Role of Faith, Empire and Liberty in Defining the American Nation
America is a nation with a particular view of democracy and freedom. This book seeks to explain how that view has been formed through its history of conflicting beliefs.
America, Empire of Liberty covers the history of America from before the arrival of European colonists up the election of Barack Obama in November 2008 which was a noteworthy event in the context of this book’s analysis.
America before Colonisation
The place now called America did not come into being with Christopher Columbus, who never reached America, or the Pilgrim Fathers. There were many peoples, including settlers, in America when the Mayflower arrived. By the time they arrived there had been a complex history for 12,000 years. At Chaco and Cahokia there was a technologically sophisticated civilisation that lasted between the tenth and thirteenth century – why they disappeared is not known.
Declaration of Independence – Compromise and Tension
The original settlers were mostly evangelical Protestant Christians from Europe looking to create a society that reflected their beliefs and was governed by their interpretation of God’s law. They built their communities on that basis and freedom of belief was paramount.
America, Empire of Liberty explores how such beliefs created conflicts between North and South especially over the issue of slavery. The Founding Fathers had to find a form of words, and practice, that would reconcile the views that slaves were men and at the same time allow them to be treated as property.
This contradiction and resulting dissembling would come to haunt the fledgling nation many times over as it shaped its subsequent history. To a large extent it still colours America’s and American’s view of liberty, democracy and their relationships with the outside world.
Liberty, Empire and Faith
Liberty was initially about the individual and government was a necessary evil but Reynolds argues that the growth of state and federal authority led to a change from a positive view of liberty to a more negative view expressed in the terms of rights or as “freedom from ...”.
The author argues that America is not a colonial power in the way Spain or Britain were. But it is as “... a continuum with earlier imperial powers” and during two world wars and the Cold War its purpose was to contain imperialism as the defender of the free world. Reynolds then suggests that the next challenge will be whether the American empire will be liberated by globalization or, like previous empires, trapped by its debt burden.
He also explores the need to consider the impact of liberty and empire in the context of faith. In this respect he is concerned with “both religious faith, and very much related, faith in the nation itself”. Throughout America’s history this has created tensions, as Reynolds demonstrates, between the secular state and the religious ideals of a god-fearing people.
These tensions continue to manifest themselves and may change the nature and direction of America’s imperial mission. Understanding the cultural pressures is essential to have any sense of, in Reynolds’ words, “where this youthful old country may be going in the future”.
David Reynolds is Professor of International History at Cambridge University; a Fellow of Christ’s College and has taught American History there for thirty years. He has world-wide reputation and is a fellow of the British Academy.
The associated ninety part BBC Radio series was broadcast at the same time as this the book was published.
America, Empire of Liberty is a major work and good read. It is not a simple chronicle of what happened but is analytical and has a considered view without being partisan. It puts the events of American history into context and relates it to the changing view Americans have had of themselves as events unfolded.
It provides a valuable contribution to understanding American history and the social and political psyche it has created – twenty-first century attitudes are clearly based on the nation’s experience.
America, Empire of Liberty (ISBN: 978-1-846-14056-3) by David Reynolds is published in 2009 by Allen Lane at £30. It should be on the bookshelf of all students of American history, politics or culture.
First appeared on Suite101