Most Americans believe the United States had been an isolationist power until the twentieth century. This is wrong. In a riveting and brilliantly revisionist work of history, Robert Kagan, bestselling author of Of Paradise and Power, shows how Americans have in fact steadily been increasing their global power and influence from the beginning. Driven by commercial, territorial, and idealistic ambitions, the United States has always perceived itself, and been seen by other nations, as an international force. This is a book of great importance to our understanding of our nation’s history and its role in the global community.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
; October 2006
543 pages; ISBN 9780307265999
Download in secure PDF format
Title: Dangerous Nation
Author: Robert Kagan
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The First Imperialists
This is a commonwealth of the fabric that hath an open ear, and a public concernment. She is not made for herself only, but given as a magistrate of God unto mankind, for the vindication of common right and the law of nature. Wherefore saith Cicero of the . . . Romans, Nos magis patronatum orbis terrarrum suscepimus quam imperium, we have rather undertaken the patronage than the empire of the world. —James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana, 1656
The Myth of the “City upon a Hill”: The Americanization of the Puritan Mission
Misperceptions about the history, traditions, and nature of American foreign policy begin with the popular image of the Puritans who settled in New England in the 1630s. John Winthrop’s hopeful description of the Massachusetts Bay theocracy as a “city upon a hill” is emblazoned in the American self-image, a vivid symbol of what are widely seen as dominant isolationist and “exceptionalist” tendencies in American foreign policy. The Puritan “mission,” as the historian Frederick Merk once put it, was “to redeem the Old World by high example,” and generations of Americans have considered this “exemplarist” purpose the country’s original mission in its pure, uncorrupted form: the desire to set an example to the world, but from a safe distance.1 Felix Gilbert argued that the unique combination of idealism and isolationism in American thought derived from the Puritans’ “utopian” aspirations, which required “separation” from Europe and the severing of “ties which might spread the diseases of Europe to America.”2 The true American “mission,” therefore, was inherently isolationist, passive, and restrained; it was, as Merk put it, both “idealistic” and “self-denying . . . a force that fought to curb expansionism of the aggressive variety.”3
This picture of Puritan America as a pious Greta Garbo, wanting only to be left alone in her self-contained world, is misleading. For one thing, Winthrop’s Puritans were not isolationists. They were global revolutionaries.4 They escaped persecution in the Old World to establish the ideal religious commonwealth in America, their “new Jerusalem.” But unlike the biblical Jews, they looked forward to the day, they hoped not far off, when they might return to a reformed Egypt. Far from seeking permanent separation from the Old World, the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness” aimed to establish a base from which to launch a counteroffensive across the Atlantic. Their special covenant with God was not tied to the soil of the North American continent.5 America was not the Puritans’ promised land but a temporary refuge.6 God had “peopled New England in order that the reformation of England and Scotland may be hastened.”7 As the great scholar of Puritan thought Perry Miller explained many years ago, the Puritan migration “was no retreat from Europe: it was a flank attack.” The “large unspoken assumption in the errand of 1630” was that success in New England would mean a return to old England.8
The Massachusetts Bay colonists neither sought isolation from the Old World nor considered themselves isolated.9 The Puritan leaders did not even believe they were establishing a “new” world distinct from the old. In their minds New England and Old England were the same world, spiritually if not geographically. A hundred years after Winthrop’s settlement, when the Puritan evangelist Jonathan Edwards spoke of “our nation,” he meant both Britain and the British North American colonies. It was a measure of how little the New England Puritans sought isolation from the Old World that their greatest disappointment came when England’s Puritan revolution in the mid-seventeenth century abandoned rigid Calvinism, the Puritans’ model, thus leaving the Puritans theologically isolated in their American wilderness.10
America, in turn, became not a promised land but a burial ground for the kind of Puritan theocracy Winthrop and his followers had hoped to establish. Puritanism died in part because the American wilderness, like the biblical Israel, was a land of milk and honey. The New World was too vast for the Puritans’ worldly asceticism. Their rigid theocracy required control and obedience and self-restraint, but the expansive North American wilderness created freedom, dissent, independence, and the lust for land. The abundance of land and economic opportunities for men and women of all social stations diverted too many minds from godly to worldly pursuits. It undermined patriarchal hierarchy and shattered orthodoxy. Those who did not like the way the doctrines of Calvinism were construed and enforced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had only to move up the Connecticut Valley. Within a dozen years after Winthrop’s arrival, Puritan divines were decrying their parishioners’ sinful desire for ever more “elbow-room” in their New World. “Land! Land! hath been the Idol of many in New-England,” cried Increase Mather. “They that profess themselves Christians, have foresaken Churches, and Ordinances, and all for land and elbow-room enough in the World.”11
The rich lands of North America also helped unleash liberal, materialist forces within Protestantism that overwhelmed the Puritan fathers’ original godly vision and brought New England onto the path on which the rest of British-American civilization was already traveling: toward individualism, progress, and modernity. With so many opportunities for personal enrichment available in the New World, the “Protestant ethic,” as Max Weber called it, which countenanced the rewards of labor as a sign of God’s favor and which demanded hard work in one’s “calling” as a sign of election, became a powerful engine of material progress. In a short time, settlers, plantation owners, and the increasingly prosperous and powerful merchants of Boston—the so-called River Gods—came to worship at altars other than those of their Calvinist fathers and grandfathers. The liberal, commercial ethos of these new mercantile groups represented the spirit of a new age, whose “guiding principles were not social stability, order, and the discipline of the senses, but mobility, growth, and the enjoyment of life.”12
By the early eighteenth century Puritan New England had entered “the emerging secular and commercial culture” of Anglo-America. The New Englanders “relinquished their grand vision of building a city upon a hill,” and Puritanism itself melted into the new, modernizing society.13 The burst of religious revivalism in the early to mid-eighteenth century, termed the Great Awakening, was a monument to Puritanism’s failure, a worried response to the increasing secularization of American society and to the spread of Christian rationalism and Deism among colonial elites. From its original pious ambitions, Jonathan Edwards lamented, the Puritans’ America had fallen into sin. History had never witnessed “such a casting off [of] the Christian religion,” nor “so much scoffing at and ridiculing the gospel of Christ by those that have been brought up under gospel light.”14 Even Edwards’s own reactionary revivalism was shaped by the new realities of life in an expansive, modernizing, and free America, for his was a democratized, antihierarchical Puritanism that conformed to the increasingly fluid nature of colonial American society. His effort to stem the tide of liberalism and modernity was futile. As Edwards wrote his treatises on faith and salvation and obedience to God, his fellow British colonials were “beginning to think of themselves as having individual rights that were self-evidently endowments of nature.”15 By the last quarter of the eighteenth century a foreign observer like the French immigrant Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur could write of Americans that they “think more of the affairs of this world than of those of the next.”16
Not only has the original Puritan mission often been misunderstood, therefore, but the rapid absorption and dissipation of Puritanism within the mainstream of colonial American society meant that the Puritan influence in shaping the character of that society, and its foreign policies, was not as great as has sometimes been imagined. Most of America outside of New England had never been under Puritan influence, and by the early eighteenth century even New England was no Puritan commonwealth but a rising center of liberalism and commercialism. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it was the southern and middle colonies, not New England, that “epitomized what was arguably the most important element in the emerging British-American culture: the conception of America as a place in which free people could pursue their own individual happiness in safety and with a fair prospect that they might be successful in their several quests.”17
The society and culture that took root in the Chesapeake Bay region had far greater influence on the evolution of American society, and therefore on American foreign policy, than did Puritanism. This colonial America was characterized not by isolationism and utopianism, not by cities upon hills and covenants with God, but by aggressive expansionism, acquisitive materialism, and an overarching ideology of civilization that encouraged and justified both. In Virginia and the other settlements along the Chesapeake Bay that predated the Puritans’ arrival in New England, the dreams that drew Englishmen to a rough and untamed country were of wealth and opportunity, not the founding of a new Israel. The boom years that came to Virginia in the middle of the seventeenth century produced no utopia but, at first, an almost lawless capitalism run amok: the “fleeting ugliness of private enterprise operating temporarily without check,” a “greed magnified by opportunity, producing fortunes for a few and misery for many,” and, of course, the first steps “toward a system of labor that treated men as things.”18 Although gradually this rampant capitalist beast was tamed by the establishment of laws and institutions modeled after England’s, the acquisitive, individualistic, modern spirit of liberalism formed the bedrock of American society more than a century and a half before the American revolution proclaimed liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be the natural rights of all men.19
This acquisitive individualism was the powerful engine of an Anglo-American territorial expansion that was neither particularly godly nor especially peaceful and certainly not “self-denying.” In the Chesapeake Bay area settled by the Virginia Company and its “adventurers,” expansion throughout the tidewater began immediately, stretching up the fertile and accessible valleys of the James, Rappahannock, and York rivers. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, too, expansion from Boston into the Connecticut Valley and the New England interior began within a few years after the colony’s founding. In both the northern and southern colonies expansion brought the settlers into bloody conflict with Indians—first the Pequot and later the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, and the Nipmuck in the North, and the Susquehanna in the South. In 1637 settlers from Boston and the Connecticut River Valley united in a two-pronged attack that ended in the massacre and virtual extermination of the Pequot. That victory opened up even more territory for expansion and settlement, which in turn led less than four decades later to another, albeit more costly triumph for the expansion-minded settlers against an alliance of Indian tribes loosely led by the Wampanoag chief whom the Anglo-Americans called King Philip. In Virginia that same year Governor William Berkeley’s refusal to launch a war against the Susquehanna resulted in a frontier rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon and the burning of the Virginia capital of Jamestown. Thereafter in Virginia, as in New England, expansion proceeded apace throughout the latter half of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, out into the Virginia Piedmont and the Great Valley of the Appalachians and, in the north, up into Vermont and New Hampshire.
Like most expansive peoples—the Greeks and Romans, for instance—Anglo-Americans did not view themselves as aggressors.20 In part, they believed it only right and natural that they should seek independence and fortune for themselves and their families in the New World. Once having pursued this destiny and established a foothold in the untamed lands of North America, continued expansion seemed to many a matter of survival, a defensive reaction to threats that lay just beyond the ever-expanding perimeter of their English civilization. The French and Spanish empires were competing with the English for control of North America. And the Indian nations, defending their own shrinking territories and, indeed, their very existence against European aggression, were a constant threat to the settlers’ security—at least from the settlers’ perspective. Native Americans pushed off one stretch of land, and fearing they would soon be pushed off the next, frequently struck back, both out of vengeance and in the hopes of convincing the settlers to halt their advance and retreat. Settlers under siege, and the governments charged with protecting them, could easily view the Indians as the aggressors and their own actions as aimed at establish- ing nothing more than a minimal level of security. Attaining even minimal security, however, required an ever-enlarging sphere of control and dominance, for whenever one boundary of security was established, other threats always existed just beyond it. The “original sin” of displacing the first Indians from their lands began a cycle of advance and conquest. As Catherine the Great is supposed to have remarked, “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.” And indeed, what has been said of Russia, that it found its security only in the insecurity of others, could be said of colonial Anglo-Americans, too. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they purchased their security at the price of the insecurity, and often the ruin, of Pequot, Iroquois, and Narragansett, of French and Spaniards, and by the time of the Revolution, of the British, too.
The Expansionist “Mission”
The search for security, however, was not the sole motive for expansion. There were other powerful motives as well, and more exalted justifications. The Anglo-American settlers pressed into territories claimed by others in the conviction that they were serving a higher purpose, that their expansion was the unfolding of an Anglo-Saxon destiny. They saw themselves as the vanguard of an English civilization that was leading humanity into the future. The first American exceptionalism was really an English exceptionalism, the first American mission an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, imperial mission. Even the Virginia Company portrayed itself as more than a purely commercial entity. The company’s stockholders insisted theirs was a different kind of commercial enterprise, “the ends for which it is established beinge not simply matter of Trade, butt of a higher Nature.”21 Clearing away the wilderness and implanting English civilization in its place was in their eyes an inherently noble task, as well as being lucrative. While making money for themselves and their London stockholders, the colonists would “bring the infidels and salvages lyving in those partes to humane civilitie and to a setled and quiet govermente.” Not for the last time in American history, these early settlers made their way forward in the conviction that enterprise, trade, and the advance of civilization were interlinked. Their civilization, they believed, was beneficial both for those who advanced it and for those upon whom it was advanced.22 This Anglo-American mission was neither passive nor “exemplarist,” however. The settlers moved ever forward; they did not stand still. And they did their converting with their hands, their tools, and their weapons, not by the force of their example.
From the Hardcover edition.