Mises Daily Articles
War Gave Us Caesar
The stakes are high, the public is divided, and extreme rhetoric is flying. So it always is the month before the presidential election. Why? Because of the power of the office, the very existence of which is contrary to any robust notion of freedom.
The President of the United States on his sole decision deploys troops anywhere in the world, blockades and embargoes foreign countries, imposes trade tariffs, and engages in election cycle credit inflation. Around the world, he bombs innocent people, launches invasions and deploys weapons of mass destruction. The President even oversees a global spy network and increasingly a global prison network.
Domestically, the president interferes in party nominations and thereby restricts election contests. He disgorges amounts of pork that would stun the 19th century Jacksonian partisans of the spoils system. As the head of the modern state, which exists to manage and mold society into the whims and desires of the mercantile and intellectual establishment, the president heads, promotes and advances policies and programs that destroy social institutions like family integrity, charitable desires, and the ability to save and progress. No matter what philosophy he may claim to hold dear, he routinely promises to create millions of jobs, to reduce the costs of energy or health care, and "turn the country around" through the vigorous application of coercion through new laws and taxes.
And surrounding him is the White House bureaucracy and ubiquitous agencies, a virtual imperial court and entourage, armed and unarmed, that is funded by some estimates at over a billion dollars a year. The president on his frequent visits to the foreign satrapies and client states of the shadowy "American Empire" descends on these lands like a pharaoh or sultan of old, accompanied by legions of security men, lackeys, aides, consultants and assorted corporate and party hangers on whose aim is to bask in the reflected glint of the "sole remaining superpower" personified.
The President today is the focus of political and increasingly social life, dominating, with the connivance of the media and popular entertainment, regardless of which of the two political cartels he may nominally belong to, mainstream debate on social and financial issues and is presented to the public as an all-purpose master of every issue and situation, a veritable demigod in his reputation for near omniscience and infallibility. Indeed it is rare for any president, or even any mere politician for that matter, to admit they may have committed a mistake. This was certainly the case in President George W. Bush's now infamous April 13 press conference. 1Bush humbly admitted he might have made a mistake or two; he just couldn't think of what they may have been.
George W. Bush is surely among the worst of the modern day messiah presidents, the high priests of the civil religion of American Exceptionalism. In that same press conference, he made several remarkable statements that illustrate his mentality and conception of not only the presidency, but of American governmental institutions, the Constitution, and the serfdom of the American taxpayer. They also reveal how these ideas form the structure of the bipartisan interventionist/imperialist establishment and permanent governmental apparatus. What’s shocking is that few in the media thought these statements were extraordinary.
In a moment that will surely go down as one of the most bizarre comments uttered by this current U.S. president, he exclaimed, "We're changing the world. And the world will be better off." Americans, Bush averred, "have an obligation to lead the fight on AIDS, in Africa." And his "job as the President is to lead this nation into making the world a better place." And Bush expressed a characteristically modest appraisal of his responsibilities, saying that he was "the ultimate decision-maker for this country. . . ."
These are not statements one would have ever heard from the mouths or pens of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, or George Washington. We would never have even heard them from John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, or John Quincy Adams. Certainly Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland held no such messianic pretensions for the presidency.
While Washington rode to his inauguration in a coach drawn by four white horses, the Senate refused the suggestion that presidents be addressed as "His Highness." 2 Jefferson walked to his inaugural, but still adopted the high-handed tyranny of economic blockades and the use of the United States military against American merchants.
President James Monroe would ride around Washington on horseback. John Quincy Adams (who famously said that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy") would often swim naked in the Potomac River in the early morning before breakfast. 3
How did the chief magistrate of a confederated republic degrade into the global tyrant we experience today, part secular pope, part military despot, part pseudo-philosopher-king and full-time overbearing global gangster?
One factor is the rise of political parties and factions, which endeavor to gain and hold control over the government, and to tax and spend in favor of themselves and their allies. James Fenimore Cooper recognized this and wrote: "When party rules, the people do not rule, but merely such a portion of the people as can manage to get control of party." 4
However, the modern presidency is by far a creature of war, war against the wider outside world, and real and metaphorical wars against the American people themselves.
The presidential mythos first has its roots in two men: George Washington and the old Roman farmer-soldier-statesman Cincinnatus. The legend goes that Cincinnatus was a former soldier called up to save the Roman Republic. Once that was accomplished, he retired to his farm, establishing a valuable lesson about the proper relationship between free men and political power. This vivid image was adopted by the American Revolutionaries and was epitomized in the career of General Washington and the American ideal of the citizen legislator.
And for a while that reality persisted through the ups-and-downs of the administrations of Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, even though these saw the last years of the Whiskey Rebellion, the Alien & Sedition Acts, Jefferson’s Embargo, and the War of 1812. It even largely held during the two-terms of General Jackson, who de Tocqueville considered had "nothing in his whole career [that] ever proved him qualified to govern a free people." 5
The messianic presidency as we know it arose with the unprecedented regime of Abraham Lincoln, which established a novel set of justifications for its assumption of previously unrecognized executive war-making authority and spending and policing powers. With Congress in recess, Lincoln called out the state militias, suspended habeas corpus, and blockaded the seceding States, in the process becoming the model of successive "war presidents."
Following the conquest of the threat of secession, the American presidency relaxed, but never returned to the tranquility of its original intent. The next "great mission" to capture the presidency was the designs of the Progressive movement, that combination of secularized Calvinism and the toxic brew of Manifest Destiny and socialist nostrums.
At first, a reasonably decent president, Grover Cleveland, thwarted their desire for foreign wars and expansion. When members of Congress pressed for war with Spain, Cleveland responded: "There will be no war with Spain over Cuba while I am President." A member of Congress protested that the Constitution gave Congress the right to declare war, but Cleveland countered that the Constitution made him Commander-in-Chief and "I will not mobilize the army." 6
However, Cleveland would soon be gone, and the Progressives would have their war. Their state-building efforts saw the rise of American Imperialism with the Spanish-American War and the so-called Progressive Era, under Theodore Roosevelt, who began the now ubiquitous fashion of presidents nagging the public about one thing or another. And it would continue under Woodrow Wilson, bringing the institution the particularly malevolent features of the modern managerial presidency, the Federal Reserve System and the Income Tax Amendment, proposed by President Taft.
But it was with World War I, the Great War, that today’s aggressive and megalomanical presidency took full form, as the Wilson administration whipped up hysteria and fear, imposed censorship and persecuted dissidents, and launched a sweeping claim of presidential power over foreign affairs. "The initiative in foreign affairs, which the President possesses without any restriction whatever," Wilson wrote before he became president, "is virtually the power to control them absolutely . . ." 7
For a while, however, most Americans seemed repulsed by what their country had become during the war, and refused to have anything to do with Wilson’s messianic world agenda. And although things seemed to return to normal during the 1920’s, during the administrations of Harding and Coolidge, the power of the state still did not decline to what it was before the war.
Then came the latest of the many myths that constitute the fable of the modern American presidency. The Crash of 1929 gave every statist intellectual and greedy politician the opportunity they had long desired to turn the federal government into a permanent presence in the decisions of every American. And in the process they created the Great Depression.
The Roosevelt administration permanently altered the relationship between the American people and their government. From Washington down across America would now flow a vast army of bureaucrats and special interests to control and fleece the public. The New Deal, from beginning to end, turned into a gigantic political slush fund for the Democratic Party, 8 which had long ago been hijacked to become the party of servitude.
And it was during the New Deal, in 1936 in the Curtiss-Wright case, that Justice George Sutherland decided that the president’s powers to conduct foreign policy were an "inherent attribute of sovereignty" that had been inherited from the British Crown without passing through the Thirteen Colonies or the Confederation period and somehow came to reside in the person of the U.S. President.
By 1939, faced with the obvious failure to cure the effects of the Crash from ten years before, FDR and his minions began stoking the engines of war, looking for any pretext to enter the war against Germany and Japan. 9When this occurred in 1941, the administration reimposed conscription and the Wilson administration’s total war economy, and bragged about bringing the New Deal to the rest of the world, but only brought the shadow of atomic clouds.
As Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn pointed out, the atomic bomb has given the U.S. President more power than any absolute monarch of the past or even one hundred Genghis Khans. 10
The post-war and Cold War regime adopted what has become known as the "National Security State"—a centralized, weaponized government residing in the presidency, a largely consultative and rubber-stamp legislature, a quiescent judiciary and puppet, subordinate governments at home and abroad. And although Harry Truman admitted "I never would have agreed to the formulation of the Central Intelligence Agency back in '47, if I had known it would become the American Gestapo," he felt no compunction about launching an unconstitutional war in Korea, establishing the precedent of presidential war-making powers. Instead, as Secretary of State Acheson suggested, Truman only offered to "tell them what had been decided." 11 Not since WWII has Congress used its Constitutional power to declare war. Today, in our supposedly scientific and advanced age, like the kings of Europe and the oriental despots of old, one man now decides between war and peace.
Today there is virtually no subject that is deemed beyond the legitimate scope of presidential commentary or initiative, from the content of entertainment, to the importation of Chinese socks, to the policies of foreign governments, to the continued existence of foreign governments.
Indeed, Richard Nixon summed up the absolutist attitude of contemporary presidents when he proclaimed in 1977, "When the President does it that means that it is not illegal."
The Roman Republic, a model for the Founding Fathers, was driven from history by the greed of its so-called statesmen, as foreign conquest turned inward on itself, fostering dangerous rivalries and the betrayal of republican liberty. The Empire was all that mattered then.
Today, the old pattern is repeating itself. Just as the republics of old died from foreign interventionism and the subsequent rise of domestic tyranny, so too is the American Republic laying to rest its noble heritage and its great potential. Today, under the current President’s promise of decades of foreign and domestic warfare, the centralized state is growing and growing, determined never to relinquish its hold on its foreign possessions and on the individual American and his hopes and dreams for a free and prosperous life. What is to be done?
- 1. President Addresses the Nation in Prime Time Press Conference White House Transcript
- 2. Basic American Government, by Clarence B. Carson, (American Textbook Committee, 1993), p. 220.
- 3. The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815–1830 by Paul Johnson, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991), p. 388.
- 4. The American Democrat, by James Fenimore Cooper (Penguin Books, 1969), p. 227.
- 5. Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville (Vintage Books Edition, 1990), Vol. I, p. 289.
- 6. Presidential War Power, by Louis Fisher (University Press of Kansas, 1995), p. 42.
- 7. Constitutional Government in the United States, by Woodrow Wilson.
- 8. The Roosevelt Myth, by John T. Flynn, (Devin-Adair, 1948), pp. 133–37.
- 9. King George VI: His Life and Reign, by John W. Wheeler-Bennett (St. Martin's, 1958), pp. 390–92.
- 10. Leftism Revisited: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot (Regnery Gateway, 1991), p. 317.
- 11. Fisher, p. 86.