In this fine little book, Robert Smith asks an extremely important question that often eludes theorists and practitioners of American foreign policy today: What kind of foreign policy is best suited for preserving the American republic and its liberty? To find his answer, he examines the role of ideology in the foreign policies of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. By doing so, Smith, who teaches the history of American foreign relations at Worcester State College in Massachusetts, makes it virtually impossible to maintain that American foreign policy has been an enduring quarrel between realists and idealists.
In Smith's view, all four of these founders agreed on something that few will agree on today, namely, the fundamental nature of America's national interest. This national interest, as they saw it, was to ensure that the fledgling republic survived its infancy in the rough and tumble of not one but two world wars, during the American Revolution and the age of Napoleon, including the War of 1812. They also agreed that, properly managed, America's distance from Europe offered some degree of protection from its wars, especially if Americans were able to avoid permanent alliances and maintain their neutrality. They disagreed, however, on both the prerequisites of republican government and the best foreign policies for establishing and sustaining them. To explain the origins of their ideological conflict, Smith conducts an almost encyclopedic review of the writings of Harrington, Sydney, Bollingbroke, Cato, Montesquieu, and others on foreign affairs, but limits his focus to what they had to say about the kind of foreign policy best suited to preserve liberty at home. In other words, whereas today's realists and idealists project their foreign policy theories back on the founders, Smith instead sees the founders as continuing a long-standing quarrel from 17th- and 18th-century England about the kind of foreign policy a free society needs.
Much of the founders' debate hinged on which diplomatic tools were appropriate for a people who intended to be an exception to human history's cycles of tyranny and anarchy. Borrowing from Harrington as well as later figures of the English country opposition, Jefferson and Madison stood for an agrarian republic with limited powers, in which yeomen farmers would be uncorrupted by the dependence on trade and political patronage that the Virginians associated with big city politics and commercial society in general. Fearing armies, and even ocean-going navies as threats to liberty, they trusted economic coercion as a substitute for coercion by the sword to obtain their foremost foreign policy objectives: free trade and western expansion.
While John Adams shared their fear of armies and would-be Cromwells, he followed in the footsteps of the 18th-century English opposition leader, Bollingbroke, both in defending balanced government to moderate the spirit of party and in relying on a navy to protect American shipping, ward off invasion, and avoid the need for a significant army that might incubate a military despotism.
The ever-enterprising Hamilton was most willing to experiment not merely with navies, but also with a small professional army backed by a much larger reserve. Trusting in the checks and balances of the Constitution to secure liberty from abuse, he saw no reason to deny the national government any traditional tool of foreign policy. Indeed, for Hamilton, the salvation of the republic depended on recognizing that the variety of dangers it might face are infinite; the capacity of the republic to mobilize all its resources to face such dangers whenever necessary must be infinite, too. Although Smith doesn't draw the analogy, the debate over foreign policy bears an uncanny resemblance to the more famous debate between Federalists and Republicans over strict and broad construction of the Constitution.
Jefferson and Madison fare worst in Smith's account because their foreign policy goals were exceedingly ambitious while their ideologically circumscribed strategy severely limited the means the national government might employ to achieve those goals. Seeking to secure American rights to trade with belligerents when England and much of Europe were locked in a mortal struggle with France under Napoleon, they relied on economic sanctions to compel England, especially, to accept the almost unprecedented principle that "free ships made free goods." Had they succeeded, England would have lost much of its maritime dominance. For the Virginians, such a strategy avoided all the evils the 18th-century English opposition associated with military power: high taxes, public debt, standing armies, centralized power in the national government leading to executive and military despotism, and, of course, wars. It also promised to be effective because, especially in their West Indian colonies, Europeans supposedly depended on Americans for necessities (food) while Americans desired only luxuries (such as manufactured goods) from their trading partners.
So when Jefferson came to power in 1800, he, and his new Secretary of State, Madison, advocated peaceful means of economic coercion as an alternative to the war-footing on which their Federalist predecessors had placed the country during the Quasi-War with France from 1798 to 1800. First against England, then against France, and then again against both England and France, they employed embargoes and boycotts to compel them to respect American neutral trading rights and cease impressing American seamen. At the same time, the Federalist army was demobilized. Fearing big navies might cause big wars, they reduced most of the fleet to coastal gunboats with no chance of survival against an early 19th-century man-of-war. The problem was that Europeans did not depend on Americans nearly as much as the Virginians believed and Americans liked so-called luxuries from abroad so much that smuggling became a thriving business, as it would later during the 1920s Prohibition. When trade collapsed because of sanctions, New England fell into a recession and threatened to secede. While Jefferson left office before the final humiliation, Madison's war message in 1812 admitted sanctions had failed, with the choice left to Congress to declare war on England, France, or even both(!) to uphold American neutral rights. Largely as a result of the poor strategy he and Jefferson had practiced in the previous twelve years, Madison became the first, and so far the only, president to see his nation's capital occupied and burned by a foreign army.
John Adams, who as president failed to veto the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, looks much better in hindsight when one considers the costs, risks, and impracticability of the Virginians' failed strategy for securing the republic. Unlike Jefferson and Madison, he did not intend to remake the international system in the American image, with free trade for neutrals and with warring powers. Because his goals were not nearly as ambitious, his means were modest. Under the astute leadership of Adams's Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, for example, a small navy, capable of protecting American coastal shipping from French privateers and hunting them in their lairs in the West Indies, soon proved effective in bringing the French to the negotiating table on terms compatible with American honor. Unfortunately for Adams, the peace treaty with France arrived too late to rescue his declining popularity, which he tried to save by firing his cabinet and demobilizing the increasingly unpopular army then being raised by Adams's chief rival among the Federalists, Hamilton. After losing the election of 1800, the lame duck president's only consolation was that he had defeated the ambitions of Hamilton, then the Inspector General of the Army, to use the crisis with France to establish a professional army, which for Adams as much as Jefferson and Madison, could lead only to military despotism with Hamilton at its head. Indeed, on his tombstone, Adams insisted that he be remembered as the republican equivalent of Bollingbroke's patriot king, a president above party who made peace with France, even at the risk of splitting his party and losing the presidential election, in order to avoid all-out war and nip Hamilton's presumed Napoleonic ambitions in the bud.
As Smith admits, Hamilton does not fit well in his account of ideology and early American foreign policybecause Hamilton was not an ideologue. He did not follow any political thinker religiously; nor did he elevate any particular strategic tool to the status of an uncomprisable political end. How to secure the republic from foreign dangers could neither be determined from books nor predicted entirely in advance. As a young revolutionary, he gave economic sanctions a chance, not, as Smith says, because of his alleged "classical republican" faith in the virtue of the American people, but rather, because sanctions were the last step for resolving America's conflict with England without war. A careful reading of his essays before the American Revolution reveals that he wanted to try sanctions first to demonstrate, by their failure, that all peaceful means of settling the dispute with England had been exhausted. Such failure, in turn, would show Americans they had no choice but to fight to secure their liberties, thus increasing the odds of a united effort to do so. Depending on which country Americans were trading with, sanctions would have more or less efficacy, so their utility could not be discounted entirely. Yet England was the greatest trading nation in the world. And Hamilton's fiscal system, which he relied on to cement the Union, depended on tariffs on British goods. England in the 1790s was the last nation on earth with which Hamilton wished to start a trade, much less a shooting, war.
Since his youth serving as an aide-de-camp to General Washington, Hamilton had been an ardent advocate of naval power, both to secure American trade and to mitigate the need for a large professional army. Federalist 8 and 11 are clarion calls for Americans to become the leading naval power of the Western Hemisphere as rapidly as possible. Yet the enthusiastic navalist was also an old soldier. Sooner or later, America's isolation from Europe would fail to protect it, no matter how much he and others of his generation preached against permanent alliances and other foreign entanglements. Then, Americans would need a real army, not weekend warriors. Having established the power of the purse in Washington's Administration, Inspector General Hamilton sought to complete his life's project by establishing the power of the sword under President Adams.
Especially after Nelson's victory over the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Adams and the Virginians never believed there was a danger that France would attack North America on land. Therefore, they presumed Hamilton's repeated demands for a professional army served illegitimate, non-republican ends. Yet the same day the treaty ending the Quasi-War was signed, Napoleon signed a secret agreement for the retrocession of Louisiana from Spain to France, thus obtaining France's political objective of reestablishing its North American Empire on the cheap, through diplomacy rather than war. Free navigation of the Mississippi was essential to the growth, indeed the very existence of the Union, lest frontiersmen secede to find an outlet for their produce, so no American statesman, not even Jefferson, was willing to tolerate France in possession of Louisiana. Had Adams known he had been double-crossed by the wily Corsican, he might well have unleashed Hamilton's dogs of war to beat the French to New Orleans, as Hamilton had planned, but it was too late. He had already ordered the army demobilized. Confirming Hamilton's worst fears, to take title to his diplomatic gains, Napoleon sent not one, but two armies to New Orleans, though one wound up frozen in port in Holland and the other was diverted to put down revolution in Haiti. In this light, Hamilton's army appears less as a danger than an absolute necessity to the survival of the republic.
History is as much comedy as tragedy, however. Disease and the courage of rebellious slaves wasted Napoleon's army in Haiti so much that the French Caesar had to turn his attention toward dominating Europe rather than North America. For all this, he needed money, raised in part by selling Louisiana to America, thus giving Jefferson the unexpected windfall of the Louisiana Purchase. Invasion, or at least the threat of a French empire along the Mississippi, however, had been a close callmany might say too close for comfort for the new republic.
Smith does not say so, but Hamilton clearly won the debate, both in the short and the long term, about the range of foreign policy tools necessary to defend the republic. So why pay attention to a debate whose particular issues have long since been moot? The answer is that Smith's question is perennially relevant. Not every tool of foreign policy is necessary all the time. Especially when a tool is not required, matters of propriety must be taken into account; some tools, however necessary, may never be proper; and every tool has characteristic costs and risks associated with itmilitary, diplomatic, economic, constitutional, moral, and political. Today, for example, we desperately need human intelligence about al-Qaeda, the insurgency in Iraq, and nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, but some of the tools potentially useful to win our unconventional struggle may fit even less well in the American republic today than Hamilton's conventional army did in 1798. If we regard the preservation of our regime as our foremost foreign policy objective, we can expect that debates about the tools of intelligence, public diplomacy, counter-terrorism, preventive war, and much else will be as contentious for us as the founders' earlier debates about sanctions, navies, and armies. As Hamilton said during a debate over what became the Alien and Sedition Acts, "Let us not establish tyranny. Energy is a very different thing from violence."