Book Review: America, Empire of Liberty (David Reynolds)

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Published on: 2013.03.08

Full Title: America, Empire of Liberty: A New History of the United States
Year: 2009
Publisher: Basic Books
ISBN 978-0-465-01500-9
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David Reynolds (see his Wikipedia entry) is a British history professor who’s written several history books, usually focusing on the Cold War era, or World War II. He accurately describes America, Empire of Liberty as an “overview” of U.S. history rather than a specialized look at any one part. It’s aimed at “general readers, who have neither the time nor the inclination to keep up with the minutiae of scholarship.”

In his introduction, he notes both the benefits and downsides of having a history written by an “outsider”. For me, as a reader, it seemed the benefits outweighed the disadvantages. I also preferred his narrative style — chronology — rather than the currently fashionable trend of picking out themes and exploring them out of time context. I completely agree with his statement: “I believe that if, as historians, we stray too far from the sequence of what happened, we are in danger of missing something fundamental.”

As for the book itself, it focuses on three major themes as it tells the story of the founding of the United States of America and its development. Two of the themes are in the title: empire and liberty. The other is faith.

Reynolds uses “empire” and “imperialism” in their neutral, historic sense, rather than the negatively connotative usage of today, taking part of his title from a Thomas Jefferson quote: “…we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends” (emphasis mine). Despite modern aversion to the word, the U.S. did indeed behave as an empire, including the conquering of the West, the plundering of Native American lands, the snatching of huge states from the nation of Mexico, and the purchases of Louisiana and Alaska from the French and Russians, respectively, not to mention the acquisitions and control of independent nations such as the Philippines and Hawaii and other territories.

Liberty is a more familiar term to students of American history, and many Americans see our entire history as the story of struggle between liberty and oppression/coercion — the overbearing power of government. Perhaps kindly, Reynolds doesn’t focus on the irony that America’s revolution threw off the yoke of British rule only to impose its own rule that eventually imposed similar constriction on its people, though he does mention it. But he focuses heavily on the paradox (or perhaps even hypocrisy) of the Founding Fathers owning slaves while at the same time declaring their own freedom from oppressors:

The great spokesmen of American liberty, men such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, could not have enjoyed their comfortable estates without slaves. Their consciences were troubled but their lifestyles remained unchanged; they had become slaves to slavery … America’s racial question was, however, unique because of its scale and longevity. The legacy of slavery cast a dark, brooding shadow across the Land of the Free and that is why the election of an African-American as president in 2008 was of such transcendent historical significance.

Reynolds’ treatment of liberty does not center solely on slavery, but he does treat it as the log in the eye of a freedom-proclaiming America.

His third theme, faith, covers the “pioneering commitment to religious freedom” for which the United States is “known the world over”, and also the huge influences exerted in this country by evangelical Protestantism, including progressive/liberal causes like abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage in the 1800s, and then more conservative causes in the later 20th Century. The book also succeeded, I thought, in giving unbiased coverage to the early and continuing struggle of the U.S. to remain a technically secular nation while being largely peopled by Christians.

I wouldn’t characterize the book as spectacular or eye-opening in any sense, but it’s solid for its stated purpose: an overview of U.S. history. Perhaps because of his status as an “outsider”, Reynolds included many snippets of U.S. history with which I wasn’t previously familiar and sometimes focused on parts that aren’t given much weight in histories written by Americans.

If I have any complaint about the book at all, it’s my common complaint about British writers who quote Americans: the tendency to change Americanized words back to their British spelling (color/colour, gray/grey, organization/organisation, etc.) However, Reynolds seems to take great pains to avoid these words altogether — in flipping back through the book’s pages, I could only find one instance — and even used the Americanized spelling in his own writing a few times that I noticed.

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