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james otis

With the Senate passing the National Defense Authorization Act on a vote of 87 to 13 yesterday, something fundamental seems to have changed in the very existence of our republic, if we can even employ this noble term any longer.

For a year and a half, under Winston’s excellent editorship, The Imaginative Conservative has been examining in various ways the history, the nature, the meaning, the purpose, and the frailties of republics, this once great one and a number of others. At times, this analysis has been direct. At other times, very indirect.

Regardless, every writer at The Imaginative Conservative is concerned with the existence, defense, and perpetuation of the American republic.

But, yesterday. . . . that was a day.

On the 220th anniversary of the ratification of that most excellent common law document, the Bill of Rights, Congress (as the House had already passed it earlier in the week) agreed to hand over some of the broadest powers to the Executive branch it’s ever given away.

President Obama will sign this into law very quickly, if he hasn’t already done so by the same this is posted. Once he signs it into law, the dreams of every progressive president since Teddy Roosevelt will have been fulfilled. The executive will now be authorized by Congress—against a number of vital constitutional provisions—to detain American citizens accused of terrorism indefinitely and without trial.

There’s been very little public debate about this, and the news reports from the major news outlets yesterday mentioned these wide-sweeping powers only in passing. There’s more than a little hypocrisy in all of this, given the way the press responded to the rather heinous Patriot Act (remember how we were promised that would be a temporary measure) under Bush and the Republicans a decade ago. But, the NDAA is even worse than the Patriot Act, and it’s now clear that the Patriot Act was merely one step in the advance of this move toward extreme centralization.

As I wrote at CatholicVote yesterday, I believe it’s very possible that yesterday or the day (probably today) President Obama signs this into law will be remembered by future historians of western civilization as the “official” day the American republic became an empire, in the way historians now regard the murder of Cicero as the last day of the Roman Republic and the first day of the Roman Empire. I know many readers of The Imaginative Conservative already believe we have drifted fully into an empire, but we’ll all admit, I think, that we’ve been drifting for a very, very long time. As with Rome, we’ve kept the forms of the republic by destroying the essence of it.

Where is republican virtue? Where is republican liberty?

How few actually voted against these provisions in the House and the Senate. Not surprisingly, both Pauls and Justin Amash (perhaps the single best man in the House?) fought this bill. A happy surprise for me was that my representative, Tim Walberg—whom I’d incorrectly dismissed as a neo-con ideologue—voted against it as well. I applaud him for this. In fact, I’ll send him a personal thank you as soon as possible.

So, a very, very dark day—or days—in the history and life of the United States of America.

Two things should be remembered though. As our friend, Bob Higgs, wrote on Facebook yesterday evening, don’t get too down about this, as politics probably aren’t worth the emotional headache they cause. Instead, look for something (or make something) beautiful in the world. To that end, he posted a number of links to Beethoven’s music. Thank you, as always, Bob.

Second, perhaps, this might be a wakeup call for Americans. I doubt it, frankly, but perhaps. When I teach the history of the American Revolution, I argue that the real spirit of American independence was born with four-hour speech by James Otis given in a courtroom in 1761, arguing against arbitrary writs:

John Adams described the scene:

But Otis was a flame of fire with a promptitude of classical allusions a depth of research a rapid summary of historical events and dates a profusion of legal authorities a prophetic glance of his eye into futurity and a torrent of impetuous eloquence he hurried away every thing before him American independence was then and there born the seeds of patriots and heroes were then and there sown to defend the vigorous youth. . . . Every man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did ready to take arms against writs of assistance Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain Then and there the child Independence was born In fifteen years namely in 1776 he grew up to manhood and declared himself free. [John Adams to William Tudor, March 29, 1817, in The Works of John Adams, Vol. 10: 247-248]

Perhaps some Otis will arise and inspire us the way he did an entire generation of men in 1761.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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7 replies to this post
  1. Surely, the good citizens of the American Republic are on that course of "a long train of abuses". Where is the interposition on my behalf, the average patriot? In searching for the man who will bring my voice to the powers in Washington and a corrupt nation at large, I find hime not in our presidential primary. For the man who is victorious in our cause will not be defeating one man in an election, but rather, he must defeat all broadcast journalism, print newspaper, entertainment news, popular culture et al. While Gingrich, Romney, Paul, Santorum may all make good conventioneers, none stand apart as great men, and that is what we call to God for, that great man.

  2. Brad, is this not the day when America became a totalitarian state? Meaning a state above the law. It may be interesting to see if the Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional, for that it surely must be.

  3. Thanks, Brad, for this thoughtful, and thought-provoking, piece. This is the best blog on the Web.

    As a current historian of Western Civilization, I remember April 15, 1861, the day Lincoln called on the several States to send troops to "preserve the Union," as the day the American Republic died and the American Empire began.

    Forcing States to stay in a voluntary union by illegal violence was the Great Act of Imperialism, and the beginning of the vast accumulation of unconstitutional presidential authority. Mr. Bush the Younger and Mr. Obama (and the Congresses and Courts that have buttressed them) have a lot to answer for, but they are merely following an old un-American American tradition that includes Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR.

    God Save the Republic…the Real Republic.

    Again, thank you.

  4. Anonymous, it's hard to tell if your query on empire is serious, but if it is look for David Redick's "Phases of Empire" on, where he says,

    "An Empire is a nation that: 1) Owns colonies, and/or 2) Controls, or has great influence over, other nations. Empires require economic and military strength to start and maintain, and this is expensive.

    "All Empires fail, and for the same reasons: 1) Expense of military abroad, and subsidies at home. 2) Decline in domestic productivity (spoiled, parasitic citizens). 3) Corruption (illegal conduct) and decadence (unethical and immoral conduct) by leaders and citizens."

    He misses the lethal and immoral impact on the subjugated nations, but this works for now.

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