Prescience on Decline of the British Empire in Brutus No. VIII: Warnings That Influenced Formation of the United States Constitution
“I can scarcely contemplate a greater calamity that could befall this country, than to be loaded with a debt exceeding their ability ever to discharge.” (Anti-federalist Papers, Brutus No. VIII, 1789)
Many Americans have a warm spot in their hearts for the British, by which they usually mean the quaint English people in the television shows they watch. For example, BritBox, the subscription service that features United Kingdom (UK) television shows, reported over 1 million U.S. subscribers by the first quarter of 2022, after only five years of operation. Blessed with a rich history, a culture that often exudes sophistication, and a command of the language that (unfortunately) escapes most Americans, the UK is regarded highly by most Americans as our friend, our partner, and our kindred spirit in culture and world affairs. We share a language and history, of course, as the original U.S. states were British colonies. That early relationship was fraught with conflict, so our positive current alliance is better traced to our partnership fighting tyranny in World War I, II, and the Cold War. Many Americans also trace their lineage to the UK, or one of its former colonies or territories, so this tiny island nation is a favorite vacation spot for Americans. One British Airways survey found that “[t]hree in ten Americans said the UK is their favourite country and one in seven said they would move to Britain if they had the chance.”
Yet the little nation that Americans love so much was once the most powerful, fierce, dominating, and wealthy empire on the earth. In fact, “by the end of the 19th century, the British Empire comprised nearly one-quarter of the world’s land surface and more than one-quarter of its total population.” The number of current countries that were once part of its colonial empire are too numerous to list here, but included varying levels of control over much of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Singapore, Kenya, Hong Kong, and South Africa just to name a few. The empire was built on economic adventurism, naval power, military domination, and colonial control. It developed over several hundred years, accelerating when the British led a coalition to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. It was later victorious in both World War I and II, ending competition for European hegemony from their industrial rival Germany. Yet colonial revolts, including the independence of India in 1947, proved too much to sustain and by 1956, with the Suez crisis, the empire was in full collapse. With the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the once great empire was no more.
Why this occurred is the subject of many books, movies, and academic papers. Boiled down, however, the decline can be traced to the consequences of an extended empire, the costs of maintaining military forces in those lands, unsustainable debts, and the eventual loss of the privileged economic position of the British pound sterling. In summary, the UK had failed to notice or heed the warnings Brutus provided to the United States, encapsulated in the quote above.
Brutus, an anonymous American writer opposed to the adoption of the United States Constitution, was the nom de plume used by the author (or authors) of the Anti-federalist Papers. These papers paralleled the Federalist Papers, arguing against adoption, fearing the federal government was being set up as too powerful. While, as we know, the Constitution was eventually adopted, the Anti-federalists did much to influence its final form, and Brutus’ papers provide, even to this day, important reminders of the dangers of a too-powerful central government.
What do the Anti-federalist Papers of Brutus tell us about what happened to the British Empire, and how do those warnings apply to the United States today?
While the Anti-federalists had many concerns, the most germane to these questions are those articulated in Brutus No. VIII. That paper, published in 1789, continued the argument that the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause (Article I, Section 8) gave the federal government too much power. That article begins, “The Congress shall have the power” and then lists the enumerated powers of the federal government. The Anti-federalists believed that clause meant, as per Brutus in the earlier paper “Brutus No. VI” (1787), the federal government “had no other limitation than the discretion of the Congress” and this could, in the future, “destroy all the power of the state governments.” Germane to these questions then, are the enumerated powers that give the national government the ability to raise, borrow, and spend money, and specifically to maintain standing military forces. Brutus warned that these unlimited powers threatened the economic future of the country and the sovereignty of the people. Such an exclusive power would amount to “unlimitted authority and controul over all the wealth and all the force of the union.” Standing armies, he argued, drain the nation’s resources, and since they held allegiance to the military command and not the Constitution, might, in a crisis, overthrow an elected government. He quotes a British Member of Parliament (“Mr. Pulteney”) to summarize the concern: “I have always been, and always shall be against a standing army of any kind; to me it is a terrible thing, whether under that of a parliamentary, or any other designation; a standing army is still a standing army by whatever name it is called…” (Brutus No. VIII)
True, in the end, the British Empire was not brought down by a military coup, but instead by the economic burden of their global military responsibilities, including efforts to maintain their extended colonies and the cost of two world wars. These expenditures drained the treasury and turned the once powerful nation into a debtor – just as Brutus had warned America’s Founders could happen here.
Riding on its military might, the British Empire had at one time enjoyed economic dominance unparalleled in history. The British pound sterling was the world’s primary “reserve currency” in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. This gave the British huge economic advantage, as their currency was held in large quantities by governments and banks across the globe. Those who wished to conduct international trade had to buy British pounds to pay foreign entities, make international investments, and participate in other global economic activities. But a reserve currency is also called an “anchor” currency, as it is chosen due to the economic stability of the nation that issues it. That stability relies on the ability of that nation to pay its debts. Exhausted by war and the military cost of its empire, the pound sterling lost that status to the U.S. dollar in 1944, when allied leaders decided to link world currencies to the U.S. dollar. At the end of World War II, British debt had reached 200 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This debt, worsened by poor economic policies and domestic spending, eventually led to Britain seeking debt relief from the International Monetary Fund in 1976. The WWII loans from the United States were only paid off in 2006. After WWII, the United States, which had limited its military adventurism (with notable exceptions) up to that point, had eclipsed the British Empire.
Of note, while there was no coup, viewers of the TV show “The Crown” and history buffs also know that one – this time in 1968 and in response to the ongoing and precipitous decline of the empire – was nearly initiated by a group of British military, business, and political interests led by Lord Mountbatten, who had held multiple high positions in the British military, including first sea lord, admiral of the fleet, chief of the United Kingdom Defense Staff, and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. While, thankfully, that did not happen, planning for it had commenced. By 1968 the Empire was through.
Fast forward to today, and we see that Brutus’ concern is once again important to consider here in the United States. America now holds the privileged position as the world’s top reserve currency. The U.S. dollar accounts for 59 percent of reserves held by central banks across the world, which is mostly held in cash or U.S. bonds. Nations across the globe use the U.S. dollar to conduct international financial activity, which accrues great benefit to our economy. Yet, the debt for those bonds exceeds $13 trillion and the total U.S. National Debt stands now at nearly $31 trillion, or $243,000 per taxpayer and 123 percent of our GDP.
It is hard to imagine anyone wants to follow the example of the British Empire, yet our military costs have continued to grow year after year, including massive expenditures for bases around the world, and most recently involvement in the Global War on Terror and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are now, additionally, a primary funding source of Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression, committing $54 billion. The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House in July 2022, included a record $850 billion in total defense spending. (The Senate received the bill in August 2022.)
This is in addition to the high levels of domestic spending on such programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, various transfer programs, as well as funds for operating the departments of the federal government. The President’s budget request for 2023, still being considered by Congress, is over $5 trillion. That request includes over $300 billion in interest payments on the national debt alone, a burden that is rising rapidly and which will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. One Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report estimated that the U.S. taxpayer will pay over $8 trillion in interest on the debt between 2023 and 2032. That is just interest, not principle, and equals over $25,000 for every one of America’s 325 million inhabitants.
The question is whether we can continue to maintain this level of debt spending, or whether, in the words of Brutus, Congress is well on the way to creating a “national debt, so large, as to exceed the ability of the country ever to sink.” (Brutus No. VIII). Should we continue down that path, the ability to meet this debt will eventually come into question. Should we, like the UK, damage the full faith and credit that the world holds in our ability to do so, and we lose our reserve currency dominance, the repercussions could be severe. It is something that we need to think carefully about.
In the words of Brutus, “I take it for granted, as an axiom in politic, that the people should never authorise their rulers to do any thing, which if done, would operate to their injury.”
Most Americans cannot imagine a massive decline in our world position, nor that this nation is at any risk from a coup or revolt against the federal government. One is reminded, however, of the wise words of Ronald Reagan, who, like Brutus, warned us that freedom and liberty are not the default for any nation. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
There have been many efforts to reign in the power of the Congress to borrow and spend, whether on domestic programs or military forces. The Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, one that Brutus would no doubt support, is proposed year after year, and almost passed in 1995 and 1997, failing to achieve the required two-thirds majority by just one vote. It failed again in 2011. The amendment threatens the ability of Congress to exercise the power that most concerned Brutus, and thus the very people who it controls will have to agree to it for it to pass. Power is seldom, if ever, relinquished voluntarily. So far, that has not happened, and spending continues apace.
Brutus was prescient in his warnings about the central government’s power to accrue debt. The British Empire provides an example of what can happen when a strong central government takes on military and foreign affairs commitments that make that debt unsustainable. So far, the United States has been able to handle its debts and remains an economic powerhouse. The question that is yet to be answered is whether we will maintain this position in the future, and what will happen if we do not.
Jay McConville is a military veteran, management professional, and active civic volunteer currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University. Prior to beginning his doctoral studies, he held multiple key technology and management positions within the Aerospace and Defense industry, including twice as President and CEO. He served in the U.S. Army as an Intelligence Officer, and has also been active in civic and industry volunteer associations, including running for elected office, serving as a political party chairman, and serving multiple terms as President of both his industry association’s Washington DC Chapter and his local youth sports association. Today he serves on the Operating Board of Directors of Constituting America. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from George Mason University, and a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the Defense Intelligence College. Jay lives in Richmond with his wife Susan Ulsamer McConville. They have three children and three grandchildren, and are expecting a fourth in September.
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