The phrase, “Empire of Liberty” was used in 1780 by Thomas Jefferson to assert that it was America’s responsibility to spread freedom all over the globe. The concept was motivated by his fear of and hatred for the growth and spread of the British Empire. On 25 December 1780, Jefferson wrote to George Rogers Clark: “… we shall form to the American Union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and to the empire of liberty and extensive and fertile country, thereby converting dangerous enemies into valuable friends” (Margulies 68). Jefferson envisioned an American “empire” expanding towards the west. He saw the extension into the West as being crucial to the future of America.
An achievement of his presidency as regards the vision was his buying of Louisiana from the French. The acquisition of the new territory nearly doubled the size of the republic, in addition to which the barrier that it was to the Western expansion was removed. Jefferson remarked on his success, “I confess I look to this duplication of area for the extending of a government so free and economical as ours, as a great achievement to the mass of happiness which is to ensue” (Hirst 395).
It can be interpreted that, by the phrase “Empire of Liberty,” Jefferson meant the expansion of America by acquiring lands that were under the occupation of the European colonialists (the British and the French), and hence establishing an empire where people can live in freedom, an empire free of colonial rule. At this time, his goal was not just to liberate America from the British and the French, but also to actually acquire the colonies and build a single vast empire out of them.
Several events occurred between the occupations of the Americas by the Europeans and the period of the American Revolution, during when the quest for the “Empire of Liberty” was launched by Jefferson. The onset of the occupation of the Americas can be traced back to the 10th century. It is then that Norse sailors’ exploration led them to the shores of what are today Canada and Greenland, at which they settled, and out of which they were driven by conflicts with the locals. In 1492, the Spanish explorer, Christopher Columbus, in his search for another trade route to the Far East, advertently discovered the Americas (Goldstein 14). Thus, Spain became the first European country to establish colonies in the Americas. These events paved the way for other powers such as Britain and France. The occupation was met with resistance from the locals. Such crimes as the genocide of the Native Americans took place.
The establishment of the Empire of Liberty can be argued to have started with the American Revolution, for it is during it that Jefferson used the phrase. During the American Revolution political upheavals of the period between 1765 and 1783, the United States of America was founded by Thirteen American Colonies (Middleton and Lombard 23). Driven by their disapproval of the aristocracy and monarchy of the British, they overthrew Great Britain’s authority. Protests against the British government were instigated by the British authorities’ introduction of taxation and imposition of duties on goods such as molasses and sugar. A group of colonists, known as the patriots, started protests, to which the British responded with punitive laws. In order to strengthen their resistance against the British, the patriots formed their own government. Military confrontations with British followed, what came to be known as the American Revolution. Hence, an “Empire of Liberty” of liberty was born, and was in its infancy.
The “Empire of Liberty” was not to be limited to the region of America that had obtained freedom from the British; that freedom was to be spread to regions beyond it. Jefferson started his pursuit of the formation of the empire by first purchasing Louisiana from the French for $ 15 million dollars in 1803 (History.com par. 1), an action that almost doubled the size of the empire. Jefferson’s justification for the expansion was that more land was needed for farming to provide enough for the ideal and free people. Americans left the East in masses and migrated freely westwards where the lands were more fertile and hence better for farming. By contrast to the then British’s class system which was a stratification of its society, everyone in America was free to pursue their economic goals. There were no restrictions; only freedom and liberty.
The concept of liberty in the empire was put under the spotlight by the issue of slavery. Slavery continued to raise concerns and issues as the empire extended. While the Southern economy continued to rely on slave labor in its cotton production, the Northerners held that the continued expansion of slavery was an impediment on their liberty as citizens and farmers. They had no objection to slavery; rather, their concern was that slavery was hampering their economic prospects (History.com par. 5). Americans continued to migrate westwards, even into territories that were still under British rule.
The expansion of the empire of liberty continued after the founding of the United States of America. Only that this time it was not about acquisition of new lands; rather it was about spreading freedom to lands far and beyond its shores, offering the rest of the world liberty. This is seen in the United States’ reluctance to take part in World War II. The country’s entry into the war was prompted by the sinking of its ship by the Japanese (Layton 133). The United States fought alongside the Allied forces against the occupation of Europe by the Nazi Germans. The United States also contributed to the liberalization of Asian countries from Japanese occupation. The country also offered war refugees asylum. The refugees were welcomed into the land of freedom by the Statue of Liberty.
After World War II, the Empire of Liberty faced a new threat: the Soviet Union. The capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union had fought alongside each other in the liberation of occupied countries against the Nazis and the Japanese. At the end of the War, the liberated countries found themselves split into communist and capitalist parts. For instance, Vietnam was split into communist North Vietnam and Capitalist South Vietnam. In order to curb the influence of the Soviet Union, the United States offered military support to South Vietnam and other Asian countries that were under the threat of invasion by their soviet union backed communist sections. The main motivation for the United State’s involvement in the Vietnam War was for the purposes of the cold war against Russia. Otherwise, the Vietnam War would have been prevented.
The United States is arguably an imperialist. It started expanding its empire of liberty after its founding by acquiring new territories and letting its citizens migrate into territories that were not theirs. It involved itself militarily in the World War in foreign lands in the name of spreading freedom, and even fought proxy wars as part of its cold war against the Soviet Union. Today, the United States continues to use its economic edge to influence global politics and diplomacy.
Goldstein, Margaret J. You Are Now on Indian Land: The American Indian Occupation of
Alcatraz Island, California, 1969. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2011.
Hirst, Francis W. Life and Letters of Thomas Jefferson. London, 1926. Print.
History.com Staff. “Westward Expansion.” History.com. 2009. Web. 19 June 2015.
Layton, Donald. World War Ii: A Global Perspective. S.l.: Kendall Hunt, 1998. Print.
Margulies, Phillip. America’s Role in the World. New York: Facts On File, 2009. Print.
Middleton, Richard, and Anne S. Lombard. Colonial America: A History to 1763. Oxford:
Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.
Wiest, Andrew A. The Vietnam War, 1956-1975. New York: Rosen Pub, 2009. Print.