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Creating the American Empire: Place and Power in US Foreign Relations from Colonisation to the Twentieth Century - HIS00175M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Aaron Hiltner
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

Through much of its history, the United States maintained a small army and lacked an organised, international bureaucracy capable of projecting power abroad. Yet by 1945, the US commanded the world’s premier military, economic, and cultural empire. By the 1990s, it stood alone as the unchallenged superpower. How did the US become a world-spanning colossus built on a barebones imperial administration and relatively few Americans abroad?

From colonisation to the present, the US relied on small outposts of Americans to build its commercial, cultural, and territorial empire. Soldiers stationed in once ramshackle forts and now expansive bases dotted across the globe were key. But so too were missionaries leading schools in Honolulu, merchants plying sea cucumbers from their Fijian posts, walrus hunters rendering blubber and carving ivory tusks in their Alaskan camps, and cowboys herding creole cattle herds across sprawling Brazilian ranches carved out of the Pantanal wetlands.

This module explores how different kinds of outposts became key sites for directing and negotiating the different forms of US empire, from colonisation to the 20th century. The main focus will be on the 19th century. Each week we will explore a different kind of outpost, often analysing specific beachheads of American power. Likewise, we will evaluate the outsized influence of Americans abroad and assess how the creation and maintenance of different kinds of outposts helped form the structure and sinews of the US empire. This module combines different strands of transnational history, particularly the histories of empire, capitalism, and ecology.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

The aims of this module are to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Demonstrate a knowledge of a specialist historiographical literature;
  • Present findings in an analytical framework derived from a specialist field;
  • Solve a well-defined historiographical problem using insights drawn from secondary and, where appropriate, primary sources.
  • Set out written findings using a professional scholarly apparatus.

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1. Students will then attend a 2-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing (RAW) weeks during which there are no seminars, and during which students research and write a formative essay, consulting with the module tutor. Students prepare for eight seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Settler and Extractive Colonialism
  2. Manifest and Maritime Destiny
  3. The Foreign Policy of Slavery and Free Labor
  4. ‘Hoof Soldiers’ of the Empire
  5. Imperial Classrooms and Pews
  6. Black Transnational Resistance
  7. Military Bases and CIA Stations
  8. Cultural and Financial Branches


Task Length % of module mark
Long Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students submit a 2,000-word formative essay in week 9.
A 4,000-word summative essay will be due in the assessment period.


Task Length % of module mark
Long Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Students will typically receive written feedback on their formative essay within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative essay during their tutor’s student hours—especially during week 11, before, that is, they finalise their plans for the Summative Essay.

For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For reading during the module, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  • Demuth, Bathsheba. ‘The Walrus and the Bureaucrat: Energy, Ecology, and Making the State in the Russian and American Arctic, 1870–1950.’ The American Historical Review, Volume 124, Issue 2, April 2019, Pages 483–510.

  • Farmer, Ashley. Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

  • Saba, Roberto. American Mirror: The United States and Brazil in the Age of Emancipation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.