Born and Bred of Empire,
A Revolution for Self-Government
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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