Craig White's
Literature Courses

authors & texts

Niall Ferguson

(b. 1964)

Colossus: The Rise & Fall
of the American Empire


Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1964, Niall Ferguson is a professor of History at Harvard and a senior research fellow at Oxford. Specializing in economic history, his books include The Cash Nexus (2001), Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2004), The War of the World (2006, concerning the 20th century), The Ascent of Money (2008), and Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011). Several of these publications have been accompanied by public television documentary series.

As Ferguson has gained prominence as a public intellectual involved in business and politics, other historians have questioned his works' depth and scholarship, and Ferguson has inevitably taken sides in political elections, gaining a reputation as a Neoconservative / Neoliberal, a supporter of the presidential candidacies of John McCain and Mitt Romney, and a critic of President Obama.

Notes from Colossus

 It is, I discovered, acceptable among American liberals to say that the United States is an empire--provided that you deplore the fact. It is also permitted to say, when among conservatives, that American power is potentially beneficent--provided that you do not describe it as imperial. What is not allowed is to say that the United States is an empire and that this might not be wholly bad. (Preface to Paperback Edition, 2005, vii-viii)


1. . . . the United States has always been, functionally if not self-consciously, an empire;

2. . . . a self-conscious American imperialism might well be preferable to the available alternatives, but

3. . . . financial, human, and cultural constraints make such self-consciousness highly unlikely, and

4. . . . therefore the American empire, in so far as it continues to exist, will remain a somewhat dysfunctional entity.

x . . . President Bush's ideal of freedom as a universal desideratum rather closely resembles the Victorian ideal of "civilization." "Freedom" means, on close inspection, the American model of democracy and capitalism; when Americans speak of "nation building," they actually mean "state replicating." . . . Equally familiar to that earlier generation [early 1900s] would have been the impatience of American officials to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government sooner rather than later.

xi The crucial question today is whether or nto the United States has the capabilities, both material and moral, to make a success of its version of indirect rule.

xii Empires . . . can be traced back as far as recorded history goes; indeed, most history is in fact the history of empires, precisely because empires are so good at recording, replicating, and transmitting their own words and deeds. It is the nation-state--an essentially nineteenth-century ideal type--which is the historical novelty, and which may yet prove to be the more ephemeral entity. Given the ethnic heterogeneity and restless mobility of mankind, that is scarcely surprising. In fact, many of the most successful nation states of the present started life as empires . .  . . it is a Rooseveltian fantasy that in 1945 the age of empire came to an end amid a global springtime of the peoples. On the contrary, the Second World War merely saw the defeat of three would-be empires--German, Japanese, and Italian--by an alliance between the old West European empires (principally the British, since the others were so swiftly beaten) and two newer empires--that of the Soviet Union and that of the United States. The Cold War also had the character of a clash of empires.

xxvii Waning empires, religious revivals, incipient anarchy, a retreat into fortified cities: These are the Dark Age experiences that  apost-imperial world could conceivably find itself reliving. . . . The trouble is, of course, that this Dark Age would be an altogether more dangerous one than the Dark Age of the ninth and tenth centuries. The world is much more populous--roughly twenty times more. Technology has transformed production . . . .

xxviii The best case for empire is always the case for order. Liberty is, of course, a loftier goal. But only those who have never known disorder fail to grasp that it is the necessary precondition for liberty. . . . Empires are by their very nature compromised by the power that they wield; they inexorably engender their own dissolution at home even as they impose order abroad. . . . Sadly, there are still a few places in the world that must be ruled before they can be freed.





171 The age of empires reached its zenith in the century stretching from the 1880s until the 1980s. For most of that period a relatively small number of empires governed nearly all of the world. On the eve of the First World War, Britain, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, which among them accounted for less than 1 percent of the world's land surface and less than 8 percent of its population, ruled in the region of a third of the rest of the world's area and more than a quarter of its people. All of Australasia, 90 percent of Africa, and 56 percent of Asia were under some form of European rule, as were nearly all the islands of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific. And although only around a quarter of the American continent—mainly Canada—found itself in the same condition of dependence, nearly all the rest had been ruled from Europe at one time or another in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In both the north and the south, the polities of the American republics were fundamentally shaped by the colonial past.

Nor do these calculations about the extent of the West European maritime empires tell the whole story of nineteenth-century empire. Most of Central and Eastern Europe was under Russian, German, or Austrian imperial rule. . . . And still intact, though in a position of increasing inferiority to the European empires, were the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the Chinese empire in the Far East. Independent nation-states, in short, were the exception to a worldwide imperial rule. Even Japan, the best-known example of an Asian state thad had resisted colonization (though its economy had been forcibly opened to trade by the United States), had itself already embarked on empire building, having conquered Korea. And as we have seen, the United States, though forged in the crucible of anti-imperial war, had taken its first steps on the road to empire, having annexed Texas in 1845, California in 1848, Alaska in 1867, and the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Guam in 1898. Indeed, its nineteenth-century history can be told as a transition from continental to hemispherical imperialism.