TO WIN THIS BATTLE, Americans (and preferably Europeans too) need to recapture a bit of civilizational confidence. We might begin by reminding ourselves that we have every right to act freely in the world, that we are Britain’s heirs of empire, and that that’s nothing new. The Founders knew that.
One need only open Federalist One to see Alexander Hamilton refer to America as “an empire, in many respects, the most interesting in the world,” and one that he later hoped to extend to the Southern Hemisphere. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington likewise thought of America as an empire — an empire that would surpass Britain’s in size and power. King George III himself recognized that “The rebellious war… is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.” Thomas Jefferson, of course, envisioned America as an “empire of liberty.” James Polk considered that the Mexican War had delivered “to the United States an immense empire.” And American empire builders like Andrew Jackson (annexing Florida) or the filibusters who brought us Hawaii or America’s acceptance of the White Man’s Burden in the Philippines (where we set up the first democratic government in Asia), spread America’s Manifest Destiny from the Atlantic Coast, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the far reaches of the Pacific. All of which is not to mention our taking on the imperial responsibility of setting things aright for the world in two world wars and the Cold War and creating a global system of free trade and international institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. The world has enjoyed a Pax Americana for at least the last half century, and it takes an imperial power to deliver a global peace.
Whenever the liberal myth that America is inherently anti-imperialist has guided our foreign policy, the result has been disaster, whether that myth was held by FDR who was far more insistent on getting the British out of Hong Kong and India than on protecting Eastern Europe from Stalin (“Of one thing I am certain, Stalin is not an imperialist”); or by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and President Dwight David Eisenhower standing side-by-side with the Soviets and Gamal Abdel Nasser and against Britain, France, and Israel at Suez in 1956; or by Jimmy Carter, refusing to support the Shah of Iran (whose very position was a shameful reminder of the sin of Anglo-American imperialism) against the people’s choice, and obviously a man we could do business with, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
That anti-imperialism is a harmful idea should be obvious from our own history. Should we not have annexed the American southwest from Mexico? Should we have prevented Andrew Jackson from seizing Florida from Spain? Should we have accepted the British-drawn proclamation line of 1763 and left the interior of America to the Indians? Should we regret the British Empire’s original sin of planting us here at all? ~ H.W. Crocker III, The American Spectator
I am never sure which offends me more: attempts to make the Founders into khaki-and-pith-helmet imperialists of the New World or the obliviousness to the degradation of our own system of government under the influences of expansionism and imperialism. The latter is probably more offensive and obnoxious because it is more insidious.
It is worth noting that John Adams specifically denied that Britain was an Empire in the heady days of the 1770s because Britain was subject to a constitution, a “fundamental law,” that constrained the power of the government. In this case, for Adams an empire was a government subject to no such fundamental law; the government of men, not laws, was imperial government. That, in short, was what technically distinguished a true republic or constitutional polity from an empire: in Adams’ view, Britain was just such a constitutional polity and reacted strongly against references to the British “empire.” In other words, empire was the kind of government Englishmen had been fighting against in one form or another for 130 years. Adams rejected the word because he rejected the arbitrary, ultimately lawless kind of government associated with it–the same kind that he perceived was behind the policies the patriots of the colonies abhorred. The Founders were anti-empire in this sense.
Empire, imperium, refers first to the command of Roman military commanders, but also to a domain or to a sovereign power. I have good reason to think that when Jefferson spoke of an “empire of liberty,” he did not thereby endorse rapine and dominion over others in the name of liberty–that twisted and sick vision would come later and from other sources (Jacobins, Napoleon), but understood it to mean a sovereign power, a polity, dedicated to liberty. There may be isolated examples where some, such as Franklin, used the term in a different way, but they are not representative and do not speak for the American tradition as a whole.
There is also the small matter that everything Jefferson ever wrote militates against the basic idea of imperialism: that one people ought, as a matter of right or prerogative, rule over another by force and impose upon them a government to which they “consent” only under duress of occupation. None of our Founders could have been unaware of the corrupting influences of such dominion over others; none could fail to heed the stark lessons of classical history and classical literature that declared again and again that tyrannical, barbarian rule was both slavish and despotic–and that the slavery of the subjects and despotism of the master are two sides of the same moral deficiency and feed off one another. Free men have nothing to do with such government. That we banter on about empire-this and empire-that is as good a sign as any that we are a servile people, willing to prostrate ourselves before princes and powers for the sake of supposed benefits and favours.
But did the Founders believe that it was legitimate to establish coercive regimes over other nations by force? Were they imperialists in the modern sense that most people understand the word to mean? I know of no approval of such a thing. Certainly the late Jeffersonians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, our first dedicated Anti-Imperialists, wanted no such thing. Wherever they saw imperialism arising in the world, they condemned it. When we conducted a foreign policy of more or less strict neutrality, we did not intervene to stop it–it is here that 20th century liberal anti-imperialism differs from the main tradition of American foreign policy, as it sought to go abroad in search of empires to dismantle, in the process unleashing much suffering and misery upon the world. FDR must answer for that as well–but for goodness’ sake, don’t lay that at the door of true republican Anti-Imperialists!
Men such as Cleveland and Bryan saw the moral and political evils of dominating another people and the corruption that it would inevitably bring upon those doing the dominating. With an imperialist role comes ever-greater consolidation of power in the center and in fewer and fewer hands; the habit of dominion is translated back home and, as we understand only too well today, the dangers of reprisals from those under our dominion make our own country suddenly insecure in ways that were never true before; imperialism is ultimately the death of liberty at home, even as it is necessarily the denial of liberty to peoples elsewhere. It is difficult to find any decent moral justification for such dominion that does not at some point or other invoke ideological excuses of liberation, uplift and the like, but these are, as always, just excuses and not real justifications.
It is something of an abomination to mention such imperialism favourably in the same breath with the heroic defense of Christendom at Lepanto. Lepanto was a great moment of Christian resistance against the Ottoman Empire. That is not to deny that there was a legitimate and respectable tradition of the Holy Roman Empire, and the less traditional and respectable tradition of the new Spanish Monarchy’s widespread possessions in our own history, but what all that has to do with British rule in India and American hegemony I will never know.
The Roman Empire arose in many cases through the results of wars that the Romans did not go searching to have; they did not set out to make their world Roman, but acquired territory in piecemeal fashion. In the end, their acquisitions and the power that went with ruling the state broke their Republic and subjected them to a single master. The genius of Republican Rome was all but lost. When people talk approvingly of empire, they effectively want the death of the Republic and all that it stands for. The two cannot coexist.
Expansionism made the Republic grow too large, and the fruits of expansion were discord, strife and consolidation of power at the expense of the states. Antifederalists knew what they were talking about when they warned against large republics, and history has proven them to be more right than most would care to admit. Jeffersonian Republicans and later Democrats became the great advocates of expansion, and it was here where they erred more grievously. There was a belief that an extended, spread-out Republic would hinder the consolidation of government, and perhaps in some practical ways it did for a time, but to hold together these vast and diverse territories more and more centralised power was brought to bear. Rather than functioning as the means to ensure the agrarian republicanism of yeoman farmers, the process of expansion and consolidation ensured that the citizens would be progressively less in control of their government and more and more functions would be concentrated in relatively few hands. The triumph of the forces of consolidation in the War only hastened this development. So long as secession was ruled out and a single, consolidated “Union” was the only sort of polity allowed in our part of the continent, a return to smaller, self-governing, free republics was virtually impossible. The (losing) fight against overseas formal empire was one of the last gasps of the old republican spirit.
We are so far removed from that spirit and the tradition of the Anti-Imperialists that some of us literally cannot see beyond the liberal interventionists of the 20th century, who allegedly represent the face of opposition to imperialism. But they did not oppose America becoming an activist world power or even an empire–they opposed the empires of others and sought to dismantle them, which could only work to our temporary advantage as a rising power. They dressed this up in an appeal to liberty and self-determination, which was about as sincere as the attempt of the Kaiser to incite the subject peoples of the British Empire to overthrow their masters in WWI. No one is thus fooled into thinking that the Kaiser was a great anti-imperialist, but for some reason we believe this of FDR, who increased our overseas military and political commitments more than almost any other single President.
Mr. Crocker likes to invoke the patriotic slogan, “Don’t Tread On Me,” as if this had something to do with imperialism and treading on others. The slogan itself implies that imperialism and the very idea of dominating other peoples against their will is, or at least should be, hateful to Americans. You don’t express your confidence in your civilisation by your willingness to dominate other nations; you express confidence in your ability to wield force when you do that. Were your civilisation self-evidently superior and desirable, other peoples would embrace its fruits–assuming that your civilisation produced any fruits worth having.
There are perfectly decent ways to acquire confidence in our own civilisation that involve remembering who we as Americans are and renewing our civilisation and making it worthy of zealous defense. It does not involve the sordid path of imperialism and domination. That some of us even think this is an option shows just how far gone our civilisation really is right now. On the contrary, to go down that path is to forget who we are in some deluded attempt to relive the follies of past empires that tried–and failed–to police the world and bring order from chaos. In the end their own people in their own land pay the price for the deeds and crimes done in the name of the universal peace of emperors.