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Manifest Destiny and the Limits of American Empire, 1776 – 2016


Admission requirements

BSA norm and a pass for both first year Themacolleges


The United States has a long and checkered history of territorial expansion. Well before it began to acquire territories and political influence beyond its own borders, the expansion of the country itself across the continent had imperial dimensions. This territorial expansion, both internal and external, has always existed in tension with the ideals of democracy and political equality enshrined in the American constitution and American political culture. Taking Anders Stephanson’s analysis of the ambivalences in the ideology of Manifest Destiny as a starting point, the first half of the class will focus on Charles Maier’s distinction between having an empire and being an empire. Based on a series of key ‘imperial moments’ in American history - including the Indian removal, the Spanish-American War, the Cold War and the ‘War on Terror’ -, the second half of the class will explore the limits of American imperialism: On the one hand, its political culture and institutions at times circumscribed and limited the scope of its imperial ambitions, while at the same time its continued territorial expansion often challenged both its ideals and praxis of political equality and democratic legitimacy.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student can:

  • 1) arry out a common assignment

  • 2) evise and conduct research of limited scope, including
    a. searching, selecting and ordering relevant literature:
    b. organising and using relatively large amounts of information:
    c. an analysis of a scholarly debate:
    d. placing the research within the context of a scholarly debate.

  • 3) reflect on the primary sources on which the scholarly literature is based;

  • 4) write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the Syllabus Themacolleges, including
    a. using a realistic schedule of work;
    b. formulating a research question and subquestions;
    c. formulating a well-argued conclusion;
    d. giving and receiving feedback;
    e. responding to instructions of the lecturer.

  • 5) participate in discussions during class.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialization

  • 6) The student has knowledge of a specialisation, more specifically:
    -in the specialisation General History : the place of European history from 1500 in a worldwide perspective; with a focus on the development and role of political institutions;
    -in the track American History: American exceptionalism; the US as a multicultural society and the consequences of that for historiography; the intellectual interaction between the US and Europe.

  • 7) Knowledge and insight in the main concepts, the research methods and techniques of the specialisation, more specifically of
    -in the specialisation General History: the study of primary sources and the context specificity of nationally defined histories;
    -in the track American History: exceptionalism; analysis of historiographical and intellectual debates.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar

The student:

  • 8) acquires a conceptual understanding of the patterns of development relating to the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ territorial expansion of American empire and its political and ideological limitations;

  • 9) acquires a working knowledge of key historical events that influenced this expansion and related historiographical interpretations of these events;

  • 10) gains insight into more theoretical debates on the nature of empire and its limitations;

  • 11) is introduced to a variety of digitally available source collections related to American history.


The timetable is available on the BA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (attendance required). This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Attending class: 26 hours.

  • Preparation for class (including presentations, exclusion required reading): 24 hours.

  • Required reading (+/- 600 pp.): 80 hours.

  • Writing a paper (including literature study): 150 hours

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca. 6000 words, based on historiography, including footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 2-4, 6-10

  • Individual oral presentation (based on individual research project)
    measured learning objectives: 3-4, 6-10

  • Participation
    measured learning objectives: 5-7

  • Group presentation 1 (based on required reading)
    measured learning objectives: 1, 3, 8, 10, 11

  • Blackboard contributions (based on required reading)
    measured learning objectives: 3, 5-10


Written paper: 70%
Oral presentation: 15%
Participation, including group-presentation: 15%
Contributions to BlackBoard discussions: required (no grade)

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Written papers should be handed in within the given deadline.


The written paper can be revised, when marked insufficient. Revision should be carried out within the given deadline.

Exam review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • general communication between instructor and students;

  • (required) postings and responses to readings in the forum;

  • submitting final paper through Turnitin.

Reading list

  • Charles Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

  • Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995) (To be purchased in hardcopy(!) via Bol, Amazon, Bookdepository, etc. prior to class)

  • Additional literature is to be announced in class and/or on Blackboard


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Dr. Mark Leon de Vries


Please note that the use of electronic equipment, including laptops and Kindles will not be permitted during class except as needed for in-class assignments.