My comments on William Appleman Williams’s Empire as a Way of Life will begin with a critical review of Andrew Bacevich’s Introduction and some of Williams’s major arguments from chapters 1-5. I will also share critical reflections on empire from historians Charles Beard, J.A. Hobson, and V.G. Kiernan, and the English filmmaker and writer Felix Greene.
The examination of Williams will emphasize the fundamental premises that shaped the Founding of the nation, particularly the views of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. These two Founders help set in motion a basic structure of empire that has remained intact for two centuries.
Andrew Bacevich, who wrote the introduction to this new edition, is a Vietnam veteran who has taught at West Point. He currently is Professor of International Relations at Boston University and author of two fine books on U.S. foreign policy: American Empire and The New American Militarism.
Bacevich argues that Williams’s “influence has endured for one simple reason”: US foreign policy “has vindicated” his views on the nature of government and empire, even though Williams was “denounced” by the Cold War apologists for venturing outside acceptable bounds in his criticisms of US policy. As long as you stay within these bounds you can make tough methodological criticisms (i.e., things are not working), but you cannot question the fundamental premises of the policy itself, e.g., present the kind of critique that Noam Chomsky does. This will not do and will insure you will be ignored or attacked in the New York Times.
Williams’s crime was to “suggest in the midst of the Cold War that the US entertained imperial aspirations and that US foreign policy … had aimed at building and consolidating an American empire….” This major assertion, Bacevich points out, has stood the test of time.
The fundamental question that Williams raised, is whether this nation is even “possible without empire.” Since it has been always relied “on expansion – especially economic expansion,” can it “learn to live within its own means.” The short answer is no, as the radical political economy analysis of Foster and others in this course show. The inherent nature of modern capitalism propels it inexorably toward expansion and growth; it cannot live within its means and any attempt to produce political reforms designed to accomplish this are doomed to failure.
In Bacevich’s view, “Williams subscribed to his own version of American exceptionalism” – what I believe is a weakness within Williams’s fine and powerful critique of US policies. All views of American exceptionalism are built on a fundamentally flawed premise, i.e., the history of this country is different than others in terms of economic and political issues. And we must tie this lack of exceptionalism to the fact that capitalism is incapable of self-restraint – like a shark it must keep moving or die. It can’t be self-sustaining and frugal for that undermines the very nature of a political economy built upon relentless expansion.
One of Williams’s basic arguments is that unlike the time when he wrote this book (1980), the notion of empire “was common in the vocabulary of the Americans who made the revolution against Great Britain” and then produced the US Constitution. These men “knew the ideas, language and reality of empire from their study of the classic literature about Greece and Rome (and about politics in general); they used the word regularly in their talk about England; and they came increasingly to employ it in speaking of their own condition, policies and aspirations. It became, indeed, synonymous with the realization of their dream.”
The brutal honesty of the early Founders diminished as the country grew, and the ideological justifications for imperialism glossed over reality with such phrases as “‘extending the area of freedom’ and ‘saving the world for democracy’’’ – even as the US “destroyed the cultures of the First Americans, conquered half of Mexico, and relentlessly expanded [its] power around the world. Empire became so intrinsically our American way of life that we rationalized and suppressed the nature of our means in the euphoria of our enjoyment of the ends.”
Williams’s major arguments represent first and foremost a social and historical analysis that stresses patterns that become “habitual and institutionalized” and define the essential “character of a culture and society” – not psychological or individual explanations that seek to explain large historical events by focusing on micro and idiosyncratic tendencies of major leaders.
Therefore, we have to look at the basic assumptions that “each society holds in common [about] … about reality, [as] those assumptions guide and set limits upon its members – their awareness and perception, … understanding of causes and consequences, … options, and range … of action.”
These assumptions are based on hierarchical and unequal class relationships. The imperialism of the Founding was similar to what English historian J.A. Hobson argued a century ago about the “new imperialism” of his era (Imperialism: A Study); it is particularly relevant to our contemporary understanding of US foreign policy. He stated: “Although … [empire] has been bad business for the nation, it has been good business for certain classes and certain trades within the nation.” So when we hear that we fight to defend and preserve our “national interest,” simply ask “whose national interest” and what is the “direct economic outcome of imperialism.”
Williams argues that it is absolutely critical to understand the nature and importance of empire in the Founding, “because from the beginning” this “way of life effectively closed off other ways of dealing with the reality that Americans encountered.” Once this fundamental premise or foundation was laid, subsequent US history was very predictable, right down to our imperial ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
From the Founding, this fundamental structure was dominated from the start by those Williams called important people, “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.” Despite 220 years of different administrations, Democratic or Republican, the policy has been systemic and constant, not haphazard or ill conceived. The Founders who formed the nation and created the empire gave serious and intelligent attention to governing a people, and their views are absolutely critical and relevant to the present.
While Williams tells us that 20th century Americans “liked empire for the same reasons their ancestors favored it … [because it] provided them with renewable opportunities, wealth, and other benefits and satisfactions including a psychic sense of well-being and power,” we must keep in mind that the material benefits of empire do not benefit all equally; most wealth goes to the ruling elites even though all citizens may share in the ideological benefits that accrue from nationalist and patriotic appeals.
Williams forthrightly tells us that from the Founding, as a nation we have from the beginning had alternatives to empire, as “various minorities (and occasionally pluralities) have from time to time argued and agitated for a non-imperialist outlook.” We must agree with Williams, however, that the US “was born and bred of the British Empire,” such so that the Founders “sought … to coordinate – even to plan – their efforts to realize their desired goals. They were in truth concerned to create a system through a conscious effort to integrate disparate elements into a purposeful pattern.” This was not some dark and mysterious conspiracy but a development based on planning and a relentless attention to class interests.
As we discussed in our first class, Williams agrees with John Locke’s definition of empire: “a way of life [that] involves taking wealth and freedom away from others to provide for your own welfare, pleasure, and power.” We have returned to this quote since it brilliantly captures the essence of the empire project that we seek to examine. Thus, the basic issue was and remains “the control of wealth and the liberty of some to do as they choose….” It’s essentially about constructing a social order based on the fundamental fact of “having more than one needs.” This is why we must focus on the beginning of the US and the confident and articulate Founders who created the ground rules upon which have been built subsequent centuries of imperial aggression throughout the world.
Williams believes we have to understand “the bricks from which they built the important foundation. [John] Winthrop’s faith in America as a City on the Hill and then as another Israel was echoed in the remark of [Puritan leader] Jonathan Edwards ‘that God might in [America] begin a new world in a spiritual respect.’” Williams reminds us that Founder and later President John Adams believed “the colonial era … was only the opening of a grand scheme and design in providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” This sentiment was rephrased slightly by his son, John Quincy Adams, who described the US as “a nation, coextensive with the North America continent, destined by God and nature to be the most populous and powerful people ever combined under one social compact.”
Such views have been the dominant perspective since the Founding, rephrased generation after generation with rare dissent by conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. Whatever tough criticism you may hear today with regard to the handling of the empire by the Bush regime, you will not find one influential political figure that will challenge the foundational premises of empire. This dominant view was restated after the 9/11 attacks, for example, by historian Victor Davis Hanson, who assured us that our “country was not merely different than others, but … was clearly superior with its rare democratic government, tolerance for religious differences, spirit of liberty, and allowance for dissent….”
William Bennett, moral philosopher and former Secretary of Education, has restated John Adams’s grand view of America, asserting the basic truth that we live in a “self-governing society [that stands for] freedom and self-government.” Bennett believes that “nowhere else has freedom flourished as it has in America…. Even with its faults, America remains the best nation on earth.... A fair reading of our history will reveal, once again, that we truly are ‘the Last, best hope of Earth’” (Quoted in John Marciano, “9/11 and Civic Literacy,” in Wayne Nelles, ed., Comparative Education, Terrorism and Human Security: From Critical Pedagogy to Peacebuilding?).
Of all influential Founders, James Madison was arguably the most important in terms of nation and empire, and we need to listen to Williams and devote some careful attention to him. “Both in the mind of Madison and in its nature” the Constitution reflected the premise of “imperial government at home and abroad.” Madison was of course not alone in his advocacy of nationhood based on class principles and imperialism based on expansion, first against American Indians and then onward to the Caribbean, Canada, Latin America and the rest of the world.
While all the Founders were “impressively literate and knowledgeable about history and political theory…” it was Madison who presented the strongest case “that empire was essential for freedom.” This international class view complemented his view of domestic government, found in his arguments on the nature of society and rulers in Federalist Paper #10, in the view of many the most important political essay ever written in this nation.
In this essay, Madison was honest and blunt about the nature of government and social classes: “The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distributions of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society…. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.” Historian Charles Beard called this “a masterly statement of the theory of economic determinism in politics” – the truth but a view that cost Beard dearly.
It is this class nature of political economy and government that was the essential foundation for empire. It is here where we must begin to understand US expansionism since 1789.
Alongside Madison was the other major architect of empire, Thomas Jefferson. For Williams, “Jeffersonian democracy … was a creature of imperial expansion. He, perhaps even more than Madison, established it as a way of life, and most Americans embraced it because it gave them personal and social rewards.” Building an empire “generated even larger visions” and allowed the US to “give the law of our hemisphere.” In truth, however, Jefferson, Madison and other Founders made and unmade that law by signing and then breaking innumerable treaties and other agreements with First Americans, and by extending slavery as an integral part of their empire.
Williams reminds us that citizens here “came very quickly to view themselves as having discovered the ultimate solution to mankind’s long search for the proper way to organize society” (he means white citizens of Western and Northern European backgrounds). Jefferson took this view when he stated that America was “the world’s best hope.” One is staggered, however, by the depth of denial about what “America” of that time truly represented in this comment by one of the most brilliant Founders. Jefferson asserted a reality that totally erased the class, gender and racial inequalities that marked the US at that time.
Beard challenged the class nature of the Founders’ views decades ago in his controversial and groundbreaking book on the origins of the nation: An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Beard demolished the notion that the Founding was a simple tale of “‘the working out of a higher will than that of man.’ There is to be observed in the history of the struggle for the Constitution, in historian George Bancroft’s words, ‘the movement of the divine power which gives unity to the universe, and order and connection to events.’”
How can one oppose the founding Constitution that forms the basis of empire itself, therefore, when all of this has been divinely ordained – the same ideological mystification that present US rulers use as their justification for imperial assaults around the world.
Of course, the critical view that Beard and other historians have presented, i.e., “the hypothesis that economic elements are the chief factors in the development of political institutions,” has rarely been used to examine the governmental and imperial development of the US. Aside from the critiques of such scholars as Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, and Howard Zinn, Beard’s thesis has been ignored and/or attacked for its economic determinism. He was castigated for daring to suggest that class interests were the fundamental concerns of the Founders in Philadelphia who debated and created the Constitution. Despite Beard’s critique, the mainstream view articulated by Bancroft in the 19th century and repeated each generation since, has remained the dominant perspective that has shaped our education on the empire.
Williams recognizes that capitalism with its fundamental “principles of private property” and class system is challenged by the “ideas and ideals of community”; therefore, these “ideas and ideals” are only possible “through empire that provides a surplus of property.” But of course this means an appropriation of the surplus by some, and the progression of US history proves that more and more wealth-producing “property” has ended up in fewer and fewer hands.
Critical to the nature of empire, in Williams’s view, was the ideological support represented by Adam Smith’s views on political economy. Often referred to as the founding guru of modern capitalism, Smith “repeatedly underscored the important of the state in expanding the marketplace. His entire system was predicated on unending growth – upon empire…. He wholly agreed with … the necessity of expansion.” Williams asks us to “remember the words Smith used to define the purpose” of his political economy system: “… the prosperity … the splendor, and … the duration of the empire.”
By the early decades of the 19th century, it goes without saying that President Andrew Jackson accepted empire, as his aggression against First Americans led inexorably to what Williams calls “the ultimate magic phrase, ‘manifest destiny,’” created by editor John L. O’Sullivan. For O’Sullivan, America was “the beginning of a new history… which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only. Who will, what can, set limits to our onward march?” Our mission is “to smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will….” This is America, the grand exception to the age-old tradition of greed and power among states. If only it were true. One of the most difficult things to accept is that we are like many other empires, e.g., Rome, Spain, and England. As they, we have not risen above the brutal and criminal realities of aggression.
Williams’s analysis of US history perhaps reaches its grandest moment with his insistence that we end the denial about our true history, and confront finally the reality that “the history of the US is not the story of … anti-imperialist heretics. It is the account of the power of empire as a way of life, as a way of avoiding the fundamental challenge of creating a humane and equitable community or culture.”
This quote cannot be emphasized too strongly, for it points to the essential nature of the government and ourselves as a people: coming to grips with what is truly at stake – then and now. Despite the reality of our imperial history, leaders and intellectuals can tell us with a straight face that we still need to go forth in the world spreading democracy, as if a nation built upon genocide, expansion and slavery, upon empire as a fundamental way of life, can possibly spread anything but misery wherever it goes. The basic message we were taught – that we go forth to do good for others – must be confronted and ripped out by the roots if we ever hope to build a genuine democracy and foreign policy that respects the “decent opinions” of humankind.
Beginning with the eloquent and articulate rhetoric of our Founders, we heard the grand defenses of empire from the ruling classes – in the words of J.A. Hobson, the “noble phrases, expressive of their desire to extend the area of civilization, to establish good government, promote Christianity, extirpate slavery, and elevate the lower races.” Sound familiar?
The English filmmaker and writer Felix Greene presents a powerful anti-imperialist critique in his book, The Enemy: What Every American Needs to Know About Imperialism. He points out that “the US was the first nation to be founded openly on the right … of revolution; on the proposition that a people may legitimately abolish their existing government, if necessary by force, and institute a new one. The principles propounded by the American colonists were at the time … explosive…. Other principles were adopted that … struck the ruling classes of Europe as terrifyingly subversive….” But this grand vision and threat carried within it a “fatal flaw: a society built on the principle of human equality could not at the same time be a slave society [nor] could it condone the ruthless massacre of … indigenous Indian peoples; nor is human equality possible while the means of production remain in private hands.”
It is the private control of the means of production that we must ultimately confront, for it forms the foundation upon which empire is built: it leads inexorably to the “economic exploitation of other peoples buttressed by military and political domination.”
Greene reminds us that the basic aim of imperialism “is to make the maximum profits, to exploit, to dominate…. Imperialism of necessity involves the defense of the social order out of which it developed.” This is a key point often missed by critics of the means and results of imperialism that do not examine its essence or inherent qualities.
He continues: “Of necessity it must accept a series of assumptions about people and their relationships to each other.” Within the very core “of capitalism … there lies the assumption that it is normal, natural and right for individuals of one class to reap … wealth at the expense of those who actually produced [it].” If it acceptable “for one group to … exploit others within their own country, then it is clearly normal, natural and right for this class to search for ways in which it can enrich itself by exploiting people abroad as well.” These brilliant and penetrating insights are absolutely essential if we are understand the links between the inherent nature of the internal capitalist system and empire and exploitation abroad.
“An empire can only be administered by a people who feel supremely certain that they are right, benevolent and just,” Greene asserts. “Our intentions are good, that’s what matters. We mean well, for at heart we are a generous people.” We must keep this insight in mind when we hear that our leaders have generous and fine intentions toward the people of Iraq – so much so that the US must stay there to help them on the road to democracy and safety.
Greene critiques the benevolent argument the Founders made about America, that from the beginning we were “made to feel that the very survival of civilization in some way [depended]” on what we did. This self-righteous sense and “identification of [America’s] interests with the interests of the world, is explained and justified with all kinds of mystic talk about the nation’s ‘destiny,’ that it was in some way ordained….” We deserved “this role because of [our] quite exceptional qualities. And [through] a process well known to psychology, [Americans’] own unrecognized hostilities and aggression are projected upon others.” The notion that we are aggressive, cruel and exploitive was thought to be “ludicrous … until Vietnam.”
In his book America The New Imperialism: From White Settlement to World Hegemony, the Scottish historian V.G. Kiernan complements Greene’s critique of empire and American exceptionalism and benevolence. He states that the US was “never an Eden of primal innocence, it had been rearing a crop of rich merchants and ship owners, whose eyes were often turned towards overseas [endeavors]. These were men born with an imperial spoon in their mouth.”
The calls for empire continued in the mid-19th century. “Heavenly trumpets were sounding in the West as well as the South” and during the Mexican War one congressman – speaking for many – called on Americans “to press on to the Pacific and fulfill ‘the destiny of the Anglo Saxon race,’ mindful of ‘that high position which Providence … had assigned them.’ … By marching forward America would prove herself worthy of the divine favor.”
Of all the providential designs, the most heinous was directed against First Americans and the worst of that was against the Cherokee – resulting in the infamous “Trail of Tears” that we have discussed. “Their language was now a written one, and in 1827 they adopted a constitution on the US model and claimed sovereign status; but [in] 1838 they were deported to Oklahoma, the abode assigned to the ‘Five [Civilized] Tribes.’”
Kiernan tells us that before Andrew Jackson retired from the presidency, he wrote the Cherokee “a letter exhorting them to see it was all for the best.” In what must go down as one of the clearest expressions of the empire/imperialist mentality, Jackson stated: “Circumstances that cannot be controlled and which are beyond the reach of human laws render it impossible that you can flourish in the midst of a civilized community.” Alongside patently ignorant and racist southern whites, the Cherokee were the model of a cultured, refined and civilized people.
A fundamental part of empire and “manifest destiny” at mid-century was the institution of slavery, illegal in Mexico. Kiernan tells us that during the 1830s as “the abolitionist campaign was getting under way,” the South became “all the more anxious to enlarge its sphere of influence.” Slavery soon complicated the “debates about how much Mexican territory was to be annexed. Between spreading civilization and spreading slavery there was an all too visible discrepancy, and it was generally feared by the anti-slavery party that any more lands taken from Mexico would, like Texas, be fresh breeding grounds of the evil.”
In the end we must come to realize that the structure of and desire for empire transcends borders, governments, and so-called democratic ideals. And that its foundational principles were set in motion by the very forces and figures that brought the US into being as the “last best hope of earth.”