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A Mid-September Meditation: How September 11 Mapped Onto the Framers' Geostrategic Theory of Liberty


Thursday, Sep. 14, 2006

In mid-September of 2001, as towers fell and the nation reeled, I came to see with blinding clarity that much of what I had been taught about the Constitution in school was all wrong; and that much of what I had learned about liberty from the Federalist Papers was outmoded.

My high school, college, and law school teachers had told me that the keys to the Constitution could be found in the Bill of Rights and in vigorous judicial review of government actions threatening individual rights. But if so, then George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and their fellow framers at Philadelphia were numbskulls. Though the Constitution they proposed at Philadelphia (in mid-September, 1787) proudly proclaimed its aim "to secure the Blessings of Liberty," it had no Bill of Rights.

While a Bill of Rights did emerge early on (after being drafted by the First Congress in mid-September 1789), it meant rather little on the ground for much of American history. For example, the first time that the Supreme Court struck down an Act of Congress as violating the First Amendment was in 1965. Yet America was (at least for white males) a remarkably free country long before the Justices finally rode to the rescue.

If not the Bill of Rights, and if not the Supreme Court, what had in fact secured "the Blessings of Liberty" during the nation's first 150 years?

The oceans.

Washington, Hamilton, Madison, et al. aimed to create a New World island nation far removed from the Kings, Princes, Czars, Emperors, Sultans, Moguls, and Standing Armies of the Old World. If Americans from thirteen separate sovereign states could combine to form one nation, indivisible, they could present a united front and thereby prevent Old World monarchs, generals, and diplomats from playing the states off against each other in classic divide-and-conquer fashion. Emulating Britain, which had formed a "perfect union" between Scotland and England in 1707, Americans in 1787 strove to form a "more perfect union" that would promote liberty by creating a strategically insulated nation that would not need to rely on a large standing army in peacetime.

As the Founders saw it, Britain and Switzerland in the 1780s were the freest places in the Old World because both had defensible borders--the British thanks to a natural moat, the English Channel, and the Swiss thanks to a natural rampart, the Great Wall of the Alps. A united America would likewise be free as a result of the wide Atlantic Ocean.

Like Britons in 1707, Americans in 1787 planned to rely on a navy, rather than a large army, for military defense. Sailors floating offshore would be much less threatening to domestic liberty than would soldiers stationed on land.

This geostrategic theory of liberty was front-and-center in the Federalist Papers, authored by Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay under the shared pen name Publius. (For a particularly crisp statement, see The Federalist Number 8. For more background, check out Numbers 4, 5, and 6.) This vision is also visible on the surface of the Constitution itself. For example, special rules restrict congressional appropriations for armies, but not for navies; and the document carefully counterbalanced land-based state militias against the army, but provided for no analogous state counterbalance on the high seas.

For most of the nation's first 150 years, Publius's geostrategic vision of American liberty worked brilliantly. The nation had no significant peacetime standing army prior to World War II. A navy sufficed and liberty flourished. The biggest foreign threat to the heartland came early on, in the War of 1812. But in mid-September of 1813, American Admiral Perry won a decisive naval victory in Lake Erie; and in mid-September of 1814, Americans won another key naval battle at Lake Champlain, and fended off a British naval assault on Baltimore's Fort McHenry. (This last episode prompted Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner.")

How does all of this connect up with 9-11? Here's how: Prior to mid-September, 2001, the last time an organized foreign enemy spilled significant blood in the continental United States was during the War of 1812. (In 1814, the enemy even succeeded in burning iconic buildings in the nation's capital.) For nearly two centuries after this Second War of American Independence, America could count on her oceans to protect her, and this oceanic protection powerfully promoted a culture of security and liberty.

Consider World War II. Virtually every other major power fought this war in its own neighborhood and suffered massive devastation on its own home soil. (Once again, Britain and Switzerland fared better than most other European powers, thanks to the Channel and the Alps.) But for Americans, home-front disaster occurred only in Pearl Harbor, and not in, say, Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York City. Our oceans protected us.

Then came 9-11. And in a flash it became blindingly clear to me that Publius's vision of America's splendid oceanic isolation--of a New World far removed from the woes of the Old World--cannot serve us well today, or for the centuries to come. Planet Earth is, in truth, One World. Global warming, transcontinental pandemics, deforestation, worldwide poverty, overpopulation, nuclear proliferation, free trade, jet travel, international human rights, the Internet, and, of course, the threat of international terrorism--all these planetary issues require planetary solutions.

Such solutions will require attention not just to individual rights, but also to international structures of cooperation and coordination--structures that will need to be far more effective than the United Nations as currently organized. Such solutions will also need to involve not just judges, but executives and legislatures. So we shall have to go beyond the tired maxims of my teachers, with their exaggerated confidence in Bills of Rights and judicial review.

And we shall also be obliged to go beyond the Founders' vision, based as it was on a geographic foundation that has been washed away. What we need is nothing less than a new generation of Publii offering up creative global solutions for our global challenges. Any visionaries out there?

Akhil Reed Amar teaches constitutional law at Yale, and is the author of America's Constitution: A Biography (Random House 2005), whose opening chapter elaborates the Founders' geostrategic theory of liberty.

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