Jan 3, 2004 11:01 am


David Beito’s invitation to join the Liberty and Power project Blog has offered me once again the opportunity to reflect upon these two concepts, and to clarify in my own mind the fundamental issues which face us today both as Americans and as historians.

Consider, for example, Lord Acton’s oft repeated quote, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely.” What is the difference between the two; power and absolute power? And how do either of those relate to the Liberty and Freedom of an individual?

The most important observation in this regard which I have heard, was made by the historian, William Appleman Williams, speaking at a Model United Nations regional meeting held at Florida Atlantic University in 1966, in some remarks which he titled, “The United Nations and the Achievement of True Sovereignty,” and from which I shall draw liberally in some of the comments which follow.

Today, we have become so immersed in the corruption of the concept of power as associated with the National State, that we have somewhat lost touch with the notion of power as related to an individual’s Freedom or Liberty.

The Nation State claims to be Sovereign as the very basis of its power, but the actions of the United States both in overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq and now the attempt to rebuild that nation along “Democratic” lines, suggests that if Iraq had some sort of Sovereignty, it was limited in the face of the Power, a kind of Absolute Sovereignty, which the United States could, and did, exert against it. That in turn suggests that Liberty and Power, or Sovereignty and Absolute Sovereignty, have to be viewed along some sort of spectrum or continuum.

Historical Thinking & Continua

One of the things that stuck me as I neared retirement from the teaching of History, is the extent to which the study of History has tended to veer away from philosophical or analytical assumptions, while stressing historiography and research methods, the latter of which differ only slightly from a number of other disciplines, and hardly qualify to distinguish us as historians.

The historian who most stressed the need to think in terms of continua was Carroll Quigley, whose The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis, to which this writer had the honor of suggesting a reprinting after Quigley’s death in 1977, and also to contribute a Bibliographical Note to that second edition. Quigley was one of Bill Clinton’s teachers at Georgetown University, and Clinton mentioned Quigley at the end of his speech in 1992 accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency.

I suggest that it is useful to think of Liberty as at one end of a continuum and Absolute Power at the other.

Let us ask ourselves, “what does it mean to have Liberty, or Freedom?” Williams noted that one does not really have Liberty or Freedom, what he termed “True Sovereignty,” unless you are free to act in ways that are consistent with your own ideals and beliefs, or world view (weltanschauung).

He suggested in 1966 that we, as Americans, had lost our Sovereignty as individuals (and what other kind really counts for much?), and I would maintain that this is more true than ever as we enter the year 2004. Does one need to recall for this generation that in 1966 the American government was hell bent to bestow the blessing of Liberty on the Vietnamese, as we are now determined to do the same in Iraq?

What kind of Liberty and Sovereignty do we have when Americans are increasingly too afraid to travel by airplane, because the Homeland Security Folk have proclaimed a Code Orange, or to venture abroad in the face of a growing anti-Americanism Blowback?

In my forthcoming contributions to this Blog, I intend to begin an analysis of: 1) How it came to be that we Americans have lost our True Sovereignty, or Liberty, and more importantly, 2) How can that Liberty be restored, so that we can once again live in conjunction with our own ideals, and not see them repeatedly violated by those in Political Power?

The Issue is Empire and Universal Empire

Perhaps the only saving grace of the events of the last several years is that those in pursuit of an American Empire have openly acknowledged that goal, and have proclaimed, indeed, that United States’ hegemony, including unilateralism and preemptive strikes, are rather good things as well.

This has not always been the case.

For decades many historians repeated the phrase of Samuel Flagg Bemis, that the venture into Empire boasted of by Theodore Roosevelt, the seeming favorite president of today’s politicians from Clinton to Newt Gingrich, was simply “the aberration of 1898.” Well, whether it has been one long aberration or a number of smaller ones, the Empire seems to have had a rather long life.

We used even to take pride in the notion of our anti-imperialism dating back to the American Revolution as a revolt against Empire. But in an Age of Empire, anti-imperialism is for wimps!

One of the mini-debates today, is at what point did we sort of slide into Empire? There are no shortages of dates, villains, or heroes, depending on your point of view, going back to Lincoln and perhaps earlier. Here again, viewing the issue in terms of a continuum, is useful.

I would suggest, borrowing again somewhat from Quigley, that we think of a continuum in which a Republic is at one end, with a Universal Empire (Absolute Power) at the other, with Empire somewhere in the middle. I will attempt to keep my definitions of terms at a minimum with the suggestion that Quigley’s book would be useful for those who wish delve further in this regard.

The American Revolution

The historical “tension of development” inherent in this continuum has been a part of American history from its very beginnings. Thus, many of the Founders worried whether the Liberties associated with small republics could be sustained as the United States became centralized and more powerful in the process.

This tension was evident even before the struggle for independence. John Adams, writing in The Novanglus Letters (1775) drew a distinction between a Republic, characterized by a rule of law, and the Liberty that implied, and an Empire, a despotism, which had no such rule of law. Today, we might say, in a kind of mandarin model, that an Empire has so many laws and regulatory statutes, that the various government bureaucracies, can select at any given time which laws they wish to apply, and on what persons, selectively. Islamic appearing persons (whatever that is) seem to be in season this year for extended incarceration!

With all of the recent talk about Empire, there has not been enough discussion of what exactly is meant by that term. Let me attempt to make clear what I mean by it, and several other terms.

While one could write extensively about the phenomenon of Empire, it is perhaps impossible to improve on Oswald Spengler’s observation that it is “centralization unadulterated.” And, Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, made much the same point. The growing number of interventions by the United States has served to draw attention to only one aspect of Empire, its sometime foreign policy of Imperialism, that is exerting control over and denying self-determination to, some other nation or people.

But Empire is more fundamentally a prior domestic development. That is, I cannot think of any extensive policy of Imperialism as possible before the development of massive Power, economically and militarily, within a centralized entity. Only then can one truly contemplate successfully going forth in search of “monsters to destroy!”

Which brings us finally to what Quigley and others have termed “Universal Empire,” which is obviously related to what Acton termed “Absolute Power.” What is new in the development of the American Empire is not “Empire,” or even “Imperialism,“ but the effort to move toward “Universal Empire.”

To understand that term one has to have a sense of historical analysis such as that of Spengler, Arnold J. Toynbee, or Quigley. For them, as more recently for Samuel P. Huntington, the fundamental unit of historical analysis is a “Civilization.” In a future piece I hope to develop the view that Toynbee, in Civilization on Trial (1947) long before, and in more subtle ways, anticipated Huntington’s 1993 notion of “a clash of civilizations. ”

In every Civilization there have been Empires within the Civilization that eventually sought Universal Empire over the whole Civilization. Most often the Universal Empire that emerged was dominated by one of those States/Empires which had been at the Periphery of the Civilization rather than at its early Core. This was true in China and in Classical Civilization where Rome became the Universal Empire.

What has characterized Western Civilization, of which the United States was on the Periphery, is that no Empire -- Spanish, French, German, Russian -- has been able to extend a Universal Empire over even the European core, let alone the Periphery, even as that Civilization invaded as many as nine (Quigley’s number) earlier Civilizations.

What is new about the American quest for a Universal Empire is that the Core and Periphery are so large, not only the Earth, but Space as well. George Bush is not just an aspirant “town tamer,” old kind of Texas Ranger that thinks in terms of an “old” Europe, but one who thinks Inter-Galactically, of a rather large Universal Empire

What is perhaps most interesting about the emergence of the American Empire is how early its nascent leaders were willing to pursue a policy of Imperialism while Independence was still in the balance, let alone a movement toward Centralization.

Thus, in 1781, with the struggle for independence still going on in the South where General Nathaniel Greene was engaged against the British forces, General George Washington sent General LaFayette north to mount another expedition to take Canada. By this time it was apparent that the Canadians were not enamored of the notion of being part of a Protestant Confederation and that any such invasion would entail occupation and a denial of self-determination, classic aspects of Imperialism.

The reception of the militia Green Mountain Boys to General LaFayette’s proposal demonstrates another of those fault line/continua of the American Revolution, between the militia idea on one side, and the standing army view on the other, which was later reflected in the adoption of the Second Amendment. Ethan Allen and the Boys trumped the General by demanding “double pay, double rations and plunder” as the price of an assault on Canada, a sure sign they were on to the Great Game of Empire. When he replied, Washington had not authorized such terms, the Boys went back to Vermont.

Summary & Conclusion

Thus, from the stand point of the tension between Liberty and Power, the movement along the continuum from Republic to Empire, coupled with a potential policy of Imperialism, was inherent in the development of the United States from the beginning.

What is perhaps new is the attempt to move toward, what in the development of other Civilizations, has been called the phase of Universal Empire.

In this respect, the United States is truly at a cross roads, with respect to several issues. the parameters of which I hope to develop in future Blogs.

The first is the immediate threat to Liberty posed by the Power of those unilateralism and preemptive strikes which undercut the whole basis of international law and form the tactics of a Grand Strategy of Imperialism and Universal Empire.

The second is to understand how the United States has evolved into an Empire and how to reverse that process away from State Power and back toward a restoration of individual Liberty.

Finally, we have to ask, since most of us may not live long enough to see the restoration of any degree of the latter, how can one live a creative life in an Age of Empire, what this writer once termed, “Surviving in the Interstices.”

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