Thu 21 Oct 21
How America evolved into an empire is the subject of a new book by Dr Andrew Priest.
Designs on Empire. America’s Rise to Power in the Age of European Imperialism sheds new light on the little-studied late 19th century history of the nation when it was exploring its place in the world by looking to Europe.
Through four case studies Dr Priest explains how the US responded to significant moments in European imperialism, demonstrating that the country was beginning to think like an empire well before it’s generally accepted to have become an empire when it seized Cuba and the Philippines in 1898.
“Despite often claiming to be anti-imperialist the USA was developing ideas about colonialism from its earliest days, a process that intensified after the end of the American Civil War in 1865 as it became more assertive on the world stage and responded to the powerful European empires of the day, said Dr Priest.
“People often think about the US becoming an empire in 1898 but actually America was advancing its own brand of global civilisation well before that,” he added.
The book explores how the American elite viewed and responded to four key moments: French intervention in Mexico in the 1860s; Spanish imperialism in Cuba and the Ten Years’ War from 1868-1878; British intervention in Egypt in the 1880s; and German imperialism in Africa and the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.
"People often think about the US becoming an empire in 1898 but actually America was advancing its own brand of global civilisation well before that."
“No one has really looked at how the US responded to other empires at this time,” added Dr Priest, who was inspired to explore the period after teaching about America’s place in the world in the Department of History.
The book shows how European empires influenced American understanding of its growing power and how moments like the abolition of slavery in 1865 gave American elites the justification for seeking to spread US civilization to what they perceived to be less-developed nations and cultures.
Concluding the book Dr Priest writes: “Like the progenitors of European empire, American commentators privileged what they thought of as universal concepts of civilization and modernity, and they promoted such ideas because they believed all peoples around the globe should aspire to them…However much they may have balked at some of the methods of European imperialism, whether in the Americas, Africa or Asia, their mentality often increasingly mirrored it.”
According to reviewers the book, which is published by Columbia University Press, is “a novel and welcome contribution to America’s fraught relationship with imperialism”, and a “deeply researched, tightly written” book which “forcefully challenges the exceptionalist view that the United States was both nonimperial and uninvolved in European affairs prior to the 1890s.”
Designs on Empire. America's Rise to Power in the Age of European Imperialism is being launched at an online event on 27 October, 4pm-5.30pm.