The Anti-War March on Washington: The Real Issue Is Empire


“[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, quoted in William Marina, Egalitarianism and Empire (1975), Note 15.

My drive back to Asheville, North Carolina, from the January 27th, March on Washington, DC, offered a tranquil time to reflect on the events of that day. It was great to meet some of my fellow members of Historians Against the War (HAW) that have been giving speeches around the country opposing the war in Iraq.

I have seen no credible figures of the number of people attending the March. The crowd extended well down along the Mall westward from the Capitol. It is impossible to arrive at any set number because when my son and I arrived at a little after noon, a considerable number of people were already leaving, but with bunches of signs and brochures to take to people back home, as I did later in the day. At the same time, people kept arriving during the more than two hours we were there listening to various speakers opposing the Bush Administration’s policies.

I think what impressed me most, were the many signs, and the people with whom I spoke, who are coming to appreciate the fact that the fundamental issue is not just the Escalation of the War in Iraq, or Afghanistan, and all that entails but rather the larger question of Empire.

One of the signs stated it very simply:

“No War”

“No Empire”

“No Occupation”

The Neocons have gloried in the notion of Empire for more than a decade now, and several years ago, one of Bush’s advisors told the American people to accept this new, changing “reality.” Bush is certainly an Imperial Despot, by John Adams’ definition above, for he accepts “no law or limitation but his own will,” and clearly does not concede that his will can be limited by either Congress or the Courts.

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?

Some writer is always proclaiming that in some new action, we have finally “crossed the Rubicon” river, made famous by Julius Caesar’s army advance on the City of Rome, and I have even used that phrase myself.

The Anti-Imperialists of a century ago believed that had occurred with the decision to annex The Philippines, certainly a prime example of Colonialism. In the Election of 1900 William Jennings Bryan ultimately curtailed the Empire issue, so that despite the importance of Empire as the overriding issue in American politics today, neither of our two dominant political parties have deemed it essential to raise that as the central question facing the nation. One thing is certain in the election of 2008; it will not come to the fore in that election either!

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, something George W. Bush can relate to, because, lacking Conscription or a Draft, he is having difficulty locating the manpower to carry out his edicts, resorting to the old formula of volunteers, assisted by mercenaries on a contract basis. Roman Republicans well understood that was the harbinger of Empire!

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?

One could go on and on with this Militia issue. The Second Amendment, for example, was passed by those anti-Standing Army Classical Republicans, so that the “right to bear arms,” was phrased in terms of “a well-regulated Militia,” The Amendment, still debated today, lost much of its meaning with the murder of the Militia idea and its total interment in 1908 by the great, early architect of the Empire, Elihu Root, in an aptly misnamed Militia Act. The National Guard idea fitted in better with Empire, and even in the labor strife of the 1890s, it was clear that Militia would not fire on their striking neighbors.

The neglect of the Militia was evident in the Territories of the American West after the Civil War. In the 1880s, General Lew Wallace, the Territorial Governor of New Mexico and author of Ben Hur, complained that while his Militia was forced to use old, Civil War, surplus, breech-loading rifles, Geronimo’s poor, marauding Indians had been given new, Winchester ’73 repeating rifles by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in the Interior Department, with which to hunt back and forth across the border with Mexico. A Militiaman chasing them would probably get hit with several bullets by the Indians, while he was attempting to reload his old rifle!

My main point is that the Empire issue is not new, but has its roots deep in the American past. It is rather ironic, that Ben Franklin, surely one of the Empire men, should have given us the memorable phrase, “We have given you a Republic, if you can keep it.” The restoration of the Republic will have to be an equally long-term project. To paraphrase a well-known quote, “Rome’s Empire wasn’t built in a day,” nor will the dismantling our or own Empire be accomplished overnight.

It is high time, however, that the American people recognize that the Issue is Empire, and that we need a political party that will recognize this fact, and build a coherent program around that opposition idea. The open abuses by George W. Bush of the Rule of Law has given us stark evidence that John Adams would clearly recognize, that, indeed, America today is an Empire, if any such doubts remain.