Concept of Empire

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The precise meaning of important political terms such as empire, republic, or democracy is always ambiguous. Conceptions of empire have served radically different and sometimes contradictory purposes. Some historians (and many lawyers) interpret a contested word by reducing it to a single meaning, even though the speaker or writer may have used that word either for its more general intimations and/or for one of its more precise, technical functions. There is always the risk of anachronistically imposing present definitions on past terms, as well as the opposite fallacy of concluding that earlier speakers did not use particular words in ways that are consistent with modern understandings. This essay explores these interpretive complexities by demonstrating how various conceptions of the word empire (and what is often seen as its alternative, republic) played a major role in American history prior to the American Revolution and during the Republic's early years. The first step is to perceive that people have used the word in four different ways—analytic-descriptive, empirical, emotive, and normative—to generate numerous definitions. (See Wilson, Imperial Republic, pp. 17–21.)

Analytic-descriptive usages are circular and clear-cut, leaving little disagreement about meaning and application. For example, the seventeenth-century republican theorist James Harrington employed the word empire as a synonym for imperium, using it to denote any form of political jurisdiction. Under that approach, every sovereign nation is an empire. The word sometimes signifies a nation that is expanding its boundaries, a definition that applied to the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but not subsequently. Or it can be a structural proposition. Edmund Burke wrote, "An empire is the aggregate of many states under one common head, whether this head be a monarch or a presiding republic." Empirical definitions are more contestable than analytic ones. If one characterizes an empire as a "powerful nation," how strong must a nation be before it is an empire? One must define "power" and compare the particular nation's strengths and weaknesses with the vigor of its neighbors and rivals. By 1760, during the French and Indian War, the British and their colonial allies had adopted an emotive conception of empire that encompassed feelings of unity, glory, conquest, and expansion. The most famous normative example came in the 1980s, when U.S. president Ronald Reagan castigated the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

rival conceptions of empire

In 1774 John Adams wrote a brief history of the "quarrel" between the colonies and the crown, titled Novanglus; or, a History of the Dispute with America from Its Origin, in 1754, to the Present Time. To rebut the pro-Parliament argument that the phrase British Empire implied parliamentary sovereignty over the colonies, Adams utilized two definitions of empire. He first limited "empires" to those regimes in which tyrannical emperors ruled their populace; he concluded that only the Russian, German, and Ottoman Empires fell within that structural definition, which was loaded with negative normative implications. Obviously, the British did not see themselves as the equivalent of the Turks. The British Empire was a "limited monarchy," limited by its republican aspects. Adams defined a republic as "a government of laws, and not of men." Next, Adams seemingly applied Harrington's analytic definition of empire as "government, rule, or dominion." Adams then, however, stripped those powerful words of much substantive content. He concluded that the colonies are under the "dominion and rule" of the King of Great Britain but are neither part of the Kingdom of Great Britain nor one of the king's "dominions." According to Adams, a person can only be part of a mixed, partially republican government like Britain's when that person is able to elect representatives. Because the colonists could not elect members to Parliament, he concluded that they were not within the realm of England.

Adams reformulated these two definitions of empire into one of the colonists' basic constitutional arguments: Parliament had no general jurisdiction over the colonies because Britain's republican principles required colonial representation within the legislative process, while the king retained no vast prerogative powers over the colonies because he would thereby have the powers of a tyrant. Adams distinguished Parliament's well-established power to regulate colonial commerce on the high seas by asserting that the colonies had consented to that power as a necessary part of the imperial connection. He provided numerous examples of the colonies' refusal to consent to any other parliamentary powers. If King George III sought additional revenues from America, he would have to persuade the colonial legislatures to raise taxes. The king had no legislative authority over the colonies; he needed consent from their legislatures before acting. However, Adams conceded that the king could order all British subjects to protect the empire.

In addition, Adams rejected the argument that Parliament retained sovereignty over the colonies under the long-standing political axiom of the indivisibility of sovereignty. Acknowledging that assumption's validity, Adams turned it against the defenders of British power: if Parliament had sovereignty, that body could do whatever it wished to the colonists, taking their life, liberty, and property and turning them into slaves. The only constitutional solution consistent with the British Empire's republican principles was for England to acknowledge that the colonies had become legislatively sovereign when they received their royal charters, which did not contain clauses reserving powers to Parliament. Furthermore, the British adopted the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty—the absolute power of any legislation that was passed by the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the king—as a result of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, several decades after the king had entered into contracts with the colonists by granting royal charters. In other words, parliamentary sovereignty was not coextensive with the British Empire, because the colonies were not part of Parliament's legal "empire" or of the king's "realm."

Although Adams's refutations of parliamentary sovereignty are internally consistent, his arguments limiting the royal prerogative are not entirely persuasive. How could the colonies be completely sovereign while retaining obligations to the king? (Adams conceded royal "dominion.") How could Adams agree with his opponents that the king was still "sovereign" and that the colonists were subordinate to the king, yet later assert that the king could not have independent power in the colonies since his power must either be total or nonexistent? If the king could order all subjects to defend the British Empire, must he first obtain their assent before drafting them into combat? Adams arguably reduced the crown to a figurehead without enforceable powers. It is hard to believe that the king knowingly contracted away all his coercive powers when he granted royal charters to various private entities that eventually evolved into the thirteen original colonies. This fundamental constitutional controversy—like the slavery issue almost a century later—could only be resolved militarily.

Long after the Revolution, James Madison described Benjamin Franklin as having been the leading Revolutionary theorist. Even though Adams was jealous of Franklin's international fame, Adams dated his arguments in Novanglus from the year 1754, the moment when Franklin warned the British not to tax the colonies because the latter were not represented in Parliament. While Adams's arguments were always learned and sometimes complex to the point of convolution, Franklin simply asserted in 1768 that the colonists should not be "subjects of subjects." All British subjects must be loyal to the king, but they could not be subordinated to other subjects in other parts of the British Empire. That is, the king's subjects in England had no constitutional authority to subjugate the king's subjects in America. To guarantee the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property of all Englishmen throughout the empire, the English constitution required political equality throughout the British Empire. In 1774 Thomas Jefferson brilliantly popularized these arguments in A Summary View of the Rights of British America, the same year that Adams wrote his far more sophisticated history. Jefferson's eloquence brought him to the attention of other Revolutionary leaders, generating so much admiration that they gave him primary responsibility for drafting the Declaration of Independence (with important assistance by John Adams, additional support by Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston, and a brief, late involvement by Franklin). Like Franklin, Jefferson spent less time than Adams worrying about the colonies' problematic relationship with the crown, focusing instead on the constitutional principle of equality throughout the empire:

[England should] no longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another; but deal out to all equal and impartial right. Let no act be passed by any legislature that may infringe on the rights and liberties of another. This is the important post in which fortune has placed you, holding the balance of a great, if a well poised empire.

This debate about the proper structure of the British Empire probably explains why the Declaration of Independence addressed only King George III, not the British Parliament. (Scholars cannot be sure of the beliefs underlying the drafters' choice of words, because they did not keep minutes.) The king had breached his fiduciary duty by directly oppressing the colonists and by supporting tyrannical laws made by a Parliament lacking colonial representation. The Parliament (and its doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty) was, quite simply, constitutionally irrelevant.

the empire of equality

The Revolutionary principle of political equality throughout the geographical empire endured for over a hundred years. Thomas Jefferson's report providing the blueprint for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 extended his "empire of liberty" by permitting the new territories easily to become equal partners in the republican system. Once they could prove they had twenty thousand "free inhabitants," they could draft a permanent constitution and petition Congress to be full and equal parts of the Union. Of course, Jefferson's equality of citizenship was limited to "free [white] males of full age." During the Constitutional Convention, Madison successfully defeated two efforts by Gouverneur Morris to place conditions on territories seeking to join the Union. Morris sought to require any new state to pay off part of the national debt upon entry and also wanted to create disproportionate representation that would permanently favor the old colonies, particularly those of the Northeast. Madison, aware of widespread dissension in western Virginia that included talk of secession to join Spain, replied that all Americans believed they were of equal worth. Morris's approach might also have led to political disaster; representatives of the western settlements were the swing voters at Virginia's fiercely contested constitutional ratifying convention and provided the eventual Federalist margin of victory.

A modern reader might be surprised at how often the Federalists used the word empire to describe their vision in the course of defending their proposed Constitution. Some of the usages were technical, such as references to the German and British Empires. But others were emotive, even dramatic invocations of future power and glory. In a speech reprinted many times during the debate over the Constitution, James Wilson melodramatically exclaimed: "Ill fated America! thy crisis was approaching! Perhaps it was come! … Without a government!

Without energy! … In such a situation, distressed but not despairing, thou decidest to re-assume thy native vigour, and to lay the foundation of future empire!" By linking empire with expansion and glory, Wilson echoed the great political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, who had developed an aggressive theory of republicanism in Discourses on Livy (1517). Machiavelli maintained that republics must grow, usually at the expense of their neighbors, or die:

And of all hard servitudes, that is hardest that submits you to a republic. First, because it is more lasting and there can be less hope of escape from it; second, because the end of the republic is to enervate and to weaken all other bodies so as to increase its own body.

The anti-Federalists drew upon another esteemed political authority, the Baron de Montesquieu, to discredit empire building. In The Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu claimed a republic could never become very large because it would then degenerate into an empire, with a "spirit" consisting of conquest, corruption, and concentrated power. During the Virginia ratification debates, anti-Federalist Patrick Henry employed a normative conception of empire while lamenting:

If we admit this consolidated government, it will be because we like a great, splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things. When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: liberty, sir, was then the object.

In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison developed the most powerful response to this criticism. Large republics, he wrote, were more likely to endure than small republics because it would be harder for a faction to take over the entire government. Many years later, Jefferson wrote to Madison that the American experience had refuted Montesquieu. In fact, the refutation may not have been total. There is no doubt that the United States has maintained the most important structural component of republicanism: the electorate is behind the selection of all leaders of the federal government. But the country also developed some of the imperial "spirits" that Montesquieu feared: conquest, corruption, luxury, and increased concentration of powers in urban areas. The District of Columbia was the notable exception to the principle of equality of citizenship throughout what Federalist John Dickinson called the "republican empire." In an effort to prevent the concentration of economic and political power in one location (and thereby preempt the supposed dangers of a single, vast, decadent metropolis), the framers eventually placed the seat of the federal government in a small, remote district of swampy land after temporarily locating in Philadelphia.

It is well-known that President Thomas Jefferson compromised his theory of strict constitutional construction when he authorized the Louisiana Purchase. But he also temporarily suspended the Revolutionary principle of equal representation throughout the Republic, the norm he had advocated during the Revolution and implemented through the Northwest Ordinance. Fearful of the French and Creole population, Jefferson preferred to wait several years before giving the new citizens the right to elect their own territorial representatives.

The slavery issue lurked behind Jefferson's strict construction of the Constitution and his fights with Alexander Hamilton over the national debt, a national bank, and the size and nature of the military. Southerners properly understood that the national government was the ultimate threat to their ownership of slaves, who were their most valuable form of capital. The country's continuing realization of its dreams of imperial expansion aggravated the competing imperial ideologies of the West, North, and South. Northerners were properly wary of the Louisiana Purchase because it permitted slavery's expansion. The South dreaded the steady, surprising increase in northern economic power and population growth. The West sought an empire of equality for white men that was largely free of influence from northern economic or political power.

By the 1820s, Chief Justice John Marshall and John C. Calhoun had developed a new set of competing conceptions of empire. Marshall believed "We the People" were the sovereign that had formed an indivisible Union which allocated enormous power to the federal government. In American Insurance Co. v. Canter (1828), he held that Congress had the sovereign authority to establish laws regulating property and trade in the new territories that would later turn into states. Calhoun construed the Constitution's preamble differently; the "People of [each] of the United States" created the Constitution, he believed. There was no such sovereign entity as "We the People." The "People of each State" were the actual sovereigns who had the right to leave the Union whenever they felt necessary. Furthermore, the people of each state had the equal, fundamental constitutional right to take their property (most significantly, their slaves) with them into any of the new territories, which Congress had no general powers to regulate. Calhoun thereby laid the intellectual foundation for Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), an opinion that Abraham Lincoln first derided politically and later destroyed by defeating the South in the Civil War.

See alsoAdams, John; Anti-Federalists; Constitution, Ratification of; Constitutional Convention; Federalist Papers; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; Marshall, John .


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Wilson, James G. The Imperial Republic: A Structural History of American Constitutionalism from the Colonial Era to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2002.

James G. Wilson