Let me begin this essay by simply throwing down the gauntlet. American imperialists—of whatever political persuasion or ideology—are not only traitors to the American cause and in violation of the deepest meanings and profundities of the American ideal, they are also embracing demonic goals of remaking the world in their own image, thus trampling on the dignity of the human person. Phew.
Two years ago, I published an essay here on the “maliciousness” of progressive-era imperialism. A little over a year before that, I published an essay attempting to “restore the foreign policy of the Founding Fathers.” As desirous as I am of reminding our world of the goals and significances of the American republic, I fear I’ve had absolutely no influence on modern conservatism. Probably there will be no great weeping over Birzer’s inability to play prophet, but such is life (and, yes; no worries, I’m quite aware of my limitations).
Still, I want to proclaim these things yet again, whether conservatism listens or not.
This current essay is in the line of those previous ones—a howl against the wind. First, the founding fathers, it should be remembered, argued quite clearly for commerce with all, but entangling alliances with none. Washington and Jefferson each said this repeatedly and clearly. And, even the most cursory glance at and over the great documents of the Founding—the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Constitution of 1787—were never created for imperialism. Indeed, given the Indian Wars and the American Civil War, it’s not even clear they were made for frontier expansion, at least in the time frame in which such expansion occurred.
Second, just as frontier expansion ended—at least tentatively—in 1890, American imperialism yet again reared its vicious head between 1898 and 1916, revealed as one of the demons of hell. It had happened before, to be certain. During the so-called “Second Great Awakening,” preachers such as Crazy Lorenzo Dow argued that the oceans were God’s way of connecting America to the greater world, providing highways of trade and influence. This happened, yet again, in the racialist movements of the 1840s, and, yet again, in the Progressive Era. Indeed, one must—by truth and necessity—point out that racism, racialism, progressivism, and imperialism advance as allies, not as enemies. All—from Dow to O’Sullivan to Beveridge—were simple expressions of the “white man’s burden” to remake the world in his unholy image, substituting himself for a less-obviously attractive demonic force. Among the most blatant American imperialists were Albert Beveridge, Albert Mahan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.
In his challenge to the American imperialists of the 1890s, Yale Sociologist William Graham Sumner understood very well how ridiculous his opponents were, especially in the cause (and undermining) of the American ideal.
Territorial aggrandizement enhances the glory and personal importance of the man who is the head of a dynastic state. The fallacy of confusing this with the greatness and strength of the state itself is an open pitfall close at hand. It might seem that a republic, one of whose chief claims to superiority over a monarchy lies in avoiding the danger of confusing the king with the state, ought to be free from this fallacy of national greatness, but we have plenty of examples to prove that the traditional notions are not cut off by changing names and forms.
We were, Sumner rightly claims, never made for imperialism.
This confederated state of ours was never planned for indefinite expansion or for an imperial policy. We boast of it a great deal, but we must know that its advantages are won at the cost of limitations, as is the case with most things in this world. The fathers of the Republic planned a confederation of free and peaceful industrial commonwealths, shielded by their geographical position from the jealousies, rivalries, and traditional policies of the Old World and bringing all the resources of civilization to bear for the domestic happiness of the population only. They meant to have no grand statecraft or ‘high politics,’ no ‘balance of power’ or ‘reasons of state,’ which had cost the human race so much. They meant to offer no field for what Benjamin Franklin called the ‘pest of glory.’
But, even more poignantly, Sumner served as true seer, understanding very well that imperialism would radically change those countries attempting it in the late 1890s. He is worth quoting at length on this issue.
Russia, as already mentioned, is a state which has taken upon itself tasks of this kind beyond its strength, and for which it is in no way competent. Italy offers at this moment the strongest instance of a state which is imperiling its domestic welfare for a colonial policy which is beyond its strength, is undertaken arbitrarily, and has no proper motive. Germany has taken up a colonial policy with great eagerness, apparently from a notion that it is one of the attributes of a great state. To maintain it she must add a great navy to her great military establishment and increase the burdens of a population which is poor and heavily taxed and which has not in its territory any great natural resources from which to draw the strength to bear its burdens. Spain is exhausting her last strength to keep Cuba, which can never repay the cost unless it is treated on the old colonial plan as a subject province to be exploited for the benefit of the mother-country.
Here, of course, Sumner is nothing short of brilliant, if unfortunately and terrifyingly so. Within two and a half to three decades of his essay, Russia would become Bolshevist, Italy would become fascist, and Germany would become National Socialist. A few years later, the fascists and communists would fight over Spain.
It would be utterly foolish to claim that America could, somehow, transcend such radical changes in character as Russia, Italy, Germany, and Spain. We were, of course, much wealthier than any of these four, but that does not exempt us from the laws of nature.
And, so we come back to the beginning of this essay. Just what force ever said—properly and with justice—that we Americans had the right to remake the world. Whatever the Dows, Beveridges, and Wilsons of the world might claim, I will remain ever skeptical that my God thought we sinful creatures could handle such difficulties, especially in a republic.
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The featured image is “Old Man with a Globe by Gerrit Dou” (c. 1650s) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.