Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Aziz Rana on Empire and the Creedal Constitution in the Philippines

Mary L. Dudziak

This post is the second in a roundtable based on a recent panel on Law and Ideology in the National Security State at the American Society for Legal History conference. The first post is here.

Aziz Rana, Cornell Law School

Today the Constitution enjoys near unanimous support across the American political spectrum. What makes this consensus so notable is not simply belief in the essential justness of the text, but also wide-ranging agreement on why the Constitution promotes a just political order. For most Americans, the text—complete with its discursive traditions and institutional mechanisms—is above all the concrete embodiment of the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to equal liberty for all. The document as it is now read highlights how American history has been a sustained effort to realize a set of creedal promises present even at the founding. For this reason, Americans cannot jettison their 1787 Constitution, whatever its minor defects or inconveniences. To do so is to jettison the particular vision of national identity that gives the American experience its substantive value and thus makes Americans who they are.

Although this narrative is so deeply embedded as to go practically without saying, it has hardly been with us for all of national history. In fact, our current constitutive account is far removed from what most citizens would have taken for granted as recently as a hundred years ago. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only a very small number of Americans would have recognized their own country in a story about the founding promise of equal liberty, let alone been willing to defend this particular narrative. Instead, as I have argued in an earlier book, The Two Faces of American Freedom (2010), the Constitution was far more commonly interpreted to be the governing framework of a racially-defined settler empire. Moreover, the problem for the Constitution a century ago was the sense among increasing numbers of white Americans that the text had proven ill-suited for achieving this alternative national project. Individuals living in the year 1900 would have been far more likely to imagine a future in which a new Constitution replaced the old, rather than to conceive of a late twentieth century where the original document enjoyed widespread reverence—but now, surprisingly, as the textual foundation and symbolic core for a multi-racial polity. How did this begin to change?

In this paper, part of a new book project, I argue that permanent political momentum behind universalistic readings of the Constitution and collective life was not the product of the Founding, Reconstruction, or even the later Civil Rights Movement—more classic focal points of constitutional history. Rather, such momentum gathered steam with the emergence of the country onto the global stage in the first half of the twentieth century, beginning especially with the war in the Philippines and the development of an extensive American overseas footprint.

Against the backdrop of a closing frontier, many elites initially viewed the call to global empire in straightforwardly racialist terms, as a way to promote domestic white solidarity and national purpose in the face of internal class conflict and dissolving social bonds. But almost immediately, the practical dilemmas thrown up by colonial administration—especially in the Philippines where American soldiers were increasingly bogged down in a brutal guerrilla war—exposed the limits of conceiving of U.S. power as a project of explicit racial domination. Americans could not simply impose their will on the world beyond its shores. In places like the Philippines, non-white peoples had their own competing expectations about self-determination and political independence.

Continue reading below the fold.

The result was nothing less than a steady reimagining by politicians and administrators of the justifications for and legitimacy of American power. In particular, many elites—even those like Woodrow Wilson who defended segregation and racial subordination in the South—began to reclaim Lincolnian arguments in articulating the national mission abroad. Such a project separated European imperialism on the one hand from American global influence on the other, with the latter depicted as benign tutelage fundamentally in keeping with the basic interests of non-white peoples. Over time, these arguments reframed debates not only about how American elites would reckon with the racial and ethnic difference that marked the international arena, but also how such elites would come to grips with similar conditions at home—conditions intensified by massive immigration and rising black political movements.

As a result, the American pivot to the world stage produced two seemingly counterintuitive effects: 1) the growth of arguments about universal equality during the very heyday of Jim Crow and 2) a new account of the legitimacy of the Federal Constitution. This latter account was grounded not in its practical institutional effects—the debate that had been consuming domestic life—but in its symbolic meaning as proof both at home and abroad of the exceptional characteristics of American power. It would take decades for these arguments to fully cohere and certainly for notions of racial inclusion to eclipse dominant views of the United States as an exclusively white republic. But in the politics around American interventionism from the Philippines to World War I, one can see the outlines of a growing language of American universalism intertwined with constitutional commitment—what today provides the foundations of our consensus narrative.

Equally important, the fact that American universalism was partly entrenched through elite efforts to maintain white rule highlighted a basic tension at the heart of such arguments. These claims about national identity and constitutional meaning had a fundamentally protean quality. They offered a domestic reform language that could reshape assumptions about race and membership, explicitly challenge segregation, and provide tangible legal protections as well as material benefits to historically excluded groups. But part of what made these arguments attractive to policymakers and colonial administrators is that they were also compatible with notions of white political supervision. In other words, they offered a way to justify longstanding and racially-inflected privileges even in the face of new global and domestic realities.

This last fact hints at the potential costs of today’s consensus. The constitutive story of the country and the Constitution as universally egalitarian has made reviving a world of direct white supremacy more or less inconceivable. Indeed, this American past can feel so utterly foreign as to strike present day citizens as essentially “un-American.” But at the same time, had its own deeply preservative consequences. It has helped to promote broader assumptions about the legitimacy of American interventionism and global police power, not to mention the validity at home of preexisting political, economic, and legal arrangements. In this way, it has both facilitated and constrained reform agendas, suggesting the continuities—as opposed to simply the breaks—with nineteenth century structures of power and hierarchy,


WOW! I have reread this post and it says a lot about America internationally to be compared with what is happening domestically as concerns race and ethnicity (read, immigration). I plan a more careful reread, especially what can be read between the lines. American empire through the lens presented by this post seems to conflict with racial politics during the 20th century that continues into the 21st. What are the real goals of American empire (aka the national security state)?

You made some decent points there. I looked on the internet for the issue and found most individuals will go along with with your website. Best Source Best Source Best Source

Post a Comment

Older Posts
Newer Posts