In 1899 the great libertarian scholar William Graham Sumner of Yale University delivered a speech in which he warned that the Spanish-American War was a crossing-the-Rubicon event in the nation’s history that had finally transformed the nation from a constitutional republic to an empire. Empire was what the Pilgrims escaped from, and the American Revolution was fought against, for in an empire the average citizen is viewed by his rulers as nothing more than a tax slave and cannon fodder. Americans would soon become, he warned, exactly what their country was founded to oppose.
The speech was entitled “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” to denote the fact that the Spanish-American war, an imperialistic war of conquest, was no different from the types of aggressive wars that the old empires of Europe had been waging for centuries. Having devoted his adult life to scholarly pursuits in the field of political economy (among others), William Graham Sumner was prescient in his predictions about what America would become once it embarked on the road to empire. Among his observations were the following:
The Spanish-American War, like future American wars of imperialism, was “justified” by a string of “sensational assertions” that are easily proven to be untrue. Spain never threatened any American “interests,” and would have been the last to have an incentive to sabotage the Battleship Maine, the calamity that stoked war fever and got the masses (“Boobus Americanus in H.L. Mencken’s words) behind the short “war.” Scholars like Sumner may have easily seen through the government’s lies, but not the rationally-ignorant masses.
“Where is the statesmanship” in lying and manipulating the public into an aggressive war, Sumner asked rhetorically. This of course had become the new definition of “statesmanship” ever since Lincoln manipulated the Northern-state-public into acquiescing in his waging of total war on their fellow American citizens in the Southern states so that the “duties and imposts” could be collected there, as he promised in his first inaugural address. To this day, Republican Party propaganda mills like the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College pretend to offer courses of study in “statesmanship” of the sort that was mocked and ridiculed by Sumner.
If “self-government” for people of the Spanish empire was the ostensible purpose of the war, why was the American public not involved in any way in instigating the war?, asked Sumner. There was not even an opinion poll taken, he pointed out. This point echoes the words of Randolph Bourne in his famous essay, “War is the Health of the State,” in which he pointed out that the public never has anything to do with the preparations for war. It is always a dozen or so connivers and schemers in the executive branch of government, hidden even from elected members of congresses and parliaments, who plot and plan for wars.
Was the war merely a public school civics class writ large? Sumner also mocked the idea promoted by the war party that Americans are merely interested in teaching Filipinos about democracy and self-government, and then we will leave. Sumner did not believe that “we” would ever leave the Philippines. We are still there today.
The struggle for world domination (imperialism) is destructive of democracy. Although American military interventionism was being sold to Boobus Americanus as a means of spreading democracy, Sumner pointed out that such tactics had led Spain into monarchy and bankruptcy, but such facts were simply ignored by the American war party.
Why do Americans believe they have a “civilizing mission,” Sumner asked. The answer to this rhetorical question lies in the deification of Abe Lincoln by the Republican Party, which in effect was the entire federal government, in the previous thirty-five years. Lincoln’s deification led to the deification of the presidency in general, and to the federal government as well. As Robert Penn Warren wrote in his outstanding book, The Legacy of the Civil War, the Republican Party in the post-war years claimed to possess a “treasury of virtue” that supposedly justified anything and everything the government did anywhere on earth by virtue of the fact that it was the American government that was doing it. This is what “justified” American entry into World War I, for instance, wrote Robert Penn Warren. It was given the obnoxious name “American exceptionalism.” Sumner noted the absurdity of employing Lincoln’s “all men are created equal” rhetoric from the Gettysburg Address to argue that it is somehow “liberating” for people of other countries to be governed by us.
William Graham Sumner warned that “a matter of mind” that views other peoples as “less human” than you would lead to “cruelty and tyranny” by the American government, as was the case with all other governments in history that ruled over empires. This of course was always the way of empires. Southerners were demonized to “justify” the mass murder of tens of thousands of civilian women, children, and old men, and the bombing and burning of entire cities like Atlanta and Richmond during the “Civil War.” The Plains Indians were dehumanized as “savages” while the brave men of the U.S. Army murdered tens of thousands of Indian women and children from 1865 to 1890. Now it was the Filipinos’ turn. At least 200,000 Filipinos were eventually murdered by the U.S. government for resisting becoming a part of the American empire. According to historian Joseph Stromberg, only about 15,000 of them were actual combatants.
“We must devise a government” for other peoples is another piece of war propaganda that Sumner found to be intolerably arrogant and hypocritical. This argument has been used over and over again by generations of American warmongering and imperialistic politicians. A recent example would be Obama’s September 25, 2012 speech before the United Nations in which he praised the dead CIA operative Chris Stevens, who was killed in the attack on the American “embassy” in Benghazi, Libya, after being sent there as Obama’s “representative.” He was sent there, said Obama, to “craft a vision for a future” for Libya and Libyans.
The next time you witness a large American flag covering the entire football field before an NFL game; or the flyover of fighter jets before a sporting event; or people wearing American flag shirts and pants while watching the “President’s Cup” golf tournament (which this year featured a naked female streaker carrying a large American flag); or listen to drunks at a bar cheering and shouting “USA! USA!” while watching American bombs dropped on someone in a foreign country on the bar’s boob tube; or attend a church service decorated with flags and listen to a sermon that thanks “our heroes” for murdering people in foreign countries, think of this comment by William Graham Sumner: “The thirst for glory is an epidemic which robs people of their judgment, seduces their vanity, cheats them of their interests, and corrupts their consciences.”
The “essence of militarism,” Sumner observed, is to despise constitutions, to sneer at parliaments, and to look with contempt at civilians. All the neocon talking heads, from Limbaugh to Hannity and Levin and others, adopted the slogan, “9/11 changed everything” every time someone like Judge Andrew Napolitano would argue that the government was acting in contempt of the Constitution with its warrantless wiretaps, internet and cellphone spying, the PATRIOT Act, etc. All American presidents have simply ignored Congress, for the most part, in instigating wars; and of course all politicians at all times (with one or two exceptions) look with absolute contempt at the average citizen.
Sumner wrote of how the war party of his day was making the “the times have changed” argument for war. This was reminiscent of Lincoln’s similar argument that “we must think anew and act anew,” by which he also meant “to hell with the Constitution.”
Militarism destroys capitalist prosperity, Sumner also warned. He observed that all during the late nineteenth century most Europeans were busy working, investing, starting businesses, and improving their standards of living peacefully under a growing capitalist system with little attention being paid to militarism. Such behavior is absolute poison to the state, however, which considers it to be a mortal enemy. So when European war parties began to militarize, Sumner wrote of how government military spending was crowding out private sector growth so much that European capitalism was being “arrested, diverted, and crippled.” This is always the effect of the growth of militarism in particular and of government in general, and in Sumner’s time America was about to embark on the very same economically-destructive path as the Europeans had so foolishly done.
How will we know when we have become like the Old European empires?, Sumner asked. His answer was that America would become awash in “war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand-government system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, and political robbery – in a word, imperialism.” This has been a textbook definition of American society for quite a long time now, and becoming more and more so by the day.
“The great foe of democracy is plutocracy,” Sumner declared, and militarism always fuels plutocracy. It does so through “robbery” (i.e., crony capitalism), diverting the public’s attention from their real economic problems, large government expenditures that benefit a few well-connected defense contracting corporations, and large government expenditures and debt that make the strong stronger and the weak weaker.” This of course is a precise definition of how the American warfare/welfare state, funded by the Fed, has so greatly enriched the “one percenters” at the expense of almost everyone else, as documented in great detail by David Stockman in his book, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America, and by Hunter Lewis’s Crony Capitalism in America. This is also a major theme of my books, The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked; Hamilton’s Curse; and How Capitalism Saved America.
In light of all this, it is understandable why an acquaintance of mine who is a Yale graduate recently remarked that of all the paintings and photographs of famous Yale professors and alumni that adorn the Yale libraries and other buildings on campus, the image of William Graham Sumner cannot be found.