The Narrative of the “Free Republic” – Early American Gangs and the Myth of Statehood
Separating facts from myths is always one of the greatest challenges when examining the past. In particular, narratives that benefit those in power are particularly resistant to rational examination, since they tend to be propagated among the impressionable and credible – particularly children, in the form of state “education.”
The history of the United States in particular has gone through an enormous amount of propagandistic revisionism, so that now the standard view of early American history tends to resemble more the slavishly pro-state “Pravda” palimpsests of the Stalinist era than a clear-eyed and rational assessment of past circumstances and events.
There remains at present a large constituency of Americans – often regarding themselves as libertarian – who look back with nostalgia to the founding of the Republic. In their mind’s eye, the late 18th century was a noble era when the steely genius of the Founding Fathers forged in the fires of liberty precious documents designed to limit the power of the state over its citizens. These preternaturally wise philosopher-kings wafted above all human temptations for the exercise of power, remaining farseeing moral visionaries steeped in the humanism and rationality of the Enlightenment, keenly aware of the dangers of the state. These noble heroes led a people yearning for freedom to the revolution of 1776, overthrew an increasingly despotic foreign rule, and put in place a system designed to guarantee the liberty of individuals far into the future.
In this narrative, the founding of the American Republic was considered a watershed epoch in the history of humanity. Never before had a government been created according to rational and objective principles, with the express design of limiting its power, and forcing it to remain answerable to the citizens it served.
The slogans of the American Revolution have been carved into the lexicon of human fantasies about freedom – “all men are created equal,” “government by and for the people,” “conceived in liberty,” “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and so on. Early America was considered to be the highest achievement in the construction of a benevolent, wise, limited and regulated government.
Those who hold this view regard existing escalations of state power – particularly at the Federal level – to be fundamentally anti-American, and yearn for a return to an imaginary past where selfless heroes ran the government with the sole purpose of serving others.
On the other hand, certain historians – particularly leftists – have attempted to overthrow most of the supposed virtues of this period, repeatedly pointing out that early America enslaved nearly one sixth of its population, that under the cover of its Manifest Destiny doctrine the American government forcibly uprooted and exiled dozens of native tribes, that public hangings were a common form of entertainment, and that political bribery and corruption were endemic. In many ways, according to this version of history, the expansion of the United States at the expense of Mexicans and Native Americans was very similar to modern claims that China imposes on Tibet.
I view these opposing perspectives as a false dichotomy. In the “patriotic nostalgic” version, the evils of slavery and the forced relocations of native tribes and Mexicans are acknowledged as unfortunate but necessary political compromises required to create an initial union of disparate states. It is recognized that one of the original drafts of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” was “life, liberty and property,” but that the word “property” had to be removed because of its implicit repudiation of the concept of slavery – if all men can own property, no man can be property. Jefferson’s own ambiguity with regards to slavery is usually referenced by quoting his words: “We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
The inability of the Founding Fathers to realize their own idealized visions of perfect and universal human equality is usually chalked up to the political realities of the time, and the ideological prejudices of those around them.
These two versions of history can be roughly characterized in the following manner: in the “patriotic nostalgic” view, the genuine political ideals of the Founding Fathers proved unachievable in practice due to the influence of history, and the collective self-interest of basic economic and political realities – particularly in the South.
In the “cynical leftist” view, the Founding Fathers crafted an idealized world out of their own lofty moral aspirations, while ignoring all those who were non-white, non-male, and often non-middle-class. In other words, Washington, Jefferson, Adams et al did in fact believe their goals of noble and political equality, but unconsciously limited its application to their own gender, class and race. The problem was that these men did not have any real conscious conception of “equality” for women, slaves, Native Americans, children and so on.
Thus while these men genuinely believed in “equality,” they were limited in their practical application of this ideal because they genuinely could not consider those unlike themselves as particularly human. The forced relocation of Native American tribes, for instance, was by any rational standard a far more egregious crime against humanity than, say, the minor indignity of the Stamp Tax, but because the Native Americans were not considered to be particularly human – at least not in the way that your average middle-class white male was – they could not be emotionally or conceptually “fitted” on the same moral spectrum.
To me, arguing whether the Founding Fathers were genuine idealists who bowed to political pragmatism, or genuine idealists tragically limited by the ethical perspectives of their time, entirely misses the point by assuming that they were “genuine idealists” of any kind whatsoever.
When we judge a man’s ethical idealism, it can perhaps be said that it is unfair to compare his ideals across time to a more modern understanding of ethics. In the same way, we cannot fault a medieval physician for failing to prescribe antibiotics, because they simply did not exist when he practiced medicine.
I believe that it is also reasonable to “forgive” some of the inevitable pragmatic compromises that idealists must make with the world as they find it. Even virulently anti-tax modern libertarians can be “forgiven” for paying their taxes, given that the alternative is a life on the run or in jail.
However, the Founding Fathers meet neither of these criteria. We can only forgive an idealist for bowing to pragmatism if the corruption of his ideals is demanded by powerful elements beyond his control. We can only forgive an idealist for his limited knowledge if he does not in fact possess knowledge of the standards he fails to meet.
If, however, a supposed “idealist” voluntarily corrupts his own standards, bowing to no powerful external pressure whatsoever, then clearly he is no idealist. If I set up a charity, and then shamelessly rob those I am supposed to help, I cannot reasonably be called a starry-eyed idealist who had to bow to pragmatic reality, or who was limited by the moral standards of my time. I could only be accurately called a moral hypocrite who used ethical “standards” to corrupt and betray my victims.
Anarchism and Revolution
The anarchist view of history can only regard the transfer of political power as directly analogous to the transfer of criminal power, as in the example of organized crime. Since in the anarchist approach all state power is considered criminal, any transfer of that power can be far more accurately understood by looking at criminal gangs, rather than repeating the quasi-ethical ramblings of self-interested state propagandists.
If this is the correct approach – as I believe it is – then all “ideals” put forward to justify state power – whether referring to a revolution, a despotic or democratic transfer of power, or even the daily continued existence of state power – are completely irrelevant, and foolish distractions to the actual process that is occurring.
Since the state is a criminal gang, referring to the ideals in the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights makes about as much sense as referring to a Mafia stooge’s claims that he only wants to “protect” a shopkeeper that he is in fact extorting, or a pimp’s protestations of virtuous benevolence with regards to his enslaved prostitutes.
Political leaders use virtuous abstractions to “sell” the imposition of violent power over citizens. As long as individuals continue to be distracted by the shiny emptiness of ethical bloviating, and ignore the gun that is steadily rising towards them, we will continue to remain as enslaved to words as we are to governments.
For example, let us take the following scenario.
Imagine a U.S. president who has never traveled east of Paris or fought in a war but who nonetheless claims to possess a deep understanding of how best to deal with military conflicts in the Middle East. During his presidency, he is faced with attacks upon Americans originating from state-supported mujahideen. In order to assuage these attacks, the U.S. government has historically both sold and given arms to the very Middle Eastern government that has been attacking Americans. Naturally, this government then used its new American weaponry to increase the number and severity of its attacks upon Americans. Pundits and intellectuals claim that if war is not declared upon this Middle Eastern government, said government will actually attack America directly.
Despite achieving office partly due to his isolationist promises to avoid international military entanglements, this president secretly wants to wage war in the Middle East – however, he faces a daunting legal obstacle. The U.S. Constitution denies him the right to declare war; reserving that power to Congress alone. Since he is not certain that Congress will declare war on this Middle Eastern country, this noble President decides to sidestep the legislature and order a “police operation” that falls just short of all-out war. In this way, he can circumvent the powers of Congress and personally authorize military action in the Middle East.
Does this sound at all familiar?
May I introduce you, ladies and gentlemen, to Thomas Jefferson?
The issue that Jefferson faced was state-sponsored piracy originating from what was then called Barbary States. Over 100 American trade ships sailing through the Mediterranean and into the Middle East were on occasion attacked by state-backed pirates – the “terrorists” of the day. Goods were seized, sailors were held for ransom, and ships were converted to supplement the pirate fleet. Given that 20% of all U.S. exports took this route, it was no small problem.
All European powers faced the same dilemma, and all but the Americans decided to pay the “tribute” required for safe passage of their ships, forge the documents of “safe passage,” or hire the Spanish or Dutch gunboats that made themselves available as a military escort. By the late 18th century, the U.S. treasury was paying out as much as 20% of its annual revenue to the Barbary states – in gold and, perversely, in cannon, gunpowder and gunboats. Not for the last time would America end up going to war against a power it had well-armed prior to the conflict! (Of course, independence from England had robbed U.S. merchants of protection from the British Navy.)
In other words, one of the costs of doing business in the Middle East included the hiring of military protection, or the paying of “tribute” in order to secure a safe passage.
This, of course, was directly analogous to the ever-increasing tariffs and excise taxes that the U.S. government was imposing on its own citizens domestically. Subjecting the movement of goods to “taxes” is a universal phenomenon of governments throughout history, and around the world.
Even after paying the “protection money,” good profits could still be reaped from Middle Eastern trade, particularly in the exchange of cloth for spices. However, U.S. merchants were very keen to shift those costs to the general taxpayer, in order to vastly increase their own profits and to gain a significant competitive edge over foreign merchants. Thus, merchant leaders offered to donate enormous sums to fund the campaigns of political aspirants, in return for their promises to use state funds to pay for military expeditions against the Barbary pirates.
Governments, naturally, always benefit from rousing the general population into animosity against an external enemy. As the saying goes, “war is the health of the state.” It is very easy to restrict liberty, increase taxes, and promote “unity” when patriotic fervor can be co-mingled with fears of invasion and the natural – if cowardly – bloodlust that erupts at the exciting prospect of ogling a safe and distant foreign war.
In this way, the moral delusions of the population (“It’s us against them!”) serve both the commercial interests of the merchant class and the expansion of state power that is the primary interest of the political class.
It is both fascinating and highly instructive to see how one of the primary framers of the Constitution – and the author of the Declaration of Independence – so naturally gravitated towards violating the very principles that he claimed to be both pragmatically necessary and morally universal.
Some might argue that Jefferson had been corrupted by political power, and this was why he attempted to break the very moral rules that he had consistently espoused as the highest possible ideals. However, this thesis is empirically easy to disprove, and can be cast aside very quickly.
Jefferson claimed to be a great fan of limited government, and in particular railed against the potential tyranny of an individual despotic leader, which was why he so consistently championed the separation of powers. Naturally, since he was so against despotic leadership, and set up a system specifically designed to block the execution of war powers at the executive level, when he found that he was not just tempted by but actually initiated the process of executing these war powers on his own whim, he clearly had the intellectual ability to recognize that he had become an example of an evil that he originally aimed to conquer.
If Jefferson genuinely opposed the evil that he had become, then he would have resigned his position, and worked as hard as possible to find the flaws in the system he had helped design that had led to his own corruption. Surely, he would understand that if someone as moral, intelligent, understanding and well-meaning as himself could be utterly corrupted by political power, that the system he had worked so hard to create simply did not work.
However, there is no evidence that these pangs of conscience ever troubled Jefferson in the slightest – and he most certainly did not resign and devote himself to figuring out the flaws in his system. Instead, he sailed on attempting to foment a war between America and a variety of Muslim states, all the while attempting to bypass the powers that he had specifically reserved for Congress in order to avoid such a situation.
When a man consistently repudiates in action the moral ideals that he professes in theory, we can clearly understand that his moral ideals are only professed as a means of achieving the power to act in opposition to them. If a man claims to love and respect his wife, and then continually abuses her in private, we can understand that his claims of love and devotion are mere “covers” for his core desire, which is to continue to abuse his wife.
Thus, since Jefferson claimed that the power to declare war must be reserved for Congress alone, and then attempted to bypass that rule when he became president, it is clear that he had no interest in actually controlling the power of the executive branch of government. His “ideals” are thus revealed as a shallow form of hypocritical moral manipulation designed to hoodwink the average citizen into believing that Jeffersonian democracy is some sort of protection against the growth of tyranny.
If I convince others that my political system is designed to prevent tyranny, and then when I gain political power by implementing my system, I assiduously pursue tyrannical powers, it is surely clear to all but the most wilfully self-blinded that I only spoke of my hostility to tyranny because I wished to be a tyrant. My words were designed to disarm others, to lull their natural scepticism – and thus secure my dominance over them.
It is in this way that we can begin to pierce the quasi-religious veil of self-serving hypocrisy and look to the values that were in fact practiced, rather than the fairy tales that were merely preached. A man is revealed by his actions, not his words.
If we look at the actions of George Washington, we can see exactly the same pattern. This is a man who used violence to oppose a British tax that was not agreed to by the colonists. After the powers of the Federal government had been expanded by the replacement of the Articles of Confederation by the United States Constitution in 1789, it took less than two years for Alexander Hamilton to convince Congress to approve taxes on distilled spirits and carriages.
In order to control the increasing rebellions against this tax, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton summoned a militia of almost 13,000 men – approximately the size of the entire revolutionary army – and invoked martial law against those resisting the tax. The subsequent assault upon the rebels marked the first time that the U.S. Federal Government had attacked its own citizens in order to extract taxes, and set the precedent that laws could only be challenged through “peaceful” means.
The staggering hypocrisy in this action scarcely needs any comment at all. There is no evidence whatsoever that either Hamilton or Washington were disturbed by their own decisions – which clearly means that they had no interest in their own professed moral ideals, but rather only in the exercise of power over others.
When we look at the effects of the transfer of power through the un-Vaselined lens of anarchistic philosophy, we can see the following pattern clearly emerging. Let us analogize it – not unjustly – through the example of organized crime.
If Mafia Gang A attacks Mafia Gang B – while claiming eternal hatred for Mafia Gang B’s evil practice of extortion – and then, as soon as it overthrows Mafia Gang B, immediately sets up its own more predatory extortion rackets, we can clearly understand that Mafia Gang A was motivated by jealousy of Mafia Gang B, not out of any fundamental dislike of their practices.
If we continue to believe the pious lies of statist propaganda, we will forever be drawn to drown ourselves in the mirage of a mythical past where people were “free.” If we continue to believe that the “founding of the Republic” – really the overthrow of a relatively benign foreign gang by a vastly more rapacious domestic gang – was defined by the moral fairy tales designed to dull the scepticism of the average citizen, then we shall be forever drawn to repeat the mistakes of the past and waste our lives believing that a new criminal gang will somehow set us free.
If we believe that the Constitution was genuinely designed to limit the power of the state, then we will forever try to limit the power of the state by revising political documents or pursuing other kinds of political solutions. If we understand that political documents are in fact mere tools of hypocritical moral propaganda, we will be no more tempted to revise them then we would to fact-check back issues of “Pravda.”
Unfortunately, as a population, we remain bamboozled by the pious sentiments of the power-hungry. We live free in a world of words, but lie chained in a prison of reality.
We can only achieve real liberty by refusing to sanctify criminals, and understanding the basic reality that the phrase “moral government” is as oxymoronic as the phrase “moral genocide.”
The only path to a freer future is clarity about the tyrannies of the past.
Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a “Top 10” Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.