Politicians and pundits have of late much abused the word empire.

In that sober Boston journal The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan offers practical suggestions for maintaining the “liberal empire” that, he says, already belongs to the United States. On the other hand, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., tells us his administration would never “blunder down the false road of empire.”

Kerry, of course, implies that President Bush's decision to bypass the United Nations and attack Iraq is nothing short of imperialism. Indeed, Bush's treatment of international law is a far cry from that suggested in Pope John Paul II's most recent World Day of Peace address. But does Kerry mean that a President Kerry would never send in the troops unless a clear casus belli existed, as international law requires — an immediate threat to the people of the United States?

Don't believe it. Since Woodrow Wilson, Democratic presidents (FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton) have rarely been able to resist a good war to “make the world safe for democracy.” Indeed, Kerry affirms that “adversaries will have no doubt of my resolve to use force if necessary — but I will always understand that even the only superpower on earth cannot succeed without cooperation and compromise with our friends and allies.”

In other words, a Kerry administration will be just as prompt to intervene overseas, as long as the United Nations gives the go-ahead. Rest assured, then, that under President Kerry, we will be waist-deep in efforts to remake local cultures and societies in our secularized, democratic, Western image.

The Pope said in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, (The Social Concern of the Church) that “an essential condition for global solidarity is autonomy and free self-determination” (No. 45). In this regard, Bush's foreign policy comes closer to papal social teaching than the Democrats'. Bush has been in no hurry, for example, to get rid of the Afghan warlords, who, for all their faults in our eyes, seem to hold the confidence of their people. Nor has he attempted to impose American puppets on the people of Iraq.

In any case, the United States has never had the sort of territorial, colonial empire possessed by Kaplan's model “liberal empire,” Great Britain. Yet even the Founding Fathers sometimes referred to America as an “empire.” Looking at what the founders meant by that term might help clarify the proper role of the United States in world politics today.

As an idealistic Harvard student, John Adams remarked that “soon after the Reformation a few people came over into the New World for conscience's sake. Perhaps this (apparently) trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America.”

The second sentence is sometimes quoted without the former, giving the impression that Adams envisioned an American world empire. Adams' initial statement, however, makes it clear that he believed America's empire had its origin in respect for the rights of conscience.

Gov. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia spoke of an American empire in his 1780 instructions to George Rogers Clark, who was then attempting to hold the Ohio Valley for the United States. Jefferson hoped Clark's campaign in the Midwest, still largely populated by French settlers, would “add to the empire of liberty an extensive and fertile country thereby converting dangerous enemies into valuable friends.”

Jefferson, the forerunner of Manifest Destiny, favored territorial expansion within North America. He even wanted to incorporate Canada into the United States, though he thought American expansion should stop at Cuba.

But in dealing with the prior inhabitants of those lands, the third president favored cooperation and persuasion over conquest and power. With Canada, “we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation,” Jefferson told James Madison just after leaving office in 1809, “and I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government.”

“Self-government” is the key to the American founding. The American Revolution was not fought for democracy per se but for the political principle of self-determination.

The French political theorist Baron de Montesquieu had insisted that peoples should be free to choose the form of government — monarchy, aristocracy or democracy — that best suited their diverse cultures. The people of the United States, to be sure, desired and created a democratic republic. Had its habits been different, the new nation might have devised a monarchy, a feudal aristocracy or a tribal system governed by elders as long as natural rights were respected and justice was upheld.

When the Founding Fathers spoke of “empire,” therefore, they did not mean that America should impose democracy on other members of the community of nations. Rather, they were concerned with how to govern what Alexander Hamilton called the “amazing extent” of land, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, which had fallen to them after the Revolution. Some also had in mind the “unsettled” lands of the West, since the Indian nations were not recognized as part of the civilized community. It was a commonplace of political theory that no republic could survive in such an extensive territory. Our federal system was designed to cope with this problem.

The founders did expect that the United States would influence other nations toward liberty but only through its example, not by “forcing them to be free” (in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's famous phrase). George Washington's 1796 farewell address pleaded to extend American commerce to other nations but “to have with them as little political connection as possible.”

Julian Boyd, a Jefferson scholar, argued in 1948 that the founders' empire of liberty was not “an imperialistic force for compulsory extension of ideals of liberty: Its domain and compulsions would be in the realm of the mind and spirit of man … holding imperial sway not by arms or political power but by the sheer majesty of ideas and ideals.”

The Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, also spoke of the American empire of liberty.

“Liberty will maintain her empire,” he predicted in 1765, “till a dissoluteness of morals, luxury and venality shall have prepared the degenerate sons of some future age to prefer their own mean lucre, the bribes and the smiles of corruption and arbitrary ministers, to patriotism, to glory and to the public weal.”

“A period [end] is already set to the reign of American freedom,” Carroll continued, “but that fatal time seems to be at a great distance.”

Let us hope and pray that by embracing the founders' principles of self-government and political self-determination, at home and abroad, the American people may delay that “fatal time” a bit longer.

Scott McDermott's biography, Charles Carroll of Carrollton: Faithful Revolutionary, is currently available at http://www.scepterpublishers.org