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Bill Marina (R.I.P.) on American Imperialism from the Beginning

Gary North’s column on Bill Marina, who passed away yesterday, mentioned Marina’s 2007 LRC article The Anti-War March on Washington: The Real Issue Is Empire. Marina’s article contains some interesting comments on the imperialist motives of George Washington at the founding of the American nation-state, which are especially apropos in light of recent posts such as ‘Untold Truths About the American Revolution’, Revising the American Revolution, The Murdering, Thieving, Enslaving, Unlibertarian Continental Army, and Goodbye 1776, 1789, Tom. A few key excerpts, with bold emphasis, are pasted below:

“[T]he British Constitution is more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. . . . An empire is a despotism, and an emperor is a despot, bound by no law or limitation but his own will; it is a stretch of tyranny beyond absolute monarchy. For, although the will of an absolute monarch is law, yet his edicts must be registered by parliaments. Even this formality is not necessary in an empire.” ~ John Adams, Novanglus Papers, 1775….

Empire has always meant, not only a collapse of the idea of Law, but an enormous centralization of power, not only in foreign and military affairs, but domestically as well, with huge unaccountable bureaucracies developed to administer the State.

An interesting question is when did America change from a Republic to an Empire?

I would suggest, however, that the Empire issue was already evident at the time of the American Revolution and the birth of the Republic itself. The crucial differences within the Revolutionary Coalition, and the debates preceding the Revolution among Classical Republicans dating back to the English Revolution and earlier, are totally obscured by that sweet little phrase, “the Founding Fathers.”For want of space, let us discuss just one issue that concerned Classical Republican theorists; Standing Armies ….

The British proscription of Standing Armies in 1694 meant the Army to put down both the Americans and the Irish rebels must be stationed outside the British Isles. Halifax, Nova Scotia, was an ideal spot on the North Atlantic Triangle to station what Jimmy Carter would centuries later call, “a Rapid Deployment Force (RDF). The unpopularity of the War in America meant Hessian mercenaries as well.

Classical Republican theory’s alternative to a Standing Army that led to Empire, was the idea of a decentralized “People’s Militia.” General George Washington never liked the idea of a Militia because it never fitted into his kind of traditional 18th century warfare, of lines on infantry firing at each other at close range with famously inaccurate muskets. No wonder the British Redcoats prayed for rain so they could fix bayonets for a charge against the less experienced Americans.

Yet, as military historians such as John Shy have noted, it was the Militia that was always the “sand in the gears” of the British military machine. Properly used, as by General Nathaniel Greene in the later campaign in the South, the Militia made a significant contribution. Because the British never controlled very much of North America outside of New York City for any length of time, there was very little of today’s “guerrilla warfare” possible, but in that one area the guerrilla Militia was formidable.

What has been obscured by historians is that one wing of the American Revolutionary Coalition was already into the idea of Empire, and that General George Washington was a prime mover in that view. Even during the crucial battles in the South in 1781, Washington sent General LaFayette to negotiate with the Militia of Vermont, Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys,” about launching another attack to take Canada. By that time, the Militia understood the game about as well as do our high-priced Halliburton and Blackwater contractors in Iraq today, and demanded “double pay, double rations and plunder,” the last certainly a give-away of the imperial nature of the proposed venture, and a perfect way of countering Washington’s proposed expedition. As a result, the “Boys” returned to Vermont.

Peace might have been had in 1777–78, after the victory at Saratoga, and before the alliance with France, had the War Party in the American Coalition been willing to negotiate with the Carlisle Peace Commission, leaving out its continued demand for Canada.

Washington’s dislike of the Militia carried over into his presidency in the 1790’s with his handling of the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion” by using Militia from distant states, because the local rebels themselves were apt to be Militia. What the historian Richard Kohn called the “Murder of the Militia System” was also related perhaps to the need to use regular army troops for “Indian Removal,” an action many veterans later described as the most despicable in their careers.

Much has been made by some opponents of Interventionism, in suggesting that we go back to Washington’s Farewell Address, of “no entangling alliances,” as a model for the country today. I believe this a misreading of the Washington-Alexander Hamilton view, that this really meant an open door to unilateral intervention.

As exhibit one, I would offer Washington’s aid to the French Creoles in Haiti in 1792, in an effort to thwart the Blacks revolting there. Here was America’s first effort at “foreign aid,” some $726,000 at a time when that was real money! As a southerner and slaveholder, Washington was concerned that Black revolt would carry over into the United States. How different, really, was his effort from the dozens of American efforts in the last decades to prop up despots and counter-revolutionaries with financial resources to keep them in power?

[LRC Cross-post]

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