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Anthony Wayne, Distributed Sovereignty, and the Bodies of the Republic

From the early modern to the contemporary USA, part 1

When Major General Anthony Wayne travelled to Philadelphia in 1796, he was met with a huge parade and much fanfare; he was the toast of the town. John Adams, for one, could not believe that everyone took his opinions so seriously. “The man’s feelings must be worth a guinea a minute,” he grumbled to Abigail Adams. Adams was not alone in his resentment; the political elite of the early American republic generally disdained “Mad” Anthony, a hard-drinking, uncouth military man from the backwoods of Georgia. But Wayne had done for the USA what two previous military leaders of the early 1790s, Josiah Harmar and Arthur St. Clair, could not — he secured the Northwest Territory. Wayne had defeated the allied tribes in the Ohio Valley at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, slashed and burned towns and cornfields afterwards, but wisely stopped short of engaging the British. He had then, in 1795, negotiated the Treaty of Greenville, a massive expansion of U.S. territory, which was now open for settlement.

Is Wayne — from his uncouthness to his ruthlessness to his success — useful to think with today? There are certainly ways he haunts our present. Historians, for example, have often seen him as a forbearer of Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies. And as such he connects, via a recent, rather notorious, wreath-laying ceremony and placement of Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office, to the presidency of one Donald J. Trump. Jamelle Bouie has commented perspicaciously on just this Trump-Jackson connection for Slate; here I want to go back to the early American republic, and ask what Wayne might have to tell us about the current moment, as well.

1794-95 was an important turning point in what would become the violent western expansion of the USA. But there is something else we ought to notice as well. Wayne — whose own attempt at a political career sputtered — also reveals a central contradiction of American modernity, namely the way in which the problem of distributed sovereignty in a republic can be played out on actual human bodies, bodies which come to have meaning, and to be inscribed by power, according to the logics of race and religion. In this regard, it seems to me, Anthony Wayne is a highly relevant figure for understanding the contemporary USA today, especially with regards to the travel ban and the expansion of ICE.

In the ideal world of political theory — the one that is a part of American mythology and in which the “founding fathers” conducted a revolution of ideas — the whole point of the United States being a republic is that it allowed Americans to replace “sovereignty” with “government.” That is, it reinforced the idea that sovereignty is arbitrary, centered on the body of the King (or Queen), and likely to become tyranny, while government can be representative, responsive to the people, and open to reasoned debate. But we know from social theory that it is never this simple. All states, qua organizations, are in the business of deciding to whom, and how, laws apply, and all states are in the business of guaranteeing that law with a monopoly of the legitimate use of force. So, democratic republics also use violence and the threat of violence to back up sovereign claims to territory, money, and the control of persons. Simultaneously, it is also incorrect to claim that there is no difference between a democratic republic and, say, a constitutional monarchy or a fascist dictatorship — as if representative governments are only ever masks for what is, underneath, a single, violent version of sovereign power. Indeed, it is precisely the differences between such forms of state-society relations that allow us to understand what was going on with state violence in the USA in 1795 and, in part, what is going on today. In what way, we might ask, is the spectre of Wayne shadowing the new administration?

The historian Andrew Cayton’s research on the Treaty of Greenville revealed that Wayne and his fellow generals caught most of their Native American counterparts off guard not militarily (that had happened the year before in the Battle of Fallen Timbers), but symbolically. In particular, as Wayne pressed for American control of land for settlement, he did so not as an agent of the sovereign, but as part of a fantasized “band of brothers” bound together as a “public.” At one moment in the negotiations, Wayne’s most incisive opponent, the military leader Mihšihkinaahkwa, manifested a letter from President George Washington guaranteeing his tribe hunting and fishing rights in the region. Wayne’s reaction was, more or less, a shrug (and an unwillingness to concede even this). Why the shrug? To exaggerate slightly, we could say that, for Wayne, such a letter did not come from the pen of the King, but from his boss — a boss who was just another member of the public, albeit an esteemed one. Who made George Washington the boss, anyway? Well, the electorate had, but so had Wayne’s border patrol. The military losses in the Northwest Territory under the commands of Harmar and St. Clair in 1790-91, had created a legitimation crisis for the new U.S. state. Wayne’s American Legions had resolved this crisis in one fell swoop. So, for Wayne and many of his compatriots, whether they were the mannered elites of Philadelphia or frontier farmers, the early American republic was full of little sovereigns, and Wayne himself was one of the most prominent and legitimate, because he was successful.

Democratic republics are indeed based in distributed sovereignty. We usually talk about this in terms of elections, which are how such republics try to measure the “will of the people.” But this distribution of sovereignty has another effect on the political body and its imagination that we sometimes underestimate. Members of the republic become notoriously obsessive about its edges, about who is in — and who is out — of the people’s game. This is very different than a world imagined in terms of Kingship. In the world of an empire centered on a King, one might say, there is a tendency to see the far-flung edge of the empire — e.g., the North American frontier — as blurred, as a land of vague impressions and improvisations, distant from the sacred center. In the world of an empire made “for the people,” on the other hand, the edge is everything: it is the site of intensive violence, physical and symbolic both, and of fantasy as well. So, we see that distributed sovereignty has another face, and another body: the edge warrior who is himself in some way sovereign. This is what explains Anthony Wayne and his popularity. He was not refined, but he was pragmatic, violent, and effective.

Wayne was also white. In the history of the USA, the use of racial criteria to judge and violently enforce who is inside and who is outside the republic is deep and extensive. This judging of inside and outside can be about physical borders, but it can also be about social and symbolic borders to citizenship as well (e.g. treatment by police and courts). Importantly, this is not the only logic that has governed the trajectory of the republic — and I will discuss others in part 2 of this analysis — but it is one that has a long history and has been particularly powerful, and whose reappearance we are witnessing now. In Anthony Wayne’s view, the Native Americans he battled and with whom he negotiated would never be part of the band of brothers that made up the citizenry. And, importantly, this was not just about the nation as imagined community, but also about the authority of the state as an organization to govern and settle territory.

Today, the use of the state to inscribe the boundaries — physical, social, symbolic — of the republic is a specific point of conflict in American society, and it constitutes the essential connection between President Trump’s recent attempts at a travel ban and the expansion of ICE. There is a clear complicity between the racial logic of white nationalism and the logic of religious exclusion, because in the fantastical imagination of white nationalists, the “civilization” being defended is both white and Christian. (Muslim Americans who have come out strongly in opposition to anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish cemeteries are, first and foremost, acting as good people, but we might also say they are being good sociologists. They are under no illusions that incidents of anti-Semitism are somehow entirely separate from anti-Islamic sentiments and policies in the USA).

Unfortunately, there is a tendency in the news media to focus on the novelty of Donald Trump’s rhetoric vis-à-vis very recent American political discourse. But the history of the republic suggests we should instead understand the conflict over who is in and who is out of the republic in terms of two long-term trends. First of all, from Anthony Wayne’s triumphant 1796 reception, we should recognize that the raucous side of American politics has long rewarded behavior that runs against the norms of polite society — as long as it was paired with pragmatism. (American voters, of many backgrounds and political stripes, like winners). Second of all, distributed sovereignty means that all is not up to the demagogue at the center of the state apparatus. Wayne effectively wrote the Treaty of Greenville himself. And, in the current moment, there are many elite persons in positions of power who are part of the American state, or at least part of creating the American “state effect.” They will also participate in sovereign decision-making, and their discretion will be highly consequential for what happens next. So the question of who gets into ICE during its expansion strikes me as absolutely vital. In other words, it is vitally important that we ask: who are the edge warriors of the USA today? I do not think they are only in the official military. I think, rather, that the extensive discretion granted to ICE officers and supervisors over decisions concerning investigation and deportation, and the way in which such discretion is guaranteed by state violence, means that ICE agents are themselves the Anthony Waynes of our era. Whether and where they are received as the toast of the town remains to be seen.

In the first part of this essay, I have painted a bleak picture of a racist republic centered on a repressive state apparatus. And there are many reasons for pessimism. In the second part, however, I will use a different episode from the early American republic to suggest how certain persons may be able to push back against this logic, for the express purpose of creating a more inclusive republic.

Isaac Ariail Reed

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