Has America Always Been a Greedy Empire?
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Polls show a majority of Americans no longer think the quagmire in Afghanistan is worth their tax dollars or their fellow citizens’ lives. This is a welcome indication that, despite the tender ministrations of our corporate news media, Americans are still capable of common sense.
But there is a difference between possessing common sense and believing in a common myth, like the one favored by many Libertarians, Neo-Isolationists and Progressives that the United States deviated from its peaceful, non-imperialistic origins only in recent decades.
For instance, on April 23, The Washington Examiner published an opinion piece “Let’s Not Broaden the ‘War on Despair,’” by Gene Healy, an in-house columnist and a vice president at the Cato Institute. The article took issue with the Navy’s new slogan: A Global Force for Good.
According to Healy, “Our Constitution envisions a narrower role for the U.S. military than one that would have it responding to ‘trouble alerts’ worldwide. U.S. armed forces exist for ‘the common defence … of the United States,’ the better to secure the ‘blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,’ as the Preamble puts it.”
This view resonates with another libertarian essay advocating a return to the Golden Age of American military defense, summarized by the statement: “Changing America’s military posture requires that Americans shift their thinking back to defensive American ideals that were current when the republic was born but were subsequently discarded in favor of offensive military ideals that supported America’s growth into an empire.”
Without a doubt, these sentiments are shared by many Progressives. But Neo-Isolationist views are based upon a popular false assumption – in fact, an overarching historical myth – that the U.S. was founded as a non-aggressive nation that only lately, and tragically, lost its pacifistic way.
In defense of this isolationalist myth stands Washington’s farewell address, especially his warning about entering into “permanent alliances” and Jefferson’s similar caution about “entangling alliances” with foreign nations. These pronouncements are usually recalled to suggest the Founders had never made such alliances and that, ipso facto, they had never perpetrated aggressive, foreign war.
But let’s set the historical account straight: America did not grow into an empire, and it has rarely used armed force solely “for the common defence” or to better secure the “blessings of liberty” against foreign bogeymen that finagled to steal it away from us. As a matter of fact, the United States of America was an empire on the first day of our internationally recognized existence. And so we have remained.
Acquiescing to American independence at Paris in 1783, the British Empire ceded to the new United States not only the territory then actually belonging to the several states, but also vast reaches of territory outside of the states’ borders: the Old Northwest, the trans-Appalachian region, and ill-defined West Florida – much of the latter still claimed by Spain.
When any country claims sovereignty over territory outside of its national boundaries it is, de facto, an empire. Americans did make such claims on lands outside their state jurisdictions, and they had been making them for decades before the war for independence. The only substantive thing that changed after the Treaty of Paris was America’s political sovereignty, not its imperial designs.
Of course, after gaining independence, we did not immediately send armies forth across the globe in search of foreign conquest and booty. We had no need to do so. We simply did our shopping for other folk’s land at home. Consider the facts:
On paper, Americans had carved up the Old Northwest in the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 even before we had a Constitution, or a national army, title, or even physical possession of the territory, for that matter.