Spring 2005

Emancipation & empire, from Cromwell to Karl Rove

Robin Blackburn

Robin Blackburn is Visiting Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Faculty of the New School University and professor of sociology at the University of Essex. He is the author of “The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848” (1988) and “The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800” (1997).

‘Empire’ only became a dirty word in the twentieth century. Prior to this, educated Europeans and North Americans believed that while there were certainly bad empires (usually Eastern and despotic in character), there were also good empires–notably that of Rome, the cradle of Christian civilization and a model for enlightened later monarchies and republics. The Catholic Church always had an affinity with empire and saw even the heathen variety as providential if there was any chance of converting the ruler, as had happened with such prodigious consequences with Constantine in fourth-century Rome. Charlemagne, Frederic II, Charles V, Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon–all dreamt of reestablishing the universal empire. Republicans, too, admired the emancipatory vigor of the Roman Republic, seeing its imperial reach as proof of the special virtue of this form of government, even as they worried about the danger that a republican empire could be undermined by its own successes and capsize (as Rome did) into militarism and monarchy.

Under the circumstances, it is not so surprising that the idea that there might be something wrong with empire caught on very slowly–a process worth reviewing in more detail.

The triple success of colonial rebels in the Americas (of the North American revolutionaries in 1776–1783, the Haitian revolutionaries in 1791–1804, and the Spanish American revolutionaries in 1810–1825) should have impressed on all thoughtful observers the vanity of empire, and for a time it did play a part in discouraging overseas expansion. The terms Jefferson used in 1811 to denounce European imperialism also stressed its absurdity:

What in short is the whole system of Europe towards America? One hemisphere of the earth, separated from the other by wide seas on both sides, having a different system of interests flowing from different climates, different soils, different productions, different modes of existence and its own local relations and duties, is made subservient to all the petty interests of the other, to their laws, their regulations, their passions and wars.

The implications were ironic, however. For Jefferson’s anathema left open a path for the United States to further extend its own institutions in its own continent.

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