Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 2 Summer 1981

imagine anything further from the way it is. We can see that dramatically illustrated by our response to events in Iran, the West Bank, Afghanistan and in America itself. Our intellectual, political and psychological confusion is the result of our ahistorial faith that we are not now and never have been an empire. Yet there is no way to understand the nature of our predicament except for confronting our history as an empire. That is the only way to comprehend the Iranian demand that we acknowledge our long-term interference in their affairs, the widespread anger about our acquiescence in the progression of Israel’s settlements on the West Bank, the Russian charge that we apply one standard to them and another to ourselves and the deep resentment of us among the peoples of the poor countries. The only way we can come to terms with those matters is to look our imperial history in the eye without blinking, flinching or walking away into the wonderland of Woodrow Wilson’s saving the world for democracy. The western way Let us start with a workable definition of empire: the use and abuse, and the ignoring, of other people for one’s own welfare and convenience. Now in truth, America was born and bred of empire. That does not mean that we are unique; indeed, just the opposite. We are part and parcel of the imperial outreach of Western Europe that came to dominate tie world. But therein lies the irreducible cause of our present predicament. We nave from the beginning defined and vewed ourselves as unique. The differences between ourselves and other nations are not incidental but they are irrelevant to the fundamental issue. We are different only because we acquired the empire at a very low cost, because the rewards have been enormous and because until now we have masked our imperial truth with the rhetoric of freedom. But we do have a bench mark. Once upon a time, about a century before American was rediscovered br Christopher Columbus, at least the fifth time someone had done it, the Chinese sent seven massive fleets westward :o Africa and perhaps on into the Atlantic Ocean. The ships measured between 400 and 500 feet, and there were enough of them to carry upward of 37,000 people. Their so-called junks were impressive inter-continental missiles. The Chinese came, they traded, f.hey observed. They made no effort to creite an empire or even an imperial sphere ofinfluence. Upon returning home, their reports engendered a major debate. The decision was made to burn and otherwise destroy the great fleets and concentrate on developing Chinese society and culture. The point is not to present the Chinese as immaculately disinterested, or whiter than white. It is simply to note that we now know that the capacity for empire does not lead irresistably or inevitably to the reality of empire. The Chinese, driven south by the Mongols and other invaders, could easily have rationalized empire as necessity. They chose instead to defeat the invaders and develop their own culture in its almost infinite variations on the two themes of Confucianism and Taoism. Not so with Western Europeans, including our English forefathers. They were not content with exploration and nonviolent intercourse with other cultures. From the beginning, the Western Europeans went for global empire. We Americans were conceived and born and bred of that imperial conception and way of life. We can explain that, even defend it, but we cannot deny it. That phrase, that idea—way of life—puzzles some people and upsets other people. A way of life is the pattern of assumptions and perceptions, and values, methods and objectives, that characterize and guide the actions of a culture. Here are three amplifications of that definition: “We stabilize around a set of concepts... and hold them dear. At each moment of each day we make the same mistakes.” “Those unconsciously accepted presuppositions which, in any age, so largely determine what men think about the nature of the universe and what can and cannot happen to it.” “/deas that we do not know we have, have us. And they shape our experiences from behind, unbeknown.” A Noise in the world Within that framework, let us examine certain ideas that guided the development of our imperial way of life. Christianity was once a vital part of Western European expansionism. It provoked and justified all kinds of imperial activity: accumulating capital by conquest, striking terror into the hearts and minds of the heathens who wanted to keep their wealth for themselves and forcibly changing other peoples’ ways of life the better to convert them to the true religion. I am more concerned here, however, with three ideas developed by secular British leaders that came to define so much of our own imperial outlook. John Locke provided a fine summary of two of them in one classic paragraph. Wealth, he explained, was not defined by having what one needed but by having more than one’s neighbor; hence it was permissable, even desirable, to take riches away from one’s neighbor. That neatly doubled the relative advantage. The third proposition was most strikingly formulated by Sir Francis Bacon. The worst kind of domestic disorder was caused by “the rebellions of the belly.” Expansion was the only sure way to prevent that kind of threat to the social order. It not only generated economic growth but it dispersed potential troublemakers and thus decreased the density of We Ziave from the beginning defined and viewed ourselves as unique. We are different only because we acquired the empire at a very low cost, because the rewards have been enormous and because until now we have masked our imperial truth with the rhetoric of freedom. discontent. The American leaders who made the Revolution and the Constitution were familiar with all those imperial ideas. And in Virginia, for example, men of property had realized the value of imperial expansion for controlling the white poor long before Patrick Henry began talking about liberty or death. Indeed, the dialogue between other Virginians provides an excellent insight into the development of an imperial way of life. James Madison never discounted the importance of economic expansion, commercial or territorial; but he stressed the need for surplus social space to avoid political turmoil when he advanced his famous argument about extending the sphere in defense of the Constitution. In denying the conventional wisdom that a republican government could survive only in a small state, Madison was implicitly arguing that empire is’ the price of freedom. It is sometimes maintained, of course, that Madison was never explicitly imperial. Not only do his actions deny that but so do all the contemporary arguments against his theory. Robert Yates, along with many other critics of the Constitution, saw immediately that it would create an empire. A Northerner noted in sadness that “we wish to make a noise in the world,” and pleaded with his readers to face up to the truth that “extensive empire is a misfortune.” George Clinton of New York reasserted the validity of the classic argument about size and democracy in a stinging analysis of Madison’s imperial logic. But, as with others, he ruefully concluded that the appeal of empire would carry the day. For his part, John Taylor of Caroline County, Virginia, was devastating. He began by mocking Madison’s euphemism for imperial expansion—“extending the sphere.” Of course, agreed Taylor, republicanism could in theory be extended over “spacious spheres.” But only if one did not count other cultures as involving real people, only if the added spheres were truly equal republics, and only if the central government was predicated upon an effort to encourage man’s good pro- “Ideas that we do not know we have, have us. And they shape our experiences from behind, unbeknown.” pensities rather than control his evil tendencies. He then warned that Madison’s Constitution satisfied none of those requirements. It created an “iron government" guaranteed to favor “evil moral qualities” and to generate war upon war. And, since the decision for war was in the end “unsubjected to publick opinion,” opposition to war was in effect defined as “an opposition to the nation itself.” That rendered “useless of impracticable the freedoms of speech and of the press.” Whatever the sometimes almost incomprehensible convolutions of his prose or the embittered railings of his frustrations, Taylor understood that America had embraced an imperial way of life. He knew, Thomas Paine to the contrary notwithstanding, that the United States had not begun the world over again. No wonder he ultimately lost his respect for Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was far too intelligent not to understand Taylor. Indeed, too smart not to recognize the meaning of the Chinese decision that I have described. He alluded to that in one letter and, sensing the implications, quickly dropped the subject. In that respect, and it is an important one, Jefferson was much more like us ordinary folk that either Madision or Taylor. Jefferson wanted to have it every way imaginable. He wanted to be the best hope on earth. He wanted to civilize the heathen. He wanted Canada and Florida and the rest of the continent. And he wanted to institutionalize the decentralized face-to-face community as opposed to the impersonal society. That brought Jefferson eyeball to eyeball with Madison and Taylor. Settle for what one needed or go for empire. He knew the meaning of anguish about it all, but he went for empire. Half honestly and half dishonestly. The honest part was saying that empire is necessary for freedom and social order as defined by Locke and Bacon. The dishonest part was asserting that empire did not subvert freedom. So between them, Jefferson and Madison used their sixteen years as President to institutionalize empire as a way of life. Taylor went home and gave it all up for lost. MAKE NO mistake about it: the imperial way of life produced the promised rewards. It generated great economic wealth and effectively limited the scope and intensity of social discontent. By the time that James Monroe had left the White House, the United States had asserted its predominance throughout the Western Hemisphere and was well entrenched in Hawaii. But we must also report the costs. I do not for a moment dismiss the people killed and the property stolen, but I would sug- guest that the greatest price was paid in the coin of our sensitivity about what we were doing and how that was understood by other peoples. We were already far down the road of believing that we were not an empire, and viscerally resenting any suggestion that we were an empire. And already far down the road, as Prof. Arthur K. Weinberg pointed out many years ago, of assuming that our right to security transcended the traditional right to defend what we had and had become the right to perfect security in any imaginable future contingency. We began to define security as the natural right to empire. More Freedom: More Empire There was another cost. Americans became so habituated to empire as the price freedom that they demanded ever more freedom and ever more empire. Andrew Jackson was at once a prime mover and the symbol of that new enthusiasm for the imperial way of life. More freedom at home and more expansion elsewhere. People like the Cherokees who could create and sustain a representative government within fixed spatial limits were clearly backward—and so a threat to the American Way. Move them out and force them to adapt to surplus space. People like the inhabitants of the northern half of Mexico, who used surplus space to relax and live a balanced and ecologically responsible life, were backward for another reason. They did not exploit the surplus space. So move them out or aside. And all the while other Americans, the merchants, the shippers, the sealers, the whalers and Jefferson wanted to have it every way imaginable. He wanted to be the best hope on earth. He wanted to civilize the heathen. He wanted Canada and Florida and the rest of the continent. And he wanted to institutionalize the decentralized face- to-face community as opposed to the impersonal society. 20 Clinton St. Quarterly Illustrations by Stephen Leftar