It is Time to Reconsider the Global Legacy of July 4, 1776Roundup
tags: empire, colonialism, racism, Manifest Destiny
Elizabeth Kolsky is associate professor of history and faculty director of the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University. She is the author of Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law.
As the country prepares to celebrate the anniversary of its formal declaration of independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, we must, once again, reckon with two dark historical truths.
The first is the central paradox in U.S. history: The nation’s democracy was founded as a slave society.
The second is that after cutting political ties with Great Britain, Americans doubled down on the British Empire’s project of colonial domination. The American Revolution inspired freedom movements in other parts the world. But it also contributed to the worldwide spread of white supremacy.
In the century after independence, the United States went from being a province of Britain’s empire to building its own empire “from sea to shining sea” and then overseas in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.
When President Thomas Jefferson set the country on a path of westward expansion, he imagined an “empire of liberty” that would spread freedom across the continent and protect the nation from the “dangerous extension” of British power. But the growth of slavery and the “removal” of native peoples on the mainland were achieved by force, not consent.
Across the Atlantic, Britain responded to the loss of the 13 colonies by developing a “second,” much larger empire in Asia, Australia and Africa. Both the American and the British Empires post-1776 were structured by racial hierarchy, violence and a systemic devaluation of black and indigenous lives.