America, Empire of Liberty

A New History of the United States


By David Reynolds

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“The best one-volume history of the United States ever written” (Joseph J. Ellis), now updated to cover the Obama and Trump presidencies

In America, Empire of Liberty, prizewinning historian David Reynolds offers a single-volume account spanning the entire course of US history, from 1776 to today. He demonstrates how tensions between empire and liberty have often been resolved by faith. Both evangelical Protestantism and the larger belief in the nation’s righteousness, he explains, have energized American politics for centuries and driven the country’s expansion.

In this new edition, Reynolds also addresses America’s turbulent recent history. From the 2008 financial crash to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, he recounts the dramas of change and crisis at home and abroad during the Obama and Trump presidencies, as well as ongoing cultural conflicts over race and identity. In an uncertain era, America, Empire of Liberty offers essential insight into our nation’s past.


A Study in Competitive Cooperation, 1937-1941
The Relationship Between Britain and America in the Twentieth Century
(with David Dimbleby)
British Policy and World Power in the Twentieth Century
The Soviet, American and British Experience, 1939-1945
(co-edited with Warren F. Kimball and A. O. Chubarian)
The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-1945
A Global History Since 1945
Roosevelt's America and the Origins of the Second World War
Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War
Churchill, Roosevelt and the International History of the 1940s
Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century

Margaret—once again
Her history, our odyssey
Jim, Ellie, Lucy, and Maddy—
21st-century cousins
A past for their futures

This is a deliberately unfashionable book. Such is the richness of America's past and the amount of research about it that most scholars of U.S. history specialize in a specific half-century, a single strand, such as gender history, or a particular region—the South, say, or the West. When syntheses are published, they often devote six or seven hundred pages to two or three decades, and most college textbooks on U.S. history are multivolume works co-authored by several specialists. For one person to write a single volume on the history of the American colonies and the United States therefore goes against the grain; indeed, it may seem almost an act of hubris.
Yet I believe it is justified and worthwhile, for several reasons. The proliferation of historical monographs and articles tends to increase knowledge at the expense of understanding. We lose the forest in the trees. This is especially true for general readers, who have neither the time nor the inclination to keep up with the minutiae of scholarship. Hence the value of an overview, drawing on some of the recent writing and the themes addressed therein but offering a personal interpretation of the whole.
This is also the view of an outsider, which has both disadvantages and benefits. Disadvantages, in that there will be specifics that I don't properly appreciate, detail that I haven't properly grasped. On the positive side, however, a foreigner may sometimes see the picture in a different way from the natives, tracing fresh connections or suggesting unfamiliar contexts. As a Brit who has visited the United States several times a year since 1973, has taught American history to British students for much of that time, but has nevertheless written on a broad range of international history, I think I have some credentials for the task.
This is also a narrative, a mode of writing not always favored by professional historians today. Much modern scholarship prefers to explore themes and analyze problems, often revealingly but sometimes losing touch with simple chronology. For me, history, like living, is rooted in time: Every day we tell stories about what has happened, giving narrative shape to the flux of events. I believe that if, as historians, we stray too far from the sequence of what happened, we are in danger of missing something fundamental. Most of the book follows this principle—apart from two overlapping chapters on what I call the "long 1960s" (a period of enormous importance for modern America, I believe, and one for which domestic and foreign policy need to be addressed separately).
This is also a history full of people. Sometimes academic scholarship strays into the abstract: Conscious of the big socioeconomic forces that shape history, scholars may lose sight of the human beings that actually constitute those "forces." I have therefore woven into the narrative the stories and voices of men, women, and children from America's past. They constitute the bright threads that give color and depth to the tapestry.
A tapestry needs a larger design, however. This book is in no sense a comprehensive portrayal of America's past, nor does it cover all aspects of American life; inevitably some readers will question my omissions. I have constructed the story around three themes that, in my judgment, are significant historically and also shed light on America's future: These I encapsulate as empire, liberty, and faith. Each one has proved richly, sometimes fatally, ambiguous.
What do I mean by these three themes? Empire, on the face of it, seems fairly simple.1 Today it is a standard charge of critics that America is an imperialist nation—militarily through war in Iraq or economically through globalization. In the 1960s there were similar protests about the brutality of America's war in Vietnam and about how American multinational corporations were buying up Europe and the developing world.
Yet if we go back a bit further, imperialism is an accusation that would have seemed ridiculous to most Americans of the early twentieth century. In an era when European empires like Britain, France, and the Netherlands ruled much of Asia and Africa, Americans proudly presented themselves as the only nonimperialist great power. And not just Americans: When Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam's independence from the French empire in 1945, he invoked the preamble to America's Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776. President Woodrow Wilson in World War I and Franklin Roosevelt in World War II envisioned these conflicts as a way of curbing not only German militarism but also the imperialism of America's European allies as an essential precondition of a new and better world.
If we journey further back, to the first century or so of America's history as a nation, we find its people engaged in a protracted battle against Britain's empire. Declaring independence was relatively simple; making it real was much harder. Although in 1783 Great Britain acknowledged U.S. independence, two decades later the new American government could not prevent British redcoats from burning Washington. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, America remained almost an economic colony of Britain, reliant on the mother country for manufactured goods and financial capital. In 1900, much of the American West was still owned by British investors. So, for roughly half of U.S. history, Americans self-consciously saw their country as an anti-empire, the flagship of the New World on a collision course with the imperialist values of the Old World.
Yet, in reality, America was already an empire. The thirteen colonies that broke with Britain in 1776 extended only a few hundred miles inland. Within thirty years, however, the United States stretched far beyond the Mississippi, across half this vast continent. Thirty years later, by the mid-nineteenth century, it ran from the Atlantic three thousand miles to the Pacific. For many Americans in the nineteenth century and since, this process was axiomatic—an expression of "Manifest Destiny"—yet, from a historical perspective, it is of dramatic significance. Transposed onto the map of Europe, the continental United States would take us from the Urals to the Pyrenees, which is the domain of half a dozen separate nation-states—countries, moreover, that spent much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fighting ruinous wars against each other. The fact that the most fertile and mineral-rich swathe of North America was under the control of one government was a development of world-historical importance.
Parts of the American continent were bought—the Louisiana Purchase, for instance—but ultimately this country the size of a continent was made by war. War against the European empires—France, Spain, and Britain—which had previously controlled or claimed much of the continent. War against neighboring independent states—particularly Mexico, from which Texas and California were wrested by force. War against the Native Americans, the original inhabitants, who were steadily driven west, corralled on reservations, and even reduced to bit parts in Hollywood movies. And, most devastatingly, war against fellow Americans in the South who, on the model of 1776, wanted to break away from the Union and form their own Confederate States of America.
This was truly imperialism, used as a neutral, historical term. At much the same time, during the nineteenth century, the Russians were similarly constructing their own continental empire as they pushed across Asia to the Pacific. But Americans would not have thought of themselves in the same vein, and with good reason. The founders of the nation did refer to themselves as a new empire—unlike their successors, they had no problem with that term—but theirs, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, was to be an "empire of liberty."2
Liberty is the second great theme that runs through my story. From the very start, North America was a continent of potentially greater opportunity than Europe because there was no entrenched aristocracy controlling land and politics. A new immigrant, though often obliged to work for others for a while, could aspire to own his own property on a scale impossible back home. The American colonies were only loosely controlled by Britain: Liberty and property were regarded as fundamental rights and when London tried to tighten up imperial administration and make the colonists contribute more to the costs of defending the empire, this sparked revolt and eventually independence. The ethos of the new nation was encapsulated in the state motto of New Hampshire: "Live Free or Die."
This concept of liberty remained fundamental to America's development as settlers spread out across the continent in the nineteenth century—farming the rich prairies, battling the windswept plains, surging to the mountains and the west coast in search of gold. Free movement of people was also central to America's industrial development. Immigrants flooded in from a Europe racked by war, poverty, and persecution. Germans and Irish, many of them Catholic; later, men, women, and children from Italy and the Hapsburg and Russian empires—often fleeing military conscription because the United States, unlike continental Europe, had no standing army in which all young men were obliged to serve.
Liberty was stitched into the fabric of American federalism. In a sense that is hard to appreciate today, throughout the nineteenth century the federal government had little impact on daily life, apart from the local U.S. Post Office. It was local government, town or county, that made most of the important decisions, raising money for schools, roads, and so on. Individual states, likewise, ran their own affairs, often with idiosyncratic practices—such as Nebraska's one-house legislature or the predominance of Roman law in Louisiana—as long as these practices did not violate the U.S. Constitution.
This ideology of local liberties was not swept away by industrialization. Even in the large cities such as New York and Chicago, where the gap between rich tycoons and poor workers became vast and union movements took hold, Americans did not embrace socialism and communism. These ideologies, which revolutionized European politics in the twentieth century, left America virtually untouched. Whereas, geographically, the United States spans an area the size of Europe, its mainstream politics fits onto only a fraction of the European spectrum, well to the right of center. This also helps to explain America's Cold War abhorrence of the Soviet Union and all it stood for, at a level of intensity not matched in Europe.
Yet, under the surface, the character of American government and the nature of American liberty have changed profoundly. Since the New Deal the federal government has become much more intrusive in daily life. Most U.S. citizens have been drawn into the federal nexus of taxes and benefits, their personal details recorded in the databases of its proliferating bureaucracies. World War II and the Cold War also created a permanent military establishment and, underpinning it, a military-industrial complex whose tentacles reach out into many areas of national life. America's great private universities, such as Stanford and MIT, could not have survived without lucrative contracts from the federal government; the vast network of interstate highways that allows motorists to crisscross the country was designed and funded by the federal government to move military equipment and manpower around in a Cold War crisis. Uncle Sam, as much as free enterprise, built modern America.
The Land of the Free therefore became the home of big government. And there is an even deeper paradox. Liberty for whites was made possible by the enslavement of millions of blacks. The booming economy of the nineteenth-century South, generating vast profits from tobacco, rice, and especially cotton, depended on forced black labor. 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. In the 1850s Abraham Lincoln warned that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," the United States could not remain "half slave and half free." It would, he predicted, "become all one thing, or all the other."3
Lincoln was right: The Union did survive and it became all free, but the war that eventually ended slavery cost 620,000 lives—more than the American death toll in World War I and World War II combined. Little wonder that the Civil War etched itself into American memory, especially in the defeated South. Yet it did not solve America's racial problem. Although slavery was abolished, African-Americans remained second-class citizens in much of the South—generally denied the vote, confined to separate parts of trains or buses, and obliged to use segregated eating areas or public toilets. These practices ended only in the 1960s, after a concerted campaign by the civil rights movement, which finally enlisted the power of the federal government to override the liberties of the states. Even so, economic and social discrimination against blacks remained, in the North as much as the South—in housing, employment, and health care. By the late twentieth century, of course, racial discrimination had become an issue in Europe as well, as millions of former colonial subjects in Africa and Asia migrated to Britain, France, the Netherlands, and other imperial homelands. 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.
Another legacy of the Civil War was the marginalization (partly self-imposed) of the ex-Confederate South from major currents of the nation's cultural and social life for much of the twentieth century. After the end of Reconstruction, the North allowed Southern whites to impose their own "racial etiquette" buttressed by the doctrine of "states' rights." The South also remained more agrarian than the rest of the country—more small-town—and particularly resistant to the march of modernity. A central bulwark of its conservatism was evangelical Protestantism, whose role in American life had changed markedly since the nineteenth century. This leads me to my third big theme—faith.
The United States is known the world over for its constitutional separation of church and state and for its pioneering commitment to religious freedom. The first article of the Bill of Right states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This was affirmed in 1791 at a time when Britain, one of the most tolerant European states, still barred from political office Catholics, Jews, and also Protestants who were not members of the Church of England. In 1797 the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Muslim state of Tripoli containing this striking statement: "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion . . . it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquillity of Musselmen" [Muslims].4
Yet a secular state did not mean an irreligious nation. The Constitution simply prohibited the federal government from establishing a national church, and most Americans of the time believed that Protestant faith and morals were essential for public order. This belief owed something to the Puritans, who founded Massachusetts in the 1630s, saw their new community as the bastion of true religion against a neo-Catholic king, and regarded their experiment as an example to the world, a "city on the hill." Yet the Puritans were something of a dead end, historically: Their attempt to impose a church-dominated uniformity was short-lived. The religious groups who really shaped America were the Baptists, Methodists, and other sects, whose roving preachers set off a series of religious revivals that sparked and crackled across the country from the mid-eighteenth century right up to the Civil War. For these preachers and their followers, religion was an affair of the heart, rooted in a conversion experience and expressed in a rich, vibrant community of the faithful. These evangelicals broke the stranglehold of the older churches—Anglicans in the South, Congregationalists in New England—and made the United States a nation of sects rather than churches. They also generated much of the moral fervor behind progressive causes such as anti-slavery, temperance, and women's suffrage. America's religion was a product of evangelicalism more than of Puritanism.5
So a secular state went hand in hand, for many people, with a religious nation. But what kind of religion? The evangelicals were fervently Protestant and often viscerally anti-Papist, yet many of the immigrants on whom America's industrial prosperity was based were Catholics from Germany, Ireland, and Italy. Their struggle for full political and cultural rights was at the heart of politics for decades from 1850, fought out over issues of daily behavior such as not respecting the Sabbath and drinking in saloons. It was only in 1960 that a practicing Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected to the White House, and Jews remained the victims of insidious discrimination even though they were central to the nation's cultural life. Increasingly, in the twentieth century evangelical Protestantism became a conservative force, standing up for core "American" values not just on the matter of religious observance but also on wider cultural issues such as feminism, evolution, homosexuality, and especially abortion.
The South was the evangelical heartland, but the diaspora of southerners in recent decades, especially to the West, has helped energize and, in a sense, nationalize evangelical conservatism. This hit American politics with a vengeance in the Reagan era, generating a series of "culture wars" that continue to reverberate. The term itself echoes the Kulturkampf of the 1870s, waged by Germany's Chancellor Otto von Bismarck against the influence of the Catholic Church, but in contemporary America "culture wars" is shorthand for a whole range of "conservative" versus "liberal" struggles over core social values, in which evangelicals and Catholics are usually arrayed on the same side. In a larger sense, such struggles may be seen as an effort to halt the creeping tide of secularization, already triumphant in twentieth-century Europe. Whether the United States proves a distinctive exception to that pattern, or whether its own secularization was simply delayed by the long ghettoization of the South, is another interesting question for the future.
Faith has shaped U.S. history in larger ways as well. A religious sense of mission animated America in its Cold War struggle between the "free world" and what Ronald Reagan called the Soviet "evil empire." More recently, it inspired George W. Bush in his "war on terror," supposedly promoted by an "axis of evil" and orchestrated by Muslim fundamentalists. For many Americans, in fact, both foreign policy and domestic politics have been defined in bipolar terms—as nonnegotiable struggles of good against fundamental evils.
In a more general sense, faith—self-belief in America's mission—has powered America's engagement in the world since World War I.6 In 1917 Woodrow Wilson spoke of making the world "safe for democracy"; in 1941 Franklin Roosevelt offered another war-torn world "four freedoms" on the American model. Yet that moral commitment also has an obverse side: When faith is overwhelmed by self-doubt, as happened during the Depression of the 1930s or after the debacle in Vietnam, the United States pulls back in on itself. The empire of liberty has been made and unmade by its faith.
Empire, liberty, and faith: Here are three big themes that reverberate throughout U.S. history, each full of contradictions. Exploring them, teasing out those contradictions, is the task of this book.

There is not a more difficult subject for the understanding of men than to govern a large Empire upon a plan of Liberty.
[S]lavery is in retreat, but the prejudice from which it arose is immovable.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.

Many people around the world, and some in the United States, think that American history really begins with the first English settlers, particularly the intrepid Pilgrims on the Mayflower who in 1620 founded the town of Plymouth, south of what is now the city of Boston. After a grim winter, they reaped a bountiful harvest the following year, which Americans now celebrate on the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving. But the Pilgrims and other English settlers such as the pioneers of Jamestown, Virginia, were not the first Americans. Nor does the story begin in 1492 with Christopher Columbus, or even with Leif Eriksson who established a Norse settlement called "Vinland" on the tip of Newfoundland around AD 1000. A search for the first Americans takes us back thousands of years before that.
This search matters because part of the Mayflower myth is that the first Europeans found virgin land, ripe for the taking and rich with potential for those savvy enough to exploit it. Like most myths, it is rooted in a substratum of truth. Geo-logically, the North American continent is blessed with fertile soils and vast reserves of coal, oil, and other minerals; its white settlers have skillfully developed the technologies to exploit those innate riches. Yet this was not virgin land: Its aboriginal inhabitants were gradually but brutally dispossessed by the invaders, and the settlers' intensive extraction of the earth's resources stood at odds with the more conservative, even conservationist, approach of some of the native tribes. The European exploitation of both people and land helped make modern America, but it also left scars that remain visible to the present day.


In 1811 Henry Brackenridge was astonished at what he saw in the heartland of North America. A lawyer turned travel writer, he crossed the Mississippi from St. Louis and pushed east through some woods into a broad open plain. After fifteen minutes, he wrote, "I found myself in the midst of a group of mounds, mostly of a circular shape, and at a distance, resembling enormous haystacks scattered through a meadow." Looking around, he counted forty-five of these mounds. Standing at the foot of the biggest, Brackenridge was "struck with a degree of astonishment, not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids. What a stupendous pile of earth! To heap up such a mass must have required years, and the labors of thousands."1
But who were the laborers? Nineteenth-century writers came up with various theories—the Phoenicians, the Vikings, even Welshmen led by the shadowy Prince Madoc. But almost all commentators had no doubt that these great earthworks, known as Cahokia, were built by a civilized people from across the Atlantic. Virtually no one imagined that the mound-builders were the despised Native Americans, the Indians. Indeed, many assumed that the Indians had been the people who destroyed the mounds. In 1832 the poet William Cullen Bryant wrote about
the mighty mounds
That overlook the rivers . . .
A race, that long has passed away,
Built them;—a disciplined and populous race.
But then, he went on,
The red men came—
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
. . . All is gone—
All—save the piles of earth that hold their bones. 2
Bryant was articulating the standard nineteenth-century belief that anything civilized in America must have come from Europe. So Henry Brackenridge was unusual in suggesting that Cahokia was indeed built by the Native Americans. But not the Indians whom Americans of the nineteenth century looked down on as savages—Brackenridge believed that "a very populous town had once existed here, similar to those of Mexico, described by the first conquerors. The mounds were sites of temples, or monuments to the great men. It is evident this could never have been the work of thinly scattered tribes."3


  • "In an animated overview up to the present time, Cambridge historian Reynolds (In Command of History) captures the sprawling chronicle of a nation forged from the fires of revolution, populated by immigrants and constantly evolving politically and culturally... Most readers will find Reynolds's epic overview provocative and enjoyable."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Dazzlingly sweeping yet stippled with detail, this one-volume narrative runs from 1776 to Obama's election, serving up fresh insights along the way."—American History Magazine
  • "Concise and evenhanded distillation of America's story from a singular outside observer."—Kirkus
  • "Let us not mince words...this is the best one-volume history of the United States ever written...At least on the face of it, no single mind can master this mountain of material, avoid the almost-inevitable factual blunders, negotiate the long-standing scholarly controversies, and control the narrative in clear and at-times-lyrical prose. But that is precisely what Reynolds has done...[A] remarkable tour of the American past."—The National Interest

On Sale
May 25, 2021
Page Count
640 pages
Basic Books

David Reynolds

About the Author

David Reynolds is emeritus professor of international history at Christ’s College, Cambridge. A fellow of the British Academy, he is the author of thirteen books, including In Command of History, which won the Wolfson Prize, Summits, Island Stories, and America, Empire of Liberty. He lives in Cambridge, England.

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