NR Digital

The Last Boat

by Kevin D. Williamson
Why pilgrims flee politicians

Senator Marco Rubio inspired a joyful and defiant noise in Tampa when he denounced the theological foundations of the cult whose object of worship is the state and whose Vatican City is the District of Columbia: “These ideas don’t move us forward,” Senator Rubio insisted. “These ideas move us backward. They are tired and old big-government ideas that have failed every time and everywhere they have been tried. These are ideas that people come to America to get away from.”

They came here in boats. Everybody knows that. But nobody knows that. JFK to Heathrow, 7 hours 22 minutes, not even enough time to run down the battery on a MacBook, in-flight wi-fi $17.95, complimentary cocktails and energy drinks. Look down. There is a great deal of cold and empty North Atlantic between Plymouth, England, and Plymouth Rock. It was November 11, 1620, when they put down anchor at Cape Cod. November. An afternoon of sailing in the gentle waters of the Long Island Sound off the coast of Connecticut in the summer sun can be exhausting, and the preparations require logistical expertise combining the skills of Cuthbert Collingwood, Herbert Hoover, and Nigella Lawson. No sane man sets sail on a two-month voyage across the North Atlantic on the verge of winter in order to get to something. But as Cubans, Vietnamese, Haitians, Albanians, and many others can attest, people will set out on the flimsiest of vessels — improvised rafts, inner tubes — to get away from something.

Professor Daniel Cloud of Princeton has a special appreciation for ships, which he describes in his beautiful little book The Lily: “Once you own a ship, you, like a honeybee, are wherever you are voluntarily. If you choose to, you can sail away. You’re in a position to negotiate with the king. He may put you in a ghetto, but the joke is on him, because you can fly; he’s the one that’s rooted in one place like a shrub. In fact, if you can find such a crazy place, you can base yourself where there is no king, where everything is up for negotiation, someplace across the sea like Attica or America.” It is an alluring thought, unless you are a high priest of the faith holding that “government is the one thing we all belong to.” Princes have long obsessed over their navies as a way to control trade, which is simply another way of controlling people, all those boat-owning peons and seafaring serfs who believe that they are in a position to negotiate with the king.

Professor Cloud’s conclusion is bleak: “Classical civilization as a whole died a very long and gruesome physical death once there was no longer any place you could sail to if you wanted to get away from Caesar. . . . And the event should serve as a grim warning to the postmodern world.” With the Romans controlling the major ports and stretching as far as Armenia and the Persian Empire, there were few places in the known world left in which to seek a safe harbor. Our contemporary politics is not so different from the empire Augustus inherited and converted into a religion, and our republic is infested with unaccountable bureaucrats we call czars, which is a corruption of the word Caesar. There are some places you can escape to — criminal cartels, the penumbras of the shadow banking system, the cash economy, or small narrow-purpose safe havens like Switzerland or Singapore — but if you are neither a criminal nor a billionaire, Caesar is omnipresent.

Things got pretty nasty in Rome when the elected consuls became gods, and that process didn’t take long: Caesar went from imperator to Divus Iulius in only four years. Barack Obama seems to have taken the opposite course in his four years, though there was the obligatory nauseating worship service at the Democratic convention, with devotees singing Marvin Gaye’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” (“I’ll sacrifice for you / Dedicate my life to you / I will go where you lead!”) as giant images of the beneficent god-president were projected for adoration, and in case you failed to get the point, it was the God’s Appointed People Choir on stage. (Not anointed, but appointed, like cabinet members.)

God’s anointed people (and those who think they are) tend to be seagoing folks. The Jewish navicularii of Alexandria were organized into a formal guild and ventured as far as the south of India. When the Christian bishop Synesius left Ptolemais, it was a Jewish captain who sailed him home. The Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower were keenly aware that the ship had been a symbol of the church in Christian art for centuries. But the interior of the New World was without a great east–west waterway, and so the seafaring schooners became prairie schooners, and the relevance of that imagery was not lost on the settlers: Mormon pioneers self-consciously identified themselves with the Mayflower Pilgrims, and the covered wagon in North America served precisely the same purpose as the Phoenician galleys of the ancient world: to evade politicians. The frontier was simply another kind of sea, as Arnold Kling has observed: “I sometimes think that what kept the U.S. government small in the early 19th century was not so much the Constitution as the fact that people kept leaving the then-current United States for adjacent territories,” he writes. “The option to exit would have made it quite difficult for government to grow large and intrusive.” But of course a frontier can provide only so much relief. The ratchet effect described by Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathan was unleashed by the great crisis of the Civil War, and once the frontier was finally closed, there was no place Americans could sail to in the hope of escaping our aspiring Caesars in Washington.

And Caesar did what Caesar does. People who had long managed to govern themselves largely at the town-hall level threw off a king and immediately began quarrying marble for new palaces. Once more, Caesar was to experience apotheosis. In Washington, the new capitol building, built on classical lines, was a temple — literally. Its design was inspired by the Paris Pantheon, and like that building it was used as a church. As the Library of Congress reports: “It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809) and of James Madison (1809–1817) the state became a church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson’s example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House — a practice that continued until after the Civil War — were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.)” Somewhere along the way, we went from worshiping at the site of government power to worshiping government power itself. There were physical manifestations of that as Washington grew increasingly crowded with Greco-Roman architecture boasting ever more impressive edifices. In 1863, the original Capitol dome was replaced with the current one, which is three times as large. If only the government’s debt had merely trebled since then. Or its arrogance.

The conservative historian John Lukacs blames the Right in part for that aggrandizement, specifically of the presidency, and for what he calls the “exaggeration of the president’s military role.” Some of that exaggeration has been substantive, but a great deal of it is rhetorical. There is a strain of contemporary conservative thought that understands the president as principally a military figure, no longer merely the head of the federal administrative apparatus but the almighty “commander-in-chief,” which we might just go ahead and render in the proper Latin: imperator. Ironic that it took a Texan, George W. Bush, to really bring that out in conservatives: Texans haven’t thought much of would-be Caesars since Santa Anna. Texas still thinks of itself as a frontier territory, and it is not entirely resigned to membership in the Union. It is the American id, and the American id needs a frontier, a safe haven from the imperator. That’s what Texas secessionism and right-wing apocalyptic fantasies are all about, but that escapist impulse is hardly confined to the Right: What is the current vogue for zombie-apocalypse stories except the old survivalist fantasy dressed up in irony to make it palatable to 21st-century hipsters? The difference of course is that for conservatives the desire for freedom — the simple desire to be left the hell alone — is all mixed up with the respect for order, patriotism, and cultural particularities. The frontier may beckon, but conservatives are by their nature rooted in particular places. When an election goes against the Democrats, liberals fantasize about leaving the country; when an election goes against Republicans, conservatives fantasize about liberals’ leaving the country. I’d be keen to see a chart correlating the video-rental history of Red Dawn with national elections.

Senator Rubio called down the thunder in Florida because all of us pilgrims — Cuban refugees, Mayflower families, Somali AEI fellows with green cards — all of us know that there’s not another haven to sail to across the wine-dark sea, no snug harbor from which we can mock the king or ignore him out of existence. This is the last boat, and we’re all in it together.

Send a letter to the editor.