foreign aggression

The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 53

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.


To Uphold Privilege, Supreme Court Contradicts Itself in a Single Day

What of the Supreme Court? Can no question be brought before it that shall give it opportunity to show that these aggressions are outside the Constitution and therefore without legal sanction? That was done - with what result? - in the Insular cases, aff ecting trade relations between the United States and the island of Porto Rico after the latter was acquired by us through the war with Spain.

On May 27, 1901, the Supreme Court of the United States, by a division of five to four justices, decided in the De Lima case that at the time that tariff duties under the Dingley Act were levied against certain fruit brought to New York from Porto Rico t he treaty with Spain ceding Porto Rico had been in operation; that "Porto Rico was not a foreign country within the meaning of the tariff laws, but a territory of the United States;" that the duties had therefore been illegally exacted and were recoverabl e by law.

And then on the very same day, May 27, 1901, the same august tribunal, by a division of five to four, decided, in the Downes fruit tariff case, that while the island of Porto Rico "is a territory appurtenant and belonging to the United States, " it is "no t a part of the United States within the revenue clause of the Constitution;" that the Foraker Act of Congress, applying the Dingley Act expressly to Porto Rican imports to this country, was constitutional; that that act was in operation when the Downes f ruit came to New York, and that therefore the duties were legally exacted an4 could not be recovered.

Mr. Charles Frederick Adams, one of the brilliant counsel in the De Lima action, says: "The court in one case said that Porto Rico was not a foreign country and that therefore the Dingley Act, taxing imports from foreign countries, could not apply against it; whereas, in the other case the court declared that while the island was not a foreign country, it was not strictly a part of the United States, being in some nondescript limbo, and that therefore some kind of a tariff act passed by Congress would apply against it."

Consistency is not a rigid rule with any court and Mr. Choate in the income tax case before the United States Supreme Court cited many precedents to show that the court need not follow precedents. This may explain how that court in one day could make the conflicting Insular decisions. But how could it decide that a tariff emanating from an act of Congress could apply against any territory of the United States in face of the express prohibition of the Constitution? The ordinary man may fall back on Philosopher Dooley's rumina tions: That whether the Constitution does or does not follow the flag, the court follows the "election returns."

The policy of the majority party of the country being for tariff protection, even as against the newly acquired territory of Porto Rico, it may be that the Supreme Court, in the later one of the two test cases coming before it, found a pretext for declari ng that tariff duties could apply against the island! It illustrates the inertia of mass in a popular government. So that here again are the words of De Tocqueville verified, "In great republics political passions become irresistible, not only because th ey aim at gigantic objects, but because they are felt and shared by millions of men at the same time."

This tells why, though our civil government in the Philippines, with its secret police and espionage ("Our Philippine Problem," see "Constabulary"), is much like that of the system of delators in the terrible days of the Imperial despot Domitian at Rome; why, though we have muzzled the press, refused jury trial in civil cases, and destroyed some of the protecting conditions of the writ of habeas corpus; ("Our Philippine Problem," p.157 ff. and pp. 107-108) why, though we are ordering things there not really for the benefit of the masses of the people of the Philippines, but really for the fattening of Privilege -- we, or at least the major part of our people, make no protest.

It is all supported at the call of party spirit. It is all accepted as incidental to the idea of a "trust for civilization," which is unctuously proclaimed by those who think they are wise and just enough to govern other men without such other men's cons ent. It is the idea that we are to play the part of the benevolent policeman among the nations.

The present occupant of the presidential office is the personification of this spirit, who remarks to his compatriots that we should go on our way peaceably, of course, but that we should nevertheless carry with us "a big stick." That is to say, we are a dvised, indeed we are most pressingly urged, to arm more heavily.

At a time when, in Jefferson's picturesque language, we might have proved "but a mouthful the more" had we become involved in the great European wars - when we had a very small population and were not rich - we had only a scant navy and the merest skeleto n of an army. But now that we are a world power in population, general intelligence and wealth, we must needs arm to the teeth. We have Germanized our army on the general staff principle, have increased the number of our regulars, and incidentally incorpo rated our militia as practically part of them. And all the while the cry is deep and constant, "More warships, more warships."

And this arming is to what purpose? To be prepared for war, is the glib answer. And this in face of the fact that casual preparation counts for little. Seldom is a nation really prepared for actual conflict with an equal power, unless it deliberately devo tes itself to arming for a particular war, practically as Prussia did against Austria and France, actually as Japan did against Russia. In the generality of cases those who would have us go heavily armed belong to either one of two classes: to the ship-bu ilding and armament rings, the food, clothing and other supply contractors, who become enriched out of a liberal public purse; or to army authorities who have soldiers at their command, or to aristocrats of the quarter-deck, who, furnished with larger and finer ships, itch for a pretext to use them against some inferior power.

When a member of the Senate during the last Congress asked why one thousand more marines were requested by the Navy Department, Senator Hale, Chairman of the Naval Committee of that body, answered ironically: "I think that perhaps the Senator does not rea lize that the marine corps is the essential part of the navy that is called into use in times of peace. The principal object of a big navy in times of peace is to bully small and weak powers."

That tells part of the story; and "troops to pacify Samar" tells another part.

Our "big stick" policy is a strenuous, always-up-and-doing-valiantly policy.

is the style of it. "Trust for civilization" means no less than the advent of the benevolent bully - a bully having a benevolence that consults only his own tastes and inclinations.

And how can there be aggression abroad without reactionary tyranny at home? Thus centralized and armed, Government must inevitably be used by Privilege to make fresh assaults upon the rights of the masses already robbed by Privilege into poverty. Popular suffrage will be subjected to worse corruption or to limitation. And then will follow the deadliest of internecine warfare - class conflict. If the avenue of relief "be shut to the call of sufferance," said the prophetic Jefferson, "it will make itself heard through that of force, and we shall go on, as other nations are doing, in the endless circle of repression, rebellion, reformation; and repression, rebellion, and reformation again; and so on forever." (Letter to Samuel Kercheval, Monticello, July 12, 1816, Jefferson's Writings, Ford Edition, Vol. X, p.44.)

How can such dire misfortune overtake this nation? That is the question most of us ask when we give so much as a passing thought to the matter. And the confidence of security it implies proves that we have developed a state of mind such as has lulled to disaster other peoples whom, also, the Goddess Fortuna has flattered with long-continued smiles. But warning signs are for others to heed.

Even now as the land grows rife with malignant social and political disease; even while we are privilege-grippe d at home and have become an imperial, conquering nation abroad, we recount, with calm assurance for the future, how we have solved all the problems arising in our past. We speak of having a predetermined part to play in the great events of the world - a destiny. We nurture a strong feeling of optimistic fatalism. We tell ourselves that we are marked for supreme achievements; that our march is to be forward, without wavering or turning; that we are to carry the sword of peace and the torch of civilizat ion to factious and benighted nations; that we are to lead in the progress of mankind.

And so we exchange vigilance for vanity and overweening self-confidence such as charmed into a poppy-sleep many a people gone before until the hour and the spirit for saving action had passed forever.

Next Week: The Fate of Earlier Civilizations

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