From Hustlers to Thugs


Purely by coincidence, I recently happened to read the New York Times Book Review review of Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn’s latest work, and Jill Lepore’s New Yorker essay on the American military, within the same hour. Whether there is, historically speaking, a causal connection between the events described by Bailyn, and the situation depicted by Lepore, would be hard to prove in any strict sense.  All I can say is, it seems right to me.

Let’s begin with Professor Bailyn. The book is called The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America, and deals with the settlement of this continent during 1600-1675. The review, by Charles Mann, appeared in the 6 January 2013 issue of the NYTBR, and describes a very different Bernard Bailyn than the one I’ve been used to. The Bailyn of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) argued, contra Charles Beard, that the colonial rhetoric of liberty and freedom was real, not a cover for economic motives.

The American Revolution was, in his view, an idealistic revolution, one of “transforming radicalism.” A similar “triumphalist” portrait of the Revolution is central to the work of his student Gordon Wood, who has had a huge impact on the popular (including textbook) conception of the foundation of the Republic. Yet this rosy interpretation can be seriously questioned with the aid of historians such as Joyce Appleby or Richard Hofstadter (who once referred to the American Republic as “a democracy of cupidity.”) As I quote Appleby in Chapter 1 of Why America Failed:

“If the Revolution was fought in a frenzy over corruption, out of fear of tyranny, and with hopes for redemption through civic virtue, where and when are scholars to find the sources for the aggressive individualism, the optimistic materialism, and the pragmatic interest-group politics that became so salient so early in the life of the new nation?”

As I argue in that book, all of these things were salient on the American continent from the late sixteenth century on. The core of the American experience from that early point, according to historian Walter McDougall (Freedom Just Around the Corner), was hustling: competing, getting ahead, expanding your individual economic position in an opportunistic environment. One doesn’t have to wait until the Jefferson presidency for this to become obvious.

Much to my surprise, Bailyn’s latest work seems to be an indirect confirmation of my, and McDougall’s, thesis—something I would never have imagined possible. As Charles Mann says, The Barbarous Years is not yet another mainstream tome celebrating the greatness of the Founding Fathers; far from it. Rather, Bailyn’s book gives us “a group portrait in tones of greed, desperation and brutality.” In the case of Jamestown (founded 1607), for example, the “colony was a commercial enterprise, started by the Virginia Company with the sort of careful financial evaluation that in the more recent past was the hallmark of the dot-com boom.” (I’m assuming heavy irony here, on Mann’s part.) Mann continues: “Ship after ship of ill-equipped migrants…went out, each vessel intended to fulfill some new harebrained scheme: wine-making, silk-making, glassmaking.” As for tobacco growing, “Thousands of migrants were willing to risk death for the chance to cash in on England’s squadrons of new nicotine junkies.” And then came the Dutch settlements, such as New Amsterdam (later New York), created by the Dutch West India Company: “Unaware of and unconcerned about prior treaties or contracts, individuals spilled willy-nilly into the land, constantly setting up new ventures in ever more remote areas.”

Hustling, in a word. Surely, this is a very different America from the one Bailyn started out with, nearly half a century ago. Could it be that at age ninety, Professor Bailyn had something of a conversion experience, took off his rose-colored glasses, and chose to give us a much darker—and more accurate—picture of colonial America? At the very least, it suggests a greater continuity with later developments.

Which brings me to the essay by Jill Lepore. Let us fast foward four centuries to the American military establishment, as described by Lepore in “The Force” (New Yorker, 28 January 2013). Here’s what she tells us:

* “The United States spends more on defense than all the other nations of the world combined.  Between 1998 and 2011, military spending doubled, reaching more than seven hundred billion dollars a year.”

* “Around the world, ‘power projection’ is, in fact, a central mission of American forces.”

* “In the nineteen-fifties…military spending made up close to three-quarters of the federal budget.”

“On September 8, 2011, when Buck McKeon convened the first of his House Armed Services Committee hearings on the future of the military, no one much disputed the idea that the manifest destiny of the United States is to patrol the world.” (Howard McKeon is chair of the HASC, the largest committee in Congress.) Nevertheless (she goes on), John Garamendi (a Democrat from California), read aloud from “Chance for Peace,”

Eisenhower’s first major address as president, which he delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1953: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This is a world in arms. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children….This is not a way  of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” (Italics mine)

* Lockheed Martin, whose contracts with the Pentagon amount to $30 billion annually, was the single largest contributor to Buck McKeon’s last election campaign. In all, LM contributed to the campaigns of 386 of the 435 members of the 112th Congress, including 51 of the 62 members of the HASC.

* The U.S. sells more guns than any other country. “At home and abroad, in uniform and out, in war and in peace, Americans are armed to the teeth….Much of the money that the federal government spends on ‘defense’ involves neither securing the nation’s borders nor protecting its citizens. Instead, the U.S. military enforces American foreign policy.”

* On 13 October 2011, at the fifth of Buck McKeon’s hearings on the future of the military, the HASC heard testimony from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. “But the moment Panetta began to speak a protester interrupted. He identified himself as an Iraq War veteran. ‘You are murdering people!’ he shouted. ‘I saw what we did to people. I saw.’ He was  escorted out of the room.”

I’m not sure there is a lot more to say, beyond res ipsa loquitur—the thing speaks for itself.  I mean, could such a development have been an accident? It is hard to avoid the conclusion  that in the fullness of time, the hustlers of the 17th century evolved into the thugs and the murderers of the 20th and 21st. And when you think about it, how could it have been otherwise? If you start out with a “group portrait in tones of greed,” where else could you wind up?

Morris Berman’s latest book is Why America Failed.

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