Realism and Idealism - The revolutionary era

America's idealist crusade to minimize the country's role in power politics was heavily influenced by the debates of eighteenth-century British politicians, journalists, and pamphleteers. Despite the quarrel between Britain and its American colonies after the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), largely over Parliament's jurisdiction in imperial, commercial, and political matters, the contestants were closely linked intellectually. What troubled English critics of Britain's role in European politics was the heavy burden of taxation, alliances, and perennial wars demanded of Britain because of its continental connections. By steering clear of such attachments, Britain could concentrate on the pacific activities of trade and commerce, assigning the saved resources to benign uses. Such arguments for reducing Britain's role in European politics applied as well to America's ties with Britain.

Thomas Paine, above all other American writers, created the link between English reformist thought and that of the colonies. Bankrupt and a failure at everything he attempted, Paine immigrated to America in 1774. There he quickly emerged as the chief pamphleteer for American independence. In his famed essay Common Sense (1776), Paine argued that America's attachment to Britain alone endangered its security. It was the British connection that tended "to involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint." More specifically, Paine predicted that France and Spain, both New World powers, would never be "our enemies as Americans, but as our being subjects of Great Britain. " An independent United States would have no cause to defy other countries with demanding foreign policies. He assured his readers that "our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of Europe; because it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port." American independence would symbolize the rejection of Europe and the entire system of power politics. During the ratification debates regarding the U.S. Constitution a decade later, the Antifederalists employed these isolationist arguments against ratification, convinced that the oceans assured the country's security without the Constitution's warmaking powers.

Paine's writings contained the fundamental assumptions of idealist thought on foreign policy. For him the young republic, freed from the contamination and constraints of power politics, appeared ideally constituted to create a new order in world affairs. The American Revolution, as a triumphant avowal of the principle of free government, seemed an auspicious event in the eternal quest for peace and human rights. "The cause of America," proclaimed Paine, "is in great measure the cause of mankind." He regarded the institution of monarchy the chief cause of human misery and war. "Man is not the enemy of man," he wrote, "but through the medium of a false system of government." How, he wondered, could the monarchies of Europe, unable to satisfy the needs of their citizens, survive the revolutionary pressures being unleashed by events in America? Those moral principles, which allegedly maintained peaceful and just relations among individuals, would, in time, rule the behavior of nations.

Other American contemporaries found Paine's views highly congenial. Benjamin Franklin proclaimed such sentiments when, in April 1782, he said: "Establishing the liberties of America will not only make that people happy, but will have some effect in diminishing the misery of those, who in other parts of the world groan under despotism, by rendering it more circumspect, and inducing it to govern with a lighter hand." Thomas Jefferson elaborated virtually identical views in both his public and private observations. "I have sworn upon the altar of God," he wrote, "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." For Jefferson, force was evil unless informed by some moral purpose. But whereas Paine harbored visions of an activist, messianic role for the United States in world politics, Jefferson generally held to more modest aspirations. America would best serve the interests of mankind by setting an example of purity and perfection, and by offering an asylum for the wretched and oppressed. "A single good government," he once wrote, "becomes a blessing to the whole earth." James Madison, a contemporary idealist, echoed the sentiment: "Our Country, if it does justice to itself, will be the workshop of liberty to the Civilized World, and do more than any other for the uncivilized."

Contemporary conservatives attacked as utopian Paine's idealist notions regarding the world's future and America's role in its creation. They knew that the United States could not project a successful international crusade beyond the reach of American law. What determined the external behavior of republics, they believed, was not the uniqueness of their political structures or the outlook of their people, but the international environment beyond their control, the demands imposed by their own ambitions, and the countering requirements of other states. James Madison, no less than others, denied that the foreign policies of republics differed essentially from those of monarchies. Hard experience had taught the revolutionary generation that nations dealt with others solely on the bases of interests and the capacity to render them effective.

Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist (1788), questioned the assumption that commerce softened the manners of men and extinguished "those inflammable humors which have so often kindled into wars." He observed that nations responded more readily to immediate interests than to general or humane considerations of policy. He asked: "Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies?…Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?…Has commerce hitherto done any thing more than change the objects of war?" Hamilton suggested that Americans look to experience for answers to such questions. Carthage, a commercial republic, was the aggressor in the very war that terminated its existence. Holland, another trading republic, played a conspicuous role in the wars of modern Europe—as did Britain, markedly addicted to commerce. Hamilton concluded: "The cries of the nation and the importunities of their representatives have, upon various occasions, dragged their monarchs into war, or continued them in it, contrary to their inclinations, and sometimes contrary to the real interests of the state."

Hamilton dwelled on the dangers that the real world of power politics posed for the United States. Some Americans, he warned, had been amused too long by theories that promised them "an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape." It would be better for the country to assume, as did all other nations, that the happy empire of wisdom and virtue did not exist. "To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties…," he wrote in The Federalist No. 6, "would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of [the] ages." Because constant disputes could lead to war, he concluded that national safety required a strong central government, with a capacity to wage war and advance common interests in a potentially hostile world. For him, defense against the nation's external challenges lay in the powers granted by the new U.S. Constitution.

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