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Colossus: The Price of America's Empire

Colossus: The Price of America's Empire

by Niall Ferguson
Is America an empire? Certainly not, according to our government. Despite the conquest of two sovereign states in as many years, despite the presence of more than 750 military installations in two thirds of the world’s countries and despite his stated intention "to extend the benefits of freedom...to every corner of the world," George W. Bush maintains that


Is America an empire? Certainly not, according to our government. Despite the conquest of two sovereign states in as many years, despite the presence of more than 750 military installations in two thirds of the world’s countries and despite his stated intention "to extend the benefits of freedom...to every corner of the world," George W. Bush maintains that "America has never been an empire." "We don’t seek empires," insists Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. "We’re not imperialistic."

Nonsense, says Niall Ferguson. In Colossus he argues that in both military and economic terms America is nothing less than the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Just like the British Empire a century ago, the United States aspires to globalize free markets, the rule of law, and representative government. In theory it’s a good project, says Ferguson. Yet Americans shy away from the long-term commitments of manpower and money that are indispensable if rogue regimes and failed states really are to be changed for the better. Ours, he argues, is an empire with an attention deficit disorder, imposing ever more unrealistic timescales on its overseas interventions. Worse, it’s an empire in denial—a hyperpower that simply refuses to admit the scale of its global responsibilities. And the negative consequences will be felt at home as well as abroad. In an alarmingly persuasive final chapter Ferguson warns that this chronic myopia also applies to our domestic responsibilities. When overstretch comes, he warns, it will come from within—and it will reveal that more than just the feet of the American colossus is made of clay.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Every page of Colossus is provocative." —Ernest May

"Amid the seemingly endless writings and decisions about ‘America as Empire,’ the most prominent recent voice is that of Niall Ferguson." —Paul Kennedy, New York Review of Books

Michiko Kakutani
Like his earlier books, Colossus shows off Mr. Ferguson's narrative élan and his ease in using political, economic and literary references to shore up his arguments about history.
The New York Times
John Lewis Gaddis
At 384 pages, Colossus is one of Ferguson's smaller books; but it is his most ambitious effort yet to connect historical analysis with what is happening in the world today. His thesis is simply stated: the United States is an empire, however much Americans might deny that fact; its record of accomplishment in this capacity is not very good; and it should learn from the experiences of earlier empires, notably that of Britain.
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Criticism of the U.S. government's imperialist tendencies has become nearly ubiquitous since the invasion of Iraq began nearly a year ago, but Ferguson would like America to embrace its imperial character. Just as in his previous book, Empire, he argued that the British Empire had done much good, he now suggests that "many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule," as stability and a lack of corruption that could be brought by liberal imperial government would result in capital investment and growth. Similarly, he says, the British Empire acted as "an engine for the integration of international capital markets." The problems nations like India faced after the British left, he continues, could have been ameliorated if the colonization had been more comprehensive, more securely establishing the types of institutions that foster long-term prosperity. The primary shortcoming of America's approach to empire, Ferguson believes, is that it prefers in-and-out military flourishes to staying in for the long haul. His criticism of Americans as a people who "like social security more than they like national security" and refuse to confront impending economic disaster are withering, but he also has sharp comments for those who imagine a unified Europe rising up to confront America and for the way France tried to block the Iraqi invasion. The erudite and often statistical argument has occasional flashes of wit and may compel liberals to rethink their opposition to intervention, even as it castigates conservatives for their lackluster commitment to nation building. (Apr. 26) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Is America ready to rule the world? Probably not. But, argues the author, it had better gear up to the task. Prolific British historian Ferguson (History/New York Univ.), who has been building an empire of his own with books such as Empire (2003), The House of Rothschild (1999), and The Pity of War (1999), argues that the US is an empire in fact, with client states scattered around the world. Americans are reluctant to accept this fact for many reasons, although in the post-September 11 climate many more are warming up to the prospect; we're made uncomfortable by being likened to Rome, Britain, and perhaps even the Soviet Union, by the thought that our financial, military, and cultural might casts a Green Giant-like shadow across the planet. Not that realpolitikers have been unprepared for the eventuality; Ferguson quotes a Bush administration State Department official who, before Dubya even took office, was urging Americans "to re-conceive their global role from one of traditional nation-state to an imperial power." Well, there are empires and there are empires, and Ferguson suggests that the best of them is a liberal one, one dedicated to the free international exchange of capital, labor, and goods and to upholding the "conditions without which markets cannot function-peace and order, the rule of law, non-corrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies." Ideologically, at least, Americans should be well-equipped to administer such an empire, but we remain an empire in denial of the sort that "tends to make two mistakes when it chooses to intervene in the affairs of lesser states. The first may be to allocate insufficient resources to the non-military aspects of the project.The second, and the more serious, is to attempt economic and political transformation in an unrealistically short timeframe." Prepare, then, for failure-and for agonizing years of involvement in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia. Discomfiting, highly provocative reading, with ammunition for pro and con alike.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Copyright © 2004 Niall Ferguson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59420-013-0

Chapter One


What to that redoubted harpooneer, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish? What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas but a Fast-Fish? And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law?

But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so. That is internationally and universally applicable.

What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? ... What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? ... What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waiting it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish. HERMAN MELVILLE, Moby Dick, chapter 89


It is commonplace to assume that having been forged in a war of independence against imperial rule, the United States could never become an empire in its own right. Many Americans today would accept the verdict of the historian Rupert Emerson, writing in 1942: "With the exception of the brief period of imperialist activity at the time of the Spanish-American war, the American people have shown a deep repugnance to both the conquest of distant lands and the assumption of rule over alien peoples." The irony is that there were no more self-confident imperialists than the Founding Fathers themselves.

The empire they envisaged was, to be sure, very different in character from the empire from which they had seceded. It was not intended to resemble the maritime empires of Western Europe. But it did have much in common with the great land empires of the past. Like Rome, it began with a relatively small core-the founding states' combined area today is just 8 percent of the total extent of the United States-which expanded to dominate half a continent. Like Rome, it was an inclusive empire, relatively (though not wholly) promiscuous in the way that it conferred citizenship. Like Rome, it had, at least for a time, its disenfranchised slaves. But unlike Rome, its republican constitution has withstood the ambitions of any would-be Caesars-so far. (It is of course early days. The United States is 228 years old. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., the Roman Republic was 460 years old.)

That the United States would expand was decided almost from its very inception. When, in the draft Articles of Confederation of July 1776, John Dickinson proposed setting western boundaries of the states, the idea was thrown out at the committee stage. To George Washington the United States was a "nascent empire," later an "infant empire." Thomas Jefferson told James Madison he was "persuaded no constitution was ever before as well calculated as ours for extending extensive empire and self-government." The initial "confederacy" of thirteen would be "the nest from which all America, North and South [would] be peopled." Indeed, Jefferson used his inaugural address in 1801 to observe that the short history of the United States had already furnished "a new proof for the falsehood of Montesquieu's doctrine, that a republic can be preserved only in a small territory. The reverse is the truth." Madison agreed; in the tenth of the Federalist Papers, he forcefully argued for "extend[ing] the sphere" to create a larger republic. Alexander Hamilton too referred to the United States-in the opening paragraph of the first of the Federalist Papers-as "in many respects the most interesting ... empire ... in the world." He looked forward eagerly to the emergence of a "great American system, superior to the control of all trans-Atlantic force of influence, and able to dictate the terms of connection between the Old and the New World."

Such intimations of grandeur were widespread. William Henry Drayton, chief justice of South Carolina, declared in 1776: "Empires have their zenith-and their descension [sic] to a dissolution.... The British Period is from the Year 1758, when they victoriously pursued their Enemies into every Quarter of the Globe.... The Almighty ... has made choice of the present generation to erect the American Empire.... And thus has suddenly arisen in the World, a new Empire, stiled [sic] the United States of America. An Empire that as soon as started into Existence, attracts the Attention of the Rest of the Universe; and bids fair, by the blessing of God, to be the most glorious of any upon Record." Thirteen years later a Congregational minister named Jedidiah Morse published his American Geography, predicting that the "last and broadest seat" of empire would be in America, "the largest empire that ever existed": "We cannot but anticipate the period, as not far distant, when the American Empire will comprehend millions of souls, west of the Mississippi.... Europe begins to look forward with anxiety to her West Indian Islands, which are the natural legacy of this continent, and will doubtless be claimed as such when America shall have arrived at an age which will enable her to maintain her right."

In the space of less than a century the vision of a continental empire was largely realized. Yet Morse's prediction that America's expansion would go beyond the continent's two ocean shores was only very feebly fulfilled. Why?


The overland expansion was easy; this is often forgotten. For one thing, the Native American populations were too small and technologically backward to offer more than sporadic and ineffectual resistance to the hordes of white settlers swarming westward, enticed by the prospect of virgin land. Around 6 million immigrants came to the United States between 1820 and 1869, and nearly 16 million in the years to 1913. Already in 1820 the indigenous population had numbered just 325,000 (a mere 3 percent of population), their numbers having been roughly halved in the previous century by disease and small wars. The new Republic simply continued the old British practice of treating traditional native hunting grounds as terra nullius, free, ownerless land. Jefferson talked of an expansion based "not on conquest, but [on] principles of compact and equality." Like so much that he wrote on the subject of equality, however, this was an implicitly qualified statement. Just as the "rights of man" did not apply to his or any other plantation owner's slaves, so territorial expansion would not be based on the consent of the indigenous peoples of North America. As early as 1817 the secretary of war, John C. Calhoun, inaugurated the policy of removing "Indians" beyond the ninety-fifth line of longitude, a policy that became law in 1825. President Andrew Jackson's professions of humanitarian intent scarcely disguised the ruthlessness of what was being done: "[This] just and humane policy recommended ... [the Indians] to quit their possessions ... and go to a country to the west where there is every probability that they will always be free from the mercenary influence of white men.... Under such circumstances the General Government can exercise a paternal control over their interests and possibly perpetuate their race." In sum, the Native American tribes were to be coerced into exchanging "their possessions" for the "possibility" of perpetuating their race under their expropriators' "paternal control." In his seminal study, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893), Frederick Jackson Turner later sought to portray continental expansion as the source of America's alleged democratic vigor. In reality, expansion was achieved by a combination of land hunger, religious zeal and military force-in that order. The number of settlers and sectarians was always vastly greater than the number of soldiers concerned. Between 1816 and 1860 the American army numbered on average less than 20,000 men, little more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population-a tiny ratio of military participation by European standards. The Indian Wars were doubtless cruel, but they were small wars. The Shawnees and the Seminoles needed a European ally to stand any chance of victory. After 1815 the prospect of such support disappeared, and the Indians were on their own.

Matters were also made easy for the growing Republic by the fact that none of the other European (or Europeanized) powers with territorial claims in North America posed a potentially fatal threat to the United States after 1783. In one respect, Jefferson was right. When it came to securing territory from them, this would not be an empire based on conquest. Rather, it would be an empire purchased for cash-or, to be precise, for government bonds. When the United States offered these in exchange for territory, the owners seldom hesitated to sell. The territory acquired in 1803 roughly doubled the size of the United States, including as it did all or at least a part of thirteen future states. "Louisiana," as this vast area was then known, was bought, not fought for, because neither of its previous owners, the French and the Spanish, saw any strategic benefit in retaining it. Ironically, it was in part the British navy that made the Louisiana Purchase possible; had it not been for its dominance of the Atlantic sea-lanes, which had effectively confined Napoleon's power to the European continent, Jefferson's offer might not have been so readily accepted. To exchange real estate covering roughly eight hundred thousand square miles for $11.2 million in freshly printed U.S. federal government bonds was, for the French, a financial expedient. For the United States the deal was, in effect, the mother of all mortgages-and, it should be added, one brokered by the London bank Barings. By contrast, when the United States went to war against Britain between 1812 and 1815, it only succeeded in gaining a trifling amount of additional territory to the south; after Spanish authority in Florida disintegrated and residents around Baton Rouge proclaimed the Republic of West Florida, Madison ordered its annexation. Dreams of annexing Canada were dispelled-despite a fleeting occupation of Toronto-by effective British resistance. The treaties of 1818 and 1819, with Britain and Spain respectively, were successes more for diplomacy than for arms. Britain agreed to a northern boundary along the forty-ninth parallel, giving up any claim to much of what became North Dakota, while Spain relinquished Florida and recognized a new western boundary along the border of what was to become Oklahoma.

Even the acquisition of Texas owed as much to cash and peaceful colonization as to conquest. From 1821 until 1834 Stephen Austin established and ran his colony with the consent of the Mexican authorities, which were in fact more generous than the United States toward would-be settlers. In 1829 Austin wrote enthusiastically to his sister and brother-in-law, urging them to come to Texas and describing the Mexican government as "the most liberal and munificent Govt. on earth to emigra[n]ts." "After being here one year," he added, "you will oppose a change even to Uncle Sam." As late as 1832 his "standing motto" was still "Fidelity to Mexico." Two years before, a decree had prohibited Americans from settling in Texas. But although this prompted the settlers to summon their own convention, they resolved merely to send Austin to petition the government in Mexico City. Only in 1835, after Austin had spent the better part of a year in jail, and after repeated harassment by Mexican troops, did the settlers take up arms.

Yet when the Texans, fresh from victory over General Antonio de Santa Anna's army, voted all but unanimously for annexation by the United States, they were rebuffed. Despite the fact that Andrew Jackson had previously offered to buy Texas from the Mexicans for five million dollars, he was unable to overcome resistance to annexation within Congress. In effect, the Texans had independence thrust back upon them. Only by flirting with Great Britain-raising the prospect of a British satellite to the south of the United States as well as to the north-was the Texan president Sam Houston able to resuscitate his country's bid to join the Union; even then, a second proposal for accession was rejected by the Senate in June 1844. It was the emergence of Texas as an election issue that tipped the balance. Martin Van Buren lost the Democratic nomination to James K. Polk because he refused to endorse annexation, while Polk went on to defeat the Whig Henry Clay, who wanted to delay Texan accession. When Texas became the twenty-eighth state of the Union in December 1845, John O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, portrayed it as "the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent." Yet the possibility of annexation had presented itself at least a decade earlier. The fact that it took so long to happen suggests that there were, after all, less manifest limits to U.S. expansion. The crucial obstacle in this case had been that in Texas slavery was permitted. Northern abolitionists detected in the campaign to acquire new states in the South and West a stratagem to increase the number of slave states in the Union. The fateful question posed by the South's peculiar institution would hamper the expansion of the United States until it was finally settled by the bloodiest war Americans have ever fought-the one they fought against each other.

War with Mexico came after, rather than before, the annexation of Texas; it was a war fought in part because the buyer and the vendor could not agree on the price of the Texan purchase. American citizens had claims against the Mexican government amounting to $6.5 million; these the Mexicans declined to recognize. In March 1846 Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to march from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande. The Mexicans declared a "defensive war"; the Polk administration replied by accusing them of spilling "American blood on American soil." Neither side anticipated how one-sided the ensuing conflict would be; indeed, General Ulysses S. Grant later repented of what he called "one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." In less than a year the U.S. Army won a succession of engagements decisively, smashing Santa Anna's significantly larger force at Buena Vista in February 1847. Another army under General Winfield Scott landed at Veracruz and marched on Mexico City, capturing the capital that September. Yet force of arms alone did not decide the fate of Texas, or the fates of its western neighbors. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of February 1848, the Americans once again exchanged dollars for land.


Excerpted from COLOSSUS by NIALL FERGUSON Copyright © 2004 by Niall Ferguson . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Max Boot
If the Guinness Book of World Records ever added a category for 'most productive historian,' Niall Ferguson would have to be a leading candidate for the honor. But he is more than simply prolific: he is also smart, witty and thought provoking. Year after year, he writes books that are the envy of his colleagues, using his deep knowledge of history, especially economic history, to illuminate current events. In Colossus he turns his formidable powers of analysis toward the 'American Empire,' offering a brief history as well as a provocative argument. Ferguson believes that it would be a good thing if the United States were to take over the imperial role once played by Great Britain-but he doubts that Americans have what it takes to be effective imperialists. "Colossus" is sure to shake the assumptions of both fans and critics of the American Empire-including those who deny that such a thing even exists.
— (Olin senior fellow in national security studies, The Council on Foreign Relations, and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power." )

Meet the Author

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. The bestselling author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire, and Colossus, he also writes regularly for newspapers and magazines all over the world. Since 2003 he has written and presented three highly successful television documentary series for British television: Empire, American Colossus, and, most recently, The War of the World.

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