The Unfortunate History of American Nationalism

An Empire of Liberty?

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken


Robert Kagan’s feature, "Cowboy Nation," in the October 23rd issue of The New Republic, contends that the United States, contrary to the popular myth, is now and always has been a nation committed to aggressive and often violent expansionist tendencies. As a leading neoconservative, Kagan’s analysis is meant to prove that American intervention throughout the world is perfectly in line with the United States government’s long history of projecting its power to every corner of the globe. Thus, tradition allows and even demands that the United States continue to have its hand in domestic and international affairs from Tokyo to Rome and from Ottawa to Buenos Aires.

While I’ll take exception to his conclusions here, it is nevertheless difficult to disagree with Kagan’s assertion that America’s history is indeed a history of aggression. One needn’t know every detail of American foreign policy history or of the history of westward expansion to see that the history of America in the world is not the America of George Washington’s Farewell Address, but is much more the history of Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet and of Roosevelt’s ally and disciple Albert Beveridge who made things quite clear in 1898 as he defended the American occupation of the Philippines with his speech entitled "The March of the Flag":

It is a glorious history our God has bestowed upon His chosen people; a history heroic with faith in our mission and our future; a history of statesmen who flung the boundaries of the Republic out into the unexplored lands and savage wilderness; a history of soldiers who carried the flag across blazing deserts and through the ranks of hostile mountains.…Therefore, in this campaign, the question is larger than a party question. It is an American question….Shall the American people continue their march toward the commercial supremacy of the world? Shall free institutions broaden their blessed reign as the children of liberty wax in strength, until the empire of our principles is established over the hearts of all mankind?

For Beveridge, the answer to these questions was obviously yes.

"Cowboy Nation" is subtitled "Against the Myth of American Innocence," and Kagan asserts that while one can have a debate over the current role of the American state in the world, the position that the natural state of American affairs is one of international humility and isolationism, is based more on fancy than on fact.

In short, Kagan’s argument is this: The American Republic, driven by the ideology of liberalism, in its very essence, has always seen expansion and righteous aggression in the name of spreading its enlightened ideology as both justified and laudable. Liberalism, that is, classical liberalism, accepts only one truth — the truth of universal rights, and that if the world will not acknowledge those rights, then it is the role of the United States to force it to do so.

Kagan takes the reader through a long list of American wars, interventions, and massacres that all occurred in the name of spreading liberty to every corner of the globe. The blessings of liberty were to be spread, by force if necessary, across the American continent, and finally to Asia and beyond. In all of its talk of peace, but of its frequent preference for war, Kagan contends that the American attitude is akin to that of the nationalist Henry Clay who, while agitating for an invasion of Canada in 1812, declared "no man in the nation desires peace more than I, but I prefer the troubled ocean of war, demanded by the honor and independence of the country, with all its calamities and desolations, to the tranquil, putrescent pool of ignominious peace."

While he does not phrase it as such, Kagan is illustrating a very specific phenomenon: the American penchant for accepting the use of authoritarian means to achieve liberal ends. The American elites who promoted dozens of wars, invasions, and interventions throughout the history of the Republic, and the public which accepted them, accepted the proposition that liberty could be spread through despotism, and that enlightenment could be secured by the musket and bayonet.

The conclusion that such attitudes have their origins in liberalism is troubling. Ideologies are composed of both ends and means. For the classical liberal, the end is political liberty. The liberal world is a world in which governments are established by men to protect natural rights, and if governments fail to protect the rights of those who have created them, justice demands that they be abolished. In practical application, the means of the liberals from the Levellers to the Anti-Federalists to the Manchesterites had always been a weakening of the state through lower taxation, de-militarization, and decentralization. Yet, the spread of the American state across the continent and beyond has produced something quite different.

Liberal ends can only be achieved through liberal means. The notion that political liberty can be spread by illiberal means, that is, by means that violate natural rights wholesale — war, extermination, concentration camps, and conquest — is an incoherence rarely acknowledged by the proponents of such visions of glory and "national honor." The proposition for a global forced march toward "liberalism" forms a corrupted ideology in which governments shall be established for the world by Americans, and should those governments violate the natural rights of their subjects, they shall not be abolished without the express permission of the United States government.

Thus, far from being a catalogue of the grand victory of liberalism over the despotisms of the world, the history of American expansion and conquest is indeed a long tale of repeated defeat for liberalism at the hands of the nationalists who took it upon themselves to spread the blessings of liberty by whatever means deemed necessary.

Therefore nationalism, not liberalism, guides the history of American expansion throughout North America and beyond. This becomes all the more clear when we witness that in the minds of Americans, the fortunes of liberty are assumed to be virtually inseparable from the fortunes of the American state itself.

Kagan addresses this issue tangentially, identifying "individualism" as the engine behind American expansionism. From the very beginning, the culture of westward expansion was one in which the state was expected to provide the military infrastructure for the drive west. As Kagan points out, settlers from the 17th century through the 19th demanded that the state protect the settlers’ prerogatives to move westward in the Indian lands and the lands of other Europeans powers.

It is of no small importance that after the British Empire removed the French from North America, thus opening up greater opportunities for British settlers into the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, the colonists later felt themselves much aggrieved that the British did not open up all the trans-Appalachian lands for settlement. The British simply did not wish to provide the military personnel to deal with the settler demands for protection that they knew would come. This was an important issue in the fomenting of the American Revolution, and after the United States secured the land all the way to the Mississippi with the Treaty of Paris, American settlers demanded that the American state clear the land of Indians and foreigners for American settlers.

Everywhere they settled, they expected and demanded protection from the United States government. Settlers such as Joe Meek led delegations to Washington demanding military assistance from the federal government in order to control the Indian population and to rid the territories of foreign influence. While many settlers moved west only to pursue their own fortunes and to mind their own business, at least as many moved west with the full expectation that the American government would not be far behind and would be prepared to drive off the Indians and to impose the blessings of liberty upon the land.

Everywhere Unionism prevailed, whether in Texas as the independent republic was absorbed into the United States — only to be crushed when it attempted to secede a mere generation later — or in California, where the founders of the short-lived California Republic never doubted for a moment the benefits of making way for the United States army to provide a buffer against both the Indian and Hispanic natives.

This was not "individualism" as Kagan calls it, but a deeply held nationalistic conviction among settlers that the destiny of the frontier was not to be one of free and independent communities, but one which projected the power of the American state across the continent. Presumably, had the settlers been interested in self-government, they would have defended and governed themselves rather than repeatedly appealing to the American central government for aid. Yet, this was not the case. Few envisioned an independent and free land across the trans-Mississippi frontier as Thomas Jefferson once had. Most wished only to gain their share of the new American Empire while cheap land was still available.

Thus, almost from the very beginning, the spread of liberty became synonymous with the expansion and empowerment of the American government. To his everlasting shame, Jefferson undermined what little opposition there was among the old anti-Federalists of the early Republic when he convinced them to go along with the Louisiana Purchase. New England Federalists and many Republicans saw the folly of it all. But those who have succumbed to nationalism, as Jefferson did as President, have never had a problem with the ends justifying the means, and the unconstitutional Purchase, as Henry Adams described it, "gave a fatal wound to ‘strict construction." John Randolph of Roanoke said simply, "the Louisiana Purchase was the greatest curse that ever befell us." But Jefferson, in one of the great oxymoronic moments of history, declared his intent to create an "empire of liberty." An empire, of course, that would require pacification of the natives, and a standing army to protect its borders.

The Louisiana Purchase was just a taste of what was to come. In addition to creating a vast territory to be administered not by the states, but directly by the federal government, America’s first great move west meant a sudden expansion in the responsibilities and commitments of the central government. And this meant more taxes, more government, and more soldiers.

The purchase of the territory was peaceful, but how many lives and how much treasure were expended in countless Indian wars, in dozens of military outposts, and in international intrigues as the Republic drove to acquire more and more territory and to pacify, conquer, and spread "liberty" to foreign populations in both North America and beyond?

As Robert Higgs has so thoroughly illustrated in Crisis and Leviathan, every new war, every new territory, and every new "victory" for the spread of American "liberty" brings greater and greater power to the American state, and greater and greater oppression to its people. This happens through debt, taxation, through regulation, and through a thousand laws to crush a thousand perceived slights and threats to the Republic’s boundless ambition. And all the time, the need for defense of the new territories ever more convinced the population of the need for a vast standing army, the very thing once perceived as the greatest threat to liberty by the American revolutionaries.

But throughout the 19th century, and into the 20th, few ever questioned this legacy or its effects on the fate of American liberties. Certainly, there was the American Anti-Imperialist League founded by Oswald Garrison Villard (a future member of the "Old Right") and supported by the likes of Grover Cleveland and Carl Shurz, but their protests failed to have much impact. During the Mexican war, William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper went so far as to openly hope for an American defeat, declaring that “Every lover of Freedom and humanity throughout the world must wish them [the Mexicans] the most triumphant success."

But the zeitgeist was never with the anti-imperialists. As the United States moved from starting wars with the Mexicans and the Indians to seize lands and treasure, it turned to far away provinces of other world powers to satisfy the ambitions of Americans who really did agree with Beveridge that the United States could not stop its drive of militarism until "the empire of our principles is established over the hearts of all mankind."

Kagan gets his history right, but the story of American expansion, far from a victory of liberalism over the despotisms of the world, is in fact a long eulogy told over the corpse of American Liberalism. Liberalism had looked good, and many spoke well of it, but few showed much interest in the liberal program. Many were convinced that liberalism could be transplanted from the young Republic across the globe using nationalist and other authoritarian means, but every year it becomes more apparent that somewhere along the line, the operation killed the patient.

Among modern critics of American foreign policy as too imperialist or too aggressive, there is often a feeling that somewhere in America’s past, there was a time of isolationism and humility in which Americans and their political leaders were reluctant to become involved in issues beyond the nation’s own borders. It is difficult to see when exactly this time actually existed. From Andrew Jackson’s wars against the Indians of the Southeast, to the annexation of Texas, to the Mexican War, to the occupation of the Philippines, and finally to our own time, with the voracious drive for more territory, for more international prestige, national honor, and boundless international influence, the United States has never been, except for brief but glorious intervals, either isolationist or meek in the international sphere.

This doesn’t mean that such a tradition is therefore inevitable or even justified. Only if we wish to appeal to "tradition" or to the past for its own sake must we accept the past as a mandate for the future. Spain, too, was once an aggressive and expansive power yet few Spaniards would today chose "the troubled ocean of war" over the "putrescent pool of ignominious peace" for the sake of taking Spanish liberty to the ends of the earth.

While they were usually ignored, the true defenders of American liberalism and American liberty provided a formidable tradition of their own. The frenzy of nationalism, that perennially attractive drug to so many Americans, need not continue to be the bane of liberty forever. The tradition of the partisans of peace and liberty can be embraced any time. There are American critics of empire in every age. From the early critics of the Louisiana Purchase, to the individualist anarchists like Spooner and Tucker and on to the Anti-Imperialist League and the Old Right, there have always been voices of dissent. Their tradition is there and we would do well to learn from it.