avatar
On Imperial Beginnings


I resist the tendency to see the contemporary United States’ many harsh inequalities[1] and crimes[2] as radical departures from the nation’s (supposed) noble and democratic origins. Look at the nation’s founding document, The Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776. It’s not for nothing that radical democrats cite it in opposition to plutocratic polices like George W. Bush’s plutocratic tax cuts, Bush and Barack Obama’s record- setting bailout of Wall Street parasites, and Obama’s corporatist health reform. The DOI advanced the idea of democracy by granting "the people" the right to "alter or abolish" a government that becomes "destructive" of their rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and by proclaiming that governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” not the divine right of kings and lords.

 

TELLING SILENCES

 

Still, there are telling silences in the DOI. Reflecting the endemic racism and sexism of the time in which it was written, the document said nothing, of course, about the rights of women, blacks (most of whom were slaves in the early American Republic), and Native Americans – all of whom stood outside the official definition of “the people” in the early American Republic of the late 18th century. One clause in slaveholder Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the DOI denounced the inhumanity of the slave trade and criticized the King of England for overturning colonial laws that sought to restrict the importation of slaves.  It was deleted by the Continental Congress at the insistence of southern delegates.[3] 

 

There’s nothing in the DOI about the well-known (since Aristotle and before) conflict between democracy and the concentration of wealth.  There’s nothing about securing the popular rights of people (including a large share of the new nation’s majority white populace) without property and means – issues raised by popular forces during the previous century’s English Revolution.[4] “In their minds," historian Richard Hofstader noted of the nation’s rich white Founders in is classic book The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), "liberty was linked not to democracy but to property." Among the freedoms the Founders advanced, Hofstader observed, "freedom to hold and dispose [private] property [was] paramount." Democracy was a dangerous, even anathema concept for them, conferring "unchecked rule by the masses," which was "sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty" (Hofstader).  Drawn from the elite propertied segments of a deeply stratified society, the leaders of the American Revolution and the formation of a national U.S government shared John Jay and John Adams’s view that "the people who own the country ought to govern it." They may have diverged on numerous questions but they agreed on one basic principle: the common people, with little or no property, must not have too much power

 

“THE MERCILESS INDIAN SAVAGES”

 

Silences aside, the DOI contained a very interesting and revealing positive statement in its bill of particulars against King George.  It attacked the monarch because “He has excited domestic insurrection amongst us and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” That was an instructive complaint, symptomatic of the fact that the American Revolution was a proto-bourgeois national independence movement, not a social revolution.  The royal brute was accused of favoring social upheaval from the bottom up (“domestic insurrection”) in the New World.

 

The reference to North America’s indigenous people as pitiless barbarians who slaughtered without distinction was vicious slander.  More than misrepresenting Indian culture and warfare, it anticipated Orwell by projecting onto Native Americans the genocidal practices the British settlers repeatedly used against the indigenous people they ruthlessly murdered again and again in such grisly episodes as the Mystic River Massacre of 1637 when, as historian Eric Foner recounts:

 

“A force of Connecticut and Massachusetts soldiers, augmented by Narraganset allies, surrounded the main Pequot fortified village at Mystic and set it ablaze, killing those who tried to escape.  Over 500 men, women, and children lost their lives in the massacre.  By the end of the war [of New England settlers on the once powerful Pequot tribe], most of the Pequots had been exterminated or sold into Caribbean slavery. The treat that restored peace decreed that their name should be wiped from the historical record.”

 

“…The colonists’ ferocity shocked their Indian allies, who considered European military practices barbaric.  A few Puritans agreed. ‘It was a fearful sight to see them frying in the fire,’ the Pilgrim leaders William Bradford wrote of the raid on Mystic.  But to most Puritans, including Bradford, the defeat of a ‘barbarous nation’ by ‘the sword of the Lord’ offered further proof that they were on a sacred mission and that Indians were unworthy of sharing New England with the visible saints of the church.”

 

The Puritans wept with joy and thanked “God” for helping them barbecue the Indian women and children who stood on ground they would turn into a heavenly “City on the Hill.”

 

After a cruel campaign of ethnic cleansing (at the conclusion of “King Phillips’ War”) in which the white (un-) settlers pushed most of the last Indians they had not killed out of New England in the mid-1670s, “the image of Indians as bloodthirsty savages became firmly entrenched in the New England mind.”[5]

 

“A PROCESS THAT…HAS NOT CHANGED”

 

The deeper truth, hidden by racist defamation, was that the North American continent’s original inhabitants stood in the way of the English settlers’ determination to build an empire in the New World. Nearly a century after King Phillips’ War, George Washington and other colonial elites had been chafing under the British crown’s Royal Proclamation of 1763, an edict that “foreclos[ed] on their speculative interests in Indian land west of the Appalachian mountains.” Washington, a major slaveholder and the “richest man in North America,” led an independence war based in part on “the premise that victory [would] result in soldiers being rewarded with land parcels west of the proclamation line” (Ward Churchill).[6] The United States is unique among modern nations, as the renowned left U.S. social critic Noam Chomsky noted two years ago, in that it “was founded as an empire explicitly. According to the founding fathers, when the country was founded it was an ‘infant empire.’ That’s George Washington. Modern-day American imperialism is just a later phase of a process that has continued from the very first moment without a break, going in a very steady line. So, we are looking at one phase in a process that was initiated when the country was founded and has never changed.”[7]

 

Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president hasn’t changed this. With his record-setting Pentagon budget and his “five front terror war” (Glenn Greenwald)[8]  in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Ethiopia (and more), he has, as left journalist Allan Nairn noted last January, kept the American imperial military “machine…set on kill.”[9] Today, as in the colonial era and at and after the nation’s founding, moreover, the American people are fed images of “our enemies” as savage, pitiless barbarians even as “our” government barbarously murders children and pulverizes villages on the frontiers of Empire.  How darkly curious it is to note that the United States’ victims are attacked with airships named after vanquished North American Indians, including the Black Hawk Attack Helicopter – manufactured by Chicago-based Boeing, Inc., one of Barack Obama’s leading campaign sponsors in the 2008 election.

 

“OUR REVOLUTION..ALARMED AT ONE COMMON DANGER”

 

How darkly interesting it is to note the first black president’s continuation of historical narratives that delete harsh racial truths about the United States’ deeply racist and imperial founding. Proclaiming a "new era of responsibility," Obama’s Inaugural Address asked Americans to remember how:

 

“In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).’"

     

“Our revolution…alarmed at one common danger?”  For some of on the historically informed left that pays attention to such things, it was disturbing to hear the nation’s first black president citing the white founders’ rebellion against England (1763-1783) as an example of how “we” Americans need to stand together against “one common danger.” The new republic’s snows and soils and forests and tobacco, rice, and cotton and killing fields had long been stained with the blood and tears of Native Americans and of a growing population of black chattel. Many American slaves and indigenous people found and acted on good reasons to favor the British over the colonists in the war between England and the rising new racist and settler-imperialist slave state.[10] England, after all, had put some limits on the pace at which the North Americans could steal the land the ruin the lives of the nation’s original inhabitants and turn western frontiers into sites for the ruthless exploitation of enslaved blacks.  The British promised freedom to slaves who turned against their colonial masters during the colonist’s war of national liberation. Sadly, the fate and struggle of the early republic’s black and red victims foretold the future struggles of Asians, Latin Americans, and Middle Easterners caught on the wrong side of the United States’ "freedom"-loving guns, alliances, and doctrines as the “infant empire” grew to toxic and deadly maturity and lethal senility.

 

Meanwhile, as Americans today celebrate an event that many of them barely understand [11],the ongoing epic corporate-eco-cide in the Gulf of Mexico ought to remind us of one of the many ways in which the imperial destruction of America’s first civilizations (slandered by the U.S. founders as “merciless savages”) was a negative for long-term human prospects.  The “New World” first nations’ did not relate to nature in the same deadly ways as the property- and profit-addicted invader from Europe, whose great capitalist legacy is the ever-escalating destruction of livable ecology.

 

Paul Street

Iowa City, IA

July 4, 2010

 

Paul Street’s next book is The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2010/ http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=243410)  Street can be reached at [email protected]

 

NOTES

 

1 For example, the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth in the U.S. The bottom 50 percent of U.S. taxpayers now possesses a combined 2.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The top 10 percent owns 70 percent. Median net black household net worth is equivalent to 7 cents on the median white household net worth dollar.

 

2 For example, the latest and ongoing petro-imperialist invasion and occupation of Iraq (which has killed well more than 1 million Iraqis since March 2003), the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (leading to the deaths of a large number of innocent civilians), and the creation of a globally unmatched and deeply racist mass incarceration state inside  the U.S,  home to more than  2 million disproportionately black prisoners – a curious fact from the self-proclaimed homeland and headquarters of global “freedom.”

 

3 Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History. Volume I: To 1877 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 187.

 

4 Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1975).

 

5 See Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 73, 97 among numerous citation.

.

6Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003), 43-44.

 

7 Noam Chomsky “Modern-Day American Imperialism: Middle East and Beyond,” Boston University, April 24, 2008, read at http://www.chomsky.info/

 

 

8 Glenn Greenwald, “Cause and Effect in the ‘Terror War,’” Salon (December 29, 2009), read at http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/12/29/terrorism/index.html

 

9 Allan Nairn, “ ‘Obama Has Kept the Machine Set on Kill’ – Journalist and Activist Allan Nairn Reviews Obama’s First Year in Office,” Democracy Now (January 6, 2010), read transcript at http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/6/obama_has_kept_the_machine_set

 

10 Alfred Young, ed., The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976).

 

11 A recent Marist poll found that 40 percent of the United States’ 18-29 year olds do not know the answer to the following question: “On July 4 we celebrate Independence Day.  From which country did the United States win its independence?” See http://freerepublic.com/focus/chat/2546372/posts

Leave a comment