The Two “Empires of Liberty:” The Fascinating Story of an American Phrase

Critical Thinking

April 11, 2024
by Raphael Corletta Also by this Author


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The description of the United States as an “Empire of Liberty” is one of the most often repeated phrases of the American founding. Long associated with Thomas Jefferson, the phrase has been used by statesmen and authors alike. But what does “Empire of Liberty” mean? What were Jefferson’s intentions with the phrase and what are its origins?

Thomas Jefferson first described the United States as an “Empire of Liberty” in a letter to the American officer George Rogers Clark, written on Christmas Day of 1780. Clark had been recently involved in a bloody defense against the British and their Native American allies. Throughout the first half of 1780, a combined force of British soldiers and First Nations warriors had launched an offensive against Spanish, American, and French settlements across the West, with their amies raiding as far as Pittsburgh. Clark saw action at Cahokia, which he managed to save from capture with a force of Kentucky militiamen.[1] To prevent another offensive, Jefferson urged Clark to capture Detroit, the focal point of Native-American resistance. Capturing Detroit would, in Jeffersons’s words: “add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country”[2]

While Jefferson’s phrasing seems innocuous enough, the term “Empire of Liberty” had genocidal connotations. In order to create this empire, the indigenous population needed to be wiped out or removed. Even before the British and their native allies had launched their great offensive, Jefferson wrote in plain terms what was to be done to First Nations peoples in a letter to Clark: “However we must leave it to yourself to decide on the object of the campaign. If against these Indians, the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal beyond the lakes or Illinois river.”[3] Thus, in Jefferson’s view the creation of an “Empire of Liberty” required the removal of the Native-American population. Only then could this new empire be populated by Jefferson’s idealized “yeoman farmers” whom the indigenous historian Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz refers to as the “agents of empire.”[4]

Jefferson’s understanding that the “Empire of Liberty” required the elimination of the indigenous population was an approach agreed upon by many of his contemporaries. In a letter to John Sullivan, George Washington advised that a scorched earth policy be enacted against the Iroquois: “The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.”[5] However, there was another option for Native Americans. If the indigenous people could become “civilized” and fully adopt farming (in Native American societies women would farm, while men would hunt, which baffled Americans), white Americans would not be justified in taking their land, in accordance with the Anglo-American definition of liberty in terms of owning land. If Native Americans could not reach this stage of development, their extermination was not only necessary but inevitable. “Civilization or death to all American savages,” as a frontier toast of the time declared.[6]

Thomas Jefferson’s intent with the phrase “Empire of Liberty” was not benign, and the Virginian statesman may not have come up with the phrase on his own. The historian Woody Holton speculates that Jefferson may have borrowed the phrase from Esther Reed, the wife of Washington’s secretary Joseph Reed and an early pioneer for women’s rights in America.[7] In her broadside Sentiments of an American Woman, Reed asserted the importance of Patriot women to the American cause. She wrote that her fellow female patriots could take inspiration from Europe’s enlightened queens, who had extended the “Empire of Liberty.”[8] Six months before Jefferson urged George Rogers Clark to add Detroit to the “Empire of Liberty,” Martha Washington had sent Jefferson’s wife several copies of Reed’s broadside. Perhaps Martha Jefferson showed her husband the broadsheet, and it inspired him to use the term.[9]

While Jefferson may have borrowed “Empire of Liberty” from Reed, Reed’s intent with the phrase differed greatly from Jefferson’s. Jefferson’s words inspired the expansion of an early American empire, while Reed’s words inspired a surge of female activity on behalf of the American cause. Reed extolled her fellow patriots to give up luxuries such as their fine clothing to give the money saved to the American cause. “Shall we hesitate to wear a cloathing more simple; hair dressed less elegant, while at the price of this small privation, we shall deserve your benedictions,” she wrote.[10] Admiring her ideas, local women elected Esther Reed as president of the Ladies’ Association of Philadelphia. Reed then led a door-to-door fundraising campaign for the Continental Army, which saw involvement from some of the most prominent women of the city.[11] Sentiments of an American Woman encouraged women in other states as well. For instance, an anonymous account of the actions of the Ladies’ Association of Philadelphia was published in the Maryland Gazette, which encouraged women everywhere to take action: “We are not unacquainted with the sentiments of American women in other states, and we hope you will not disapprove our sending you an account of the steps we have taken.”[12] The women of Maryland approved of the account, with prominent Marylanders such Mary Digges Lee and Molly Caroll starting fundraising initiatives of their own. [13]

The allocation of the funds collected by Esther Reed and her fellow female patriots was a subject of some debate. While Esther Reed suggested that Continental soldiers be given gold and silver coins, George Washington advocated that the funds should be used to purchase linen to sew clothing for the troops, believing that some undisciplined soldiers would use the money to purchase alcohol. “A few provident Soldiers will, probably, avail themselves of the advantages which may result from the generous bounty of two hard dollars in spicie—but it is equally probable that it will be the means of bringing punishment on a number of others, whose propensity to drinking, overcoming all other considerations, too frequently leads them into irregularities, & disorders which must be corrected.”[14] The commander in chief eventually had his way, and the Ladies’ Association set to the task of needlework.

Despite her continued efforts on behalf of the American cause, Esther Reed did not live to see the end of the Revolution she dedicated so much to. She died when a wave of dysentery hit Philadelphia in 1780. The politicians of Philadelphia put aside their petty squabbles and came together in grief, with the Council and Assembly attending her funeral together. Leadership of the Ladies’ Association passed to the daughter of Benjamin Franklin, Sarah Franklin Bache. Bache continued her predecessor’s contributions to the Continental Army, leading the needlecraft of thousands of shirts for American soldiers.[15]

“Empire of Liberty” meant vastly different things to the two most avid users of the phrase. In the eyes of Thomas Jefferson, it referred to a burgeoning American republic, populated by yeoman farmers, an empire which required the removal or extermination of the Indigenous population in order to grow. But to Esther Reed, this empire was something completely different. Reed’s “Empire of Liberty” did not refer to an expansion of American territory, but rather an expansion of women’s role in the American Revolution. Whether Thomas Jefferson borrowed the phrase from Reed or not, the two patriot’s definitions of what the “Empire of Liberty” meant reveal the duality of the American Revolution itself, a time of profound change which allowed for the expansion of some people’s rights but the curtailing of others.


[1] Woody Holton, Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster, New York,2021), 407-408

[2] Thomas Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, December 25, 1780,

[3] Jefferson to Clark, January 1, 1780,

[4] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Beacon Press, Boston,2014), 55

[5] Washington to John Sullivan, May 31, 1779,

[6] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: a History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, New York, 2009), 124-125.

[7] Holton, Liberty is Sweet, 453.

[8] Esther Reed, Sentiments of An American Woman, 1780,

[9] Holton, Liberty is Sweet, 453.

[10] Reed, Sentiments of An American Woman.

[11] Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 181-182.

[12] Jonas Green, Maryland Gazette, and Political Intelligencer, July 21, 1780.

[13] Roberts, Founding Mothers, 185.

[14] Washington to Esther De Berdt Reed, August 10, 1780,”

[15] Roberts, Founding Mothers, 187-190.


  • Saying that the term “Empire of Liberty” had genocidal connotations is, in all fairness, quite a bit of a stretch.
    The Continental Congress’ policy towards Native tribes during the war was, obviously, securing either their neutrality or their alliance in the conflict.
    Although it is true that after the end of the war the two policies popular at the time were assimilation/civilization or removal/relocation, that was not the case during the conflict and thus that was not what Thomas Jefferson was alluding to in his correspondence to George Rogers Clark.
    Certain tribes, as Jefferson pointed out to Clark, had always been hostile to the Americans and there was no prospect for reconciliation. Therefore, “the object of the war should be their total extinction, or their removal beyond the lakes or the Illinois river and peace.” The tribes’ subjugation or removal was due to their unwillingness to establish peaceful relations. The “assimilate or relocate if you want to keep your way of life” policy was not yet a thing, because the problem did not subsist; the action against those tribes was motivated by their allegiance to Britain, not by their reluctance to assimilate into Euro-American society.
    Concept reiterated by Washington in the letter to Sullivan that you cited: “After you [Sullivan] have very thoroughly completed the destruction of their settlements; if the Indians should show a disposition for peace, I would have you to encourage it, on condition that they will give some decisive evidence of their sincerity by delivering up some of the principal instigators of their past hostility into our hands—Butler, Brandt, the most mischievous of the tories that have joined them or any other they may have in their power that we are interested to get into ours — They may possibly be engaged, by address, secrecy and stratagem, to surprise the Garrison of Niagara and the shipping on the lakes and put them into our possession. This may be demanded as a condition of our friendship and would be a most important point gained—If they can render a service of this kind you may stipulate to assist them in their distress with supplies of provisions and other articles of which they will stand in need, having regard in the expectations you give them to our real abilities to perform. I have no power at present to authorise you to conclude a treaty of peace with them but you may agree upon the terms of one, letting them know that it must be finally ratified by Congress and giving them every proper assurance that it will. I shall write to Congress on the subject and endeavour to obtain more ample and definitive authority.
    But you will not by any means listen to ⟨any⟩ overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected—It is likely enough their fears if they are unable to oppose us, will compel them to offers of peace, or policy may lead them, to endeavour to amuse us in this way to gain time and succour for more effectual opposition. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us the distance to which they are driven and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire ⟨them.⟩ Peace without this would be fallacious and temporary—New presents and an addition of force from the enemy would engage them to break it the first fair opportunity and all the expence of our extensive preparations would be lost.”
    And once again, Jefferson instructs Clark on how to deal with neighboring tribes: “To the Indian Neighbours you will hold out either fear or friendship as their disposition and your actual situation may render most expedient.”
    As you can clearly see, friendship and assistance was offered to those tribes that did not pose or ceased/were forced to cease being a threat to the American cause.
    No threat of “assimilation or removal” or allusion to ethnic cleansing was made neither by Jefferson nor by Washington. The object of the military campaign was purely strategic: rendering the HOSTILE Indian tribes of the area inoffensive.

  • Thanks for your comment and for reading my article, Matteo. You’ve certainly given me much to ponder. Regardless of the Continental Congress’s intentions towards Native American tribes, certain actions taken against indigenous people during the Revolutionary War can be described as genocide. While Americans were allied to certain tribes in the conflict such as the Oneida, and hostile against tribes aligned with the British, indigenous people who were neutral were targeted as well, due to the fact that they were Native American, and not because they were aligned with the British. For instance, in 1782 Pennsylvania militiamen methodically slaughtered 96 pacifist Moravian Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten, who had not taken a side during the war.

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to respond and I would like to clarify the point of my comment – which was not to deny genocidal acts such as the Gnadenhutten Massacre, but rather to shed light on the meaning behind Jefferson’s words.
      While genocidal actions like the Gnadenhutten Massacre did occur, it is important to clarify and separate the policies and actions of the Continental Congress from those of the frontier militias. For instance:
      – Continental troops under Colonel Daniel Brodhead intervened to prevent the militia from attacking the Moravians in the spring of 1781, likely averting a massacre.
      – Brig. Gen. William Irvine, who succeeded Brodhead at Fort Pitt, expressed disgust with the events at Gnadenhutten. He emphasized to the new commander of the militia, Col. William Crawford, the importance of acting “in every instance, in such a manner as will reflect honor on, and add reputation to, the American arms—always having in view the law of arms, of nations, or independent states.”
      – Benjamin Franklin expressed dismay at “the abominable Murders committed by some of the frontier People on the poor Moravian Indians, has given me infinite Pain and Vexation. The Dispensations of Providence in this World puzzle my weak Reason. I cannot comprehend why cruel Men should have been permitted thus to destroy their Fellow Creatures.”
      It is also important to note that relations between the Continentals and Militias were usually tense, particularly in this case, as Irvine reported to Washington about a militia plot to kill his deputy, Col. John Gibson.
      As for Jefferson and Washington, they were interested in establishing peaceful/friendly relations with Indian tribes. If the only possible way to obtain that – with respect to hostile tribes – was to beat them on the battlefield, so be it.
      That was the point of my comment.

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