and wartime antagonist. As chief foreign policy advisor to President Washington, he counseled cooperation with Britain, focused on the common security interests of Britain and the United States, and advocated the development of strong U.S. naval power.
In 1795, Hamilton described his country as the “embryo of a great empire.”3 Even before the American Revolution, Hamilton predicted that “in fifty or sixty years, America will be in no need of protection from Great Britain. She will then be able to protect herself, both at home and abroad. She will have plenty of men and a plenty of materials to provide and equip a formidable navy.”4
Hamilton’s vision of empire extended to the entire Western Hemisphere. In Federalist 11, he wrote that the nation’s “situation” and “interests” prompt it to “aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs,” and he advocated “erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.”
The United States during most of the nineteenth century pursued and achieved Hamilton’s vision of a continental empire and a dominant position in the Western Hemisphere. That remarkable achievement resulted not just from Hamilton’s idea of an American Empire, but also from the financial and commercial dynamism and energy he set in motion as our nation’s first Treasury Secretary. As Ron Chernow concluded, “No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.”7 “Today,” wrote Chernow, “we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America…”8
By the late nineteenth century, the United States had achieved hegemony over the center of North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The American Empire stretched from “sea to shining sea.” This was the same time period when the great powers of Europe were busy conquering and governing colonial empires in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. Would the United States join in the struggle for empire? Should the United States join in the struggle for empire?
Alfred Thayer Mahan
Like Hamilton, he admired the British Empire and believed that the United States and Great Britain had common security interests. As early as 1890, in an article in the Atlantic Monthly, Mahan urged U.S. policymakers to come to a “cordial understanding” with Great Britain because both nations had “a similarity of character and ideas” that would eventually result in “co-operation beneficial to both.”11 Four years later, Mahan wrote an article for the North American Review entitled, “The Possibilities of an Anglo-American Reunion.” In that article, he wrote, “To Great Britain and the United States…is intrusted (sic) a maritime interest in the broadest sense of the word, which demands, as one of the conditions of its exercise and its safety, the organized force adequate to control the general course of events at sea…”12
Though initially an isolationist, Mahan, after reading Theodore Mommsen’s multi-volume The History of Rome and researching Great Britain’s use of sea power to construct and expand its empire, converted to a strong proponent of imperialism.13 In a letter written in 1896, Mahan opined that “the time has come…when [the United States] should and must count for something in the affairs of the world at large.” A hundred years ago, he continued, the U.S. policy of isolation was “wise and imperative,” but now it was time to “take our share in the turmoil of the world….”14
Mahan also advocated the construction of an inter-oceanic canal across the Central American isthmus which would foster U.S. control of the Caribbean Sea maritime region and enable our navy to more readily transit between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Mahan’s writings eventually brought him to the attention of Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt shared Mahan’s views that the United States needed to play a larger role in the world and consequently required a stronger navy. Mahan and Roosevelt began a correspondence in 1888 that continued until Mahan’s death in 1914. In these remarkable letters, the two men discussed naval strategy, history, and international relations. In one letter, Roosevelt told Mahan that he had studied his books “to pretty good purpose.”16 Mahan did not have a permanent official position in Roosevelt’s administration, and he did not influence Roosevelt to the extent that Hamilton influenced Washington. But Mahan did exert a significant influence on Roosevelt’s thinking concerning naval strategy and America’s position in the world.
Mahan’s influence, however, like Hamilton’s, extended beyond the President he advised to the entire nation and to future American statesmen. Mahan envisioned the United States as the geopolitical successor to the British Empire, exerting its financial, military, and political influence to advance its interests and maintain the global balance of power. In The Interest of America in International Conditions (1910), Mahan warned of the growing menace to the balance of power posed by Wilhelmine Germany and advocated a U.S. alliance with Britain, France, and Russia to offset German power. In The Problem of Asia (1905), Mahan envisioned a maritime alliance between the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Japan to counter Russian land power in the heart of Asia (a remarkable prediction of the post-World War II U.S. policy of containment).
Fareed Zakaria called Mahan “the most prominent intellectual figure to advocate expansion” in nineteenth century America.17 Walter LaFeber placed Mahan among the strategists who “led the United States into the international power politics of the early twentieth century.”18 Margaret Sprout wrote that Mahan “played a leading role in persuading the United States to pursue a larger destiny overseas during the opening years of the twentieth century.”19 Charles Hubbard called Mahan “an influential promoter of United States naval and commercial expansion during America’s rise to world power in the late nineteenth century.”20 Hans Weigert claimed that Mahan “preached the gospel of the new American Imperialism drawing its strength from sea power, and a new Manifest Destiny based on America’s future role as the leading maritime nation in the world.”21
America’s place in the world today is much as it was envisioned by Hamilton and Mahan. Both believed that it was the destiny of the United States to expand, prosper, and play a leading role in world affairs. By a remarkable historical coincidence, these brilliant and prolific men attained the height of their influence at important turning points in American history. Hamilton’s ideas profoundly influenced the nation as it emerged from its War of Independence, formed governing institutions, and began to move forward as an independent and growing country. Mahan’s ideas profoundly influenced the nation as it moved from consolidating its control of the continent to find its role in the larger world.
3. Robert Kagan, “Our Messianic Impulse,” Washington Post, December 10, 2006
11. A.T. Mahan, “The United States Looking Outward,” in The Interest of America in Sea Power Present and Future (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1898). First published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1890.
13. For an exhaustive analysis of Mahan’s writings on international relations and geopolitics, see my lengthy introductions to Mahan’s The Problem of Asia: Its Effect upon International Politics (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003), Introduction by Francis P. Sempa, pp. 1-49 and Mahan’s The Interest of America in International Conditions (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003), Introduction by Francis P. Sempa, pp. 1-37.
14. Mahan to James R. Thursfield, January 10, 1896, in Robert Seager II and Dorothy Maguire, eds., The Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan , vol. II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975), p. 442.