What Is an Empire American History?

An empire in American history refers to a period when the United States of America exerted its power and influence over other nations and territories. The country’s expansionist policies during the 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in the acquisition of colonies, protectorates, and territories around the world. This article delves into the concept of empire in American history, exploring its origins, evolution, and impact on domestic and foreign affairs.

The Origins of Empire in American History

The idea of an American empire dates back to the early days of the republic when Thomas Jefferson first spoke of “empire for liberty.” He envisioned a vast continental nation that would serve as a beacon of freedom and democracy for people around the world. However, this vision was not without its contradictions.

On the one hand, Jefferson advocated for territorial expansion to create more space for agrarian farmers who would sustain the republic’s growth. On the other hand, he opposed a standing army or navy that could be used to conquer other nations forcibly. Jefferson’s ambivalence towards empire reflected a broader tension within American society between isolationism and interventionism.

The Age of Manifest Destiny

The concept of manifest destiny became popular in American political discourse during the mid-19th century. It held that it was God’s will for Americans to expand westward across the continent, displacing Native Americans and annexing Mexican territory. The Mexican-American War (1846-48) was a turning point in this process, as it resulted in significant territorial gains for the United States.

However, manifest destiny did not stop at North America’s borders. Many Americans believed that their nation had a duty to spread its values and institutions around the globe through diplomacy or force if necessary. This missionary impulse was evident in U.S. interventions in Latin America, Hawaii, Samoa, and other parts of the world during this period.

The Spanish-American War and Its Aftermath

The Spanish-American War (1898) marked a significant turning point in American history’s imperialist era. The conflict began as a dispute over Cuba’s independence from Spain, but it quickly escalated into a global conflict. The United States emerged victorious, gaining control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

The acquisition of the Philippines was particularly controversial because it marked the first time that the United States had acquired territory outside of North America. Anti-imperialist groups argued that this violated American principles of self-determination and consent of the governed. Nonetheless, the U. government saw the acquisition as an opportunity to spread American influence in Asia and project naval power in the Pacific.

The Legacy of Empire in American History

The era of American empire came to an end after World War II when many former colonies gained their independence. However, its legacy remains evident in various aspects of domestic and foreign affairs.

Domestically, empire contributed to the growth of federal power and institutions such as the military-industrial complex, which continues to shape U. policy today. It also had a significant impact on race relations, as colonialism reinforced racial hierarchies both at home and abroad.

In terms of foreign affairs, empire established patterns of interventionism that continue to this day. The United States has engaged in numerous military interventions since World War II, often citing humanitarian or security justifications for its actions.


In conclusion, empire is an essential concept in American history that reflects tensions between isolationism and interventionism, liberty and imperialism. Its legacy remains evident in various aspects of domestic and foreign affairs today. Understanding this legacy is crucial for making sense of current debates over U. global engagement and its place in the world order.