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An Empire State of Mind


The conflict in Ukraine has prompted several level-headed commentators to point out that, of all governments, the U.S. government is in no position to lecture Russia about respecting other nations’ borders. When Secretary of State John Kerry said on Meet the Press, “This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext.… You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests,” one of those commentators, Ivan Eland, responded,

Hmmm. What about the George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq after exaggerating threats from Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” and dreaming up a nonexistent operational link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. And what about Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 to save U.S. medical students in no danger and George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Panama because its leader, Manuel Noriega, was associated with the narcotics trade?… More generally, Latin America has been a US sphere of influence and playground for US invasions since the early 1900s — Lyndon Johnson’s invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Bill Clinton’s threatened invasion of Haiti in 1994 being two recent examples.

Indeed, Russia isn’t the only country that has brutally regarded its “backyard” as its sphere of influence and playground. This doesn’t make it okay for the Russian government to behave as it has, but as Adam Gopnik observes,

Russia, as ugly, provocative, and deserving of condemnation as its acts [in Crimea] may be, seems to be behaving as Russia has always behaved, even long before the Bolsheviks arrived. Indeed, Russia is behaving as every regional power in the history of human regions has always behaved, maximizing its influence over its neighbors — in this case, a neighbor with a large chunk of its ethnic countrymen.

Eland of course only scratches the surface in mentioning the U.S. government’s unceasing program to control events in its sphere of influence. Some people understand that this program preceded the 20th century; it did not begin with the Cold War. The Spanish-American War, 1898, may come to mind, but I’m thinking further back than that. How far back? Roughly 1776.

Even the government’s schools teach, or at least taught during my 12-year sentence in them, that America’s Founders had — let us say — an expansive vision for the country they were establishing. Historian William Appleman Williams’s extended essay, Empire as a Way of Life, provides many details. Clearly, these men had empire on their minds. Before he became an evangelical for independence from Great Britain, Benjamin Franklin proposed a partnership between England and the American colonists to help spread the enlightened empire throughout the Americas. His proposal was rejected as impractical, so he embraced independence — without giving up the dream of empire in the New World. George Washington spoke of the “rising American empire” and described himself as living in an “infant empire.”

Thomas Jefferson — “the most expansion-minded president in American history” (writes Gordon S. Wood) — set out a vision of an “Empire of Liberty,” later revised as an “Empire forLiberty,” and left the presidency believing that “no constitution was ever before as well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government.” As Jefferson wrote James Monroe in 1801, Jefferson’s first year as president,

However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, & cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, & by similar laws.

Indeed, in the eyes of the Founders, the American Revolution was largely a war between a mature empire and a nascent one. (Many — but assuredly not all — Americans of the time would have cheerily agreed.) Their goal was to bring civilization (which was still identified with England and many of its institutions) to the New World’s benighted.

As Jefferson indicated, this vision was more than continental, because South America was never regarded as permanently off limits. If expansion required conflict with the French and Spanish also, so be it.

The Indian Wars were among the first steps in empire building. The unspeakable brutality and duplicity — the acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide, as we say today — were crimes, not merely against individuals, but also against whole societies and nations. “Imperialism” was not yet a word in use, but that’s what this was, as were the designs and moves on Canada (one of the objects of James Madison’s War of 1812), Mexico, Cuba, Florida, the Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana, the Northwest, and the Pacific coast (the gateway to Asia). The wishes of the inhabitants — who were “as yet incapable of self-government as children,” as Jefferson saidof Louisiana’s residents — didn’t count. (Lincoln’s war is thus understood as an exercise in empire preservation.)

A good deal of this program was tied up with trade. For libertarians, trade far and wide is a good thing, but one must keep in mind that the expansion of trade in those days (as in these) depended on how strong the government was. By hook and crook, a constitution that denied the national government the powers to regulate trade and to tax — the Articles of Confederation — had been exchanged for one — the U.S. Constitution — that authorized both powers. (The libertarian Albert Jay Nock called the federal convention in Philadelphia a coup d’état. See my video lecture.) Trade meant trade policy, and that meant government activism, which included selective embargoes, such as those imposed by Jefferson’s program of “peaceful coercion.”

The Articles of Confederation were a poor platform for empire building; not so the Constitution. “Both in the mind of Madison and in its nature,” Williams wrote, “the Constitution was an instrument of imperial government at home and abroad.” (See my “That Mercantilist Commerce Clause.”)

I don’t mean to say that the liberty of Americans was of no concern to their rulers. I do mean, however, that liberty was to be subordinated (only to the extent necessary, of course) to national greatness, which was America’s destiny. (I first heard the words “Manifest Destiny” in a government school. Do kids hear it today?)

Americans sensed that something exceptional was happening. And indeed it was, as Gordon Wood explains in his masterful The Radicalism of the American Revolution. To the dismay of the dominant Federalists, average Americans, exemplified by those whom Wood calls “plebeian Anti-Federalists,” saw the revolution as having overturned hierarchical and aristocratic colonial society in favor of a democracy that facilitated personal and commercial self-interest. (This did not sit well with those who wanted America to be, per Wood, “either a hierarchy of ranks or a homogeneous republican whole.”)

But even well-grounded exceptionalism can quickly turn dark by the perceived duty to enlighten — or , if necessary, exterminate — the benighted. And that’s what happened. The Indian Wars were popular; so were the other imperial exploits. (This is not to say there were no dissenters.)

Williams notes that exceptionalism came with a feeling of aloneness. Thus, the quest for security and tranquility for the new nation — invoked in precisely those words — fueled these imperial exploits. The national-security state is nothing new; only the technology has changed.

Some American figures glimpsed that empire and liberty might not easily so fit together. (The unabashed empire builders were convinced that freedom at home required empire.) The problem was that even many who opposed empire, sometimes quite eloquently, wanted ends that only an empire could procure. Williams puts John Quincy Adams in this small camp. Secretary of State Adams’s July 4, 1821, speech, declaring that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” was “thoughtful, powerful, and subversive,” Williams writes. “But for the time Adams remained enfolded in the spirit of empire and was unable to control the urge to extend America’s power and influence.” (As secretary of state, he supported Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s seizure of Florida from the Spanish.)

Adams was the main author of the Monroe Doctrine, which announced not only that the United States would stand aloof from Europe’s quarrels, but also that the Western Hemisphere was exclusively the U.S. government’s sphere of influence: “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers,” for any such extension would be taken as “dangerous to our peace and safety [i.e., our national security].”

So keep out of our backyard, Europe, and we’ll keep out of yours. Except, Williams adds, that President Monroe “then asserted the right of the United States to support Greek revolutionaries.”

This history doesn’t excuse Russia, but it does put Putin’s actions in perspective. It also accounts for the less-than-awed reception for President Obama’s and Secretary Kerry’s sanctimonious utterances. To the extent that Obama and Kerry imply that Russia threatens our “peace and safety,” they look like fools. “The worst pretense of empire,” Adam Gopnik writes, “is that every rattle on the edges is a death knell to the center.”

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (


Sheldon Richman, author of the forthcoming America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at

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