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The Birth of an Empire? The US in the World from the American Revolution to the Late Nineteenth Century


Admission requirements

History students should have successfully completed their propaedeutic exam and both second-year BA-seminars, one of which in Algemene Geschiedenis. By choosing this seminar, students also choose Algemene Geschiedenis as their BA graduation specialisation.


This seminar will explore the history of United States foreign relations from the American Revolution to the late-nineteenth century. Introducing how the geopolitical status of the United States evolved from the late-eighteenth century to the Spanish-American War (1898), it will retrace the Union’s long transition from the defence of self-determination and isolationism to the assertion of continental designs and imperialist projections. The notion of “Manifest Destiny” provides a thread to this seminar. Firstly, it will focus on the entangled issues of settler colonialism, territorial expansion and indigenous land dispossession, and the intersections of Empire, race and gender. Secondly, it will pay attention to the genesis of American exceptionalism, the making of the “Monroe Doctrine” and its changing avatars throughout the century. Looking at the Union’s complex relationship with diverse European Empires in the Caribbean and the Atlantic world, it will especially focus on the contest between the United States and Great Britain over sovereignty, trade and slavery, American challenges to Spanish colonial rule in the Caribbean as well as the Union’s contentious relations with Mexico. Apart from delving into the rise of formal overseas imperialism, this seminar will examine the Union’s informal and “soft” imperialism across its borders. In this seminar, the students will be expected to devise and conduct historical research of limited scope in relation to this general theme.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student can:

  • 1) devise and conduct research of limited scope, including:
    a. identifying relevant literature and select and order them according to a defined principle;
    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.

  • 2) write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the first year 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.

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

  • 4) select and use primary sources for their own research;

  • 5) analyse sources, place and interpret them in a historical context;

  • 6) participate in class discussions.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  • 7) The student has knowledge of a specialisation, more specifically; in the specialisation General History: of 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: of American exceptionalism; the US as a multicultural society and the consequences of that for historiography; the intellectual interaction between the US and Europe.

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

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar

The students:

  • 9) will gain knowledge in the field of US foreign relations from the American Revolution to the Spanish-American War (1898).

  • 10) will gain insights into notions such as formal/informal imperialism, “Manifest Destiny”, settler colonialism and how they interacted with race and gender.

  • 11) will gain expertise in critical reading of primary source materials pertaining to the field of US foreign relations from the American Revolution to the Spanish-American War (1898).

  • 12) will be able to identify, collect and analyse different types of primary sources in order to construct an argument in historical research.

  • 13) will be able to draw up a detailed research plan, formulate a research question, and carry out a limited historical research.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)

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.

Assessment method


Students are required to write a final paper, based on original research. Students are also asked to present their research plan orally, and take active part in the class debates.

  • Written paper (6000-7000 words, based on problem-oriented research using primary sources, excluding front page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-5, 9-13

  • Oral presentation (presentation research plan)
    measured learning objectives: 3-5, 9-13

  • Oral presentation (presentation source)
    measured learning objectives: 3-5, 9-13

  • Participation
    measured learning objectives: 6, 9-13


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Oral presentation (research plan): 20%

  • Oral presentation (source): 10%

  • Participation: 10%

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.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


The written paper can be revised, when marked insufficient. Revision should be carried out within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organised.

Reading list

The literature that will be studied during this seminar includes, among others:

  • Eliga H. Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: the American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)

  • Jay Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011)

For each class, the instructor will refer to/distribute further bibliographical references, including primary sources.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte en Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Thomas Mareite