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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

The classical liberal American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) penned two powerful essays between 1896 and 1898 to voice his opposition to the emergence of an American empire with the acquisition of Hawaii and the Philippines. In his first essay on “The Fallacy of Territorial Extension” he expressed concern that the U.S. was rapidly adopting many of “the grand functions of European states” in the areas of building a great navy, engaging in complex diplomatic manoeuvering, treating conquered peoples as inferiors, and changing the way it dealt with its own people. Here as well as in his second essay on “The Conquest of the United States By Spain” (1898) he sadly concluded that his warnings were too late and that the trend of the future would only “lessen liberty and require discipline. It will increase taxation and all the pressure of government” on the American people.

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13 August, 2012

SumnerB250

Sumner’s vision of the American Republic as a confederation of free and peaceful industrial commonwealths (1898)

Read the full quote in context here.

In 1896 the American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) had a vision of what a free, democratic, American Republic should be like: it would be “a confederation of free and peaceful industrial commonwealths” which would deliberately forgo many of “the grand functions of European states” which had made them militaristic and colonial powers:

This confederated state of ours was never planned for indefinite expansion or for an imperial policy. We boast of it a great deal, but we must know that its advantages are won at the cost of limitations, as is the case with most things in this world. The fathers of the Republic planned a confederation of free and peaceful industrial commonwealths, shielded by their geographical position from the jealousies, rivalries, and traditional policies of the Old World and bringing all the resources of civilization to bear for the domestic happiness of the population only. They meant to have no grand statecraft or “high politics,” no “balance of power” or “reasons of state,” which had cost the human race so much. They meant to offer no field for what Benjamin Franklin called the “pest of glory.” It is the limitation of this scheme of the state that the state created under it must forego a great number of the grand functions of European states; especially that it contains no methods and apparatus of conquest, extension, domination, and imperialism.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

This confederated state of ours was never planned for indefinite expansion or for an imperial policy. We boast of it a great deal, but we must know that its advantages are won at the cost of limitations, as is the case with most things in this world. The fathers of the Republic planned a confederation of free and peaceful industrial commonwealths, shielded by their geographical position from the jealousies, rivalries, and traditional policies of the Old World and bringing all the resources of civilization to bear for the domestic happiness of the population only. They meant to have no grand statecraft or “high politics,” no “balance of power” or “reasons of state,” which had cost the human race so much. They meant to offer no field for what Benjamin Franklin called the “pest of glory.” It is the limitation of this scheme of the state that the state created under it must forego a great number of the grand functions of European states; especially that it contains no methods and apparatus of conquest, extension, domination, and imperialism. The plan of the fathers would have no controlling authority for us if it had been proved by experience that that plan was narrow, inadequate, and mistaken. Are we prepared to vote that it has proved so? For our territorial extension has reached limits which are complete for all purposes and leave no necessity for “rectification of boundaries.” Any extension will open questions, not close them. Any extension will not make us more secure where we are, but will force us to take new measures to secure our new acquisitions. The preservation of acquisitions will force us to reorganize our internal resources, so as to make it possible to prepare them in advance and to mobilize them with promptitude. This will lessen liberty and require discipline. It will increase taxation and all the pressure of government. It will divert the national energy from the provision of self-maintenance and comfort for the people, and will necessitate stronger and more elaborate governmental machinery. All this will be disastrous to republican institutions and to democracy. Moreover, all extension puts a new strain on the internal cohesion of the preexisting mass, threatening a new cleavage within. If we had never taken Texas and Northern Mexico we should never have had secession.

[More works by William Graham Sumner (1840 – 1910) and on War and Peace]