Born and Bred of Empire,

A Revolution for Self-Government and Empire,

excerpted from

Empire As A Way Of Life

by William Appleman Williams

IG Press, 1980, paper


At each moment of each day, we make the same mistakes.. . we consider that our own personal consciousness is the world."

Given time to think and reflect, we realize that the government or The State is really various groups of people. As far as foreign affairs are concerned, The State consists of the following such units: Elected officials and their appointed staffs, the national civil bureaucracies (such as Commerce, State, and Treasury) composed of appointed and hired personnel; the military (including the CIA); the civil police forces (especially the FBI); and the judicial system, including the community of lawyers.

It has recently become routine to think and talk about those people as The Establishment. The phrase has become a popular way of avoiding the harsh truths about power that are more directly and clearly express in the phrase The State, while at the same time recognizing that some people exercise more power than most people. Such fuzzing of reality further abstracts specific people as vague shapes haunting the corridors of power.

The man who revived the term The Establishment, Henry Fairlie, based his usage on a sophisticated understanding of why and how a way of life, a world-view of Weltanschauung, informs and guides the people who constitute The State. The Establishment, he insightfully insists, "is not those people who hold and exercise power as such. It is the people who create and sustain the climate of assumption and opinion within which power is exercised by those who do hold it by election or appointment." He is making a crucial distinction.

The people defined by Fairlie do get elected or appointed to high and influential positions. That is because they are recognized as makers of the way of life, but also because they are powerful as leaders in the economic, intellectual, and other areas of society. That does not subvert Fairlie's basic point. Those people are primarily important because they are, in or out of government, the human beings who order the priorities and relationships in terms of a system. They integrate the parts into a whole.

Thus we make a serious mistake if we confuse The Establishment with The State. For in doing that we remove ourselves from any consequential part in shaping our way of life. In the first place, we foster an illusion that electing or appointing different people will produce or lead to a change in the outlook of Weltanschauung. But we are in reality changing the wrong people, and the recent rise in political and electoral apathy indicates a rudimentary awareness of that truth.

Second, and in a more fundamental sense, that mistake removes us from the consequential debate about shaping our way of life. The central issue here does not involve the small or elitist nature of The Establishment: all groups of people produce leaders who become spokesmen of the shared interest or idea. The important consideration is our lack of participation in the dialogue. In a republic or a democracy, we the citizens are supposed to order the priorities and relationships between the economic, the political, the social and intellectual, and the military aspects of life through an on-going discussion. We are supposed to be The Establishment. As it is, we limit ourselves to choosing between generally minor variations on one theme composed by others.

... despite the ever increasing power of an eve( smaller minority of people "who create and sustain the climate of assumption and opinion," that the citizenry was involved in the development, consolidation, and entrenchment of one particular outlook. Very simply, Americans of the 20th century liked empire for the same reasons their ancestors had favored it in the 18th and 19th centuries. It provided them with renewable opportunities, wealth, and other benefits and satisfactions including a psychological sense well-being and power.

In that fundamental sense, the cost of empire is not properly tabulated in the dead and maimed, or in the wasted resources, but rather in the loss of our vitality as citizens. We have increasingly ceased to participate in the process of self-government. We have become ever more frustrated and fatalistic, and hence concerned with individual gratification. Finally, we deny any responsibility; and, as part of that ultimate abdication of our birthright, indignantly deny that the United States is or ever was an empire.


Born and Bred of Empire

John Locke, 1691
Riches do not consist in having more Gold and Silver, \ but in having more in proportion than the rest of the World, / or than our Neighbours, whereby we are enabled to procure to ourselves a greater Plenty of the Conveniences of Life than comes within the reach of Neighbouring Kingdoms and States.

[John] Locke
Empire as a way of life involves taking wealth and freedom away from others to provide for your own welfare, pleasure, and power.

The problem confronting the English (and other European) empire builders was very simple. Even by their own rules, the unilateral, uninvited, and unprovoked intrusion over thousands of miles by one culture into the life and affairs of another could not be explained or justified by an appeal to self-defense. That primal right could plausibly be invoked, even at best, only after the initial penetration had occurred and was resisted. Hence the initial invasion must be justified by some other logic. Over the years, scholars dealing with that problem have tended to separate into two groups: one emphasizes the importance of color (blacks and browns are inferior); the other stresses Christianity (heathens are agents of the Devil and so must be converted or destroyed).

Now in truth those explanations are less contradictory or exclusive than mutually supportive and reinforcing of empire as a way of life. Whatever its origins in the eastern Mediterranean, Christianity became a European phenomenon and despite the brownish hue of some Mediterranean Catholics and Orthodox believers, they were generally lighter-"whiter" than the uninformed or unpersuaded in India, Asia, Africa, and America. Heathens were on sight generally darker than converts, and hence visually tainted by the domestic force of the Devil who was always presented as black.

That evidence, such as it was, was reinforced by other kinds of proof. Europeans were highly conscious-one might even say hypersensitive-of having come through an extremely difficult and perilous time of troubles. Not only had they been challenged by Islamic and other non-believers, but the infidels had probed close to the vitals of their own way of life. They had also been tested in horrendous trials by disease and other disasters. But they had survived. It was more than a bit like death and resurrection. Given their Christianity, that was understandably interpreted as a sign of the Grace of God. Their disputations and wars with each other about the nature of the true faith were tactical not strategic: not about the faith, but only about how best to interpret and extend it.

Thus it is important to realize that Jenning's perceptive remark about the Holy Church has to do with secular as well as religious ideology. It was not only that Christianity was the true religion. The faithful had survived and were moving toward the assertion of their superiority. They had developed better ships and more deadly weapons to subdue the Eastern infidels. They had triumphed over pestilence and poverty to build cities. They had controlled dissidence through the creation of centralized instruments of government. And they had organized economic activity well enough to generate a growing surplus (well, at least for some).

To employ the science and the language of a later century; there was a non-articulated social Darwinism in all of that: a preview of the sense, if not the theory, of the superiority inherent in mere survival and continuation. It was not formulated in those terms, or with those footnotes, but it was nevertheless a very real and present and powerful element of the developing imperial way of life. There was, in short, a secular Holy Church with its own doctrine of superiority.

Those complementary dogmas, sacred and secular, did not immediately or inevitably produce a hard-line racist outlook. There emerged instead a spectrum of attitudes, among both religious and lay thinkers, that can usefully be described in terms of two contradictory images: the Noble Savage and the Ignoble Savage. The former, a combination of romanticism and superciliousness, developed as the faith and idiom of the more humane group of English and American imperialists. They considered themselves superior, and justified the imposition of imperial power on that basis, but they modified such arrogance in several respects.

To begin with, they acknowledged that some aspects of "savage" life were worth serious consideration and perhaps even emulation.

They were impressed, for example, by the significantly (even statistically) lower incidence of violence within First American societies, and by the limits generally imposed by those cultures upon intersocietal warfare. They responded favorable-or at least thoughtfully and tolerantly-to the more relaxed attitudes about sex, marriage, and divorce, and to the different idioms of personal hygiene (as in daily bathing) and medical treatment. And they recognized, however cautiously, that the religion of the First Americans-including its emphasis on dreams-bespoke a sense of awe and wonder that was related to their own belief in spirits and miracles.

Those more relaxed or benevolent imperialists also acknowledged the impressive skills of the First Americans. Not only were they good farmers (who cleared enough land to let half lie fallow), but they demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of how to create and sustain a symbiotic relationship with the land. They did not graze cattle or pigs, to be sure, but they did create pasture for deer. They also displayed an ability to organize a division of labor, both within and between cultures, that led to a remarkable system of trade over long distances that involved food, metals, and other commodities.

For all those reasons, the group of English people (and later Americans) that we can usefully call the soft imperialists-religious and secular-did not become racists. They were arrogant, supercilious, and patronizing, but they did separate themselves from the racists on three vital issues. First, they considered the First Americans human. Second, they acknowledged their achievements. And, third, on those grounds, they considered it possible and desirable to elevate the Noble Savage into at least partial civilization. They left the future open.

It would be pleasant, and surely uplifting, to report that such soft imperialists carried the day. They did not. Indeed not. But even so the soft imperialists were and remained important. If nothing else, they now and again prevented the hard-line imperialists from plunging joyfully into disaster. American historians, along with their fellow intellectuals, display their imperial temperament by cataloging people according to two categories: imperialists and anti-imperialists. It is a less than helpful filing system. We Americans, let alone our English forefathers, have produced very, very few anti-imperialists. Our idiom has been empire, and so the primary division was and remains between the soft and the hard.

It all comes to the question of whether one conquers to transform the heathen into lower-class members of the empire or simply works them to death for the benefit of the imperial metropolis. Even if the softies win, empire is still the way of life.

But the truth of it is that the hard-liners won. And so in that sense, at any rate, the question of racism is secondary. The primary question has always been the control of wealth and the liberty for some to do as they choose. Racism, the product of the image of the Ignoble Savage, began and survived as the psychologically justifying and economically profitable fairy tale. It provided the gloss for the harsh truth that empire, soft or hard, is the child of inability or an unwillingness to life within one's own means.* Empire as a way of life is predicated upon having more than one needs.


A Revolution for Self-Government and Empire

History is the tale told by the winners. Those who have the power to ask the questions generally determine the answers.

John Taylor of Caroline County, Virginia, was a man who originally thought that Madison an Jefferson would lead the country into the promised land of freedom and responsible government within community. But he watched and learned, and finally published an analysis that not only evoked a sense of doom within his own soul but provided the basis for all non-imperial philosophy.

Taylor was a trenchant and subtle thinker (if also a terribly convoluted writer-he was always making sure he was giving his opponent the worst of a questionable point). He began by accepting Madison's proposition that republican government could be extended over "spacious spheres." But he immediately introduced three vital reservations: the argument was true only if the society was "happily removed from real causes of collision with other nations"; only if expansion was organized as a "a chain of republics"; and only if the central government was designed to favor man's good propensities over his evil tendencies.

But the Constitution, he warned, was an instrument of "energetic government," created and implemented through disingenuous procedures, and revealed an inherent dynamism which would create "iron government" and precisely such collisions with other nations. "The executive power of the United States is infected... with a degree of accumulation and permanence of power, sufficient to excite evil moral qualities." He noted, as examples, the President's power of patronage over the legislature and the courts, the inherent tendency toward secrecy, the treaty-making power. The resulting propensity to misuse the argument that all actions are justified by security requirements, and the direct and indirect power of the President to provoke or initiate a war.

Taylor constantly returned to the issue of foreign policy and war. "War" he pointed out, "is the keenest carving knife for cutting up nations into delicious morsels for parties and their leaders." And the Constitution did not provide any meaningful checks or controls over the executive's ability to decide the question: war is "unsubjected to public opinion." He then noted that leaders in power identified themselves and their policies with national security, "and that therefore an opposition to the government, was an opposition to the nation itself." That "renders useless or impracticable the freedom of speech and of the press." The "only guarantees" against such subversion of the republic lay in local and regional conventions.

Adapted and augmented by other citizens over the years, Taylor's critique provided the bases for continuing opposition to empire as a way of life. But neither Taylor nor his successors ever generated the strength to overturn Madison's imperial Weltanschauung. The principal reasons for that failure are to be found in the raw power of imperial America to continue its expansion without suffering defeat in war, and in the ability of the resulting empire to provide benefits for a majority of the metropolitan populace.

Madison and most of his successors understood two subsidiary aspects of his system, and those insights enabled them, for many generations, to avoid most of the dangers inherent in their outlook. First, they recognized that the sphere (what a lovely euphemism-euphoria-for empire) could not be extended too far too fast because otherwise the empire could tumble out of control and disintegrate into separate regional communities that would become independent nations. Second, he sensed, along with many other southerners, the possibility of a visceral struggle over the nature of the imperial political economy. The benefits of empire had to be distributed on the basis of elementary equity in order to prevent uncontrollable tensions between different interest groups or classes or regions from erupting into social revolution. With one exception, the Civil War, Americans avoided that pitfall.

Perhaps nothing dramatizes Madison's perceptiveness, and the effectiveness of his heirs, then his prophecy. As an extremely sophisticated mercantilist who believed that the world was finite, he recognized that someday there would be no more surplus space or resources in the North American continent. Near the end of his life he hazarded an informed guess that such a situation would develop sometime near the end of the 1920s, and forecast that the United States would then turn toward some kind of monarchy.

If we recognize that Madison used monarchy as a word for highly centralized and consolidated central government, we can only marvel at his insight. For Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other leaders of the New Deal l subsequent administrations did assert and acquire ever more power over the political economy. As with their predecessors, however, those neo-mercantilists of the mid-and late 20th century continued to be guided by an imperial Weltanschauung.

Many Americans, poor as well as powerful, and agricultural as well as urban, viewed themselves as agents of God's will and purpose. There is no reason, for example, to doubt the sincerity of john Quincy Adams of Massachusetts when he described the United States as "a nation, coextensive with the North American Continent, destined by God and nature to be the most populous and powerful people ever combined under one social compact."

As that example suggests, ordained missionaries were not the only people motivated (even driven) by that religious spirit to carry America's truth on across the Pacific to Asia, or back across the Atlantic to the Middle East. One cannot escape a strong sense, in this connection, that even though God has been pronounced dead in many different ways since the Reformation, He was still very much alive. One of the most sophisticated ways of transforming Him involved secularizing Him by equating Godliness with individual or collective success on earth. As one perceptive observer has noted, that meant that Christianity became increasingly "self-centered and ego-directed."

Thus the successful way becomes the Lord's way, and Everyman becomes a missionary of the American Dream in dealing with the Indians and others who are not following the American Way. If such people refuse to "open their minds to the idea of improvement," they are agents of the Devil with must be dealt with by force. Or, as phrased by Lewis Henry Morgan, the father of American anthropology, they must be educated to American conceptions of the "rights of property, and rights of citizenship, which are common to ourselves." Such examples, and they can be cited ad infinitum, remind one of Horace Walpole's caustic observation of 1762 that "every age has some ostentatious system to excuse the havoc it commits."

That comment serves to underscore the point that the secularization of God affected groups (and even an entire society) as well as individuals. If the person's sense of calling was transformed from honoring God's laws to prospering in the marketplace, then the nation's calling was changed from being a City on a Hill to being the active crusader to reform the world according to the American Dream.

That process, which continued throughout the 19th century, was greatly reinforced by the wholly secular idea that the American Revolution (including the conception and implementation of the Constitution) represented the perfect revolution. Americans came very quickly to view themselves as having discovered the ultimate solution to mankind's long search for the proper way to organize society. Jefferson encapsulated the outlook in his famous remark that America was "the world's best hope."

That belief had two imperial consequences. First, the behavior of other peoples (including their revolutions) was judged by its correspondence with the American Way. The weaker the correlation, the greater the urge to intervene to help the wayward find the proper path to freedom and prosperity. Second, the faith in America's uniqueness coupled with the failure of others to copy the perfect revolution generated a deep sense of being alone. Americans considered themselves perpetually beleaguered, an attitude that led on to the conviction that military security was initially to be found in controlling the entire continent-and ultimately prompted them to deny any distinction between domestic and foreign policy.

Empire As A Way Of Life

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