Classic Critique of "The Revolution That Was" Traces America's Road from Republic to Empire and Explores Legacy of the Roosevelt New Deal Revolution

Book Review
Published: 1994-09-01

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Burden of Empire, by Garet Garrett. Introduction by Theodore J. O'Keefe. Newport Beach, Calif.: Noontide Press, 1993. Softcover. 178 pages. ISBN: 0-939482-42-8. (Available through the IHR for $9.50, plus $2 shipping) [check for current availability and price; ed.].

Andrew Clarke is the pen name of a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. Born in South Carolina, he was raised in Missouri, upstate New York and New Jersey.

Every once in a very long while, a book comes along which throws a reviewer into a quandary: Is it possible to do the book justice? While taking the risk of seeming slavishly uncritical, I must state up front that Burden of Empire is such a book. Among the many turgid works of political analysis that have published in recent decades, this classic shines as a diamond in the sludge of American political literature.

Garet Garrett writes with a grace and clarity that verges on the lyrical.

Yet, the most striking feature of the book is its prescient and penetrating political analysis. Garrett's book has been characterized as "the most radical view of the New Deal" available, but perhaps it would be better described as the most insightful of existing critiques.

Originally published in 1953 under the title The People's Pottage, this book is composed of three separate essays: "The Revolution Was," which was first published in 1938, "Ex America" (from 1951), and "Rise of Empire" (1952). The first two focus on the Franklin Roosevelt era and the consolidation of the welfare state during his twelve-year presidency. The final essay documents the transformation of America from republic to empire, as the last vestiges of the Old Republic were squashed by the leviathan government of perpetual warfare and welfare. In a timely introduction to this attractive new edition of Garrett's trilogy, Journal review editor Theodore J. O'Keefe provides useful background material about Garrett as well as a damning critique of the neglect of his work by our contemporary "conservative" apologists for the welfare-warfare state.

The opening of the first essay, "The Revolution Was," provides a synopsis of its main theme, as well as a sample of Garrett at his stylistic best:

There are those who still think that they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.

There are those who have never ceased to say very earnestly, "Something is going to happen to the American form of government if we don't watch out." These were the innocent disarmers. Their trust was in words. They had forgotten their Aristotle. More than 2,000 years ago he wrote of what can happen within the form, when "one thing takes the place of another so that ancient laws will remain, while the power will be in the hands of those who have brought about the revolution in the state."

This notion of "revolution within the form" aptly characterizes Garrett's view of the New Deal. While the American Congress has never been disbanded, and the US Constitution remains encased in glass, a fundamental change had occurred in the relationship between the American people and their government. Garrett's first essay explains how and why this fateful metamorphosis took place.

Implemented "by scientific technique," Garrett suggests that this "silent revolution" was intentionally prepared from the outset to institute domestic socialism, the depression crisis being used as a pretext to achieve that end. Whenever President Roosevelt and his New Deal administrators were confronted with a choice about how next to proceed politically, they chose the step that would "ramify the authority and power of the executive," "strengthen its hold upon the economic life of the nation," "extend its power over the individual," "degrade the parliamentary principle," "impair the great American tradition of an independent, Constitutional judicial power," "weaken all other powers," and "exalt the leadership principle." In other words, FDR's New Deal engineered a massive transfer of power from the people to the central state – a radical realignment that turned the American political system on its head.

Most of "The Revolution Was" is devoted to tracing the steps needed to implement a revolution within the form, and to showing just how this was done in the New Deal. So utterly convincing is Garrett's presentation that the reader is bound to reread this essay to commit to memory the dynamics of the surreptitious revolution.

A sense of gloomy finality pervades Garrett's conclusion:

Like the hag fish, the New Deal entered the old form and devoured its meaning from within. The revolutionaries were on the inside, the defenders were on the outside. A government that had been supported by the people and was so controlled by the people became one that supported the people and so controlled them. Much of it is irreversible.

Unless one understands the central implication of "The Revolution Was" – that the Constitutional Republic of 1787 no longer exists – no meaningful understanding of contemporary politics is possible. Those who seek to "preserve" our constitutional system are, at best wasting their time; at worst, they are misleading others into misdirecting their talents as well.

In contrast to the theme of "The Revolution Was," Garrett's second essay in this collection deals at length with the consequences of the revolutionary changes that have taken place in the American form of government. Complementing the first essay, "Ex America" completes the picture of America's domination by the welfare state.

It begins with a memorable description of America's role in world politics. Garrett castigates this country's self-destructive foreign policy with a harsh depiction of the spectacle of carping clientstates sucking up American hand-outs. Because it contains a short rebuttal of European charges of American imperialism, one is left with the feeling that Garrett had not yet fully developed his own blistering critique of US imperialism when he wrote this essay in 1951. All the same, "Ex America" is not primarily about international affairs – it is about the shackling of a free people, a precondition for the establishment of a full-fledged imperium.

Garrett links the growth of government and diminution of domestic liberty with the ability of the state to seize the wealth of the people: "No government can acquire power and put it forth by law and edict. It must have the means ... In the modern case, means will be money." More specifically, money without the "conventional limits" of hard currency, generated by inflation, government debt, and confiscatory taxation.

A key event in the establishment of the modern American state was the introduction of the federal income tax. Writes Garrett:

The first great turning was accomplished with the ease of a Pullman train passing from one track to another over a split-point switch. The landscape hardly changed at all for a while, and then gradually, and when people found themselves in a new political region, there was no turning back.

The event was the amendment of the Constitution in 1913, giving the Federal government power to impose a progressive tax on all incomes. The idea was not only European, it was Marxian, one of the cardinal points of the Communist Manifesto. President Wilson disarmed opposition by saying the Federal government would use this power, if at all, only in time of emergency and yet, as we now know, the obsequies of limited government ought then to have been performed. Only the intellectuals knew what it meant. Nobody else dreamed, least of all perhaps President Wilson, that the Federal income tax would be used not for revenue only, which was until then the only kind of taxation Americans knew, but for the purpose of re-distributing the national wealth from the top downward, according to European ideas of social amelioration.

Another radical change in American political life has been the transformation of the role of the Supreme Court. Writing in 1951, Garrett anticipated the even greater usurpations of power that would come in the decades to follow:

By a series of reinterpretations of the Constitution, the reformed Supreme Court has so relaxed the austerities of the supreme law as to give government a new freedom. It this process it has cast itself in a social role. Formerly its business was to say what the law was, according to the Constitution; if people did not like the law they could change it, only provided they change it in a lawful manner by amending the Constitution. Now the Supreme Court undertakes to say what is justice, what is public welfare, what is good for the people and to make suitable inflections of the Constitution. Thus law is made subordinate to the discretions and judgments of men, whereas the cornerstone of freedom was that the government should be a government of law, not of men.

As Garrett reminds the reader, the men who founded the American republic were aware of the dangers of the powerful central state with which we must contend today:

The founders of the American government knew history. As far back as they could see all governments both good and bad, no matter in what form they appeared, had certain features in common, such as a natural appetite for power, a passion to act upon peoples' lives, a will to live, resources of self-perpetuation and longings for grandeur – with always the one sequel, that they abused their power and fell and were succeeded by government that did it all over again, as if by some kind of inner compulsion.

Garrett largely avoids the tendency of most political ideologues to act as uncritical apologists for the economic system that fortuitously fits their preconceived worldview.

The most impressive part of "Ex America" is the discussion of New Deal monetary policies, and the strength of this critique rests in Garrett's penetrating look at economic reality. Capitalism, he suggests, is the most desirable alternative in an imperfect world, not an ideal economic system. In the decades since the New Deal, America's political elite – including "supply side" conservatives – has consistently supported Keynesian es:onomic policy in one form or another. Garrett puts the Keynesian vision of perpetual debt and inflation in perspective:

... Inflation as the New Deal planned it was bound to be popular. Many were enriched and few were impoverished. Those who have been enriched could afford to pension or assist the few who have been impoverished, and if this could be arranged, and if it could go on forever, what a world this would be! The government would never have to balance its budget, debt would be a myth, and nobody ever again would have to worry about money.

Has that the sound of fantasy? Nevertheless, it is the pure logic of inflation.

Given a policy that refuses to confront economic reality, Garrett contends that only method of maintaining stability is by continuously bolstering the state's power over the economy, and, consequently, the people.

When he first published "Rise of Empire" in 1952, Garrett was a lonely voice speaking out against the Cold War consensus, and its program of "perpetual war for perpetual peace." In this final essay of the trilogy, Garrett returns to the theme of "revolution within the form," focusing on the changes in the American form of government as manifest in international relations.

"Rise of Empire" is divided into three sections. The first draws comparisons with Rome, as it was quietly transformed from republic to empire. For Garrett, the fatal change in the American system occurred when the executive branch took from Congress the power to initiate war. "The question is: Whose hand shall control the instrument of war? It is late to ask, for when the hand of the Republic begins to relax another hand is already putting itself forth."

Garrett's description of America's transition to imperialism is not as radical as it may first appear. Others have offered earlier dates for this transition. Sociologist William Graham Sumner, for example, believed that the Spanish-American War marked the turning point from republic to imperial power. [See "The Fateful Year 1898: The United States Becomes an Imperial Power," The Journal of Historical Review, July-August 1993, pp. 4-13.] Today, of course, even Garrett's more restrained view is anathema to the establishment Right.

In the second section of "Rise of Empire," Garrett spells out the characteristics of empire, defining what he means and citing US policy examples. So well does he present his case that even the most recalcitrant reader is likely to be convinced that the United States has indeed become an aggressive imperial power. In the final section Garrett somewhat hopefully suggests that the American empire is not necessarily permanent and inviolable.

Throughout "Rise of Empire," Garrett implicitly rejects the of ten repeated contention that imperialism is an inevitable manifestation of capitalism. According to this familiar Leftist argument, capitalist states endemically over-produce, and are therefore driven to constant intervention in foreign lands to open new markets for their surplus products. (This was supposedly manifest, for example, in America's "Open Door" policy toward China.) With one line in "Ex America," Garrett deftly dismisses this simplistic argument: "It was nonsense to say that we could not have used [the 'surplus' production] ourselves, if not in the same forms in which it was distributed abroad, then in other forms, since wealth is a thing which can assume other forms." Whatever the flaws of a market economy, an impetus toward imperialism is not one of them. One of the great virtues of this book is its straightforward debunking of such popular notions.

Taken as a whole, Burden of Empire is a devastating indictment of the legacy of the New Deal and American policy during World War II. It shows the close and inevitable relationship between the rise of a powerful US central government and an American apparatus of international power. Perhaps the greatest value of this book is its exposition of the demise of the Old Republic. Given the validity of Garet Garrett's analysis, which calls into question the very legitimacy of the current US government, perhaps it is high time to heed Gore Vidal's advice: decide on the shape and form of the next American republic.

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Author(s): Andrew Clarke
Title: Classic Critique of "The Revolution That Was" Traces America's Road from Republic to Empire and Explores Legacy of the Roosevelt New Deal Revolution , Book Review
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 14, no. 5 (September/October 1994), pp. 38-40
Published: 1994-09-01
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 10, 2012, 6 p.m.
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