Promised Land, Crusader State

Promised Land, Crusader State

by Walter A. McDougall

Taking up the torch of George Kennan, Pulitzer Prize winner Walter McDougall proposes nothing less than to cleanse the vocabulary of our post-Cold War debate on America's place in world affairs. Looking back over two centuries, he draws a striking contrast between America as a Promised Land, a vision inspired by the "Old Testament" of our diplomatic wisdom through the…  See more details below


Taking up the torch of George Kennan, Pulitzer Prize winner Walter McDougall proposes nothing less than to cleanse the vocabulary of our post-Cold War debate on America's place in world affairs. Looking back over two centuries, he draws a striking contrast between America as a Promised Land, a vision inspired by the "Old Testament" of our diplomatic wisdom through the nineteenth century, and the contrary vision of America as a Crusader State, which inspired the "New Testament" of our foreign policy beginning at the time of the Spanish-American War and reaching its fulfillment in Vietnam. To this day, these two visions and these two testaments battle for control of the way America sees its role in the world.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian McDougall renders a service here to students of diplomatic history and general readers alike. In a concise analysis of U.S. diplomatic history, he defines terms such as "isolationism," which are bandied about so casually in post-Cold War debates on U.S. foreign policy. Adapted from his lectures at the University of Pennsylvania, this supremely readable book is presented in conversational style. McDougall divides American diplomatic history into novel "Old Testament" and "New Testament" phases. The Old Testament, which centered on safeguarding liberty at home, extended from the Revolution to the 1890s; the New Testament, featuring crusades abroad, extends from the Spanish-American War to the present. Within the two phases, he identifies eight schools of thought that battle for supremacy today. The challenge for the future is to decide which intellectual currents in America's view of the world should be retained in crafting a new foreign policy. An important work; strongly recommended for all libraries.James Holmes, Fletcher Sch. of Diplomacy, Tufts Univ., Medford, Mass.

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Liberty, or

Exceptionalism (so called)

My country, 'tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee we sing: Land where our fathers died, Land of the pilgrims' pride, From ev'ry mountainside Let freedom ring!

Everyone knows these words. America is, or is supposed to be, a land of liberty. But how many Americans recall the sentiments in the last verse of our patriotic hymn?

Our fathers' God, to Thee, Author of liberty, To Thee we sing: Long may our land be bright With freedom's holy light; Protect us by Thy might, Great God, our King.

These lyrics were written in 1832, but most Americans before, during, and after their War of Independence shared the assumption they express, to wit, that liberty is a gift of God. They may have disagreed sharply about theology, and whether liberty derived in the first instance from the Cross or from natural law. For instance, Thomas Jefferson preferred to speak of Nature's God, the Creator, or Divine Providence rather than the God of the Bible. But Puritans, Anglicans, Quakers, Unitarians, and deists were all prepared to name the Deity, not some human agency, as the author of freedom. Liberty's light was not only dazzling but holy, and Americans called upon God to protect them, because He—not George III—was their king.

It is axiomatic that the colonial rebels who founded the United States believed that their country was destined to be different and presumably better than others on earth. This is what historians mean when they refer (often in irony) to American messianism, sense of mission, idealism, or the ungainly but morally neutralterm "exceptionalism," popularized by Max Lerner. What is more, many historians take for granted the fact that this faith, conceit, or mere tendency was the taproot of U.S. foreign relations. All that one deemed good in subsequent American encounters with the world could be traced back to that fundamental idealism, and all one deemed bad could likewise be traced to the arrogance and hypocrisy implicit in Americans' holier-than-thou attitude. Perhaps that peculiar claim to the status of novus ordo seclorum is America's oldest political tradition. But that means we must take exceptional care to identify just what that claim did and did not embrace.

One obvious way in which the thirteen colonies were special was geographical. Their lands were functionally limitless (the colonial charters allotted them, on paper, a third of a continent), magnificently fertile, and separated from Europe by an ocean. The colonies represented, not a country by Old World standards, but a virtual New World. Another obvious difference was demographic. The colonists were immigrants or children of immigrants drawn from several nations (though British predominantly) and religious denominations. Their numbers multiplied dizzily thanks to new arrivals and a fecundity that amazed Europeans. They braved the North Atlantic crossing and the North American wilderness in hopes of opportunity and a freer, more just society. They included the usual run of scoundrels and misfits, to be sure, but even scoundrels crave freedom, perhaps more than the rest of us. In sum, the English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish emigrants were a self-selected cadre of brave and enterprising men and women. A third difference was political. Thanks to their charters and isolation, the colonists took for granted a measure of self-government greater than that enjoyed by any province in Europe. From New England town meetings to the Virginia House of Burgesses, Americans grew accustomed to running their own affairs.

The cynic may pooh-pooh these old saws. What nation or people is not unique? They all have their own geographies, climates, institutions, and cultural heritages. And most nations have boasted of their superiority, or claimed a special mission, at some point in time. Moreover, any special traits Americans assigned to themselves did not spring up ex nihilo, but were expressions of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European societies whence those colonists came. All that is true. But in the eyes of the Founding Fathers, clergymen, publicists, and other opinion leaders the new nation was a distillation of virtues latent in the civilization they left behind, but susceptible of realization only in America.

The evidence that the colonists believed that America was a holy land (that is, "set apart") is so abundant as to be trite. As early as 1630, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop implored his people "to Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us." And while the Calvinist zeal of New Englanders waned (and occasionally waxed) over the next 150 years, no preacher or writer gainsaid Oliver Cromwell's dictum to the effect that religion and civil liberty were "the two greatest concernments that God hath in the world." To be sure, England became relatively more hospitable to religious Nonconformists after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 expelled the Catholic Stuarts. But the vast majority of New Englanders had learned from hard experience to be suspicious of kings and bishops, and to associate religious congregationalism with representative government.

Over and over again, colonial divines invoked God's blessing on the American cause of "civil and religious liberty," for the one could not survive without the other. Congress declared days of national fasting and prayer during the Revolutionary War, again when independence was won in 1783, and again when the Constitution was finished. Preachers up and down the seaboard attributed American independence to the sure hand of Providence: "Here has our God ... prepared an asylum for the oppressed in every part of the earth." On the 300th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, Elhanan Winchester praised God's Providence for preparing a place for the persecuted of all nations and "causing it to be the first place upon the globe where equal civil and religious liberty has been established." Church and state, being separate, "may both subsist and flourish," nor "will God be angry with the United States for giving to the Jews, in common with other nations, the equal blessings of protection, liberty property." Winchester even spied the fulfillment of Saint John's prophecy to the church of ancient Philadelphia: "`Behold, I have set before thee an open door and no man shall shut it' [Revelation 2:8]. This is the door of civil and religious liberty which began to be opened in Philadelphia in North America.... And it will spread throughout the world."

The critic may rightly reply that many colonists were no more committed to freedom of religion as we understand it today than was the Britain they left behind. Most of the colonies had established churches, and some were not disestablished until well into the nineteenth century. And the first order of business of the Continental Congress was to protest Parliament's toleration act regarding Catholicism in Canada. Hence religious liberty, to American souls rooted in the Reformation rather than the Enlightenment, meant freedom from Rome and Canterbury, no more. But the fact remained that the American colonies as a whole were, by eighteenth-century standards, as diverse and hospitable to dissenters as any place in the history of the world.

In 1783 Ezra Stiles offered the definitive interpretation of American Exceptionalism in the providential idiom. His sermon celebrating independence promised that "God has still greater blessings in store for this vine which his own right hand hath planted." For "liberty, civil and religious, has sweet and attractive charms. The enjoyment of this, with property, has filled the English settlers in America with a most amazing spirit.... Never before has the experiment been so effectually tried, of every man's reaping the fruits of his labour and feeling his share in the aggregate system of power." Stiles imagined a nation of 50 million within a century, and if this proved out, "the Lord shall have made his American Israel 'high above all nations which he hath made." In short, Americans were a chosen people delivered from bondage to a Promised Land, and you can't get more exceptional than that.

Secular and religious colonists also likened the United States to the Roman Republic of ancient times. John Adams employed the analogy repeatedly, and the writings of Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay are filled with classical allusions and invocations of the republican virtues celebrated by Cicero, Cato, and Virgil. Americans dubbed George Washington a modern Cincinnatus, their Senate was an echo of the Roman institution, and their symbols of state, architecture, and even place names recalled the glory of Athens and Rome. And like those great republics of old, the United States seemed destined to prosper and grow into what Jefferson called an "empire for liberty."

American Exceptionalism surely found its loudest enunciation in Tom Paine's Common Sense, the inflammatory pamphlet that rallied popular support for independence. Did commercial interests oblige the colonies to stay connected to Britain? No, wrote Paine, for the colonists' prosperity was the fruit of their own labor. Britain was only a parasite. Did security require union with Britain? No, wrote Paine, for Britain's imperial ambitions were precisely what dragged the colonies into unwanted wars and spoiled their trade. Did Americans owe an emotional debt to the mother country? No, wrote Paine, because "this new world has been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither they have fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster." If the "legal voice of the people" should declare independence, "we have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

What could Americans expect to gain by independence? Why was it worth the risk? Did the signers of the Declaration, the soldiers in the Continental Army, and the farmers, townsmen, and wives of the thirteen colonies dream of social revolution, redistribution of property, abolition of a feudal or capitalist class, perfect equality, a master race, world conquest, heaven on earth? No, with few exceptions they imagined none of the projects that fed the zeal of later revolutionaries in France, Russia, Germany, or China, and they persecuted no one except those who willfully denied the glorious cause—that is to say, Tories. To be sure, the Frenchman Michel Crevecoeur did write, in his Letter from an American Farmer (first published in 1782), of "the most perfect society now existing in the world" and asked, "What then is the American, this new man?" But he was not thinking in the same terms as Lenin and Stalin with their "new Soviet man" or Mao with his Cultural Revolution. Rather, wrote Crevecoeur, the American is one "who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds." Americans were special because life in America had changed them: they must already have been new men to have made the Revolution in the first place. Or, as John Adams wrote, "The Revolution was made in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington."

Now, historian Gordon Wood has made a strong case for the radicalism of the American Revolution. And in the context of the pre-1789 world it certainly was radical. The colonists abolished aristocracy and monarchy, elevated common folk to an unheard-of dignity and degree of participation in public life, and made war on all forms of dependency, which they equated with slavery. "There are but two sorts of men in the world, freemen and slaves," wrote John Adams, and even well-to-do Americans were like slaves so long as they were dependent on Britain. But those who claim that the Revolution was conservative (Edmund Burke was the first) can point to the lack of any ideological agenda beyond the securing of "the blessings of liberty." And however much the nature of liberty, not to mention how to sustain it through institutions, became a subject of controversy for years after independence was won, politics remained an end in itself, a "technology" to be employed in a design for liberty and not a weapon for some more radical war. Nor did the American revolutionaries harbor a mission to other parts of the world. They hoped that Canada might join in the fight against Britain, but shook the dust off of their feet when English- and even French-speaking Canadians demurred. Some Americans thought that their bold stand for liberty might help to reform the mother country and "keep Britain herself from ruin." But their example, not force of arms, would be the agency for that boon. Finally, visionaries like Stiles and Paine imagined that Providence might employ America in a global mission to spread true religion and republicanism. But once again it would lead by example: one could not force men and nations to be free.

Is it fair to say, then, that the United States had no ideology or foreign agenda, that Americans felt no impulse to reform (or dominate) a wicked world in the name of self-determination, human rights, free trade? Perhaps they did later, but to the generation that founded the United States, designed its government, and laid down its policies, the exceptional calling of the American people was not to do anything special in foreign affairs, but to be a light to lighten the world.

The evidence for this exemption of foreign policy from the requirements of idealism can be seen in Americans' responses to four challenges the Republic faced in its formative decades, challenges that gave them the option of embracing two sorts of messianic diplomacy. One was a truly "new diplomacy" that rejected power politics, balance of power, and intrigue in favor of pacifism, idealism, and reliance on moral persuasion. The other was a truly revolutionary diplomacy that committed the nation to a militant crusade against Old World monarchy and imperialism. A few prominent Americans flirted with one or the other of these radical diplomacies, but in the end the Republic shunned them and, in a remarkable display of unanimity and good judgment, agreed to limit the content of American Exceptionalism to Liberty at home, period.


The first challenge that forced the Founding Fathers to define what they regarded as special about their new nation was the struggle for independence itself. It began, let us not forget, in a tax revolt. For no matter how mundane the issues may seem to us now, or how trivial the sums involved, or how justified the British Parliament may have been in seeking more revenue from the colonies, the principle of representative government was at stake. The colonists made the point repeatedly, but the British just didn't get it. They seemed blind (as Franklin complained in 1765) to the possibility that "people act from any other Principle than that of Interest" and that a threepence reduction of tax on a pound's worth of tea would be "sufficient to overcome all the Patriotism of an American."

Another reason to recall that the Revolution grew out of a tax revolt is that public finance is one of the most important (if boring) subjects in any age of history. This was especially true during the early modern era when monarchies fought to suppress the remnants of feudal provincialism and forge centralized states. To do this, kings needed standing armies and bureaucracies to establish a monopoly of force, regulate commerce, administer law, and above all collect taxes. Civil wars had to be fought in England, France, and Germany before various accommodations were reached. Prussia's rulers, for example, cut a deal with nobles and townsmen, granting the former the right to turn their peasants into serfs and the latter commercial liberties in return for permanent new taxes. In time this made Prussia a military power, but stifled representative government in northern Germany. The French kings crushed the aristocracy and the church, but at the price of leaving intact their privileges and tax exemptions. This made the Bourbons absolute monarchs, but over time drove them bankrupt and provoked revolution. The British crown, by contrast, finally agreed to share power with Parliament, in return for which the landed gentry and merchants could be counted on to offer up taxes when the realm was in need. The price paid by the British was the loss of their American colonies, for they enshrined the principle of representative government only to deny it to their overseas subjects.

American colonists never liked being taxed, especially by a haughty, corrupt, and distant legislature whose votes were for sale to special interest groups that got rich off the restrictions imposed on colonial trade. But Americans put up with it so long as they were threatened by French Canada to the north, Spanish Florida and Louisiana to the south and west, French and Spanish ships at sea, and Indians in their midst. During the reign of Louis XIV, and again from 1740 to 1763, Britain and France fought a series of wars that troubled the thirteen colonies. Colonial militias were sometimes effective, but Americans would have been hard put to secure themselves and their commerce without the aid of the Redcoats and Royal Navy.

Following the Seven Years' War in 1763, Parliament decided the time had come for the colonists to pay for a larger share of the cost. Its timing could not have been worse: Britain's conquest of Canada in that war had just removed the colonies' most dangerous enemy. Moreover, the colonials reacted to each "intolerable act" of Parliament like the good Englishmen they were, demanding either representation or else a redress of grievances. Both sides were to blame for escalating the conflict: the British for stubbornly refusing to bargain, closing the port of Boston, and sending soldiers who inevitably fired on a crowd; the colonials for destroying property (Boston Tea Party), boycotting British goods, resisting taxes, and molesting officials. Once the shooting started at Lexington and Concord, however, the colonies had to decide whether—and how—to instruct the Continental Congress to pursue independence. Drafting a Declaration that justified rebellion was a theoretical exercise—just the ticket for Jefferson, who neatly invoked the same contract theory of government and natural rights doctrine used by John Locke to justify Parliament's ouster of James II in 1688. But to realize independence (and escape a British gallows) was a practical matter for the delegates in Philadelphia, a matter of war and diplomacy.

American notions on the theory and praxis of foreign policy were also British in origin. Throughout the eighteenth century English leaders, especially the Whigs, engaged in searching debate over the principles that ought to govern their policy. They recognized the wisdom of remaining aloof from the Continent so long as a balance of power existed there. Should a threat to the balance arise, Britain might have to intervene as it had in Marlborough's time, but otherwise, as Prime Minister Robert Walpole put it in 1723, "My politics are to keep free from all engagements as long as we possibly can." The exception was commerical ties, and it became conventional wisdom, as a pamphleteer wrote in 1742, that "a Prince or State ought to avoid all Treaties, except such as tend toward promoting Commerce or Manufactures.... All other Alliances may be look'd upon as so many Incumbrances." Even in the "world wars" of 1740-63 Britain sent no armies to the Continent, but instead exploited the wars to drive the French out of India and North America.

Observers like Franklin and the other agents who represented the colonies in London readily applied these principles to American circumstances. They also appreciated Britain's exemplary drive that culminated in the union of England, Scotland, and Wales, the suppression of Ireland, and the defeat of the last Scottish revolt in 1746. England clearly would have been hamstrung in its pursuit of power and wealth abroad if in its home isles it had continued to face rebellious nations in league with foreign powers. The British Board of Trade also encouraged the colonies to think in terms of unity, even recommending in 1721 a single military command for the "Empire in America." Constant trouble with Indians later inspired the 1754 Albany Plan for a supergovernment set above those of the colonies and endowed with power to command militias, limit settlements, and negotiate with Indians. The jealous colonies spurned it until, ironically, they began to think and act as a unit in opposition to Britain itself.

Unity, aloofness from Europe, exploitation of the balance of power, and a stress on commercial diplomacy—the Continental Congress knew and honored these precepts. But are they all that is needed to explain the origins of an American foreign relations? Did not some of the Founding Fathers, at least, dream of a new "republican" diplomacy informed by the spirit of reason and contrasting sharply with the Machiavellian politics of Europe? Paine called for Americans "to begin the world over again."Jefferson thought that republics would not make wars except in self-defense, and that an independent America would need no diplomats other than commercial consuls. James Madison wrote that power and force may have governed international relations "in the dark ages which intervened between antient [sic] and modern civilization," but those ages were over: "I know but one code of morality for man whether acting singly or collectively." And John Adams insisted that where European diplomacy was secret, bellicose, and riddled with intrigue, American policy would be open, peaceful, and honest. When the French foreign minister, the Count de Vergennes, asked him to get off his high horse, Adams replied that "the dignity of North America does not consist in diplomatic ceremonials or any of the subtlety of etiquette; it consists solely in reason, justice, truth, the rights of mankind." Finally, the first American diplomats, like the Bolshevik ones in the 1920s, made a point of eschewing fancy dress, titles, entertainments, and all manner of protocol, so as to be walking, talking symbols of republican piety.

Perhaps that was nothing more than a momentary enthusiasm born of revolution. Or perhaps a prima facie case can be made that many Americans did believe in an exceptionalism that extended beyond the water's edge. The answer depends on how one interprets the allegedly idealistic initial act of U.S. foreign policy: the Model Treaty of 1776, drafted by Adams and hailed by Congress as a true expression of American principles. How did it come about, what were its motives, and above all what was its fate?

By the fall of 1775 the Continental Congress knew that any favorable outcome to its conflict with London depended on foreign assistance. The colonies' ragtag militias might win the occasional skirmish but could not prevail, once British power was seriously engaged, without access to foreign money and munitions. So Congress formed a Committee of Secret Correspondence and charged it to seek friends abroad—seven months before the Declaration of Independence. Silas Deane left for Paris in March 1776, to be followed in time by Franklin, Adams, and others. But what incentives could they offer in foreign courts? Why should France gratuitously assist the rebellion? The answer, as Paine argued in Common Sense, was French lust for American trade. This was a sanguine but not absurd notion. As early as 1754 the Bostonian William Clarke boasted that the colonies were of such value to Britain that "whilst she keep them entire, she will be able to maintain not only her Independency, but her Superiority as a Maritime Power. And on the other Hand, should she once lose them, and the French gain them, Great Britain herself must necessarily be reduced to an absolute Subjection to the French Crown." French foreign minister Choiseul agreed in 1759 that the "true balance of power" rested on control of commerce and America.

So Congress approved a "Plan of Treaties" in June 1776, declared independence in July to persuade Paris of the colonists' good faith, and approved the Model Treaty in September. Adams hoped the treaty would win a French "alliance," by which he meant de jure recognition of the United States: "I am not for soliciting any political connection, or military assistance or indeed naval, from France. I wish for nothing but commerce, a mere marine treaty with them." His purpose was not to reform world politics but to secure France's assistance without the Americans becoming pawns of French imperialism, as they had previously been pawns of the British. He later confessed that "there was not sufficient temptation to France to join us," but he feared that a full political or military alliance would oblige the Americans to acquiesce in a French reconquest of Canada or the West Indies. If there was an air of unreality about American diplomacy, it stemmed from naivete, caution, and overestimation of the allure of American trade -not from an excess of idealism. Congress, and the delegation in Paris, quietly shelved the Model Treaty.

Thenceforward the American quest for independence proceeded according to war and diplomacy as usual. Secret agents smuggled French arms to America, where they were put to good use in the victory over General Burgoyne at Saratoga. That in turn prompted British peace feelers, which Franklin used as leverage to achieve a full French alliance. What, asked Vergennes, would suffice to forestall an Anglo-American rapprochement and ensure that the colonials commit to "full and absolute independence"? Commercial and military alliances between France and the American Congress, answered Franklin. The advisers to Louis XVI—with the exception of the beleaguered finance minister—then made the fateful decision to throw in their lot with America.

Nor was any new or idealistic diplomacy to be found in the process of peacemaking. Franklin had solemnly promised not to negotiate independently with Britain—the "no separate peace" clause standard in alliances. But he did not hesitate to double-cross the French when, after the Franco-American victory at Yorktown, Parliament dispatched an emissary to Paris to discuss terms of peace. The American delegation hammered out a treaty that endowed the new United States with all the land east of the Mississippi River save Spanish Florida. Franklin, confessing to Vergennes a certain lack of bienseance in his dealings, assured him that the Franco-American Alliance would remain in force after the peace, while the congressional secretary for foreign affairs, Robert Livingston, was pained that the American commissioners had impeached "the character for candor and felicity to its engagements which should always characterize a great people." But no congressman or later historian rued Franklin's methods, the only rap against him being that he had not also won for New Englanders the right to fish off Newfoundland's Grand Banks. Even John Adams, the Puritan of tender conscience and author of the Model Treaty, boasted that he and his fellow commissioners had proven "better tacticians than we imagined."

Any Americans who remained attached to the idea that their diplomacy (as opposed to their nation itself) could be different and better had that illusion punctured in the years following the Peace of Paris. Britain, France, Spain, the Iroquois, and the Barbary pirates serially humiliated the sovereign states loosely bound by the Articles of Confederation. Britain refused to evacuate forts it had built on what was now the American side of the Great Lakes, made common cause with the Indians, offered commercial advantages to Vermonters in hopes of cracking Yankee unity, and closed West Indian ports to American ships. The Court of St. James's snubbed John Adams, the first U.S. minister to Britain, to the point that he ceased preaching free trade and model treaties and recommended "reciprocal prohibitions, exclusions, monopolies, and imposts." Likewise, Ambassador Jefferson failed to persuade France to reciprocate in matters of trade, while Spain alternately closed the port of New Orleans or charged oppressive fees for its use, and the corsairs of North Africa captured American ships and held sailors for ransom. Meanwhile, the United States demobilized its army and navy, lacked a central executive, and permitted the thirteen states to write their own commercial codes. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Americans have foreign insolence to thank for inspiring the incomparable areopagus known as the Constitutional Convention.

American statesmen had two great but astoundingly vague objects in mind when they called for a new constitution: to form a "more perfect union" and to provide for a central authority—be it Congress or an Executive—able to defend the states from foreigners without endangering their liberties at home. They were not idealists, much less ideologues, and whether they drew inspiration from the anthropology of the Bible or of Enlightenment philosophy, they were under no illusions about the corruptible nature of men and governments. That helps to explain the clashing fears and divergences of opinion that threatened more than once to explode the convention. Would not any federal government powerful enough to stare down Britain or France ipso facto threaten the freedom of its own constituent states and citizens? How could the requirements of an independent and free United States be squared with the requirements of independent and free Americans? In the debates at Philadelphia over representation, the military powers of the Executive, the commercial and fiscal powers of Congress, and later over the Bill of Rights we can discern the origins of the Federalist and Democratic Republican parties of the 1790s. The former tended to stress the necessity for a strong central government and downplay its risks, and the latter tended to trumpet its dangers and question its necessity. So sincere, in fact, were the disputes and fears that the delegates should be praised as much for their sheer forbearance as for the brilliance of the solutions they concocted.

At length, the framers agreed to conduct their experiment in reconciling power and liberty, in making the lion lie down with the lamb, on the basis of separation of powers, checks and balances. In foreign policy they endowed a presidency ("the monarchical branch," Anti-Federalists called it) with the powers of commander-in-chief and chief diplomat, the House of Representatives ("the popular branch") with the power to vote money for armies, navies, and foreign missions, the Senate ("the aristocratic branch") with the power to advise and consent to treaties and appointments, and Congress as a whole with the power to declare war and regulate commerce for all the states. Specific contentious issues involving foreign policy included the raising and quartering of armies, the enforcement of tariffs, the making and ratifying of treaties, the slave trade, and even the size of the foreign service. In every case, however, the bone of contention was whether the federal government might use its foreign policy powers to harm liberties at home. Nowhere in the Constitution did the framers stipulate how the government should exercise its powers vis-a-vis foreign countries.

Nor did the authors of the Federalist Papers expect that the United States would behave in a more saintly fashion by virtue of being a republic. In The Federalist #3 John Jay wrote that of all the objects of a wise and free people, "that of providing for their safety seems to be the first." That meant the preservation of peace, but also protection "against dangers from foreign arms and influence." He went on to enumerate the many ways in which national weakness might invite foreign powers to visit humiliation or even war on the United States. Likewise, thirteen independent states, or three or four confederations of states, must inevitably quarrel among themselves, permitting foreign powers to play them off against each other. Hamilton continued the argument: "A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations, who can seriously doubt that, if these States should either be wholly disunited or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other." He then smashed the myth that republics do not engage in war by choice, citing the many just and unjust wars waged either in reason or in passion by Sparta, Athens, Rome, Carthage, Venice, Holland, and parliamentary Britain: "There have been, if I may so express it, almost as many popular as royal wars." The purpose of the United States was not to present an idealistic face to a world ruled by power politics—that was a sure way of ruining domestic peace and freedom—but instead to allow "one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, [to] dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!"

"Tis done," wrote Benjamin Rush when news arrived of the final ratification of the Constitution. "America has ceased to be the only power in the world that has derived no benefit from her declaration of independence.... We are no longer the scoff of our enemies."

The Revolutionary War and the indignities suffered under the Articles of Confederation proved that dreams of a new, moral diplomacy, far from being necessary to an American exceptionalism, were downright injurious to it. So the constitutional process, culminating in the inauguration of President George Washington, gave birth to a government capable of deterring or, if necessary, fighting threats to American liberty. The foreign policy powers of the executive branch were the shield, sword, and lawyer's brief for American Exceptionalism; they were not themselves an expression of it.


The second challenge that forced Americans to define the nature of their foreign policy was the French Revolution. Before 1789, the United States existed in an Atlantic world of imperial monarchies. No wonder Americans had to fight fire with fire; they were still surrounded by enemies, which they could only hope would trouble each other more than they troubled America. Then the French Revolution declared the Rights of Man and the Citizen and, in 1792, a republic at war with monarchical Europe. O miraculous times! Woodrow Wilson's delight upon hearing that Russians had toppled the tsar in 1917 did not compare with the elation Americans felt upon learning that France had chosen liberty. Did it not behoove them to make common cause with their French allies? Ought they not champion democracy abroad as well as at home?

No, and no—although Americans took some time to decide.

A majority of the American people certainly cheered the first phase of the French Revolution, 1789-91, during which the National Assembly abolished feudal privilege, sequestered Catholic Church property, and designed a constitutional monarchy. When war broke out in Europe, Americans also cheered President Washington's policy of strict neutrality. But the mere desire to remain aloof could not spare the country an internal debate so agonizing that it gave birth to the American two-party system. Agrarians, many southerners, and all who looked to Jefferson and Madison for leadership came to be known as Democratic Republicans and tended to favor the French cause (not least because they hated and feared the British). Merchants, many New Englanders, and all who looked to Hamilton and Jay for political guidance were known as Federalists and tended to favor the British cause (not least because they hated and feared the French Revolution). Hamilton stressed the danger of antagonizing Britain, which had the power to ruin U.S. trade and withhold the capital on which American economic growth relied. Jefferson and Madison saw this very dependence on Britain as the greater risk and thought U.S. independence best served by a tilt toward its allies, the French.

The passions stirred up by this feud grew so hot that one might think civil war was at hand. Hamilton accused Jefferson and his friends of "a womanish attachment to France and a womanish resentment against Great Britain.... If these Gentlemen were left to pursue their own course there would be in less than six months an open War between the U States & Great Britain." Democratic Republicans, in turn, damned the Federalists for a pack of moneyed monkeys dancing to England's tune. When John Jay returned from London in 1794 with a trade treaty in his baggage, crowds hanged him in effigy and called for his head. "John Jay, ah! the arch traitor—" wrote one editor, "seize him, drown him, burn him, flay him alive." Another protester defaced the wall of a Federalist's house: "Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won't damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won't put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!" Jefferson, too, sounded hysterical at times. He declared that the liberty of the whole world hung on the issue in France, and rather than have the Revolution fail he "would have seen half the earth desolated; were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is." Federalists, in turn, got all the ammunition they needed from Robespierre's Reign of Terror. They called Democratic Republicans "a despicable mobocracy," "Gallic jackals," "frog-eating, man-eating, blood drinking cannibals," and warned that if the American Jacobins had their way, churches would burn and guillotines rise on town commons.

What so exercised our bewigged Founding Fathers, who had shown divine patience just a few years before in Philadelphia, that they now exchanged curses and fists in the streets? Did one side or the other advocate entry into the European war? No—except for an extreme body of Federalists at the end of the 1790s, almost no leading figures wanted to abandon neutrality. What they were arguing about was really the implication that a tilt toward France or Britain seemed to have in domestic policy, in the two sides' contrary visions of what America ought to be like, in their very definitions of liberty. As historian Joyce Appleby writes, the French Revolution and European war "succeeded in bringing to the surface of public life opposing conceptions of society" and created "a succession of occasions on which the ardent adversaries could take one another to task on fundamental questions about human nature and social norms." It was the aristocratic-versus-popular clash all over again, as Democratic Republicans saw the Federalists' pro-British stance as evidence of their favor for a hierarchical society at home, and Federalists saw the Democratic Republicans' pro-French stance as indicative of their favor for extreme democracy at home.

The danger that the European war might affect American society became evident when Edmond Charles "Citizen" Genet, the peripatetic thirty-year-old named as minister to the United States by the French Republic, repaid the adulation with which Americans received him, in 1793, by attempting to turn public opinion against the neutrality policy. When that failed, he surreptitiously purchased ships and dispatched them to prey on British merchantmen in American coastal waters. His wilder plots—"I am arming the Canadians to throw off the yoke of England; I am arming the Kentuckians, and I am preparing an expedition by sea to support the descent on New Orleans"—came to nothing, but less than a year after his arrival Washington demanded his recall.

At that point, Jefferson resigned as secretary of state and Republican opposition nearly prevented ratification of Jay's Treaty, despite the fact that Britain had agreed to abandon its forts on the Great Lakes and grant the United States "most favored nation" status in West Indian trade. But Jay had not obtained compensation for U.S. ships, cargoes, and slaves seized by the Royal Navy, and had recognized Britain's right to interdict cargoes bound for French ports. So loud was the public protest that Washington held off asking the Senate to ratify Jay's Treaty until the apparent treason of Edmund Randolph, Jefferson's successor, demoralized the opposition. Letters captured by the British suggested that Randolph had solicited French funds for the purpose of supporting the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania.

The Genet and Randolph affairs demonstrated the theoretical point made in The Federalist to the effect that disunity was an invitation to foreign powers to meddle in Americans' domestic affairs and subvert their diplomacy. So it is no mystery why Washington included in his Farewell Address of September 1796 the admonition that "nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded.... The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.... Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government."

Under President John Adams (whose election campaign had received a decisive boost from Washington's message), U.S. relations with the French Republic hit bottom. When the Jay Treaty went into effect in 1796, the French claimed the same right to seize ships bound for their enemy, Britain, and captured more than three hundred American ships in the first year alone of this "quasi-war." Adams tried to parlay, but Talleyrand, the great French foreign minister, displayed even less ideological affinity for the United States than the Americans showed to the French. America, he said, deserved no more respect than Geneva or Genoa. Content to squeeze American commerce in the belief that French leverage would only increase, Talleyrand fobbed off the U.S. commissioners on a series of nonentities (Yanks called them Messieurs X, Y, and Z), who hinted that the United States might purchase peace with bribes and loans to the French government. That is what inspired the American whoop "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!"

Adams persuaded Congress to vote money for an army and capital ships, and created the Navy Department. Had the president shared the eagerness some Federalists expressed for war against France, he could have had it in 1798. But he did not, any more than Jefferson wanted to fight for France. So when Talleyrand signaled his willingness to talk in earnest, Adams's delegates concluded the Treaty of Mortefontaine in 1800. The United States dropped all financial claims arising from the quasi-war in exchange for abrogation of the Franco-American Alliance of 1778. Thus, for all their internal strife, Americans resisted the intense ideological and military pressure put on them in the 1790s to succumb to the temptation to turn their foreign policy into a crusade.


The third test of the principle that American Exceptionalism was not intended to dictate or constrain foreign policy was in some ways a reprise of the second. After a brief peace in 1802, the European powers waged war a outrance for another dozen years, the French and British spurned America's "neutral rights," and their navies and blockades played havoc with American trade. But in some ways the situation was markedly different than in the 1790s. France was no longer a republic but a militaristic gangster-state masquerading as a traditional European empire. Napoleon Bonaparte had few friends in America (mostly Irish) other than those his agents could buy. And that meant Britain was now the champion of liberty, however much Americans might resent the liberties it took in that capacity. Finally, a political sea change had occurred at home: the Federalists were out and the Democratic Republicans in. Would President Jefferson now seize the chance to practice an idealistic or revolutionary foreign policy?

Here is where we must ask, once and for all, after the significance of Jefferson's philosophical musings. One finds evidence of idealism throughout his writings and table talk. One seeks it in vain in his statecraft. Even historians who focus on the debate between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians seem to sense that fact. Jefferson, we read, was so angry at the Europeans for interfering with American trade that he wished the United States could give up commerce altogether and become as isolated as China. But that was in theory: in practice he knew it was silly. Jefferson, we read, wished that the United States could become a society of virtuous republican farmers, since wage labor, industry, and finance corrupted men or made slaves of them. But that was in theory: in practice he knew that Americans were of both sorts, and that their elected leaders had to serve the interests of both. Jefferson, we read, dreamed of a world of republics in which war would disappear and diplomacy be an affair of consulates only. But that was in theory: in practice he knew that nations had conflicting interests they must defend at sword's point in need. Jefferson, we read, wanted to practice a new diplomacy but always bowed to reality or "strangely combined idealism, even utopianism, with cynical craft." Why not say instead that Jefferson was a sensible and responsible man who, in his public life, never permitted his personal fancies to compromise the national interest? To be sure, he disagreed with Hamilton over goals at home, but his methods abroad were pragmatic, whether or not they were mistaken.

If we adopt this image of Jefferson, many things fall into place: not only his acquiescence in most of the policies of the Washington administration, but the hardball policies of his own. He began, in his inaugural address, by stating that "we are all Federalists; we are all Republicans." Then he proceeded to push U.S. interests as vigorously as the young nation's strength would permit. He dispatched Adams's new navy and a force of marines "to the shores of Tripoli" to beat up on (some of) the Barbary pirates. He was so fearful of the prospect of French empire in North America that he even resigned himself to the prospect of a British alliance before Napoleon's fortuitous decision to sell Louisiana. And no one has ever gainsaid Jefferson's zeal for expansion by any prudent means. Even his sense of American exceptionalism appears, upon inspection, to have been 90 percent a matter of what the United States should be, not what it should or should not do in the arena of warring nations.

Jefferson's most intractable problem was the old one of neutral rights at sea. In 1805 the British admiralty court ruled in the Essex case that neutral ships with enemy cargo aboard were liable to capture even if they were being transshipped via U.S. ports. British warships and privateers took to lurking off the American coast, seizing prizes almost at will. They also seized sailors, most notoriously in the Chesapeake affair of 1807, impressing alleged deserters into the Royal Navy. By then, a British Order in Council and Napoleon's Berlin Decree had declared reciprocal blockades of continental Europe and the British Isles, and the Atlantic Ocean came alive with enemies of American trade. Jefferson contemplated war and requested an increase in the naval budget. But first he tried economic weapons: the Embargo and Non-Importation Acts of 1807 banned U.S. exports to nations that interfered with our trade.

It didn't work. In fact, it was the same mistake made by the authors of the Model Treaty: overestimation of American economic clout. For if Europeans were damaged by a U.S. refusal to run their respective gauntlets, American merchants were decimated and cried for Jefferson's head. In 1809 Congress replaced the embargo with a Non-Intercourse Act, banning trade only to British and French ports in hopes of inducing those powers to repeal their restrictions. That didn't work either. So Congress tried a third approach, in 1810, lifting all restrictions but authorizing the president (now James Madison) to reimpose non-intercourse on either Britain or France should the other lift its own decrees. Napoleon professed to do so, whereupon Madison banned trade with England. This at last got London's attention. After lengthy debate the British cabinet decided, in June 1812, to lift the Orders in Council and cease molesting American ships. But before the news crossed the Atlantic, the Yankees finally lost patience and chose to make a righteous war.

Why righteous? Did the War of 1812 reflect American Exceptionalism in a way that the high-minded embargoes and such had not? Conventional wisdom ridicules that notion, suggesting instead that the war was at best stupid and at worst an act of aggression inspired by War Hawks in Congress. They, not Madison, propelled the United States into war, and they seemed (at first glance) to have been mostly young men from the West and South. Representatives from northeastern and urban constituencies, by contrast, mostly voted against war. Why was that? Why did the sections of the country least affected by maritime predations cry for war, while the Yankees who were being molested oppose it? In their attempts to answer those questions, historians explored other possible causes of war, such as continued ire over alleged British collusion with Indians, and lust for land, especially Canada.

However much some Americans (like the hothead Andrew Jackson) hoped to take this occasion to conquer new territory, frontier issues did not tip the balance. And the proof for that is simply that the vote on war was not sectional, but along party lines. Nor can it be said that economics was the issue, since the Federalists representing commercial interests opposed war. Madison did not even recommend war in his message: he merely called it "a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government." He then went on to list "the injuries and indignities that have been heaped on our country" and concluded that "a state of war against the United States" already existed. But that could have been said in 1807 or 1810. Why in June 1812 did the House (79 to 49) and Senate (19 to 13) finally vote for war?

Three commonsense explanations suggest themselves. First and most obvious is that the American people were fed up with seizures of ships, cargoes, and sailors year after year after year. When new evidence of British manipulation of Indians and a furious new bout of impressments erupted in 1811, Congress convened in a foul mood. The second explanation is that all this bad news occurred on the Republicans' watch. For eleven years Jefferson and Madison had tried one measure after another, usually making things worse for American shippers and the export sectors that relied on them. Democratic Republicans had made electoral gains, most recently in 1810, but unless they repudiated the failed policies of the past and took decisive action, the party might fracture or lose its hold on the electorate.

The third explanation is that British violations of American sovereignty had made the decision for war less a matter of material interests than national honor. American independence was made a mockery, and war was the only way left to salvage it. In January 1812, Virginia's House of Delegates resolved: "the period has now arrived when peace, as we now have it, is disgraceful, and war is honorable." Madison declaimed in 1813 that "to have shrunk under such circumstance from manly resistance would have ... acknowledged that on the element which forms three-fourths of the globe we inhabit, and where all independent nations have equal and common rights, the Americans were not an independent people, but colonists and vassals." John C. Calhoun of South Carolina warned that "if we submit to the pretensions of England, now openly avowed, the independence of this nation will be lost.... This is the second struggle for our liberty."

The War of 1812 was an unhappy byproduct of the world war launched by Napoleon. It began just after the casus belli had (unbeknownst to Americans) been revoked, and it ended just before its biggest battle was fought at New Orleans. The peace treaty of December 1814 simply restored the status quo ante bellum: no annexations, no indemnities. It was not glorious, though some glorious deeds were done in the course of it, and was "productive of evil & good" in the judgment of one peace delegate, Albert Gallatin (he neglected to include "ugly"). But in the minds of most Americans the war achieved its purpose, which was to duke it out with the British and remind the world that while Americans had no intention of meddling in others' affairs, they were fiercely jealous of their own freedom.


If the War of Independence was echoed in some ways by the War of 1812, so was the challenge posed by the French Revolution echoed in the fourth test of U.S. diplomacy: the Latin American revolutions. U.S. policy toward that great eruption in the southern lands of the hemisphere is better described in chapter 3, in the context of the Monroe Doctrine (so called). But the upshot, as in the first three tests, was that after some false starts and false hopes the United States fled from the notion of making common cause with foreign revolutionaries as it would from a temptation of Lucifer. The guiding spirit was John Quincy Adams, who, by way of refuting the heretical doctrine of a crusader America, formulated once and for all the orthodox dogma of American Exceptionalism in that July Fourth address of 1821:

America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assumed the colors and usurped the standards of freedom.... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

So what did American Exceptionalism mean when it came to foreign policy? That the United States would make no alliances, fight no wars, spurn all intrigue? Of course not. If anything, American vulnerability from 1776 to 1820 only proved the timeless wisdom of the Roman motto Si vis pacem pare bellum (If you desire peace, prepare for war), and you will find that dictum in the writings of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Jay, Patrick Henry, John Marshall, James Gadsden, and Richard Henry Lee. Did American Exceptionalism mean that the Founding Fathers embraced none but idealistic ends sought by scrupulous means? Jefferson might have wished it were so, but even he bowed to reality in defense of the national interest. Did it mean that the United States would take up the cause of freedom everywhere and choose its friends on the basis of republican principles? Absolutely not. If American foreign policy was different or better than that of the Old World powers, it was solely by virtue of the fact that the United States was a republic, hence its policies reflected the people's interests and not those of some dynasty.


American Exceptionalism as our founders conceived it was defined by what America was, at home. Foreign policy existed to defend, not define, what America was. In given circumstances all sorts of tactics might be expedient save only one that defeated its purpose by eroding domestic unity and liberty. That last exception was by no means trivial. It meant that the United States had to live with a tension that authoritarian states escape: tension between the demands of national defense and the liberties of the individuals being defended. That tension was evident in the public's resistance to taxes raised for military purposes. It was evident in the outcry over the Federalists' Alien and Sedition Acts, meant to suppress French (and Irish) agitators even to the detriment of freedom of speech and assembly. It was evident in merchants' protests against the embargoes, which harmed their freedom to trade even more than did the British and French. The authors of the Constitution foresaw such tensions, but trusted that national unity and the blessings of liberty could be reconciled with the needs of defense so long as the nation's foreign policy was prudent and not ideological.

But the success of the American experiment required more than wisdom in government. It required virtue among the people: the classical and biblical virtues of patriotism, sacrifice, tolerance, and self-control. The Founding Fathers recognized the sheer unlikelihood of their undertaking, the temptations of power, and the risk that in a free society every vice might flourish. John Adams even expected that sooner or later America, like Israel and Judah and Athens and Rome, would lay down the burden of freedom, succumb to decadence, hubris, even self-hatred, and enter its decline and fall.

So the flip side of the boast of Exceptionalism was a warning. Few go on to quote it, but that was the admonition of "A City on a Hill." Echoing Moses' farewell in Deuteronomy, Winthrop cautioned "that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God's sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going."

Washington, too, invoked the providential character of the American experiment, and implored his soldiers and people to cultivate virtue lest liberty perish. Jefferson spoke in secular terms, but agreed that the freer people are, the more they must exercise self-discipline. John Adams believed that the Bible offered "the only system that ever did or ever will preserve a republic in the world." And in times to come, Americans continued to measure their institutions against such standards of virtue and usually found them wanting. What they did not require was that their relations with foreigners stand up to similar scrutiny.

That is why the twin mottoes of the new nation could not have been improved upon: E pluribus unum and Don't tread on me. What is more, the latter was the anterior sentiment.

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