North American Empire

Authored by: Mary A. Renda

The Ashgate Research Companion to Modern Imperial Histories

Print publication date:  May  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754664154
eBook ISBN: 9781315613277
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042525


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In 1895, US Secretary of State Richard Olney asserted a bold claim for his nation. The United States was, he declared, ‘practically sovereign’ over all the Americas. 1 1

Richard Olney to Thomas F. Bayard, 20 July 1895, in Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States 1895, vol. 1 (Washington, DC, 1896), p. 558. See also Mary A. Renda, ‘Practical Sovereignty: The Caribbean Region and the Rise of US Empire’, in Thomas H. Holloway (ed.), A Companion to Latin American History (Malden, MA, 2008). Thanks to Elena Cohen for research assistance on this chapter.

Olney spoke in response to an invitation from Venezuela to bring his nation’s diplomatic weight to bear in a long-standing dispute over the rich Orinoco River Delta and the western boundary of British Guiana. Elaborating upon President James Monroe’s 1823 doctrine that the Americas were henceforth to be considered closed to future European colonisation, in one breath Olney affirmed considerations of right, justice and national self-determination as integral to Monroe’s message and to the continuing disposition of the United States towards Latin America. In another breath, he more famously confronted the British Foreign Minister, Lord Salisbury, and the empire he represented, with the stark reality of American power. The United States’ ‘fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition’, he insisted, ‘not simply by reason of its high character as a civilised state, nor because wisdom and justice and equity are the invariable characteristics of the dealings of the United States’, but also ‘because its infinite resources and isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers’. 2 2

Olney, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, p. 588.

The naked terms of this assertion of US might vis-à-vis Europe, and of mastery over the western hemisphere, proclaimed the ascendance of the United States on the world stage.

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