Col. Writ. 4/8/03

The roots of American empire

There are doubtless many Americans, perhaps millions, who wonder to themselves, "How did we get into this?".

They look at Americans waging what they firmly believe is an unnecessary, and perhaps illegal war, and wonder how this came to be, and perhaps equally as important, what will be the repercussions of this dangerous and precipitous action?

Perhaps they grit their teeth at the sight of the 'Boy King' as he lumbers about on the world's stage, and blame him for this present state of affairs, and long for days past, when things seemed simpler, or, at the very least, safer. It is hard to resist such a temptation, but resist it we must.

Why? Because this tragic national fit of distemper did not begin with Bush. It will not end with him. What ails the American body politic is not personal, but institutional. One need only take a deep look at American history; not that taught in our high schools, or which thickens our almanacs. But the history beneath those safe sources, which reflects over 200 years of American conflicts, to find the roots of our imperial appetites. Over 150 years ago, in an otherwise nondescript case before the nation's Supreme Court, a man was challenging the constitutionality of the law which prohibited the selling of lotteries in Washington, D.C. Again, it was not the case that was especially important, but the words used in that case, by a Chief Justice of the United States, which are indeed memorable.

In *Cohens v. Virginia* (1821), Chief Justice John Marshall described the powers of the states in an interesting way:

That the United States form, for many, and for most important purposes,
a single nation, has not yet been denied. In war, we are one people.
In making peace we are one people, in all commercial respects, we are
one and the same people.... The people have declared, that in the
exercise of all powers given for these objects it is supreme... The
constitution and the laws of a state, so far as they are repugnant to
the constitution and laws of the United States, are absolutely void.
The states are constituent parts of the United States. *They are
members of one great empire*-- for some purposes sovereign, for
some purposes subordinate. [p. 414]

The words are unmistakable -- " great empire..." -- the United States.

It is well to remember here the name of the first federal gathering of the American colonies in 1776; the 'Continental Congress.' Why not 'National Congress'? Or 'American Congress?'

To those who began to organize the state, their intentions were to dominate the entire continent. It was not for naught that the Americans fought wars with England for Canadian territories, and Mexico for what is now about a third of the American national territory. Before the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, Arizona, California, and New Mexico were part of Mexico. Before the war, Texas was part of Mexico, but Texans had set up their own country, the Republic of Texas.

Americans wanted all of these lands, from the frigid forests of northern Canada to the tropics of southern Mexico. Again, 'empire.'

This does not mean that Marshall was speaking for everybody when he said what he said; he was speaking for the wealthy, white elites of which he was a part. Millions of other people would have violently disagreed with his 'one people' argument. For millions of Blacks, millions of women, for millions of Indians, Chinese in the mines of California, Mexicans in the southwest, they knew they were not included or counted among the 'one people' that Marshall claimed to speak for.

It's been over 175 years since Marshall's imperial dreams, and still he does not speak for everyone. There are millions of people who are just as opposed to that idea. Many of them stage demonstrations against the war. Some of them stage protests against this deeply-held notion of 'empire.' They may feel comfortable as part of a nation, but have no wishes to lord it over people in other parts of the world. They want to be neighbors, not masters.

They see themselves as people who want to help heal the nation's ills, before tackling the troubles of the wide and threatening world. They know that their jobs aren't safe; that their schools aren't working; that their streets aren't safe; and that their neighborhood cops are out-of-control. They know that the nation is in deep trouble. They have no time for empire.

Copyright 2024 Mumia Abu-Jamal

To download Mp3's of Mumia's commentaries visit

Mumia Abu-Jamal is the author of three books:
'Live from Death Row',
'Death Blossoms', and
'All Things Censored'.

Write to Mumia directly at:
Mumia Abu-Jamal AM 8335
175 Progress Drive
Waynesburg, PA 15370