Ch’in Shih-huang (259—210 B.C.) was the first Chinese emperor. In 221 B.C., he united the various Chinese states under one empire and established the Ch’in Dynasty, by whose name Westerners still know the Middle Kingdom. Ending by force what was known as the Warring States Period (5th—3rd centuries B.C.), he ruled under the name Shih Huang-Ti, literally First Emperor. Ch’in Shih-huang centralized governance under his command, and the provinces and localities were placed directly under his rule. To solidify his rule, he undertook massive statist projects, such as the building of a precursor to the Great Wall and the famous Terracotta Army for his tomb in Hsi-An.
More importantly and terribly, in an effort to consolidate absolute power in his hands, he outlawed Confucianism, the humane philosophy of governance dating from the Spring and Autumn Period (8th—5th centuries B.C.), which held that a king should lead by example, not force. The tyrant buried Confucian scholars alive. In place of Confucianism, he erected Legalism, in Chinese Fa-chia, a term that sounds like the similar European school of governance given its name by Benito Mussolini. Legalism was egalitarian, and held that all were equal before the law and also that none should be outside of state control. It was focused on order, and held that punishments should be strict, with power placed firmly in the hands of a unitary ruler, endowed with shih, “the mystery of authority.” Had Ch’in Shih-huang spoken French, he might have said, “L’État, c’est moi.”
The parallels between China’s first emperor and America’s sixteenth president are clear. And yet, while Ch’in Shih-huang is remembered as a tyrant by the Chinese, who managed to restore Confucianism to its proper place, Abraham Lincoln has been nearly deified by Americans of subsequent generations.
Abraham Lincoln also unified the country by force. Unlike Ch’in Shih-huang, Honest Abe initiated our own Warring States Period. (The Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, in effect a foreign base, four months after the South Carolina had declared her secession, during which time U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson had refused to surrender.) In what is considered the world’s first modern war, 620,000 soldiers were slaughtered in Lincoln’s quest to unite the country. As a total war, it was waged also against civilians, and an untold number of men, women, and children lost their lives. As a result of Lincoln’s rule, these “United States” ceased forever to be plural. The Federal government took on unprecedented powers over the states, just as had done Ch’in Shih-huang, whose imperial districts known as “commanderies” were echoed by the military governments that ruled over the defeated South.
If there is a parallel to Confucianism in the Anglo-American political tradition it is Constitutionalism, and its classics are the Magna Carta, the Great Writ (habeas corpus), and the Bill of Rights. Lincoln may not have buried Constitutionalists alive, but he brought “the midnight knock on the door” to America and “disappeared” thousands of those opposed to his war on the South. The Bill of Rights was suspended and habeas corpus tossed out the window. (Twentieth century Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang, in contrast, said “one writ of habeas corpus is worth more than all the Confucian philosophy ever written.”)
Lincoln was not the first to flirt with imperial ambitions. The younger Lincoln even opposed Mr. Polk’s War, a shameless land-grab that robbed Mexico of nearly half her land, sowing the seeds of animosity that have not yet healed. James Monroe’s war on the Seminoles and Creeks and Andrew Jackson’s war on the Cherokees were other instances.
But after Lincoln, the idea of Empire, as alien as it was to the Founders, became as American as apple pie. Empire became the order of the day, with the exceptions of Grover S. Cleveland, the anti-imperialist and last Jeffersonian president, and Warren G. Harding, who promised a “return to normalcy” after the unabashedly imperial reign of Woodrow Wilson. FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s National Security State, LBJ’s War on Poverty, Reagan’s War on Drugs, Bush’s Global War on Terror all have their root in Lincolnianism, and all echo the centralizing schemes of Ch’in Shih-huang, who would have been a Welfare/Warfare Statist today.
Emperor Bush II now carries on the imperial tradition, but it seems the luck of Empire may be running out. In fact, Bush Dynasty America has many similarities with Ch’ing Dynasty China, the last of its imperial dynasties, but that is the subject for a different essay.
An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send him mail] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.