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Madison’s Ghost on The Intoxicated Presidency
and its Corporate Support Group

by Thom Hartmann

In the novel 1984 by George Orwell, the way a seemingly democratic president kept his nation in a continual state of repression was by having a continuous war. Cynics suggest the lesson wasn’t lost on Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, who both, they say, extended the Vietnam war so it coincidentally ran over election cycles, knowing that a wartime President’s party is more likely to be reelected and has more power than a President in peacetime.

This wasn’t a new lesson, however, and Orwell wasn’t the first to make the observation that a democracy at war was a democracy at risk. On April 20, 1795, James Madison, who had just helped shepherd through the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and would become President of the United States in the following decade, wrote, “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”

Reflecting on war’s impact on the Executive Branch of government Madison continued his letter about the dangerous and intoxicating power of war for a president. “In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended,” he wrote. “Its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war...and in the degeneracy of manners and morals, engendered by both.

“No nation,” he concluded, “could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Once the Revolutionary War was over, and the Constitution had been worked out and presented to the states for ratification, Thomas Jefferson turned his attention to what he and Madison felt was a terrible inadequacy in the new Constitution: it didn’t explicitly stipulate the “natural rights” of the new nation’s citizens, and didn’t protect against the rise of new commercial monopolies like the East India Company, which had once dominated life in the colonies and used the British army as its own private police force.

On December 20th, 1787, Jefferson wrote to James Madison about his concerns regarding the Constitution. He said, bluntly, that it was deficient in several areas. “I will now tell you what I do not like,” he wrote. “First, the omission of a bill of rights, providing clearly, and without the aid of sophism, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of commercial monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land, and not by the laws of nations.”

In arguing against the US having a standing army, Jefferson was suggesting the same style of military that Switzerland now has: every citizen of age and competence was a member of a local militia and owned a weapon, and when the nation was threatened, the militias would organize into a national army. (Washington did this to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.) Hitler knew the power of such a citizen-militia, and never tried to invade Switzerland; similarly, Jefferson knew that nations with permanent armies (he was in favor of a permanent navy to protect our borders) had, throughout history, often been sources of both domestic and foreign oppression, and there was always the risk of the military taking over the government. (This is why the Second Amendment is worded the way it is: “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” When it was written, many of its authors assumed there would be no standing army, thus an armed citizen militia was necessary in its place.)

In arguing for a ban on commercial monopolies, the Founders - who had just fought a war of independence against both Britain and the world’s largest transnational corporation (The East India Company, whose tea they’d thrown into Boston harbor) - knew the danger of corporations becoming so powerful they could influence government the way the East India Company had persuaded England for the tax reduction and free trade subsidy that came to be known as the Tea Act of 1773.

Modern presidents have also noted the danger of a corporate usurpation of democracy.

As he was leaving office, the old warrior President Dwight D. Eisenhower had looked back over his years as President and as a General and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in France during World War II, and noted that the Cold War had brought a new, Orwellian type of war to the American landscape - a perpetual war supported by a perpetual war industry. It was the confluence of the two things Jefferson had warned against, and had tried to ban in his first proposed version of the Bill of Rights.

“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea,” Eisenhower said in sobering tones in a nationally televised speech. “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.”

Nonetheless, Eisenhower added, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual - is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

He concluded with a very specific warning to us, the generation that would follow. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes,” he said. “We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

But war had become big business in America, and we’re now not only a big user of military equipment, we sell it to the world: we’re the world’s largest exporter of weapons of virtually all sizes and types.

In today’s world, it’s hard to argue that America should have a Swiss-style citizens militia instead of a professional army. After all, there are sociopaths and psychopaths out there, and sometimes they rise to the highest levels of power within nations and threaten life and liberty around the world.

But when our political process became more strongly influenced by the profit value than by human and life-based values - where corporations seized human rights in the Santa Clara coup of 1886 - Eisenhower’s warning becomes more of a concern.

Military spending is the least effective way to help, stimulate, or sustain an economy for a very simple identified: military products are used once and destroyed.

When a government uses taxpayer money to build a bridge or highway or hospital, that investment will be used for decades, perhaps centuries, and will continue to fuel economic activity throughout its lifetime. But when taxpayer dollars are used to build a bomb or a bullet, that military hardware will be used once and then vanish. As it vanishes, so does the wealth it represented, never to be recovered.

As Eisenhower said in an April, 1953 speech: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

It was a brilliant articulation of human needs in a world increasingly dominated by non-breathing entities whose values were not human values. But it was a call unheeded and, today, it is nearly totally forgotten.

Meanwhile, the ruling elites of the world, aligned with transnational corporations claiming human rights for themselves, generally get richer and better armed as their (human) people become poorer. The world - in part as a result of the argument that corporations have the rights of persons - is becoming more unequal day by day.

And James Madison’s warning about an Executive Branch - beholden to “commercial monopolies” and intoxicated by war - takes on a new and vivid meaning.


Thom Hartmann is the author of Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights and other books you can view online excerpts from at This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for reprint in print or web media so long as this credit line is attached and this website - - is pointed to.

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