Empire by Imitation?

“The next thing to do,” Puck, 1898.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

US Economic Imperialism within a British World System

Historians have been busy chipping away at the myth of the exceptional American Empire, usually with an eye towards the British Empire. Most comparative studies of the two empires, however, focus on the pre-1945 British Empire and the post-1945 American Empire.[i] Why this tendency to avoid contemporaneous studies of the two empires? Perhaps because such a study would yield more differences than it would similarities, particularly when examining the imperial trade policies of the two empires from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.

For those imperial histories that have attempted such a side-by-side comparison, the so-called Open Door Empire of the United States is depicted as having copied the free-trade imperial policies of its estranged motherland by the turn of the century; these imitative policies reached new Anglo-Saxonist heights following US colonial acquisitions in the Caribbean and the Pacific from the Spanish Empire in 1898, followed closely by the fin-de-siècle establishment of the Anglo-American ‘Great Rapprochement’.[ii]

Gallagher and Robinson’s 1953 ‘imperialism of free trade’ thesis—which explored the informal British Empire that arose following Britain’s unilateral adoption (and at times coercive international implementation) of free-trade policies from the late 1840s to the early 1930s—has played a particularly crucial theoretical role in shaping the historiography of the American Empire. In The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), William Appleman Williams provided the first iteration of the imitative open-door imperial thesis, wherein he explicitly used the ‘imperialism of free trade’ theory in order to uncover an American informal empire. ‘The Open Door Policy’, Williams asserted, ‘was America’s version of the liberal policy of informal empire or free-trade imperialism’.[iii] The influence of Williams’s provocative thesis led to the creation of the most influential school of US imperial history—the ‘Wisconsin School’—which would continue in its quest to unearth American open-door or free-trade imperialism for decades to come.[iv] As a result, the contrasting ways in which the American Empire grew in the shadow of the British Empire have largely remained hidden.

Comparing the trade policies of the two empires from the beginning to the end of the British Empire’s free-trade imperial regime (c. 1846-1932) has the added benefit of allowing for a more nuanced understanding of the ambiguous US position within the British world system. This benefit should not be surprising; economic history has long been central to understanding the rise and decline of the British and American empires.[v] As Peter Cain has recently observed, economic history is also key in grasping the intricacies of the British world.[vi] The understudied American position within the British world’s imperial economic system has, in no small part, allowed for the perpetuation of the common perception that the trade policies of the US Empire imitated those of ‘free trade England’.[vii] This mistaken perception is all the more remarkable, considering that their economic ideologies and trade policies from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century were, in so many ways, polar opposites.[viii] This raises serious problems for understanding American imperial history between the beginning and the end of British free-trade imperialism.

Thus, a contemporaneous analysis of the trade policies of the American and British empires from the era of the US Civil War to the 1930s brings to light important differences, as the US sought to pry itself from its dependency upon the British world system of settler colonies—especially its dependency upon immigration and investment from Great Britain. In bestowing honorary dominion status upon the antebellum US, A. G. Hopkins points out that US historians have for too long assumed that ‘effective independence was synonymous with formal independence’.[ix]

This observation—and this status—applies to the US in the decades that followed its civil war nearly as much as it does to the decades that preceded it. Between 1853 and 1920, for example, over 4.3 million people from the British Isles immigrated to the US, eclipsing the combined immigration to the other British settler colonies of Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. And from 1853 to 1869 alone, foreign (predominantly British) investment in the US soared from an already staggering $222 million to $1 billion: a trend that would continue for years to come. While independent in name, the US thus remained, in many ways, economically dependent upon Great Britain, a dependency that maintained a precarious American place within the broader economic network of the British world system.[x] American economic dependence upon Great Britain was thus an important factor in the growth of the US Empire within a British world system.

Approaching US imperial trade policy from a British world perspective also highlights how turn-of-the-century Anglo-American rapprochement was far from great. The impetus behind the US imperial ‘outward thrust’ stemmed far less from some shared sense of imperial economic co-operation[xi] or Anglo-Saxonist civilizing mission, and far more from imperial trade rivalry and Anglophobia.[xii] This most noticeably manifested itself in the US imperial realm through the establishment of an American political and ideological predisposition for economic nationalism at home and abroad (c. 1861–1934), which led to the country’s ad hoc implementation of protectionist imperial trade policies. Across much of this era of British free-trade imperial pre-eminence,[xiii] the US thus sought to carve out an alternative protectionist sphere of imperial influence amid its longstanding attempt to disentangle itself from its British settler colonial past.[xiv] A British world approach therefore illustrates how American Anglophobia, economic nationalism, and imperial expansion influenced the British Empire, even as British immigration, investment, and free-trade imperialism influenced the development of US economic imperialism.

‘Free Trade England Wants the Earth.’  Pro-Republican Judge Magazine depicts US protectionism shielding the country from the British free trade spider’s grasp, 27 Oct. 1888.

The US began seeking a formal and informal empire of its own not only to rival the British Empire, but also to insulate the developing US domestic economy from an ever more volatile British-dominated global economic system. The late nineteenth century’s unpredictable boom-and-bust economic cycle culminated in the era’s Long Depression (c. 1873–1896), for which British economic imperialism would take much of the blame in the US; Anglophobic American economic nationalists viewed British free-trade imperialism and the British-led gold standard to be the prime culprits behind the panic-ridden global economic system.

Behind the aegis of economic nationalism, the US would thus acquire its formal and informal empire in the late nineteenth century while undergoing rapid industrialization in its effort to compete with, defend itself from, and retaliate against the more advanced industries of free trade England. It was an imperial game of developmental catch-up that protectionist America played with seeming success by 1898, whereupon the ‘American System’ of economic nationalism—a national policy of protective tariffs, centralized banking, and subsidization of internal improvements—found its complement in the nationalistic outpouring of support for US militarism and colonialism in the Caribbean and the Pacific.[xv]

Granted, in asserting itself on the world stage by defeating the Spanish Empire in 1898, the US Empire would adopt some superficial trappings of British imperialism: informal coercive market expansion and foreign colonial acquisitions. But substantial and oft-overlooked differences both in imperial theory and in imperial practice lay within these same areas of presumed imperial imitation. Whereas the British implemented the imperialism of free trade through informally gaining coercive access to foreign markets via free trade when possible and by formal annexation when necessary, Republican advocates of an American empire implemented the imperialism of economic nationalism by expanding US imperial power through informal means of high tariff walls, closed US-controlled markets, and retaliatory reciprocity, if possible, by formal annexation when necessary. In other words, amid an era in which the Republican Party—the post-Civil War party of Anglophobia, economic nationalism, and imperial expansion—dominated the executive branch, the US sought to establish a rival regional imperial trade bloc through the imperialism of economic nationalism, in contrast to Britain’s imperialism of free trade.

US imperial historians would do better in seeking parallels by instead embracing the decentring tendencies of British world scholarship and by shifting their focus beyond the British imperial metropole. A British world approach allows historians to transcend the more common metropole-periphery model for the dynamism and fluidity of British imperial networks, illuminating the ways in which the settler colonies themselves engaged with one another and influenced British imperial policy. It also allows for a comparison between the United States and the British Empire’s other settler colonies. In other words, when seeking imitative imperial trade policies between the US and British empires, scholars should look beyond free trade England and the British Isles, and look instead to the developmental trade ideologies and policies of the British world system’s other settler colonies of Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

This essay is adapted from Marc-William Palen, ‘Empire by Imitation? US Economic Imperialism Within a British World System,’ in Martin Thomas and Andrew Thompson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2018).


[i] Phillip Darby, Three Faces of Imperialism: British and American Approaches to Asia and Africa, 1870-1970 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); Bernard Porter, Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); Tony Smith, The Pattern of Imperialism: The United States, Great Britain, and the Late-Industrializing World Since 1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Patrick Karl O’Brien and Armand Cleese, eds., Two Hegemonies: Britain 1846-1914 and the United States 1941-2001 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002); Julian Go, Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Paul Kramer and John Plotz make a similar observation in ‘Pairing Empires: Britain and the United States, 1857-1947’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 2 (2001): 1–17.

[ii] Bradford Perkins, The Great Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1895-1914 (New York: Scribner, 1968).

[iii] William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972 [1959]), 96–97.

[iv] See, among others, Williams, Tragedy of American Diplomacy; Thomas McCormick, China Market: America’s Quest for Informal Empire, 1893-1901 (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 1967); Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963); Howard Schoonover and Edward P. Crapol, ‘The Shift to Global Expansion, 1865–1900’, in William Appleman Williams, ed., From Colony to Empire: Essays in the History of American Foreign Relations (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1972); Thomas McCormick, ‘From Old Empire to New: The Changing Dynamics and Tactics of American Empire’, in Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano, eds., Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

[v] Among the most important economic studies within British imperial historiography concerning the long nineteenth and early twentieth centuries include Adam Smith’s chapter on colonies in The Wealth of Nations (1776), J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study (1902), V. I. Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson’s work in the 1950s and 1960s on free-trade imperialism and informal empire, P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins’s British Imperialism (2002), and Andrew Thompson and Bruce Magee’s Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c. 1850-1914 (2010). Within American imperial historiography, transformative economic studies include, et al., Charles Conant’s The Economic Basis of ‘Imperialism’ (1898), John Nearing’s Dollar Diplomacy: a Study in American Imperialism (1925), Charles Beard’s The Idea of National Interest (1934) and The Open Door at Home (1935), Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy, LaFeber’s The New Empire, and Emily Rosenberg’s books Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945 (1982) and Financial Missionaries to the World (1999).

[vi] Peter Cain, ‘The Economics of the “British World”’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41 (2013): 98–103.

[vii] Stephen Howe, ‘New Empires, New Dilemmas—and Some Old Arguments’, Global Dialogue, 5 (2003), available at: http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=216.

[viii] Marc-William Palen, The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Palen, ‘The Imperialism of Economic Nationalism, 1890-1913’, Diplomatic History 39 (2015): 157–185. In contrast, Paul Kramer effectively applies Gallagher and Robinson’s ‘collaborator thesis’ in his study of US imperialism in the Philippines in Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[ix] A. G. Hopkins, ‘The United States, 1783-1861: Britain’s Honorary Dominion?’, Britain and the World 4 (2011), 233.

[x] Magee and Thompson, Empire and Globalisation, 69; Jay Sexton, Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era, 1837-1873 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 60. On the British world, see also Rachel Bright and Andrew Dilley, ‘After the British World’, Historical Journal 60 (2017): 547-568; James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); John Darwin, The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich, The British World: Culture, Diaspora and Identity (London: Taylor and Francis, 2003); Alan Lester, Imperial Networks: Creating Identities in Nineteenth Century South Africa and Britain (London: Routledge, 2001).

[xi] Although relatively small in number, US ex-patriot communities such as those in the Philippines and London provide notable exceptions. See Stephen Tuffnell, ‘Anglo-American Inter-Imperialism: US Expansion and the British World, c. 1865-1914’, Britain and the World 7 (2014): 174–195; Kramer, ‘Empires, Exceptions, and Anglo-Saxons’.

[xii] Anglophobia is defined here as a deep-seated US fear or hatred of the British Empire.

[xiii] C. P. Kindleberger, ‘The Rise of Free Trade in Western Europe, 1820-1875,’ Journal of Economic History 35 (1975): 20–55; Anthony C. Howe, ‘From Pax Britannica to Pax Americana: Free Trade, Empire, and Globalisation, 1846-1948’, Bulletin of Asia-Pacific Studies 13 (2003): 137–159; Howe, ‘Free Trade and Global Order: The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Vision’, in Duncan Bell, ed., Victorian Visions of Global Order: Empire and International Relations in Nineteenth-Century Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 26–46.

[xiv] From this perspective, the US might be seen as undergoing a long-term process of decolonization from the 1770s to the early twentieth century. Such gradual US decolonization was reflected in the other British settler colonies, albeit sans the violent revolution. See Hopkins, ‘Britain’s Honorary Dominion?’; Hopkins, ‘Rethinking Decolonization’, Past and Present 200 (2008): 211–247. On nineteenth-century US imperialism as decolonization from the British world, see especially Sam W. Haynes, Unfinished Revolution: The Early American Republic in a British World (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010); and A. G. Hopkins, American Empire: A Global History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[xv] Palen, The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade; Palen, ‘The Imperialism of Economic Nationalism.’

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