“The empires of the future are empires of the mind.” – Winston Churchill
While I’m gratified that so many Americans are at last waking up to the sorry state of our Republic, I have to take issue with the oft-stated notion that America is becoming an empire. On the contrary: America has been an empire for some time now. What is happening to us in terms of our loss of liberties and our government’s increasing aggression, both at home and abroad, is not the onset of some new thing. It is, rather, the final stage of an illness that has proven fatal to every people who have ever contracted it—a disease of the mind. For before an empire can be birthed on the world stage it must first be conceived in the minds of men, and the imperial mindset was present in our United States of America from the very beginning.
But how could this be? After all, imperial notions seem far removed—if not entirely antithetical—to American idealism as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. America was conceived in the idea that governments exist in order to protect the rights of individuals, and thus cannot justly exercise power over and above the consent of the governed. Empires, on the other hand, are inherently creatures of force and collectivism; they subvert the rights of individuals in favor of furthering the power of the state. Indeed, the very mention of the word empire conjures up images that are anathema to the classical American mindset: tyrants seated on elaborate thrones, immense standing armies, masses of the common people in servitude (or at least behaving themselves discreetly under the state’s watchful eye), torture chambers, ideological oppression, and rampant decadence.
If we look back on our history with a critical eye, however, I think we’ll notice that imperial ambitions, while not consistent with our core doctrines, are, nonetheless, not as far divorced from our thinking as we would prefer to believe.
The Imperial March
After fighting a revolution to throw off the yoke of an empire, the United States of America began acting, in many ways, as an imperial power itself. President James Monroe effectively made this a matter of policy in 1823 when he articulated his famous “Monroe Doctrine.” The Monroe Doctrine gave the US an actionable interest in the affairs of the entire western hemisphere, and was based on the justification that European maneuverings in the Americas were inherently “dangerous to our peace and safety.” The European nation-states were based on different political systems than our own, Monroe argued; therefore, any expansion on their part in our backyard was a natural threat to us.
Given the relative weakness of the US military at that time in history, the Monroe Doctrine was quite a bold stance. It was indicative of two ideas that would, together, form the cornerstone of American nationalism and, later, militarism: 1) an understanding of the fact that America’s experiment in self-government was fragile, and 2) the fact that Americans were quickly coming to view themselves as the providentially appointed guardians of political righteousness. Journalist John O’Sullivan expressed both ideas in 1845 when he declared that it was America’s “Manifest Destiny”—our clear, divinely appointed mission—to “overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”
In 1853, the US government decided that the Pacific trade had also been entrusted to us, and insisted upon using Japan as a refueling stop on the way to China. This in spite of the fact that Japan was a notoriously isolationist nation at that time in its history and wanted nothing to do with us. Secretary of State Daniel Webster had laid out the justification for this it in 1851, when he asserted that the coal in the Japanese islands had been placed there “by the Creator of all things…for the benefit of the human family.” Commodore Matthew Perry was dispatched to explain this to the Japanese, who, upon seeing the guns of Perry’s ships, agreed that perhaps they were being unfair to us after all. They agreed to grant us re-coaling rights with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854. Then, a few years later in 1858, Perry convinced the Japanese Shogun to sign a “Treaty of Amity and Commerce,” establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. Once again, Perry’s mission of amity was greatly assisted by the warships he brought with him.
The Nationalist Mindset
There is no doubt in my mind but that Commodore Perry and his superiors believed that they were furthering a noble cause, and this in spite of the fact that they were acting coercively against a people who had done them no harm. Yes, I’m perfectly aware that they were also motivated by the potential for enhancing America’s wealth and prestige in Pacific ventures (in other words, pride and greed), but what must be understood here is that Washington’s brand of nationalism sees no difference between the expansion of American power and the success of American ideals.
Nationalism is, by definition, collectivism; and history demonstrates for us that two things always happen in a collective system: the will of the majority eclipses the rights of individuals, and the majority (or rather, its voice) always assumes the identity of the nation. This makes nationalism fundamentally incompatible with O’Sullivan’s “liberty and federated self-government” in the long term because governments are jealous gods; they will allow no others before them. Where national and regional or local interests collide, as they ultimately must, the former will insist that the latter yield in the name of “the greater good.” Regional and local interests will be dubbed “selfish,” “short-sighted,” and “obstructionist.” Whatever ideals are considered precious will be assumed by the nationalist element, which will tout its own success as equivalent to the success of those ideals, even if, in actuality, its agenda runs contrary to them (the terms “workers’ party” and “revolution of the proletariat” come to mind right away here). Again, the majority, or the voice that claims to represent it, becomes the nation.
This is precisely what happened in our history. An authoritarian, nationalist element eventually gained control of the central government, made its agenda equivalent to the preservation and advancement of “the great experiment of liberty and self-government,” and thereby assumed the moral authority to combat all contrary influences, ostensibly before those influences could destroy the nation itself.
I’m referring, of course, to Abraham Lincoln and his indispensable “war for the Union.”
The True Virginians
According to Lincoln, the Southern states that seceded from the Union weren’t simply trying to go their own way; they were actually trying to destroy America itself. Never mind the fact that secession was not unconstitutional, that it was fully consistent with the principles of self-determination that had led to the creation of the United States of America in the first place, and that the departure of the Southern states would have left the Union fully intact between the remaining states and the government at Washington fully functional. “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government,” Lincoln informed the Confederacy in his first inaugural address, “while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it’.” The war he inaugurated was, in his terms, “essentially a people’s contest,” a “war for a great national idea, the Union,” a test to see whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,” a struggle to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Note that, in spite of the fact that it was Lincoln who was trying to overthrow the expressed will of the Southern people, he nonetheless argued that it was he and his friends in Union blue who were fighting for “government of the people.” The Unionists were the real Americans, the true defenders of liberty and the Constitution. In one amazing instance, Lincoln went so far as to argue that those Virginians who supported secession weren’t even Virginians anymore. In an address to Congress on July 4, 1861, Lincoln remarked:
The people of Virginia have thus allowed this giant insurrection to make its nest within her borders; and this Government has no choice left but to deal with it where it finds it. And it has less regret, as the loyal citizens have in due form claimed its protection. Those loyal citizens this Government is bound to recognize and protect as being Virginia.
Suffice it to say that the histories of wars are written by the victors. Lincoln and his fellow nationalists won, overthrowing the “confederated republic” of the Founders and the Constitution with its doctrines of delegated, separated, and reserved powers, in favor of “one nation, indivisible.” This new version of America became the ‘fulfillment’ of the Declaration of Independence (that old joint resolution of secession), a “new birth of freedom”: the realization of what the Founders had really wanted to achieve but were prevented from doing because of selfish, sectional feeling—or so we’re told.
Even commentators who criticize Lincoln for the cruelty of Northern war measures—especially in the last two years of the war—generally agree that things worked out for the best because of him. In his book Lincoln’s Little War, Webb Garrison demonstrates how Lincoln manipulated the events that led to the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter; however, he concludes that the United States could never have become a superpower “if fifty strong and separate states made all the significant decisions,” and that America “became one nation in the real sense of the term” as a result of the war. Writing in the Boston Herald on April 19, 1999, columnist Don Feder compared Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s tactics to those of Abraham Lincoln, but then brushed Lincoln’s atrocities aside with a statement that it all turned out for the best in the end. “Lincoln did what was necessary to preserve the Union,” Feder commented. “America, the greatest force for good in this century, would have been reduced to a basket case if the rebellion had succeeded.”
So forget the fact that Lincoln overthrew the country’s founding principles and waged a brutal war against innocent people; his victory made it possible for us to overthrow regimes that brutalize innocent people in other countries today, and that’s what counts. Such is the majority consensus, based largely in naiveté, I’m afraid. In opposing Southern secession, Lincoln “saved America,” and many would have us believe that America was saved so that it could, in turn, save the world. Thus the success of America’s ideals became inextricably tied to the power and prestige of the United States of America itself, which became, as Don Feder would say, a “force for good.” And who can argue with a force for good?
Indeed, many Americans came to view the country, not merely as a force for “good,” but as the very instrument of God on earth. Americans in general had always believed that they were blessed of God, both in their political system and the richness of their land, but Lincoln twisted the idea of God’s involvement with America to suit his own purposes.
The most enduring example of this comes to us in the form of comments he made during his second inaugural address, which was far more religious in tone than his first. In the address, Lincoln suggested that God had brought the war about in order to punish America for slavery, and that it would continue for as long as God saw fit, even though Lincoln himself had brought it about through his scheming and had the power to end it at any time simply by withdrawing his armies from Southern soil. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln informed Americans. “As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Unfortunately, Lincoln’s hypocrisy stuck in the American mindset. The war ceased to be a political power struggle, or a matter of national pride, and instead became a crusade between good and evil, brought about by the providence of God Himself. And once that idea was accepted, it wasn’t much of a leap to assume that, because God had started the whole thing, it had all worked out just as He had planned. Lincoln and the North became God’s instrument of justice; thus their victory, and the nationalist ideals that drove it, had the divine seal of approval. Glory, glory, hallelujah.
And of course it didn’t help anything that Lincoln died as an apparent martyr to his cause, which had the effect of virtually deifying him, and earned him the right to sit in that Temple of Zeus the taxpayers gratefully erected for him in Washington D.C. Even as a child, when I was caught up in the Lincoln mythos, the Lincoln Memorial struck me as somehow wrong. If you have never been there, you cannot entirely appreciate the scale of it. Lincoln sits—literally larger than life—on a great white throne in the midst of an enormous building that resembles a Greek or Roman temple. It’s a strange marriage of biblical and pagan imagery; a kingly, semi-divine construct that would have given George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson heartburn.
Following Lincoln’s (excuse me, God’s) war, American nationalism became a strange mixture of jingoism, ideological protectionism, and an old-fashioned desire for “more,” all combined with a messiah complex. It seems that we threw off the yoke of an empire, not in order to repudiate imperialism, but simply to establish one that was more to our liking. We took over the continent in order to provide room for the “great experiment of liberty and federated self-government,” subduing both treasonous secessionists and red-skinned savages in the process (for the collective good, naturally), policed the neighborhood so that no undesirable elements could move in, and in the process completely altered our mindset and became something those who fought in our revolution would not have recognized.
I take that back; they would indeed have recognized it—they had fought against it, after all.
The War for the American Mind
The empire we see today is a natural extension of Manifest Destiny, carried out on a global stage, driven by a sense of what the ancients referred to as noblesse oblige, a “noble obligation” to civilize the world—or so Washington tells us. Interestingly, our leaders seem to feel that our noble obligation lies along lines defined by natural resource wealth, particularly oil, and may be advanced by less than noble means, as anyone on the other side of the bombs, depleted uranium ammunition, drone strikes, assassinations, and torture can testify. But is this really so surprising? After all, we idolize men who brutalized segments of our own population into submission and then covered it all with the flag and pronounced it good. If we venerate men who did this to our own people, do foreigners really stand any chance of being treated better?
And, of course, we cannot tolerate dissent at home because this “weakens our resolve.” This mentality is summed up nicely in the words of former Attorney General John Ashcroft:
To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends.
Remember: nationalists assume the identity of the entire nation and all of the ideals that it supposedly holds dear, even when their agenda and methods obviously conflict with those ideals. In their minds, America is what they say it is, and they are the true Americans, just as Lincoln once proclaimed that those Virginians who supported the Union were the only true Virginians. Our “national unity” is unity on their terms. “Our resolve” is their resolve. If you are not for them, you are against them. Opposing them is “giving ammunition” to America’s enemies; and if you are arming America’s enemies, then, naturally, you yourself are an enemy.
In light of this, it is useless to talk of rolling back Washington’s empire without confronting the mindset that drives it. Empires are, first and foremost, constructs of the mind, and it is there that they must first be overthrown.
Robert Hawes is the author of One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution, as well as In Search of God: A Look at Life’s Most Essential Question. As a writer, he focuses on history, politics, science, philosophy, and faith. Originally from Northern Virginia, he now lives in South Carolina with his wife and three children. He is available for hire for freelance writing projects and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.