Republican Discourses and Imperial Projects: Liberty and Empire in American Political Discourse

Geoff Kennedy


During his campaign for the office of the Presidency, George W. Bush stated that ‘America has never been an empire…We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused.’1 During an interview on Al Jazeera on April 28, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded to a question regarding the perceptions of American ‘empire building’ by stating that, ‘We don’t seek empires. We’re not imperialistic. We never have been.’2 To the casual observer, this may merely be interpreted as political propaganda masking the true nature of American foreign policy; but for historians of political thought, it relates to a long-standing issue in republican political discourse: namely, the republican antagonism to forms of imperial power.

Traditionally, republicans opposed the development of ‘empire’, but not because empire was considered to be an unjust relationship of domination of one polity or society by another. Rather, empire was understood as a form of absolute and arbitrary form of domestic political domination—what the Greeks referred to as despotism—that denied the liberty of its citizens regardless of the state’s relationship to its peripheral acquisitions. The emphasis on the domestic aspect of empire is significant because in a pre-modern context characterized by unfixed territorial borders between geopolitical ‘units’, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between processes of state formation and what we would later refer to as ‘imperialism’. Thus, the territorial aspect of pre-modern empire did not distinguish it from its republican antagonist; after all, Republican Rome could conquer and subjugate with as much force and ruthlessness as its imperial successor.

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