The abysmal 2008 presidential election should have Americans scratching their heads, pondering how the political economy of the United States devolved into a duopoly of two nearly identical, state-loving political parties that are always ready to intervene militarily anywhere on the planet.
It was not always this way, and how we got here is the focus of Bill Kauffman’s Ain’t My America. The book is a pithy romp through American history, focusing on antiwar and antistate advocates from eighteenth century Antifederalists to the brave, post-9/11 minority who still dare to say no to an overweening federal government. The result is a remarkable effort that connects John Randolph to Freda Payne, George Washington to George McGovern, William Cullen Bryan to Bob Dylan, and a host of noble and colorful iconoclasts in between.
Kauffman identifies a long-running American strain of individualist thought crucial to a free society, one with two notable characteristics. The first is a recognition of the devastating effects of war on the natural order. Here Kauffman connects the popular dissent to the War of 1812, the Mexican and Spanish-American wars, the twentieth century’s world wars, the Cold War, and Vietnam. Common threads include the beliefs that war is unnecessary, that it serves vested interests over the general interest, that essential freedoms will be compromised in carrying it out, that the common man will pay with treasure and blood, and that it will lead to a permanently expanded state.
The second philosophical characteristic of a free society important to Kauffman is that of localism. Here the idea of maintaining roots and revering the local over the international—the anchored over the unanchored—is important for constraining the nation-state. Indeed, for a nation-state to grow, it needs dependents willing to abandon the ties of hearth, home, and family, if only because this helps when sending soldiers off to one of the 100-plus countries where the U.S. government has military bases. Kauffman emphasizes the important contributions of Allan Carlson of the Howard Center on the full costs of nationalism and militarization on families and communities. Kauffman concludes: “Divorce, dispersal, disruption of courtship patterns; ye shall know the warfare state by its rotten fruits.”
Kauffman introduces his readers to people like John Randolph, who opposed the War of 1812 by asking, “Who would suffer [by war]? The people. It is their blood, their taxes, that must flow to support it.” Noting the loss in freedoms war brings, Randolph added, “The Government of the United States was not calculated to wage offensive foreign war—it was instituted for the common defence and general welfare; and whosoever should embark it on a war of offence, would put it to a test which it was by no means calculated to endure.”
Another outspoken critic Kauffman introduces is George S. Boutwell, who had been Grant’s treasury secretary and later broke with President McKinley in opposition to the war with Spain and the (virtually unknown today) slaughter of Filipinos following their “liberation.” Asked Boutwell: “Is it wise and just for us, as a nation, to make war for the seizure and government of distant lands, occupied by millions of inhabitants, who are alien to us in every aspect of life, except that we are together members of the same human family?”
Such anti-imperialists of the nineteenth century would pass the baton to the Veterans of Future Wars and America Firsters of the twentieth, a time when criticizing the government’s wars could land you in jail. Kauffman describes a South Dakota farmer who served a year and a day in prison for saying, “If I were of conscription age and had no dependents and were drafted, I would refuse to serve. They could shoot me, but they could not make me fight.” Kauffman also describes the efforts to pass the Ludlow Amendment in the late 1930s to counter the New Dealers’ well-known penchant for warfare. This amendment would have required all declarations of war to be approved by national referendum, but it failed in a close House procedural vote.
Lastly, Kauffman chronicles the rise of the New Right following World War II, led by a cadre of ex-communists to promote the militarization of society in order to defeat “the god that failed them, the Soviet Union and world communism.” The great individualists who bemoaned the costs of that campaign included Howard Buffet, Harold R. Gross, Murray Rothbard, Robert Taft, Felix Morley, and others, many of whom wrote for The Freeman.
Ain’t My America is not your high school civics text. In our era of centralized education with No Child Left Behind, that may be its strongest attribute.