Blogs > Liberty and Power > George Washington: Initiator of the Imperial Presidency

Feb 27, 2008 9:31 am

George Washington: Initiator of the Imperial Presidency

Here is my response to Stephen Chapman’s article, "The Imperial Presidency is Here to Stay: And Obama, Clinton and McCain seem fine with that," at Reason Online.

While I agree with the central theme of your article, it is depressing that you go on at the beginning, and again at the end, about the supposed anti-imperialism and anti-interventionism of George Washington, who, in my view, was the initiator of the Imperial Presidency.

Certainly, your view is reflected among a number of so-called libertarians, including Ron Paul and the folks at LRC and, which recently had a piece on GW's supposed anti-militarism by a Law Prof. at the U. of Colorado. Their intellectual confusion, however, is reflected in the fact that the Mises Institute (linked at LRC as well) also recently published,"Generalissimo Washington: How He Crushed the Spirit of Liberty," excerpted from Murray Rothbard's classic, Conceived in Liberty, each of the 4 volumes of which, as they appeared, I had the opportunity to review in Reason magazine many years ago. If Rothbard's analysis is correct, and I believe it is, then you, Paul, LRC, Antiwar, and others, are in error in your overall views about Washington as anti-imperial, or opposed to intervention.

I have written on this extensively, and most of the articles are at one or more of the web sites in my Signature below. Therefore, I have time for only a few observations.

Washington, like Franklin, wanted a structure (representation) that would allow the Americans to eventually dominate the British Empire (as we now have today). They rejected peace overtures in 1778, when the Brits then began their real counter-insurgency policy. This group wanted Canada as a first war objective, early on. Adam Smith in a letter to George III, discovered in the 1930s, sized that group up nicely, perceiving they wanted Empire. For one group in the revolutionary coalition, the war was always about Empire!

Washington disliked the Militia, and wanted a traditional European type war, as did his inheritors, the South's leaders, many years later. In 1781, at the so-called" crisis" of the Revolution in the South, he sent La Fayette north to mount another assault to take Canada. Ethan Allen & the Green Mtn Boys, by then understood his game, and demanded"double pay, double rations & plunder," which meant the end of that imperial scheme.

The reason the Revolution was not more of a"4th generation insurgency" was because the British never occupied, let alone controlled, enough territory for the Americans to need to organize such a warfare. I have written about the one place, near NYC, we did so:

In short, the Brits were never anywhere close to that victory, always envisaged by occupiers, arguing for"surges" and other such tactics. A major ally of the Americans was the antiwar opposition in Great Britain, hence the need to use mercenaries, as the US increasingly now has to resort to.

The Brits had to abandon Philadelphia, not because of Washington's Europeanized Army at Valley Forge, marching around to its German trainers' tune, but because as the head Hessian General remarked, the American partisan/guerrillas lurked around every bend, taking the supplies coming up from the river, and could not be defeated. Sounds a bit like both Vietnam and Iraq! GW finally let his best general, N. Greene, off from herding supplies, to go south in '81 to head the increasingly partisan warfare efforts that chased the Brits to Yorktown, where GW again denied the Militia recognition of its victory. Wonder what WWII would have been like if someone like GW, had kept Gen. Patton gathering supplies (or, as the movie,"Patton," put is,"shoveling shit in Louisiana,") until late in the war?

No one mentions a third of the Hessians, 5,000, went"over the hill," to marry American women, who were thus slowly winning the war! A huge number of Japanese"boys" also did this, bogged down in China as they were, 1937-45. Hyam Solomon, the great Financier of the Revolution, whose family has never been compensated by the Congress, while other groups now clamor for same, died from the torture inflicted by the Brits (no Water Cure, please; we used that later after 1898) when he was taken prisoner while recruiting Hessian boys to cut out!

The guerrilla war at sea is virtually never mentioned, given all of the prose for the beloved Washington. 1,500 prizes, almost one a day, in contrast to JP Jones and the"official" Navy's several modest victories. No wonder, with burgeoning insurance rates, the Brit merchants wanted peace. Those massive prizes also provided the funds for New England's rapid industrialization afterwards.

Despite Washington's traditional war efforts for Empire, the American Revolution remains a great example of a"People's War, much as described by Tom Paine." That early struggle has taken many forms in the last two and a half centuries of our history.

After the War, as President in the 1790s, GW,"murdered" the Militia, as one historian has put it, finally laid to rest when Elihu Root, the real architect of the Empire, disbanded it in 1908, because it wouldn't fire on strikers against the Corporations, and we got the National Guard, which as Iraq has shown, is not the best military structure for occupying parts of the Empire. In the 1790s, Washington moved to undercut the Black Revolution in Haiti, offering our first"foreign aid" program, some $726,000, when that was real money, to keep the Creoles in power, a policy continued by another slave owner, Jefferson, and, another supposed libertarian icon as well. Jefferson's inept management of his own personal finances, not his writings and blather, serve as a perfect example of the spend, spend, spend mentality urged by our present leader!

GW's"no entangling alliances" thus meant, not non-interventionism, but rather unilateral intervention, in Haiti and elsewhere, a clear harbinger of what would occur in 1898 and after, right up to our interventionist present.

As we have evolved into the World's great Counter-Revolutionary Imperial Power, myths of our own Revolution continue!

A recent WSJ article, for example, mentioned the"minor American playwright", Mercy Otis Warren, as the first American to discuss"decline." He might have also noted her magnificent, 3 vol. History of the American Revolution. A hard core Republican, in a number of letters, she even chided her cousin, Abigail's (David McCullough doesn't get that right either) husband, John, for his"monarchical" tendencies. As the American Army attempts, in its Counter-Revolutionary strategy, to attempt to occupy a number of nations and put-down numerous insurgencies, putting in our own stooges, her observation that the American Revolution really began in Oct. 1768, when the British Army occupied Boston, is more relevant than ever.

Like other Empires, especially those attempting what Quigley called"Universal Empire," the US has failed in this effort. You are right about the Imperial Presidency, and the huge bureaucracies that sustain it. As the military becomes broke, in every way, we have yet to show the wisdom of the Romans, in adopting a more defensive posture since they couldn't even replace the 3 Legions lost to the Germans in 9 AD, several centuries before Gibbon described Roman"Decline."

With either Clinton or McCain, the military retreat will be slower than with Obama, who will move more quickly to the Welfare State dimension of Empire. But, that also demands internal choices! With only enough funds for either wheat from Eqypt, or more Circus games, one later Roman Emperor, naturally chose the latter. A master showman like Barack will give us many more, imaginative productions than Hillary or John could ever conceive of! Congressional"earmarks" will become increasingly domestic, rather than foreign/military. The Show, with the Media's help, must go on, and on, even unto total bankruptcy.

While I shall continue to write about Empire, I believe following the Quigleyian tactic of"Circumvention," coupled with a larger strategy of finding new"Instruments of Expansion," offer a more productive approaches, surely in one's own short lifetime within an Evolving Empire, than any frustrating efforts at real"Change" in the purely political realm. That is what we are attempting with the Marina-Huerta Educational Foundation, in Guatemala now, and then beyond. In A History of Florida ('99), I called this"People's Diplomacy," as opposed to Government's"Public Diplomacy."

You may want to look at Dan Eberly's forthcoming, The Rise of Global Civil Society: Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up (2008). The bad news is, as I observed in a meeting in 1988 in the State Dept. in DC, the Government also wants to control the NGOs, and the Chinese are already creating thousands of them, even as Bill Clinton moves to align his own NGO with global, corporate power brokers, as has Bill Gates. More than one nation can play the game that the US has in eastern Europe and Russia, even before 1991. Interestingly, in the last gasps of Rome, the"Civic Humanists" of that day proposed such an agenda to the Christians as a way to save the Empire, which the latter rejected because as Origen put it, they sought the"City of God." By then, of course, the earlier, decentralized Christian communities had become increasingly centralized under the Emperor and a centralized"Church."

Q predicted in 1961 that the new, democratization of"missile" weapons would make it impossible to put down Insurgencies, short of massive genocide, of which the US now leads in creating such killing fields The flip side of this was new sources of Energy, beyond the control of either the State on the one hand, or the large, corporations on the other, the partners in today's Corporatism, long ago observed in 1888 by José Martí when he was living in NYC. Solar and other technologies, offer far more, by way of decentralization, than the centralization=empire (Spengler) efforts of people like Al Gore trying to control those emerging technologies.

The parameters of American history, certainly including the Civil War, have always been, and continue to be, about the great, ongoing struggle between those who favor decentralization and those who favor centralization.

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More Comments:

David Miller - 3/3/2008


You suggested that a positive view of George Washington is
>reflected among a number of so-called libertarians, including Ron Paul and the folks at LRC and

and added,
>If Rothbard's analysis is correct, and I believe it is, then you, Paul, LRC, Antiwar, and others, are in error in your overall views about Washington as anti-imperial, or opposed to intervention.

I think I can fairly call my views “Rockwellian”: I tend to agree with the “folks at LRC and,” to use your words, at least when they agree among themselves: indeed, I had a column published on LRC a few months ago, and I actually knew Raimondo way back in my college days.

So, as someone from among the folks you are criticizing, might I suggest that you may be making a mistake in your interpretation of our arguments?

If I am arguing for the enormous productivity of capitalism I can find some great quotes from Karl Marx. Why shouldn’t I use those quotes? The fact that I abhor most of Marx’s views, and that he abhorred capitalism, makes his admissions of the productivity of capitalism all the more convincing.

Similarly, what makes Eisenhower’s warnings about the “military-industrial complex” so noteworthy is that Ike himself spent most of his life within that complex and, indeed, worked very hard and very cleverly to rise to the top of it.

Can’t the same point apply to George Washington? If the chairman of the 1787 Philadelphia Convention himself wrote not long before the Convention that he might not attend because, as he wrote, “In strict propriety a Convention so holden may not be legal” does that not powerfully illustrate that Patrick Henry was correct in smelling a rat?

Yes, your general points about Washington are right, and, as you point out by citing LRC’s recent re-publishing of an excerpt from Rothbard on the matter, they are known to us “folks at LRC.” But precisely for that reason, the fact that Washington did warn against an overly adventuresome foreign policy and that he surely would not countenance the insane policy of the current Administration makes him an effective witness for our side.

And, there is the mundane consideration that, as great as it might be for Ron Paul to cite Cobden and Bright, Mercy Otis Warren, Anne Hutchinson et al., not one American in ten (perhaps not one in a hundred) would know who he was talking about, sad as that is. (One good result of PC feminism is that Hutchinson and Warren are finally getting a bit of the attention they deserve – I noticed a couple years ago that even my niece’s public-school history book had a sidebar on Warren!)

I’m interested in learning more about your work in Guatemala. It seems to me that one of the main blind spots most libertarians have had is a their focus on the West. Simply as a result of demography alone, what we used to call the “Third World” will eventually be the dominant force on the planet. It seems to me that it may be a good investment to focus on spreading libertarian ideas among those peoples who do, after all, make up a majority of the human race.

All the best,

Dave Miller in Sacramento

Sheldon Richman - 2/28/2008

Great, Bill. Thanks!

Berin Michael Szoka - 2/28/2008

Let's not forget the fact that Washington's way of fighting the war produced the massive debts that eventually gave impetus to replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution and made the country easy prey for Hamilton's schemes, from the assumption of state debts ($75m in combined state & federal debt, I believe) to the bank to his scheme for promoting U.S. manufactures and so on... A guerrilla war would not only have left us freer of Washington's militarism, but also of the financial burden we inherited from the Revolution--which still weighs on us all.