Mises Daily Articles
American Exceptionalism: From Gettysburg to Damascus
In an essay entitled “Lincoln, the Declaration, and Secular Puritanism: A Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” the late Professor Mel Bradford explained the ideological genesis of American foreign and military policy that has existed since 1861. Abraham Lincoln’s “erroneous understanding of the Declaration of Independence” as espoused in his Gettysburg Address, wrote Bradford, established “a rhetoric for continuing revolution” and “set us forever to ‘trampling out the grapes of wrath.’”
Professor Bradford was referring to the way in which Lincoln used the “all men are created equal” phrase from the Declaration and reinterpreted it to have meant that it was somehow the duty of Americans to stamp out all sin in the world, wherever it may be found, so that ALL MEN EVERYWHERE could supposedly share in equal freedom. Hence the “rhetoric of continuing revolution” is a rhetorical recipe for perpetual war for perpetual “freedom” everywhere in the world.” It was cemented into place as the new cornerstone of American policy thanks to the deification of Lincoln after his death, which in turn led to the virtual deification of the presidency, and of government in general. The modern-day rhetoric of “American exceptionalism” is just the latest expression of Lincoln’s rhetoric of continuing revolution.
Washington and Jefferson vs. Lincoln
Prior to 1863, the year of the Gettysburg Address, American foreign policy was based mostly on the Washington/Jefferson ideology of commercial relations with all nations, entangling alliances with none. It was considered to be a virtue to remain neutral in disputes between two other countries. As Murray Rothbard wrote in an essay entitled “Just War,” in those days “neutrality was considered not only justifiable but a positive virtue.” In the old days “he kept us out of war” was a great tribute to any American political leader, and “standing idly by” while other nations warred with each other was “a mark of high statesmanship,” according to Rothbard.
The Lincolnian rhetoric of “continuing revolution,” by contrast, has been the ideological cornerstone of all American wars ever since the “Civil War” (a.k.a. War to Prevent Southern Independence). It is routinely used to disguise the fact that war is always and everywhere a “racket” as General Smedley Butler, the most highly decorated Marine in U.S. history, declared in his book, War is a Racket. War is invariably waged over some hidden economic agenda for the benefit of the politically-connected class. As Rothbard further pointed out, in the past “interventionists were more correctly considered propagandists for despotism, mass murder, and perpetual war, if not spokesmen for special-interest groups, or agents of ‘the merchants of death.'’” Scarcely a high ground.
Today we “are obligated to take up the sword and wage a perpetual war to force Utopia on the entire world by guns, tanks, and bombs,” said Rothbard. We are “humanitarians with a guillotine,” as Isabel Paterson wrote in her book, The God of the Machine. We go about “pursuing freedom and equality” for other people in other countries, supposedly, even if we must kill them by the hundreds of thousands and wreck their entire societies. “The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action,” she wrote.
The False Virtue of “American Exceptionalism”
Professor Bradford was not alone in recognizing the catastrophic implications of Lincoln’s “rhetoric of continuing revolution.” In 1960, Life magazine invited the Pulitzer prize-winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren (author of All the King’s Men and nineteen other novels) to record his thoughts on the meaning of the American “Civil War” for the 1961 centennial of the war. He produced a short book entitled The Legacy of the Civil War, a major theme of which is that the war left the North, which is to say, the Republican Party, with what it perceived to be “a treasury of virtue.” This is the “psychological heritage” left to the North, wrote Robert Penn Warren. “The Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history. ... He has in his pocket not a papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner of the Middle Ages, but an indulgence, a plenary indulgence, for all sins, past, present, and future ...” (emphasis added).
This “plenary indulgence for all sins” would allow the U.S. government to conduct a twenty-five year campaign of ethnic genocide against the Plains Indians commencing just three months after Lee’s surrender; to plunder the South for more than a decade with heavy taxes and debt during “Reconstruction”; to murder more than 200,000 Filipinos who opposed being ruled by an American empire after having jettisoned the Spanish empire; and enter the European war “to make the world safe for democracy.” This “moral narcissism,” wrote Robert Penn Warren, is “a poor basis for national policy” but is the “justification” for “our crusades of 1917-1918 and 1941-1945 and our diplomacy of righteousness, with the slogan of unconditional surrender and universal spiritual rehabilitation for others” (emphasis added).
Much of actual history has to be “forgotten,” wrote Warren, in order for the Treasury of Virtue scam to succeed. For example:
[I]t is forgotten that the Republican platform of 1860 pledged protection to the institution of slavery where it existed, and the Republicans were ready, in 1861, to guarantee slavery in the South as bait for a return to the Union. It is forgotten that in July 1861, both houses of Congress, by an almost unanimous vote, affirmed that the war was waged not to interfere with the institutions of any state but only to maintain the Union It is forgotten that the Emancipation Proclamation ... was limited and provisional: slavery was to be abolished only in the seceded states and only if they did not return to the Union before the first of January.
It must also be forgotten, wrote Robert Penn Warren, that most Northern states “refused to adopt Negro suffrage” after the war. It must be forgotten that Lincoln, “at Charlestown, Illinois, in 1858, formally affirmed in one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates that: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”
In other words, so-called “American Exceptionalism” is based on a mountain of lies. The lies, however, create a situation whereby “the man of righteousness tends to be so sure of his own motives that he does not need to inspect consequences.” Thus, when the U.S. military bombs a city in a foreign land that results in the death of dozens or hundreds of innocent civilians, it is nevertheless a virtuous act by virtue of the fact that it was done by virtuous Americans.
“The effect of the conviction of virtue,” moreover, “is to make us lie automatically and awkwardly ... and then in trying to justify the lie, lie to ourselves and transmute the lie into a kind of superior truth.” Most Americans are content in living this Big Lie, said Warren, for they “are prepared to see the Civil War as a fountainhead of our power and prestige among the nations.”
Obama’s Continuing Rhetoric of Revolution
The so-called Neo-conservatives who own the Republican Party have been the chief proponents of Lincoln’s rhetoric of continuing revolution. Their financial benefactors even finance “think tanks” such as the Claremont Institute to keep repeating over and over again in books, articles, and on the internet the above-mentioned historical lies. The Democratic Party is not much different. For example, in a September 25, 2012 speech before the United Nations President Obama eulogized the American “representative” to Libya, Chris Stevens, who had been murdered. He praised Stevens for going to Libya as his representative and having “crafted a vision for a future” for Libyans. It’s hard to imagine anything further from the Washington/Jefferson foreign policy philosophy than the notion that it is the duty of an American president to “craft a vision for the future” for people in Libya, of all places.
Obama then boasted of all the recent military aggressions in the name of humanitarianism, including wars and bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, while threatening future military intervention in Syria and Iran. “We again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end” in Syria, he pronounced. Then came the classic Lincolnian rhetoric-of-continuing-revolution “justification,” for endless military interventionism, complete with a direct quote from the Declaration of Independence:
We have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values — they are universal values. And even as there will be huge challenges that come with a transition to democracy, I am convinced that ultimately government of the people, by the people, and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity, and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.
Obama then promised more never-ending war by declaring that “America will never retreat from the world” and that “No government or company; no school or NGO will be confident working in a country where its people are endangered.” Wherever there is “danger” anywhere in the world, the U.S. military reserves the right to bomb, invade, occupy, and conquer, in other words. (One is tempted to suggest such interventions, then, in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Miami, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, etc., where there are indeed some very dangerous neighborhoods.)
A little more than fifteen months later, Obama repeated the continuing revolution theme in his inaugural address. “What makes us exceptional,” he intoned, is “our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago ...” He then promised “a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” Never-ending military aggression in the Middle East and elsewhere, in other words. More specifically, “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”
With the help of Lincoln’s rhetoric of continuing revolution, the American government has transformed itself from “humanitarians with a guillotine” to “humanitarians with weapons of mass murder and destruction.”