Tag Archives: Empire

Intertwined: Codependency and War

During President Thomas Jefferson’s second term in office, the sovereignty of the United States was challenged by both Great Britain and France. Europe was at war and Napoleon was determined to maintain control over European ports and trade. In a move intended to inflict economic injury on Great Britain, Napoleon established the Continental System, a policy that allowed France to confiscate all British goods entering Europe. As a consequence, trade goods which had made port in British harbors were also considered contraband regardless of their origins or the flag under which they flew. In retaliation, Great Britain, with its much larger navy, ratcheted up its control of the seas and began confiscating trade goods, ships, and sailors on both the oceans and just off the coastal waters of the United States. In June 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake in U.S. coastal waters. Thomas Jefferson was faced with a clear act of war, and an attack on the very sovereignty the United States had fought so hard to establish three decades earlier. Unfortunately, he led a nation as unprepared for war as it was dependent on trade with Europe.

When the modern citizen thinks of war preparation, thoughts usually turn to war machines and armed forces. By the twentieth century, the industrial might of the United States made it easy for the U.S. citizen to forget the difficulties that preparing for war entailed in the early industrial days when Thomas Jefferson was president. There was not simply the need to build up the navy and the army, but also the difficulty of supplying all the materials a navy and an army would require. Many in the United States believed that Europe, especially industrial Great Britain, relied so heavily on U.S. raw materials that they would suffer if those raw materials were denied them. Jefferson was certain that by withholding U.S. raw materials and agricultural products from Great Britain and France that the warring nations would relent and allow the U.S. to remain outside Europe’s conflict. In December, he convinced Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807 which, in short, grounded the U.S. merchant fleet.

Jefferson’s hope that the embargo would force the British and French to respect U.S. sovereignty did not work as he had hoped. Rather it increased smuggling, created discord at home, compounded the economic hardships already faced in much of the United States due to a recession, and spurred the growth of U.S. industrialization and manufacturing. Jefferson was not a proponent of urban manufacturing and industrialization but a believer in the virtue of an agrarian lifestyle. He believed that the United States would become an “empire of liberty” if focus was placed on an agrarian lifestyle and the ills of industrialization were avoided.

Without the ability to export raw materials, U.S. entrepreneurs looked for ways to use them at home. A direct increase in U.S. manufacturing can be traced to this period of time. Of great importance was the development of U.S. textile manufacturing which was still in its early stages when Jefferson set out to embargo British and French trade goods. As strange as it might seem, the notion of supplying standardized and functional uniforms for the armed forces was still rather new. In 1732 Maurice de Saxe wrote of the importance of providing uniforms for the army in addition to food, shelter, and weaponry. While Jefferson believed Europe was dependent on U.S. raw materials, in reality the U.S. was more heavily dependent on Europe for manufactured goods. In order to become a great power like the powers of Europe and defend its sovereignty, the United States would need to industrialize. It would need to produce at home the materials essential for war which included the clothing worn by its armed forces.

Jefferson had hoped that the embargo would not only provide time for the young nation to bolster home defenses and prepare for war, but that it would prevent war altogether by forcing Europe to recognize its dependency on U.S. raw materials. However, the embargo demonstrated two invaluable lessons. First, economic strength was as vital as military might. An empire, even one of liberty, required the economic strength and diversity to withstand the challenges of war, even a war it wanted to avoid. Second, no nation was truly isolated enough to survive on its own. Isolation was a mythical ideal that economic codependency and the nature of war made unrealistic. The fates of the nations of the world were already irrevocably intertwined.

Empires and Keeping the Peace

It is clear that as the European empires struggled to maintain control over their colonial possessions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States searched for footholds in the regions formally under European control. In the nineteenth century, the United States expanded westward and southward absorbing territory which had been held, often loosely, by Spain. In some cases, the United States annexed regions which became part of the union. In other cases U.S. businessmen, or filibusters, simply moved in and dominated the local economies. Due to the Napoleonic Wars and political shifts in Europe, little by little, European interests, or the ability to capitalize on the interests, in the Americas dwindled. Even Great Britain, the great empire of the 1800s, intensified its focus on developing colonial markets in Africa, India, and China rather than the Americas. Certainly the United States was not left alone in the Americas, but it was able to expand its sphere of influence, especially economic influence with greater ease during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

While the War of 1812 did not gain the United States territorial holdings in Canada as some had hoped it would, it did establish that the United States was willing to use war as a means to expand, even war with European powers.[1] During the decades following the war, the United States made it very clear to Europe that it intended to be the regional power in the Americas, and that it would not tolerate European interference. Great Britain was actively expanding and defending its worldwide empire, but U.S. Secretary of State John Q. Adams was determined to prevent Great Britain from taking advantage of Spain’s weakened control of territories in the Americas. In a debate with British Minister Stratford Canning in 1821, Adams pointed out that Britain was seeking to gobble up the world markets, even quipping that Britain might have designs on “a piece of the moon.” When the debate circled around to the question of whether the United States still had designs on Canada, Adams replied, “Keep what is yours and leave the rest of the continent to us.”[2]

Shortly after this debate on the expansion of spheres of influence and territorial acquisition, Adams drafted what would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. He encouraged President Monroe to take a bold stand on the issue of European interference in the Western Hemisphere. It did not matter whether it was Great Britain, France, or Russia who had their sights set on a piece of the Americas. The United States declared that it would act to prevent the further exploitation of the Americas by Europe, but that did not mean it would not exploit the Americas for its own benefit. Nor did it mean that it would not seek to spread U.S. political and economic influence beyond the Americas.

During the decades preceding the War of 1812, revolution and independence movements disrupted imperial control, but in the years preceding World War I, a rise in nationalist revolutions set the stage for the demise of the great empires of the previous centuries. Colonialism would be challenged and eventually, after a second world war, eliminated in its previous form. Yet, even as the sun was setting on the colonial system which had helped create the empires of the past, a new colonial structure began to emerge. While the world focused on the war raging in Europe, President Wilson was flexing U.S. muscle in the Americas.[3] Neocolonialism became the policy of a new and emerging empire – the United States. Maybe not an empire in the traditional sense, but an empire in how it used its influence to set economic and political policy favorable to its own national interests rather than the interests of the neighbors it policed. As the great empires of Europe warred and their colonial control declined over the resource rich regions which had once made them powerful, the United States (and later the Soviet Union) expanded a growing economic and political sphere of influence that would rival any traditional empire.  In some cases, the sphere would include a military presence or intervention to keep the peace. This was not necessarily a peace that benefited the citizens in the new nations emerging in the wake of decolonization, as much as it benefited U.S. economic interests; but as the United States would remind itself from time to time, peace even a forced peace, was better than war. When the forced peace protected U.S. economic growth and stability, forced peace would certainly, at least to the United States, be the lesser evil, even if it made the United States seem very much a twentieth century empire.



[1] Walter T. K. Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 73-74.

[2] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 134.

[3] Herring, 386.