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John Fiske

I had flippantly suggested on December 7th in “Death to Assange – An all American Fatwa” that Sarah Palin’s proposing that Australian (and by extension all foreign) citizens who deal in, or publish American secrets should become subject to American treason charges might be either her stupidity, or an astonishing hubris – a gross extension of Monroe’s doctrine.  I might have left that thought there, if it wasn’t for the huge number of others whose opinions in comment pages of news sites all across the web echo exactly that same sentiment.

Monroe’s doctrine was first espoused in 1823.  It is not something that emerged with the triumph of the States after the Second World War.  Monroe, an oligarch President aided by fellow oligarch Adams’ fluid pen, simply put into final prose the notion that the western hemisphere was the business purely of the United States and that other powers-principally Britain, France, and Spain – should butt out and leave alone.   It was a refinement of  what had oft been thought before put elegantly into words.  It has since been refined and expanded by successive, again mostly oligarchic, Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, John F Kennedy and Ronnie Reagan.

Initially no one paid any attention or treated it as other than the hyperbole of an upstart newcomer, both comic and risible.  It was though then, as it is now, a simple declaration of hegemony, empire and America’s right of unilateral intervention.

The latest comments point at a new, undisguised move, to that of an openly declared world hegemony.  It looks novel, but surprisingly perhaps, to outside viewers, it was always thus and has been an essential to the American experiment from the off.

In a quiet corner of my local library lurks a copy of John Fiske’s  “American Political Ideas Viewed from the Standpoint of Universal History” (1885)  which shows that the idea of US imperial ambitions had achieved common assent by at least the late nineteenth century – when he was writing- and maybe a long time before that.  Fiske was another oligarch, taking descent from Brewster who came over with the Mayflower.  Immensely popular in his day, and a staple of the university and schoolroom, he remains in print.  He tells a story of a dinner party in Paris at the end of the American Civil War when the talk turned to the future and what it might hold for the United States in her Third Republic.  Fiske writes:-

Among the legends of our late Civil War there is the story of a dinner party given by the Americans residing in Paris at which were propounded sundry toasts concerning not so much the past and present as the expected glories of the great American nation.  In the general character of these toasts geographical considerations were very prominent and the principal fact which seemed to occupy the minds of the speakers was the unprecedented bigness of our country.  “Here’s to the United States,” said the first speaker, “bounded on the North by British America, on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, on the east by the Atlantic and on the west by the Pacific Ocean”.  “But” said the second speaker, “this is too limited a view of the subject: in assaying our boundaries we must look to the great and glorious future which is prescribed for us by the Manifest Destiny of the Anglo Saxon Race.  Here’s to the United States – bounded on the north by the North Pole and on the South by the South Pole, on the east by the rising and on the west by the setting sun”.  Emphatic applause greeted this aspiring prophecy.  But here arose a third speaker – a very serious gentleman from the West.  “If we are going” said this truly patriotic American, “to leave the historic past and present and take our manifest destiny into the account, why restrict ourselves within narrow limits assigned by our fellow countrymen who have just sat down?  I give you the United States – bounded on the North by the Aurora Borealis, on the south by the precession of the equinoxes, on the east by the primal chaos and on the west by the Day of Judgement”

Fiske cannot tell us whether this party actually took place or who might have been there, far less the names of these eloquent soothsayers.  He admits as much by calling it a “legend” openly acknowledging that he has no impartial evidence for it.  But whether this dinner party actually took place is not the main point.  It shows, at the least, that such thinking – of an ever expanding sphere of influence-was well established at the time Fiske was writing in the 1880’s.  Indeed, given his popularity, there was a ready audience for such views.  This US sphere of influence was not to be confined to the area of continental USA but to stretch far beyond to the stars themselves.  The final frontier was already envisioned before the close of the old west.

Fiske himself saw this as not simply a rhetorical flourish but a sign of the future.  “I believe the time will come when such a state of things will exist upon the earth when it will be possible (with our friends of the Paris dinner party) to speak of the United States as stretching from Pole to Pole…and we may with Tennyson celebrate the parliament of men and the federation of the world”. 

He ends the piece with a chilling vision of a world covered with cheerful homesteads blessed with a Sabbath of perpetual peace.  

A vision, clearly, still current .

Copyright David Macadam 2010.