“Can we recognize the true burden of freedom is freeing ourselves from the debilitating racial and masculinist constructions embedded in ‘empire as a way of life?’”
In his glowing review of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power by Max Boot, the Wall Street Journal’s resident macho imperialist, Thomas Donnelly, one of the key architects of the Project for a New American Century, the ur-text for the Bush Doctrine of empire-building, conveniently obfuscates the racial and gender dimensions of past savage wars. Donnelly brazenly transcodes Kipling’s iconic imperialist reference to the “white man’s burden” into the “free man’s burden” in order to sanitize the savagery perpetuated by US imperialism.  Nevertheless, Donnelly’s construction of the “free man’s burden” affords an obvious opening to explore the racial and gender dimensions of US empire-building.
Of course, the consistency, complexity, and contradictions of those racial and gender dimensions have been susceptible to changing ideological and cultural constructions which, in turn, have been subject to economic, social, and political conditions. On the other hand, a constant thread of “empire as a way of life” could be traced to how the “routine lust for land, markets, or security became justifications for noble rhetoric about prosperity, liberty, and security.”  Such rhetoric provided the ideological cover for the genocidal displacement of Native Americans throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and the foreign interventions in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. What follows are brief, and by no means complete or unproblematic, highlights of the racial and gender coding of the imperial ideology underlying US empire-building from its national inception.
At the root of the rhetoric of “free men” deployed in the struggle against the British Empire by colonial Americans was the ideology of possessive individualism. That possessive individualism necessarily implied the dispossession of other’s land, rights, and way of life. As William Appleman Williams contends, “Locke said it as well as anyone and more honestly than most: empire as a way of life involves taking wealth and freedom away from others to provide for your own welfare, pleasure, and power.”  In effect, the ideology of possessive individualism inscribed the idea of freedom and the “free man” inside the instrumentality of capital. Although constrained by property rights and exchange values, the free man was obsessed with self-ownership in all of its multiple and paradoxical meanings.
Most prominent among the paradoxical meanings of “free men” were its universalist pretensions and its white supremacist and patriarchal formulations. In particular, given the subjugation of Africans through disciplinary regimes that obliterated their freedom, liberty, and self-ownership, the ideology of republicanism concerning “natural rights” in a society committed to slavery was obviously an artificial and violent construction. According to Barbara Jean Fields, “racial ideology supplied the means of explaining slavery to people whose terrain was a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and natural rights.”  Yet, the very same racial ideology was interpenetrated by patriarchal presumptions that infantilized not only Africans, but American Indians. Thus, in the early stages of empire-building, a racialized and patriarchal form of internal colonialism developed within the emergence of free men in the American republic.
The empire-building incorporated into Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy relied upon racial and gender constructions that restricted the definitions of free men. Jefferson’s commitment to the ideology of self-ownership extended only to whites who could control their savage instincts. In turn, Jefferson’s civilizing mission to turn Indians into willing supporters of possessive individualism by converting them to yeoman farmers guaranteed the actual dispossession of massive amounts of tribal territory. Appropriating the symbol of the “Great White Father,” both Jefferson and Jackson expanded the imperial reach of the United States. Jackson’s indebtedness to slavery, according to Michael Paul Rogin, helped him “define the paternal state in whose name he removed Indians. Marrying paternalism to liberal egalitarian assumptions, he provided a structure for American expansion. But that slave model of paternalism, appropriate enough to Indian removal, contained force and violence at its core.” 
Yet, those proponents of a slave republic were often wary of expansionist efforts in the nineteenth century. In particular, the debates surrounding annexation efforts during the Mexican War underscored the complexities of deploying racial arguments. While slave apologist Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina favored annexing Texas, he feared absorbing Mexico with its “mixed blood” population. For Calhoun, the Union should be preserved for “the Caucasian race.”  Abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglas, who opposed both the Mexican War and a slave republic that excluded those of African descent from citizenship, would condemn the war as “disgraceful, cruel and iniquitous…Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo-Saxon cupidity and love of dominion.” 
While slavery would be contested by abolitionists who attacked its violation of the universalist implications of self-ownership, some of those same abolitionists were involved in articulating a racial construction of Anglo-Saxonism that endorsed empire building as “manifest destiny.” As noted by Richard Slotkin, the abolitionist Theodore Parker “declared that expansion was inevitable as a consequence of racial gifts and that it would bring a regime of Anglo-Saxon dominance.” Slotkin further contends that the “use of Anglo-Saxon” rather than “White” signaled the emergence of a crucial distinction in the language of American racialism, a need to differentiate not only Whites from Blacks and Indians but to distinguish between different classes of Whites – for example, to mark a difference between Anglo-Americans and the Irish or German immigrants or the Mexicans in Texas and the Far West that would entitle Anglo-Americans to subordinate or subjugate them.” 
For proponents of US “manifest destiny” conquest of new territories did not mean subordination or subjugation; it meant liberation from tyranny, as well as the enactment of “martial manhood” and “manifest domesticity,” gendered representations of aggressive expansionism.  In the original formulation of Manifest Destiny by John L. O’Sullivan he points to the “defense of humanity, of the oppressed of all nations, of the rights of conscience, the rights of personal enfranchisement” even as the slaveholding Texas republic where O’Sullivan resides prepares to become the launching pad for the Mexican War.  But that war would be waged, as other wars, in the name of rescuing unfree racial others.
The Spanish-American War became another site of “rescue” for the oppressed of Cuba and the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century as the US joined the imperial race for global empire. While racial constructions and masculinist presumptions in Cuba and the Philippines quickly led to exclusionary control in Cuba and brutal counterinsurgency in the Philippines, one of the outspoken advocates for US imperial expansion, Theodore Roosevelt, still touted the virtues of empire building for “free men.” According to Roosevelt, “the timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, the ignorant man, and the man of dull mind, whose soul is incapable of feeling the mighty lift that thrills ‘stern men with empires in their brains’ – all these, of course, shrink from seeing the nation undertake its new duties; shrink from seeing us build a navy and army adequate to our needs; shrink from seeing us do our share of the world’s work, by bringing order out of chaos in the great, fair tropic islands from which the valor of our soldiers and sailors has driven the Spanish flag.” 
On the other hand, resistance to the annexation of Cuba and the Philippines, in particular, was often expressed in racial terms. The inhabitants of the Philippines were seen as a “savage” and “alien” race, unfit for incorporation into an Anglo-Saxon culture. While debates over the fate of the Philippines were invariably focused on protecting white civilization in the continental United States, that very civilization was undergoing rapid transformation away from a bastion of Anglo-Saxon privilege. Hence, fears of the immigrant hordes and absorbing foreign peoples at home and abroad led many to reject empire-building in the Philippines. Anti-imperialists from capital and labor, e.g. Andrew Carnegie and Samuel Gompers, decried the erosion of homogeneity and inclusion of “semi-barbaric laborers.” 
Because of racial and other complications about imperialist interventions, empire-building in the 20th century reformulated its objectives “through the more abstract geography of the world market rather than through direct political control of territory.”  On the other hand, in developing his 1903 corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt continued to display masculinist discourse in calling for U.S. intervention as “an international police power” against “chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in the general loosening of the ties of civilized society.”  Other racial and masculinist constructions were transcoded into abstract references about “making the world safe for democracy.” As noted by Chalmers Johnson, “(Woodrow) Wilson… provided an idealistic grounding for American imperialism, what in our time would become a ‘global mission’ to ‘democratize’ the world. More than any other figure, he provided the intellectual foundations for an interventionist foreign policy, expressed in humanitarian and democratic rhetoric. Wilson remains the godfather of those contemporary ideologists who justify American imperial power in exporting democracy.” 
For Wilson and the other outspoken advocates of an imperial brotherhood in the 20th century, the civilizing mission of the United States requires real men to take up the cudgel of war-making, albeit in the case of those imperial presidents in the late 20th and early 21st century, minus the overt white supremacist ideology that informed the geopolitical orientation of Roosevelt and Wilson.  Yet, the racial and masculinist dimensions of US imperialism still persist. As argued by Zillah Eisenstein, “US empire building Americanizes the globe in its particularly racialized and masculinist form.”  Given the present focus on the Middle East, “the degraded popular image of Arabs and Islam and official policies towards visitors and immigrants from Arab countries are all too indicative of the rising tide of racism in the US that may do untold future damage both internally and internationally.” 
In calling for pre-emptive strikes and what the 2000 version of the Project for a New American Century called “full spectrum dominance,” the Bush Administration has magnified the masculinism endemic to empire building. Eschewing any international constraints, Bush’s drive for a renewed American empire incorporates past economic, geopolitical, and ideological positions into an aggressive posturing to make the world over in the image of a self-righteous hegemon. The March 2005 publication of the Bush National Defense Strategy makes clear these imperial geopolitical and gendered postures by maintaining the right to invade countries that “do not exercise their sovereignty responsibly” and to counter “those who employ a strategy of the weak, using international fora (and) judicial processes.” The appearance of what might be construed as the “wimp factor” in the reference to the “strategy of the weak” was certainly evident in George H. W. Bush’s Administration’s motivation for the first Gulf War. In this iteration, however, the wimp factor becomes a scurrilous attack on those committed to international law and treaties, something the Bush Administration has violated whenever and wherever possible.
Although the Bush Administration is attempting to extend the limits of its unilateralist imperial war making to Tehran (“real men go to Tehran”), this final push for empire building only underscores its crisis and decline. As argued by Immanuel Wallerstein, an “American that continues to relate to the world by a unilateral assertion that it represents civilization…cannot live in peace with the world, and therefore will not live in peace with itself…Can the land of liberty and privilege, even in amidst its decline, learn to be a land that treats everyone everywhere as equals?”  In effect, can we recognize the true burden of freedom is freeing ourselves from the debilitating racial and masculinist constructions embedded in “empire as a way of life?” And can we acknowledge with William Appleman Williams: “I know why I do not want the empire. There are better ways to live and there are better ways to die.” 
1. Thomas Donnelly, ‘The Past as Prologue: An Imperial Manual’, Foreign Affairs 81, July/August 2002; On Kipling’s connections to US Imperialism, see John Bellamy Foster, Harry Magdoff, and Robert W. McChesney, ‘Kipling, the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ and US Imperialism’, in John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, eds., Pox Americana: Exposing the American Empire (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 12-21.
2. William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 62.
3. Williams, Empire as a Way of Life, 26.
4. Barbara Jean Fields, ‘Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America’, New Left Review 181, May-June 1990, 114.
5. Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 169; For a brilliant exploration of Jefferson’s attitudes towards the Indians, see Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 78-116.
6. Quoted in Eric T L Love, Race Over Empire: Racism and U. S. Imperialism, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 21-2.
7. Quoted in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, rev. ed. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995), 155.
8. Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 45-6; On the racial meanings of manifest destiny, see Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
9. On “martial manhood,” see Amy S Greenberg, Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); On “manifest domesticity,” see Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U. S. Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 23-50.
10. Quoted in Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (New York: Verso, 2006), 84; The authors draw a direct line from this “nineteenth-century dissimulation” to the Bush Doctrine.
11. Quoted in Ronald T Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 278; For the most extensive discussion of the racial and gender dimensions of the US intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, see Kristin L Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish American and Philippine American Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
12. Love, Race over Empire, 184 & 181; On the contradictory role of racism in debates over the Philippines, see the same book, 159-195; On the interconnections of immigration and empire-building during this period, see Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000).
13. Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 19.
14. Williams, Empire as a Way of Life, 131.
15. Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Owl Books, 2005), 48.
16. On the imperial brotherhood during the Cold War, see Robert D. Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).
17. Zillah Eisenstein, Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism, and the West (New York: Zed, 2004), 1.
18. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 197; On the contradictions of empire-building and US involvement in the Middle East, see Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).
19. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Decline of American Power (New York: The New Press, 2003), 215.
20. Williams, Empire as a Way of Life, 226.
Fran Shor teaches in the History Department at Wayne State University. He is the author of Dying Empire: US Imperialism and Global Resistance (Routledge 2010).