An Empire For Liberty

In his second inaugural address President George W. Bush said that 'from the day of our founding we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth.'

Now that last phrase may make the atheists and secularists and national God—evictors out there blanch, but it is an undeniable fact that our founders appreciated the role of that Supreme Being, the author of liberty, in their work and in men's lives.  Madison later wrote that he 'perceived the finger of that Almighty Hand' in the crafting of our founding documents.

The author of the Declaration of Independence wrote about the self—evident truths that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Thomas Jefferson understood that man was created by a Supreme Being; that the rights he expounded existed only in that context.  In a 27 April 1809 letter to James Madison, Jefferson also wrote about 'an Empire for Liberty as She has never surveyed since the Creation.'

In their estimable 1960 history book Empire For Liberty, Dumas Malone and Basil Rauch describe what Jefferson's resonant phrase meant in terms of American history:  'The vision of a better life for every human being, with faith that it would result from maximum liberty compatible with public order, inspired all the most fruitful public and private actions of Americans from the beginnings of the English settlement.'

Man naturally wants to expand his personal horizons in terms of liberty.  Such free men, expanding geographical and territorial boundaries, embodied Jefferson's ideal, specifically, the settlement of lands westward to the Mississippi Valley.  As Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen tell us in their new book, A Patriot's History of the United States, Jefferson 'planned for new territories and states with grandiose sounding names: Saratoga, Vandalia, Metropotamia, and so on.'

The concept of 'manifest destiny' evolved from this concept. Though generally considered a Jacksonian—era notion, the phrase was coined by newspaperman John O'Sullivan, though its roots can be found in Jefferson.  As early as 1786 Jefferson was encouraging such men as adventurer John Ledyard and French scientist Andre Michaux to explore the continental northwest.  The Corps of Discovery, led by Lewis and Clark, finally succeeded, giving geographical dimension to manifest destiny's rhetorical architecture, so beautifully built by John Quincy Adams, who in 1812 described 'A nation co—existent with the North American continent, destined by God and nature to be the most powerful people ever combined under one social compact.'

Expanded beyond our continental boundaries, beyond the oceans, was it not natural for American leaders to envision a global empire for liberty?  Is this not what President Bush is talking about?  A community of free, democratic nations united in freedom and liberty — democracies that do not threaten one another?  That we will support and encourage those peoples who are not yet members, but that 'America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling.'  Rather, we help others 'find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.'

Can we not aspire to this empire for liberty, coextensive with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, destined by God and nature to be the most powerful bulwark of freedom ever known?  President Bush believes we ought not only aspire to that noble goal, but to work for that which ought to be mankind's manifest destiny.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.