Wanderer Logo

Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Defining Tyranny

(Reprinted from the issue of May 1, 2003)

Capitol BldgI recently startled a Catholic friend by remarking that President Bush is a “tyrant.” He thought I was expressing my own personal hostility to Bush in a somewhat hyperbolic way. Actually I meant it quite literally.

In our time a tyrant has come to mean a nasty ruler with a mustache who commits mass murder or genocide. We associate tyrants with atrocities. But that’s the trouble: We use words according to our mental pictures or associations rather than according to definitions.

Aristotle defined a tyrant as a ruler who used his power for selfish ends, rather than for the common good; I believe St. Thomas adopts this definition too. In a democracy, even the majority can be tyrannical.

The American founders defined tyranny as the concentration of too much power in too few hands — the confusion of legislative, executive, and judicial powers. For them the separation of powers was essential to liberty and the rule of law. The U.S. Constitution tried to carefully define and limit the powers delegated to each branch of the federal government. Any usurpation of a constitutionally unauthorized power, or encroachment by one branch on the powers of another, was forbidden.

By this standard, a dogcatcher acts tyrannically if he goes about grabbing cats without the authority to do so. We’ve lowered the bar for our rulers if we assume that you have to be a Stalin in order to be a tyrant. Americans used to call George III a tyrant, though by modern standards he was a pretty humane ruler.

Congressman Abraham Lincoln once explained to his law partner James Herndon that President James Polk had waged the Mexican War unconstitutionally — that is, tyrannically — because the Constitution was designed to prevent any single man from making the decision to go to war as Polk had done. America had rejected such monarchical power, but in Lincoln’s view Polk was reintroducing it under the forms of republicanism. Later Lincoln himself would do the same thing on a larger scale, usurping the powers of Congress in order to wage war on the seceding states.

The progress of tyranny in the United States can be measured not only by the accumulation of unconstitutional legislation, but by the growth of executive power. We have seen that power in full bloom in the way Bush led us into war with Iraq, with little participation or resistance from Congress. It was a one-man show, with the country waiting to see what Bush would do next. Nearly everyone — especially “conservatives” — took for granted that it was the president’s sole prerogative to make the fateful decisions, even without a proper declaration of war. The suspense of waiting for one man to determine our course is remote from the original American idea of republican government.

But this is no innovation of Bush’s; on the contrary, he added only a few twists to a baneful tradition that began so long ago that by now we all take it for granted.

That tradition began with Lincoln, but it was brought to maturity by Franklin D. Roosevelt. If you want to see how, I recommend the new book Defend America First, by Garet Garrett, edited by Bruce Ramsey (Caxton Press).

Garrett was one of Roosevelt’s shrewdest critics. He recognized the New Deal as a successful attempt to turn America into a consolidated fascist-style state under the forms of the Constitution. As World War II approached, he wrote trenchant editorials for The Saturday Evening Post showing how Roosevelt was tricking an unsuspecting country into a needless war.

All limits on government, and especially on his own power, were onerous to Roosevelt. Using all his charm and guile — far beyond those of Bush — he personalized the presidency as nobody else had. He assumed a sovereign authority not only to make foreign policy without consulting Congress (except to inform a few congressmen of decisions he had already made), but to abandon the policy of American neutrality in European wars that dated back to Washington and Jefferson. (There had been a brief exception to the old policy when Woodrow Wilson got the U.S. into World War I, but it had been a disaster few Americans wanted to repeat. Roosevelt, who had been Wilson’s secretary of the navy, had no qualms about repeating it.)

Like Bush, though more flamboyantly, Roosevelt constantly spoke of foreign policy in the first-person singular: “my determination,” “my policy.” Garrett was one of the few to notice this departure from the tone of earlier presidents.

Nor was Garrett fooled by Roosevelt’s insistence that he was trying strenuously to keep America out of the war. Roosevelt didn’t even pretend to be neutral as he condemned “dictatorships” (though sparing the Soviet Union) and praised “democracies,” offering the latter assistance “short of war.”

In March 1941 Roosevelt persuaded Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Bill, ostensibly neutral, but allowing him to send supplies to the democracies against Germany — or, in Garrett’s words, “giving the president unlimited and uncontrolled power, in his own discretion, to conduct undeclared war anywhere in the world against the aggressors.” For Garrett the Lend-Lease Bill, not Pearl Harbor, marked the real moment of America’s entry into World War II. From then on there was no turning back. Open hostilities were inevitable. Roosevelt had seen to that. The very measures he insisted would avoid war could have no other result than to bring it about.

With the country still strongly opposed to war, even Roosevelt didn’t dare intervene in the fighting without an actual declaration of war by Congress. But he skillfully put the country into a position in which war was bound to come. His professed desire for peace was a transparent lie, as even his admirers now acknowledge.

Today the need for a declaration of war seems almost quaint. The U.S. routinely wages undeclared wars at the president’s discretion. And if the decision to make war has been usurped from Congress, we can no longer claim to live under constitutional government.

We can’t identify tyranny unless we can define it in principle — for it is a matter of principle, not of occasional monsters of cruelty. A tyrant may actually be a very nice, good-humored, clean-shaven man; he just happens to exceed his authority. He may do it with spectacular violent crimes, or he may do it with subtle, step-by-step pilferings that most people never notice. In America the latter method is the rule. At any rate, he will regard constitutional limits as mere technical inconveniences, which in most cases may be safely ignored.

It is naïve to expect tyranny to be terrifying. In most cases it goes out of its way to be bland, to follow custom, to avoid alarming the general population. Only the discerning, like Garrett, will be alarmed at its first symptoms. The rest won’t recognize it as tyranny even when it becomes established. Today even “conservatives” accept Roosevelt as a model for other presidents to emulate. They may feel that the government has gone “too far” in some respects, but they have no idea why, or when the country started going wrong. So Roosevelt is remembered and honored, while Garrett has been forgotten.

In short, tyranny has become an American tradition. We take it so much for granted that we no longer think of it as tyranny.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

Washington Watch
Archive Table of Contents

Return to the SOBRANS home page
Send this article to a friend.

Recipient’s e-mail address:
(You may have multiple e-mail addresses; separate them by spaces.)

Your e-mail address

Enter a subject for your e-mail:

Mailarticle © 2001 by Gavin Spomer


The Wanderer is available by subscription. Write for details.

SOBRANS and Joe Sobran’s columns are available by subscription. Details are available on-line; or call 800-513-5053; or write Fran Griffin.

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive
 WebLinks | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas
Back to the home page 

This page is copyright © 2003 by The Vere Company
and may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of The Vere Company.