Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood
Thomas Jefferson believed that the American revolution was atransformative moment in the history of political civilization. He hoped that hisown efforts as a founding statesman and theorist would help construct a progressiveand enlightened order for the new American nation that would be a model andinspiration for the world. Peter S. Onuf's new book traces Jefferson's vision of theAmerican future to its roots in his idealized notions of nationhood and empire.Onuf's unsettling recognition that Jefferson's famed egalitarianism was elaboratedin an imperial context yields strikingly original interpretations of our nationalidentity and our ideas of race, of westward expansion and the Civil War, and ofAmerican global dominance in the twentiethcentury.
Jefferson's vision of an American "empirefor liberty" was modeled on a British prototype. But as a consensual union ofself-governing republics without a metropolis, Jefferson's American empire would befree of exploitation by a corrupt imperial ruling class. It would avoid the cycle ofwar and destruction that had characterized the European balance ofpower.
The Civil War cast in high relief thetragic limitations of Jefferson's political vision. After the Union victory, as thereconstructed nation-state developed into a world power, dreams of the United Statesas an ever-expanding empire of peacefully coexisting states quickly faded frommemory. Yet even as the antebellum federal union disintegrated, a Jeffersoniannationalism, proudly conscious of America's historic revolution against imperialdomination, grew up in its place.
In Onuf's view, Jefferson's quest to define a new American identity also shaped his ambivalentconceptions of slavery and Native American rights. His revolutionary fervor led himto see Indians as "merciless savages" who ravaged the frontiers at the Britishking's direction, but when those frontiers were pacified, a more benevolentJefferson encouraged these same Indians to embrace republican values. AfricanAmerican slaves, by contrast, constituted an unassimilable captive nation, unjustlywrenched from its African homeland. His great panacea: colonization.
Jefferson's ideas about race revealthe limitations of his conception of American nationhood. Yet, as Onuf strikinglydocuments, Jefferson's vision of a republican empire--a regime of peace, prosperity, and union without coercion--continues to define and expand the boundaries ofAmerican national identity.