Some years ago, Janet gave me a used copy of Gore Vidal’s “Burr” as my Christmas present. Thoroughly recommended, but I’m not here to write a book report.
What Vidal understood about America was what I refused to admit: Though we were founded as a republic, the United States quickly became an empire. “Burr” was my portal to that simple and unwelcome truth. Once seen, the pattern cannot be unseen.
Why is that truth obscured from us?
Because most of the nations we invaded and crushed in the name of Manifest Destiny were sparsely populated (thanks to centuries of pandemics), had no fixed borders (because they generally had a different view of “property”), and in many cases lacked written histories. It’s also true that the people we displaced were so weak in the military sense that the United States was able to build its empire with an army that was minuscule compared to previous empires..
But the main reason is: We don’t WANT to see it. Ours is a national mythology based on the quasi-divinity of “Founding Fathers.” We consider ourselves a decent nation of laws. and believe our wealth is the product of hard work, personal freedom and civic wisdom.
The truth, of course, is far more complicated, and today we’re paying its price. The truth is that even the anti-slavery Abolitionists of 1860 were thoroughly in favor of murdering everyone from Missouri to California if it meant free land and fatter bank accounts for white people.
That’s the mentality of empire: Laws and liberty for “us,” stark brutality for “them.”
Only now there’s no more land to grab, and the endless quest for new “thems” to crush and exploit has metastasized into … this. Our Republican Senate is on the verge of acquitting a lawless president on the grounds that even though the onerous toad is guilty on all counts, the law doesn’t apply to him.
Because empire is about power. Not liberty. Not law. Not ethics. Sheer power. And now its apparatus is turning on the citizens it once enriched.
The indigenous people who stood between America and continental empire didn’t generally have access to our courts. Even if they lived within a state or territory, they weren’t legally considered citizens until 1924. And though the U.S. Census counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a “person” for the apportionment of Congressional seats, indigenous people weren’t counted AT ALL.
We can talk about the Mexican War that preceded the Civil War and the “Indians Wars” that followed. We can debate the legitimacy and wisdom of the “Spanish-American War” of 1898. But the overwhelming pattern is unmistakable: In the 19th century, the United States hoovered up European refugees through its East Coast ports and flooded the continent west of the Appalachians with white people. It was the largest, fastest land grab in human history.
The Roman Republic lasted almost 500 years and conquered the Mediterranean World. It was destroyed by a military coup in 27 BC, ushering in another 500 years of rule under the Roman Empire, which conquered everything from Yorkshire in the north to Egypt in the south, from Gibraltar in the west to Iraq in the east.
It took Rome about 600 years to build an empire that spanned 1.9 million square miles. It took the United States a little more than century to acquire an empire of 3.8 million square miles.
And this, to me, is the conflict at the heart of our national identity. Are we the people who imagined, to the best of their ability at the time, a republic based on representative government, the rule of law and the ideal that all people were created equal?
Or are we just another heartless empire, doomed to decline and collapse?
I’m beginning to suspect that pesky old Gore Vidal had the correct answer long ago.