Spreading America’s Word

Spreading America’s Word: Stories of Its Lawyer-Missionaries

     by Paul D. Carrington

[This review appeared in the Winter 2005 issue.]

As in the halls of a courthouse, portraits of unfamiliar but once eminent dead white men line the pages of Paul Carrington’s latest book.  Here, for example, is the smiling face of Hugh Henry Brackenridge, who in 1793 wanted the U.S. to intervene to protect the French Revolution.  Julius G. Getman, who learned Hindi so he could teach more effectively, stands before his blackboard at Benares Hindu University’s law school.  Jens Westengard, foreign policy adviser to the King of Siam, looks handsome in his brocaded diplomatic uniform; Charles Kades beams as he holds up the text of the brand-new Japanese Constitution.  Simon Greenleaf of Harvard wrote the first constitution of Liberia; his student William Little Lee was the first Chief Justice of the Hawaiian kingdom, later seized from its hapless dynasty by a cabal of American-descended lawyers.  The engagingly named Lebbeus Redman Wilfley was the first judge of the now-forgotten United States Court for China.  Panama was virtually created by William Nelson Cromwell for the convenience of his client. 

Behind each of the 100 or so portraits in the book, of course, there is a story, and Carrington tells each one with immense skill and fluency, historical background and period flavor deftly painted in.  Their link is that each one is about an American lawyer working, in one way or another, to export American patterns of law and government to other cultures (Carrington calls them “lawyer-missionaries”).  These were essentially of two kinds – altruistic and imperialistic.  The altruists worked to bring others the benefit of American legal norms and institutions; the imperialists worked to fashion regimes that seemed to suit our national interests, or the interests of their clients.  Often the two overlapped – thus both motives led the United States to rule in Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines and elsewhere, and to create American institutions there.  As Carrington says, “almost every territorial expansion of the United States characterized by others as imperialistic would be justified by Americans as an act of anti-imperialism fostering the spread of democratic law.” 

Carrington paints on a broad canvas.  There are lively accounts of the work of activists like Henry Clay, who agitated for Latin American independence, and Lewis Henry Morgan, interpreter of Iroquois governmental institutions.  There are whole chapters on American legal penetration of Hawaii, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere.  The pivotal episode of the book is the attempt by that arch-missionary Woodrow Wilson, once a lawyer in Atlanta, to impose upon the world an American-inspired structure of peace and democracy.  It did not work, of course, but it revealed in its purest form the peculiar mixture of arrogance and idealism which America has expressed to the world on advice of counsel. 

To tell compelling stories over such a wide range of time and place requires a solid grasp of history and a strong narrative gift.  Carrington has both, which allows us to enjoy the book at its most basic level as a series of colorful vignettes.  A hundred such vignettes reveal a coherent but disappointed vision of American history.  Perhaps as a result of our historical experience of pushing outward into boundlessness, we regard the rest of the world as frontier territory manifestly destined to be populated with American ideas.  The way Romans built baths everywhere they went, Americans build law schools – they are our characteristic institution.  The author wishes we were wiser, but has come to expect folly, and when he sees it he points it out with irony rather than outrage. 

The sad motif uniting many of these stories is the failure of both the idealists and the imperialists to effect any lasting change.  After each chapter Carrington reminds us that it made no difference in the end, in Liberia, or China, or Cuba, or the Philippines.  Except in Hawaii, the efforts of generations of lawyer-missionaries were writ on water.  Carrington distinguishes the apparent exceptions, post-war Japan and Germany, by the presence of a number of singular factors: they had literate populations experienced with constitutions and parliamentary democracy, their physical plant and ruling elite had been shattered, and their expectation of harsh treatment attracted them to Americans as practitioners of leniency. 

After World War I, isolated missionary episodes tend to merge into the larger stream of American foreign policy.  But even when he wanders, Carrington is more interesting than most people are when they stick to the point.  The main narrative tapers off after 1976 “because more recent efforts are difficult to assess.”  Nevertheless, the unspoken context for Carrington’s book is America’s perilous involvement in Iraq, our most ambitious try so far, in Milton’s words, at “teaching nations how to live.”  Carrington unpolemically points out the discouraging record of previous such attempts, for example that of Henry Stimson who believed it was “up to him to create a democracy where there was none” in Nicaragua in the 1920s.  He offers little encouragement to those who believe that, this time, we will finally be successful in creating democracy on alien soil.

Although the book is dense with ideas, there is no slogging required.  While the larger architecture of Carrington’s purpose informs each episode, each one is enjoyable for its own sake.  The author does not make a show of erudition, but it is deep behind the easy conversational style – no footnotes, but 32 pages of reference notes keyed to page numbers and 41 pages listing works consulted.  Spreading America’s Word manages to stay learned, entertaining, relevant, illuminating, and refreshingly original all at the same time.  It hard to ask more of any work of history.