Empire, What’s it Good For?



(I originally posted this at The American Catholic back in 2008 and I thought the history mavens of Almost Chosen People might find it thought provoking.)


A follow up to Darwin’s post.   I do not think that the United States is an empire, at least in the manner of past empires, and I do not wish to reopen that debate here.  I am more intrigued by the question of whether an empire has to be evil by definition.  I think it is an undeniable fact of history that, as is the case with all forms of human government, there have been evil empires, the Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union top that list, mostly good empires, the British Empire I think is the prime example, and mixed empires, the Roman and the Spanish empires come to mind.  Even a mostly good empire can be hard to live under, as the Founding Fathers and my Irish ancestors would attest, and even an evil empire will have its adherents.  Like any human institution an empire has to be judged on its record.  The best empires I think are those which bring peace and allow for trade and the exchange of ideas among different peoples.  The wisest empires understand that no human institution can last forever and help to prepare by their actions their peoples for the day when the empire will be one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Published in: on June 10, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  


  1. Of course the history of Europeans and Native Americans is dreadful, but it is with mixed feelings that I read how Native Americans were using European technology very soon after contact.

    Dreadful history, but not completely so.

    • “but it is with mixed feelings that I read how Native Americans were using European technology very soon after contact.”

      My Cherokee ancestors were especially adept at learning from the White men. A complex process filled with tragedies and triumphs.

  2. As you said, empires are inevitable. And not all of them go the way of Nineveh and Tyre – the greatest of them all, China, is with us still. The USA certainly are an empire by its sheer size; they are both larger and more populous than many historical empires ever were. We should however have an objective rather than subjective way to describe empires: Hitler’s state only claimed to be an empire, but ran into some turbulence when it tried to materialize that claim. I would say that my primary definition of an empire is a state that comprehends all of the territory of a historical civilization; that is why we call Japan or Ethiopia empires; or that has continent-wide reach and dimension, possibly including entities that have been or can be functional independent states (Russia, Brazil, the old Holy Roman Empire), or that, finally, has a historical and non-ludicrous legal descent from an ancient empire (Russia, Iran, Austria-Hungary). America certainly counts as a continent-wide state, containing both former independent states (Texas, Hawaii), territories with the potential of being significant independent powers (California springs to mind), and even a considerable number of tiny, semi-autonomous, theoretically sovereign entities (the Indian reservations). The republican form of government is not important; empires have had all sorts of different governments – Rome and Athens were republican for much of their history – and a number of them may be defined as federal in the sense of having strongly autonomous local powers defined by law – ancient Rome and ancient Persia could both be so described, and indeed American law is directly descended from medieval European feudal law, and the American federal government is a development of those leagues of feudal powers that formed within the Holy Roman Empires, some of which became permanent independent states – Switzerland and the Netherlands in particular.

    • As you illustrate Fabio, empire is a complicated concept. It is striking to me how little hard thought has been given to empires post World War II. I assume this was largely because they were thought to be fading vestiges of the past. I doubt if that is the case.

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