From Empire to Regional Communities: the Democratic Vision of William Appleman Williams

In the late 1950s, when U.S. history generally portrayed the United States as an “exceptional nation” and democratic light to the world, a new school of historians came along to say, no, the U.S. behaves pretty much like any empire in history, serving the interests of its ruling classes, accumulating power to itself.

They were known as the revisionists, as well as the Wisconsin school, because the dean of revisionism, William Appleman Williams, taught there, and his students became major figures in the school.  Coming from a left perspective, Williams and his followers saw the U.S. global empire as primarily economic, driven by the imperatives of its capitalist ruling classes for expansion and profit. In his keystone work, Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Williams focused on the Open Door Notes issued in the 1890s during the McKinley Administration.

The European colonial powers were eager to dice up China into exclusive economic zones. In the Notes, the U.S. said no, an open door to free trade and movement of capital must be maintained throughout China. The U.S. economy was already the largest in the world. Its leaders knew the U.S. would have advantage over competitors in a free trade environment.

Freedom for trade and capital movement has been the hallmark of the U.S. empire that has since grown to encompass much of the world. The World Trade Organization promoted by Clinton and the Trans-Pacific Partnership forwarded by Obama are prime expressions. Unlike its European predecessors, which marked their empires by colors on a map, the U.S. empire is marked by corporate brand names on signs and product shelves in countries across the world.  Those corporate interests are protected by governments friendly to U.S. economic interests, and replaced by various means – economic, military and covert – when they are not.

Out of this has grown what Williams called our Empire as a Way of Life, as he named his final work in 1980, drawing resources and wealth from around the globe to support the world’s most highly consumptive lifestyles. Williams was clear that our empire did not start in the 1890s, but long before, with the original colonization of the continent. The U.S. was “Born and Bred of Empire,” as he named one of the book’s early chapters. The British saw the potential for a great empire on a continent vastly larger than their small islands. In the second century of British colonization, the emerging ruling classes on the western side of the Atlantic decided to take matters into their own hands. They conducted “A Revolution for Self-Government and Empire,” as Williams titles the following chapter.

The early government under the Articles of Confederation ran into challenges. The Continental Congress could not demand tax payments from the states, or force them to abide by national treaty commitments. Their power to raise military forces was limited. The British still kept forts in the western territories, and native tribes posed considerable obstacles to expansion. Meanwhile, the populist elements which the ruling classes had engaged to fight the revolution were taking the democratic hopes it raised a little too seriously. States were cancelling war debts and issuing paper money to pay creditors.

Financial interests and property owners could not abide that. So they convened a convention advertised to revise the Articles, and instead produced a Constitution which vastly expanded the powers of the federal government, limiting the democratic power of the states. Williams, in the tradition of an earlier Wisconsin historian, Charles Beard, author of the seminal Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, saw the Constitution as a tool to limit democracy, protect wealthy interests and drive the expansion of empire westward.

While the centralization of power created by the Constitution may have been necessary for the early survival of the United States, it came, wrote Williams, “at the price of institutionalizing domestic and global empire, and internalizing empire as a way of thought and life (italics Williams) .”  To move away from this and back to a future grounded in democracy, Williams had a modest proposal, lined out in his 1976 book, America Confronts a Revolutionary World.

“We must return . . . to the Articles of Confederation. That document offers us a base from which to begin our voyage into a human future; a model of government grounded in the idea and the ideal of self-determined communities coming together as equals when and as necessary to combine forces to honor common values and realize common objectives.” (p. 184) We must “create an American commonwealth of regional communities.” (p. 24)

At a time when democracy, to whatever extent we have it in the U.S., is under threat of succumbing to an authoritarian tide enshrining minority rule through vote suppression, gerrymandering, a majority right-wing Supreme Court, and a consolidation of hard right forces in the Republican Party, Williams’ vision for restoring democracy from the regional ground up has particular cogency. It is likely that in the next several years all three branches of the federal government will be taken over by a rightist, authoritarian government that will do everything it can to seal permanent rule. We will need a ground on which to consolidate our own progressive forces, and offer a different vision of how we might live here. That is the places we live, the regional ground.

This first appeared on The Raven.