Deceived in Liberty: The Curse of American Nationalism
All governmental power is propped up by an avalanche of myths and superstitions about the alleged benevolence, omniscience, honesty, selflessness, and magnanimity of the state, coupled with critiques if not outright demonization of private property, free market voluntarism, private enterprise, limited government, the rule of law, the free society, and all those who educate about and advance such concepts. Your author once co-authored a book entitled Official Lies: How Washington Misleads Us, about mountains of such myths and superstitions. A case can be made that at the top of the list of statist myths and superstitions is the myth of American nationalism — about the supposed “superiority” of a virtually unlimited, centralized and consolidated government, coupled with the never-ending hatred and demonization of federalism, states’ rights, nullification and secession, and anything else that challenges the notion of the “supremacy” of the central government.
In this regard American “nationalism” has nothing to do with the older concept of a people with a common language and culture, living within the borders of their own nation state. The unique American version of “nationalism” was invented at the time of the founding by a group of conniving, Machiavellian politicians who sought to overthrow the results of the American Revolution – the casting off of the centralized, oppressive, mercantilist/crony capitalist British empire – and adopt the very same system in America – the British empire without the British. There is nothing wrong with a corrupt, tyrannical, mercantilist empire that uses the coercive powers of the state to enrich the ruling class at the expense of the working class, these men said, confident that they would naturally assume the position of the ruling class.
These men were led by the likes of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Paine, and other “Federalists,” many of who were “defectors” to the cause of liberty – the cause of the American Revolution – as Murray Rothbard wrote in Conceived in Liberty: The New Republic: 1784-1791.
The “triumph” of these “nationalists” with the adoption of the centralizing U.S. Constitution is the theme of the latter two-thirds of Rothbard’s latest great work of scholarship, made possible by the heroic efforts of Patrick Newman in painstakingly (with the emphasis on “pain”) translating Murray’s handwriting of nearly the entire manuscript, which is 319 pages long in print. The nationalists, wrote Rothbard, “wanted a strong central power that would control an aggressive national army and navy, wield a national taxing power to decimate the rights of the states and individuals, and federally assume public debts and army pensions.” In doing so they hoped to “destroy the original individualist and decentralized program of the American Revolution.” Conceived in Liberty tells the story, chapter and verse, of how these men subverted and overthrew the principles of American freedom that inspired the American Revolution with their “devious and sinister machinations.”
These “machinations” were employed to rig the constitutional convention with a lopsided majority of delegates from “the wealthy and eminent” and “also from the urban commercial interest, merchants, and artisans, the majority of commercial farmers, and leading urban-exporters. In short, nationalist strength came from men who supported centralizing tariffs and navigation laws, raising the value of public securities, and an aggressive foreign policy, all at the expense of the taxpaying inland farmer.” In seven of the twelve states represented at the constitutional convention there was no representation at all by the inland farmers.
This point calls to mind another statist superstition – that Alexander Hamilton was some kind of educated genius when it came to economic theory, whereas his political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, was sort of a dopey agrarian dreamer on the subject who supposedly wanted all of America to be “a nation of farmers.” Exactly the opposite is true: In his biography of Hamilton William Graham Sumner described his writings as a jumble of British mercantilists superstitions copied from propaganda pamphlets written by publicists for protectionists and other mercantilists. When Hamilton’s political sponsor, Robert Morris, told George Washington that he wanted Hamilton to be the first Treasury Secretary, Washington told Hamilton that he didn’t know that he knew anything about finance since they never talked about it, as described in Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography of Hamilton.
Jefferson, on the other hand, had read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and translated the writings of French physiocrat Jacques Turgot, the French finance minister and precursor of the free-market Austrian School of economics. To this day, a bust of Turgot is at the entrance of Jefferson’s home, Monticello.
What Jefferson opposed was not industrialization but the use of governmental power to tax farmers in order to subsidize the corporate merchant class. He opposed, in other words, the nationalist project of using the coercive powers of the state to plunder the farmers of America for the benefit of the merchant class. It is an insidious, nationalist lie that Jefferson opposed business and industrialization per se.
Like all criminal schemers, the nationalists decided “to hold the entire [constitutional] convention in strictest secrecy in order to make sure that the public would not know what was going on.” This of course begs the question: If what they were up to was in “the public interest,” as Hamilton laughingly argued, then why was it so important to hide it all from the public?
The main objective of the nationalists, Rothbard explains, was to “place the all-powerful national government beyond popular control.” James Madison was one of the chief nationalist theorists who concocted the theory that a large, centralized government would somehow prevent the abuse of electoral minorities by majorities, the main argument of Federalist #10. Rothbard correctly points out that exactly the opposite is true, as has been proven time and again by history. It is decentralization that makes “the oppression of minorities” more difficult, not consolidation. Nevertheless, the nationalists sought to crush the states altogether, for that is how the vaunted “people” had their only means of exerting any kind of control over the central government – as political communities organized at the state and local levels.
Hamilton was the most despotic in this regard. Rothbard quotes him as saying, “We must establish a general and national government, completely sovereign, and annihilate the state distinctions and state operations.” To Hamilton, “British monarchical government” was “the model for the American framers to follow,” even though they had just fought a bloody revolution to escape from such a system. Hamilton’s “ideal polity,” wrote Rothbard, was such that “no clearer blueprint could have been devised for absolute despotism.” (This perhaps is why the Broadway play “Hamilton” has been so wildly popular among today’s American statist class).
The Hamiltonian nationalists mastered the dark art of “fake news” some 230 years before Donald Trump made it a part of the American lexicon. Rothbard describes how most postmasters were Federalists who had a “stranglehold” over the nation’s press (newspapers were all delivered by mail). Consequently, they were able to “dictate the news at will” by censoring out opposition to the nationalist agenda while broadcasting it far and wide, giving the nation the false impression that there was not opposition to it. Many other means of what Rothbard labeled “the depths of chicanery” were employed by the nationalists to rig the ratification votes in most states. They even employed “outright bribery,” as Rothbard documents.
All in all, the new constitution was not the charter of freedom that generations of conservatives have insisted. The nationalists, said Rothbard, used “propaganda, chicanery, fraud, malapportionment of delegates, blackmail threats of secession, and even coercive laws to get enough delegates to defy the wishes of the majority of the American people . . .” A “new super government was emerging and carrying out on a national scale the mercantilist principle of taxation, regulation, and special privilege for the benefit of favored groups.” They even protected slavery with the Three-Fifths Clause and the Fugitive Slave Clause in order to get their consolidating, mercantilist constitution. The Constitution was in reality “a counterrevolutionary reaction to the libertarianism and decentralization embodied in the American Revolution” that would “institute a British-style mercantilism over the country.”
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; How Capitalism Saved America; Lincoln Unmasked; Hamilton’s Curse; Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth About Government; and most recently, The Problem With Socialism.
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