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by William H. Benson

January 16, 2003

     George Washington never delivered his Farewell Address.  Instead, he had it printed on September 19, 1796, and in it he said, “Citizens by birth or choice of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections.”  In other words, if an American, love America.

     He warned future generations against entangling themselves in Europe’s alliances and foreign  intrigues, for he saw empire with its wars and responsibilities as the very enemy of the republic. 

     In ancient Rome the elected Senators commanded the real power.  But once Julius Caesar had conquered Gaul, central Europe, and a major part of the British Isles, Rome possessed an empire and an ended up with an emperor, Caesar Augustus, who retained all power and made all decisions.  In this transition from republic to empire, the Roman citizens lost their right to self-government, but in exchange they received peace, security, bread, and games.

     Throughout the four centuries of the Pax Romana, all citizens of the Roman Empire were left alone as long as they kept the peace and paid their taxes.

     A historian once wrote that Britain acquired her empire in “a fit of absence of mind,” and so she became Great Britain.  However, King George III was no match for the capabilities and intellect of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.  In another fit of absence of mind King George III and Britain lost America to Americans who declared their independence from Britain.

     Both Rome and Britain are examples of how through sheer will power and force ambitious leaders can carve out empires across foreign territories, but always at a cost.  The Romans lost self-government, and the British lost America.

     Today the citizens of the United States of America are poised at a crossroads.  Will they choose empire or retain their republic?  Will they embrace an imperial Presidency and an acquiescing Congress and United Nations, or will they insist upon self-government?

     Last June George Bush spoke to the graduating cadets at West Point and said, “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish.”  Then, last November at the White House he spoke to a group of veterans and said that America has “no territorial ambitions.  We don’t seek an empire.  Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others.”

     On August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 250,000 protesters and said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by their character.”

     How far can we as Americans extend King’s dream of equality and opportunity and freedom?  Shall we extend it to citizens of foreign countries?  Is our faith in representative democracy, in a republic, so determined that we would force it upon other lands, and in so doing create an empire and lose our own republic?  America would then give up its own soul to save others.

     George Bush sees his actions in Iraq primarily as self-defensive for America and secondarily as giving the Iraqis a chance for self-government, once Saddam Hussein is ousted.  But in a country without a history of self-government, the choice is often not between dictator and republic, but rather between dictator and anarchy.

     Given those two choices, many would rather groan under the whims of a dictator rather than suffer the devastation of a civil war and the uncertainity of the unknown.  And America will be asked to sort this all out, the very thing that George Washington warned against.


     A quote from The New York Times: “The impending operation in Iraq is thus a defining moment in America’s long debate with itself about whether its overseas role as an empire threatens or strengthens its existence as a republic.”