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Designs on Empire: America’s Rise to Power in the Age of European Imperialism
Designs on Empire: America’s Rise to Power in the Age of European Imperialism
By Andrew Priest
Columbia University Press, 2021, 304 pp
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The United States came of age as a great power in the shadow of European empire. In 1898, with the Spanish-American War, it launched its own imperial career. This fascinating and deeply researched book explores American thinking about empire in the decades between the Civil War and the conflict with Spain. Priest uncovers a vibrant debate in the United States about the dangers and opportunities of following in European imperial footsteps, often provoked by concrete British, French, German, Ottoman, and Spanish moves on the world stage. Priest shows that a strand of anti-imperial thinking (the legacy of the anticolonial American Revolution) remained prominent throughout the nineteenth century, often manifest in the claim that U.S. overseas expansion was in fact commercial rather than territorial and that the country’s ideals were meant to inspire worldwide movements toward constitutional self-rule. But anti-imperialist rhetoric was often matched by support for an ambitious global presence to accompany the United States’ rising wealth and power. Ideas of racial and civilizational hierarchy permeated the thinking of American elites, even as those elites believed in the progressive role their country could play in world affairs.