America has become a profoundly–and tragically–ahistoric country. As such, the 273rd anniversary of the birth of George Washington will pass this Tuesday with little note. Washington’s legacy has been so disregarded by its heirs that his birthday has been stirred into the generic swill of “President’s Day,” an empty gesture that blunts the memories of both the first chief executive and the sixteenth, Abraham Lincoln, in order to avoid cluttering February with too many holidays or too much history.
The memory of Washington has become an inconvenience for men who occupy the high stations he and his fellow founders occupied. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Negroponte and their ilk certainly do not want the work of remaking America in their own image–as a greedy, self-absorbed and frequently brutal empire–interrupted by reflections upon the nobler nation that Washington and his compatriots imagined.
Considering the ugly state to which the American experiment has degenerated, however, it would make sense for the rest of us to renew our affiliation with the first GW. Indeed, patriots need to call General Washington back into the service of his country–not merely as a clarification of national memory but as a blunt challenge to those who have usurped America’s promise with their illegal invasions and reckless misadventures.
It will not be the first time that the wrench of Washington’s memory has been tossed into the machinery of American empire.
When dissenters from the impulse toward American empire held their annual gatherings in cities and towns across the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, they would meet on the anniversary of George Washington’s birth. It was the accepted wisdom of the day that, in addition to having been “the father of his country,” Washington was, as well, the father of the anti-imperialist movement. The first president had given his ideological descendants ample evidence on which to base their claim. His 1793 proclamation of American neutrality in regards to European political and military conflicts explicitly rejected international entanglements, with Washington later explaining that, “The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations.”
But it was Washington’s Farewell Address, delivered in 1796 toward the end of his second presidential term, that became a touchstone for ensuing generations of anti-imperialists. Washington used his last great statement to the nation he had shepherded through the struggle to loosen the grip of British colonial rule, “to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”
Washington saw great danger in any step that would “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice,” but it was not just alliances with European states that worried him. The first president counseled that it should be “our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
The commander of America’s revolutionary armies did not want his country to follow the European course of collecting colonies and establishing spheres of influence that would need to be defended. He warned that the new United States might “pay with a portion of its independence” for involving itself in “projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives.” And he asked a question that would echo across the ages as his presidential successors moved the country further and further from its founding principles: “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?”
An American political leader who uttered those words today would be set upon by the self-appointed guardians of false patriotism– Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and a thousand imitators –and accused of undermining the “war on terrorism” that has become such a convenient excuse for the occupation of Iraq and the development of imperialist instincts that owe more to King George than to George Washington.
But there is nothing American about a career of empire.
In fact, the American impulse is the one that Washington expressed two centuries ago.
The principles that Washington discussed in his Farewell Address were not new concepts. They were, in fact, mainstream opinions shared by many, though surely not all, of his countrymen. A measure of pragmatism underpinned their broad acceptance. America was a new nation, rich in resources but sparsely populated and militarily weak. A career of empire seemed not just hypocritical for the former colony, but impractical. And America was divided, not just over questions of foreign allegiance and entanglement but with regards to her domestic course. New Englanders were already objecting to the practice of human bondage in the southern states and Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, acknowledged that he trembled at the thought of the rough justice that awaited a nation that countenanced the sin of slavery. While the Pennsylvania Quakers imagined cooperation and comity with the indigenous owners of the ground on which Europeans stood as newcomers, governors from Massachusetts in the north to Georgia in the south plotted violent removals of American Indians from their native lands. Washington well recognized that the United States lacked the strength and unity to survive internal struggles over alignment with particular colonial powers, let alone the conflicts and costs associated with colonialisms of its own.
But there was more than enlightened self-interest in play when Washington suggested that, “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course.” From the beginnings of what would come to be referred to as “the American experiment,” there was a sense that this endeavor ought to be about something nobler than the mere recreation of European excesses on the new ground of the western Hemisphere. John Winthrop’s notion that an American settler might see his or her community “as a city on a hill,” a model unto the world for the moral ordering of affairs, echoed across religious, ethnic and regional lines. Among a certain rebellious element, it came to be accepted that Europe’s potentates, with their subjects and colonies, represented a corrupt old order that would be replaced only by a shot heard round the world. The American revolutionaries promised that their challenge to the British king and crown would in the words of their tribune, Tom Paine, “begin the world again.” The revolution, which the Continental Congress pledged to fight neither “for glory or for conquest,” did, in fact, inspire more revolts against colonial authorities.
America’s progression toward democracy–slowed, as it was, by the hypocrisy and intolerance of the founders–would, as well, provide a model for the systems that replaced the divine right of kings with the consent of the governed. That requirement of consent should, by its very nature, have rendered illegitimate any colonial or imperialist impulse. And, it seemed many of the founders read it that way. Fifty years after independence was declared, its author, Jefferson, would renew the city-on-a-hill promise with a call to globalize the democratic revolution: “May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all: the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government.”
George Bush has throttled America’s promise by mirroring the worst excesses of King George. He has cast his lot with the colonialists who believe in the spread of enlightenment at gunpoint. Patriots need to mirror the best instincts of another George and pursue that “different course” that the first president said was essential to the maintenance of our independence and our ability to inspire by example rather than force.—————————————————————–
John Nichols’s new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, “At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.” Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, “Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial.” Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com