A History without Parallel: Intimacy, 1776–1789
Even as they proclaimed American history independent of Britain’s, the young men of the Revolution persisted in traditional historical comparisons. They saw their efforts in universal terms and used other countries’ experiences to explain their own aims and goals. After all, the comparability of nations’ histories had been a basic tenet of Whig theory. American Whig ideologues, all of them children of the Englightenment, believed that laws governed human relations no less than natural phenomena. History was the teacher of these ordinances from which men might draw useful lessons. The study of all history was applicable to any one nation’s political councils, for all societies passed through the same stages, in accord with the immutable laws of political life. The rise and fall of republics was one of these tenets. Taken on its face, this philosophy of history doomed the new republic to eventual decline and dissolution; it was only a matter of time.1
The real world in which these revolutionaries made their way presented more immediate and practical dilemmas of survival. Between 1776 and 1789, the maturing revolutionaries faced the challenge of creating both public and private stability in the midst of turmoil. The problem of public disorder loomed menacingly. Congress was a microcosm of discord in the nation: could a Virginian be truly intimate with a Massachusetts man? Could delegates from large states work with delegates from small ones? In the new states, the problem was the same: could planters and merchants, western-country representatives and city folk join in larger communities, sacrificing self-interest to common interest? Could (and should) the poor and rich sit down together as allies? The conflict between intimacy and isolation, central in the young adulthood of an individual, was written large in the nation; localism wrestled against cosmopolitanism, East against West, and debtor against creditor.2
Individual revolutionaries in the first years of maturity faced disorder of a more personal sort. A number of domestic decisions had to be made. Would they marry? and rear children? travel? enter a profession? give time and energy to community life? The fabrication of interpersonal relationships requires private adjustments, the most important of which is abandonment of the consuming egocentrism of youth. Cooperation requires openness and warmth, a willingness to give and receive. The ability to live with others marks the full transition from youth to maturity, the end of a period of “novice” adulthood. For the young men of the Revolution, such decisions must have been difficult. The war’s uncertainty and destructiveness, added to wearying service in the patriot cause, imperiled courtship and temporarily dislocated friendships. Career prospects in the law, the church, and other professions varied under forces that the young men could hardly control. Even if they were physically untouched by the war, the scenes of civil strife all around them contraverted sentiments of domesticity and community. Who could tell the fate of the country, much less of a particular career or relationship?3
In their public stations, the young men of 1776 were haunted by the iron laws of Whig history—the certain knowledge that, in some future time, their experiment in republican self-government must end in failure, as all others before it had ended in failure. Whig historical maxims weighed upon them like Jacob Marley’s chains. None of them escaped the burden. John Jay, then in Madrid, pleaded to an American friend: “Your irregular and violent popular proceedings and resolutions against the tories hurt us in Europe. We are puzzled to answer the question, how it happens that, if there be settled governments in America, the people of towns and districts should take upon themselves to legislate. . . . The newspapers in Europe are filled with exaggerated accounts of the want of moderation, union, order, and government which they say prevails in our country.” From correspondence with political leaders in the United States, Jay knew that a dread of public immorality and political uncertainty was also spreading at home. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina wrote to Jay in 1786, “Every attempt to restrain licentiousness or give efficacy to government is charged audaciously on the real advocates for freedom as an attack upon liberty.” John Marshall, at a distance of half a century, recalled the “deep solicitude” the young revolutionaries felt for the domestic political institutions of their new states. The need for political intimacy did not know ideological boundaries. In old age, Jefferson also remembered the Confederation period with regret because the uncertainty and weakness of national government endangered the great experiment in republicanism. For all but a handful of the new nation’s young leaders, Gordon Wood has written, “revolutionary ideals seemed to be breeding the sources of their own miscarriage.”4
The cold hand of the Whig theory of the past was felt particularly heavily in the councils of the new republics. Delegates to the New York State Constitutional Convention in 1777 and to the Massachusetts Constitutional Conventions that met periodically throughout the period 1776–80 divided over the form for the executive and upper house because these men remembered the injuries done to the colonies by an unbridled monarchy and an aristocratic House of Lords. If American history was determined by the same laws that had ultimately led to the corruption of the English crown and Parliament, then the power of American governors and senators must be severely limited. But could the new states survive without an energetic executive and a secure senate? The wreckage of the Articles of Confederation government and Pennsylvania voters’ abandonment of a revolutionary committee system in favor of a strong executive and a longer tenure for senators gave evidence that these questions could not be avoided.
In the face of the young revolutionaries’ yearning for stability and harmony flew evidence of discord from earlier American history. No colonial settlement escaped disturbances. Young revolutionary scholars had preached to the world the virtues of life in the colonies but could not still their own doubts. John Adams extolled the rationality of Americans, David Ramsay the coolness of their deliberations, and Benjamin Rush the cooperativeness of their efforts, but each of these men knew well the fury of partisanship and self-interest in the politics of the new nation. Their knowledge and their fears were widely shared by their revolutionary comrades. Self-congratulatory historical propaganda might serve the revolutionary party in time of crisis but could not dupe the revolutionaries themselves.5
Still trusting in the lessons of history but greatly disquieted by evidence that American history conformed to the law of decay set out in Whig treatises, several young revolutionaries commenced detailed exploration of the histories of the new states. David Ramsay of Philadelphia and Charleston was the first of these. Ramsay had relocated himself in the wake of the Revolution, moving to establish a career and family in a congenial professional setting. His mobility was typical of young adults then, as it is now, in this country. With a vision sharpened by his own search for domestic order, he came to recognize fully the imperfections in the community spirit, harmony, and cooperativeness than ran through American life. History told him and his generation that Americans had not always valued domestic harmony—at home or in their local government. After the peace treaty of 1783, Ramsay took some time to explore these disturbing historical facts. His two-volume History of the Revolution of South Carolina from a British Province to an Independent State (1784–85) recognized the weaknesses in the first Carolinians’ attempts to build a state in the wilderness. Disease ravaged the coastal plantations much of the growing season, and the upland woods, filled with lurking savages, hardly offered a safe haven for the “weary and heavy-laden, the wretched and unfortunate of Europe.” The emigrants, products of varying national backgrounds, had difficulty living in harmony. Domestic, religious, and political contention, as well as constant warfare on the frontier, disrupted the colony. British supervision maintained a semblance of law, but even when Britain ruled justly and generously, “everything in South Carolina contributed to nourish the spirit of liberty and independence . . . its settlements were nearly coeval with the [Glorious] Revolution in England, and many of its inhabitants had imbibed a large portion of that spirit . . . every inhabitant was, or easily might be a freeholder, settled on lands of his own, he was both farmer and landlord. Having no superiors to whom he was obliged to look up, . . . he soon became independent.” Independence meant not only republican liberty but also a continuation of the license and disorder of the past. Ramsay, who had served in the 1782–83 session of the Confederation Congress and would go on to high office in South Carolina, knew that these conclusions could be extended to all the new states. In February 1786, shortly after finishing his History, Ramsay mourned to Benjamin Rush: “In 1775 there was more patriotism in a village than is now in the 13 states.” Such a decline in republican civic virtue was foretold in Whig history, as Ramsay, from his wide reading, well knew. It presaged the death of republics.6
If proof was needed of the dangers inherent in native American disorderliness, the years after the peace of 1783 brought abundant evidence: the controversies over the state constitutions, the struggles of creditors and debtors for control of state government, and, above all, a rebellion in western Massachusetts. When Daniel Shays led western Massachusetts farmers against the state, younger revolutionaries concerned with newly won public harmony decried renewal of revolutionary disorder. History told of the mortal dangers of insurrection. If former rebel captains like Shays could turn upon a state that had led in the Revolution, what republican government was safe from endless private dissatisfactions leading to countless public uprisings? Caught in the middle of a lecture tour by the uprising, Noah Webster found his utopian revolutionary hopes dashed. Safe again in tranquil Connecticut, he decided, “Nothing can be so fatal to morals and the peace of society, as violent shock given to public opinion or fixed habits.” Aghast at the prospect of political upheaval coming to New Haven, Humphreys insisted that the “discipline, and the institutions and examples” of past generations of orderly patriots must be impressed upon their unruly descendants. Humphreys helped to script a mock epic, the Anarchiad, which grandiloquently blended real fears of disorder with rhymed bluster at Shays’s defeat by the government. The poets truly conceived themselves with guardians of the “temple of liberty” and were petrified by the specter of rabble in arms.7
Granting the danger was real, one wonders why the young poets were so troubled. They had urged revolution and war but ten years before. They had learned insurrection at its source. Why, now, did they feel such fear of disorder? Humphreys was fast becoming a mournful prophet of political and social conservatism, but a yearning for order was not confined to conservatives. From the opposite side of the political spectrum came murmurings of a similar timbre. In 1787 Humphreys invited his Yale classmate, Joel Barlow, to deliver the Fourth of July address to the Hartford branch of the Society of the Cincinnati. Barlow was a reformer and would soon be a radical Francophile, but his Oration restated Humphreys’s poetry: “The existence of our empire depends upon the united efforts of an extensive and divided people.” Isolation, diffusion of purpose, and antagonisms among Americans were Barlow’s targets.8
As the desire for intimacy bridged differences in political ideology, so it spanned discord over particular laws and policies of government. Though, in the heat of rebellion, many a young revolutionary may have demanded the death of the “father-king,” all of them placed “tranquillity” and “due supremacy” high on their lists of constitutional priorities. Whatever the forms of their fundamental laws, they conceded to their new governments the power to make binding statutes and to punish offenders. The most radical of the young men of 1776 did not object to the creation of criminal courts with powers of life and death, nor did the most conservative of them prevent almost all of the states from the unheard-of novelty of bills or declarations of rights. Lifted to office by their revolutionary comrades, such exponents of liberty as Jefferson were just as decorous and law-abiding in their tenure as conservatives Fisher Ames and Rufus King. If, behind all these young men in their new posts surged the will of an aroused people, they regarded themselves as its trustees. Poles apart in their particular goals for government, Jefferson and Hamilton labored to make government more efficient and orderly. Schooled in different philosophies of social growth, Webster and Freneau both begged young Americans to put aside private gains and serve the public interest.9
The young revolutionaries’ need for order was more basic than ideology or political preference. Disorder was not the opposite of tradition for them; it was the enemy of intimacy. Would-be reformers and future conservatives alike were robbed of prospects by disorder. Barlow could not write his poems, nor Webster sell his books, in times of rebellion. Local rebellions disrupted careers barely begun and threatened future hopes. The common fears of young revolutionaries can be illustrated by comparing these men with their older comrades. The young often felt disorder in a different way from the older revolutionaries, a difference of perspective growing out of a difference in stage of life. To take one example, Edmund Randolph and George Washington, adoptive son and figurative father after Randolph’s biological father elected to remain loyal to the crown, corresponded frequently about the state of national affairs. Both men lamented corruption in government, self-seeking among officials, and popular unrest. Both were galvanized to action by Shays’s rebellion. But the disorder meant something very different to the two because of the difference in their stages of life. Washington watched with dismay from Mount Vernon, his public career (so far as he could have predicted) at an end. He urged reform and then joined in it because of his concern, which Randolph himself would grasp as he grew older, to preserve and secure his life’s labors. The younger man had begun a splendid political career as attorney general and would shortly be governor but was still seeking to make a lasting contribution to his country. He looked to the future, and from his office in Richmond, his view of the crisis was more pained and anxious than Washington’s. Young men of Randolph’s generation saw disorder as an immediate problem, which could not be ignored. Randolph’s fears were vivid and personal: “The nerves of government are unstrung, both in energy and money, and the fashion of the day is to calumniate. . . . What then, am I to expect?” he wrote to Washington upon his election to the Virginia governorship. Washington’s fears were just as genuine but less immediate: “As no mind can be more deeply impressed than mine is with the awful situation of our affairs . . . so, consequently, those who do engage in the important business of removing these defects, will carry with them every good wish of mine.”10
The need for order so keenly felt and widely shared among the generation of 1776 bridged the public and the private spheres. Disruption in politics intruded directly upon the lives of the politicians in this generation. The weakness of the Confederation government drew the young revolutionary leaders away from their newly established families to sit in assemblies and congresses. Jefferson, frantic with worry over his sick, pregnant wife, periodically scurried home from the House of Burgesses in Richmond. Bachelor Elbridge Gerry could not choose between affairs of state and the attraction of a lovely young fiancée. After years of indecision, he elected to marry and settle in Cambridge but continued to find politics too irresistible to abandon entirely. In March 1789, James Madison received a letter from Charles Cotesworth Pinckney explaining that Pinckney could have had a United States Senate seat, but with a wife about to deliver a child, an ailing mother, and a big new house, he had decided to remain at home. For all his plaintive cries, Pinckney had already served his state and his country at the cost of domestic harmony. His service was typical of his generation. Though sentiment turned their thoughts toward home, the younger revolutionary politicians did not abandon public life. They arrived at adulthood in the midst of political crisis and created a basis for adult life in their protest writing and their revolutionary committee work. They hoped aloud that their efforts to ensure national harmony would lead to true domestic peace. Typically, Hamilton, though he left the Continental Congress and “retreated into domesticity”—law practice and family life in New York City—nevertheless used the respite from public office to plan for a new federalism. Troubled by the chaos left by the war, surrounded by more disruption than they ever cared to see, the young revolutionaries strove all the harder for constitutional order and political stability.11
For other young men of 1776, isolation and economic depression were more terrifying than public unrest. Men of talent and ambition lamented the isolation of much of the western portion of the country. Brackenridge wailed that his “solitary residence” in western Pennsylvania drove him to despair. He did not fit in with the roughnecks and hayseeds. Who did? Not Freneau, who found Philadelphia and Charleston filled with unruly mobs and bloated speculators. Nor Webster, whose single-mindedness sustained him in temporary jobs, as he peddled his speller and his vision of a new language. But these men, as Madison and Jefferson, bore the stamp of the revolutionary experience upon their very features. They first took up their pens to defend rebellion and independence, and they still found their future prospects in the success of the republic. Scratching for a living at the end of the war, Joel Barlow admitted, “I am yet at a loss for an employment for life,” but was buoyed by his faith that “the American republic is a fine theatre for the display of merit of every kind. If ever virtue is to be rewarded, it is in America.” Webster, at work on his speller, agreed: “It is the business of Americans to select the wisdom of all nations . . . to add superior dignity to this infant Empire and to human nature.” He pledged to work toward that end.12
The parallel between the young revolutionaries’ search for domestic stability and professional advancement for themselves and the young nation’s search for political and constitutional harmony is not farfetched or metaphorical. The young men saw its validity. As quick as they were to perceive the tie between independence and their own coming of age, so they grasped that their domestic arrangements and future prospects were indissolubly bound to the success of the American experiment. Contemporaries were well aware of the complex intertwining of personal and public commitments in these critical years. When Rufus King of Massachusetts married a New York merchant’s daughter, John Jay was quick to commend King for breaking the barriers between states, and John Adams, whose daughter had also wed a “Yorker,” solemnly declared to King, “It will be unnatural if federal purposes are not answered by all these intermarriages.”13
Committed by private convictions to the public good, indeed, identifying their future with that of the republic, the generation of 1776 anticipated the fatal verdict of Whig history all the more keenly. If all republics were governed by the same laws of birth, growth, decline, and decay, if American history were no exception to the iron law of dissolution, what use were the young men’s efforts? For them, it was no distant, abstract theory but the corporeal prophet of disaster. As it doomed the republic, so it doomed them; as it threatened harmony in their councils, so it portended discord and dissolution in their homes. The argument of Whig history must be refuted, not just to complete the intellectual edifice of American republican thought but to give the generation of 1776 peace of mind. In the arenas of politics in which some of them would congregate, they championed a variety of practical solutions to the dilemma posed by Whig history. All of them, future federalists and future antifederalists, recognized the imperative of finding an answer to the dire forecast of the laws of history.
As the tie in their lives and minds between the fate of the republic and their own prospects brought them to this agonizing pass, so it also pointed a way to refute the iron law of republican decay. If American history were incomparable—unlike any other—then it would not be fated to recapitulate the dismal past record of republics. The generation of 1776 probed this logic early in the 1780s. In the midst of the disorders they saw about them and those they cataloged from earlier American experience, the young men of 1776 began to see a hopeful pattern. Americans had proved that they were an enlightened people, a people willing and able to compromise, cooperate, and reason together to solve common problems. Looking at history from this new perspective, a vantage point to which their search for harmony carried them, they discovered—like Barlow’s “Columbus”—an empire of reason. The disorders were real (and predictable, according to the Whig canon), but the capacity to settle disputes and create legitimate, representative government was also real—and, these men asserted, unparalleled. The Whig laws thus did not apply here. The young revolutionaries of 1776 already had shown that they did not consider received historical wisdom to be sacred. History was their tool, to be refashioned for each new task. They had done just that in the crisis before the Declaration, motivated by the combination of personal and public striving for identity. Revising their view of history once again, they pointed the way toward a new national stability. They found in America’s experience evidence of true intimacy: shared aspirations, effective local governments, and self-sacrifice for the common good. This discovery proved American history incomparable to that of other republics and, at the same time, rationalized the dynamics of constitutional reform. It placed control of events in men’s hands and took them out of the realm of an unfavorable, discomforting natural law.
The new vision of American history also had its price: the incomparability of American history, the basis for a national community, seemed to divorce events here from those elsewhere in the world. To ensure their future, the young had to yield part of their claim to leadership in world renovation. One must remember that the young men of the Revolution had already sworn to the world that American history and the history of other oppressed peoples was linked. These revolutionaries offered themselves as proof that no people need remain the vassals of another, or of kings and nobles. It would not be easy to cast off this mantle of universalism, for it had been worn proudly and sincerely. Nevertheless, the need for domestic harmony was more compelling than promises made to foreigners in a time of peril, and the maturing revolutionaries followed this intellectual course, convoluted as it was. Ramsay’s apologia was typical: “I am a citizen of the world, and therefore despise national reflections; and hope I am not inconsistent, when I express my ardent wish that Law, Physic, and Divinity may be administered to my country by its own sons.” From all points of the ideological compass, the generation of 1776 approached this nationalistic solution to the problem of domestic intimacy. Among them, the young federalists would join the youngest antifederalists in the discovery. With a new vision of history to guide them, the generation of 1776 would chart a novel American constitutional course, isolating American experience in their journey toward cooperation at home.14
Hints of the young revolutionaries’ discovery of the incomparability of American history multiplied throughout the 1780s. Their commitment to historical universalism remained strong but could not resist the growing pressure of exclusivistic nationalism. Rather than formulate an immediate synthesis of moral universalism and empirical isolation (which would come, a generation later, in the work of George Bancroft and others), the revolutionaries vacillated between the old and the new historical formulas. In 1787 Timothy Dwight beheld a vision of an unprecedented history, a republic that descended from “the skies,” though in earlier poems he had sorrowed at Americans’ inability to cast off the wants and weaknesses that plagued earlier civilizations. Other revolutionaries of his generation were still ambivalent in their feelings and unsure of their ground. Joel Barlow made his poetic persona “Columbus” promise, with true revolutionary universalism: “No more the noble patriotic mind, to narrow views and local laws confined.” The same Columbus also saw an empire to end all empires in the New World: “Each orient realm, the former pride of earth, where men and science drew their ancient birth, shall soon behold, on this enlightened coast, their fame transcended and their glory lost.” To the Hartford members of the Cincinnati he made the conclusion more specific: the American Revolution succeeded because “on the western continent the scene was entirely different [from anywhere else], and a new task, entirely unknown to the legislators of other nations, was imposed upon the fathers of the American Empire.” Benjamin Rush called for the teaching of all kinds of history, to show “the progress of liberty and tyranny in the different states of Europe.” Nevertheless, above all he wished American history taught, for the “true principles of republics,” as he told Jeremy Belknap, could not be discerned in the experiences of America’s predecessors: “Mankind have hitherto treated republican forms of government as divines now treat the doctrine of final restitution. Both had been condemned before an appeal had been made to experiments, for both have been accused of leading to disorder and licentiousness.” By rejecting the authority of Enlightenment commentators on republicanism, Rush was pledging himself to the new, incomparable American history.15
American history could provide a basis for future progress and tranquillity only if it were severed from other nations’ past experiences. The logical consequence was that the history of the American Revolution could no longer be assumed to be the forerunner of world renovation—a model, yes, but no longer a precursor and partner. Such historical observations as Barlow’s and Rush’s, if not an unconditional withdrawal of American commitment to universal revolution, were frank statements of the priority of domestic harmony over global reformism—and this from two future defenders of the French Revolution.
The two fullest and most self-conscious explorations of the incomparability of American history, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781–86) and Adams’s Defense of the Constitutions of . . . the United States (1787–88), were produced by men of different political persuasions—but common determination to escape the trap of Whig laws of decay. Both addressed European audiences on the issue most pressing to their generation. The Notes and the Defense were less retractions of earlier promises of support for world revolution (Jefferson never really recanted this pledge, and Adams never really made it) so much as apologiae for the discovery of the uniqueness of American constitutional experience. The Notes began in 1781, as an answer to a French inquiry about life in the new states. Jefferson admitted that “in every government on earth there is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy which cunning will discover.” This was a good Whig maxim, but Jefferson found indications in the history of the colony that Virginia government and law were unique. The people of that community had never bowed to tyranny, believed imposture, or accepted the status quo. The moving force behind the constitutional progress of the state was its people’s continuing role in making and running government. The people understood “[The constitution] pretends to no higher authority than the ordinances of that same session; it does not say it shall be perpetual, that it be unalterable.” In the mixture of genuine popular sovereignty and constitutional reform lay the basis for a community unlike that seen anywhere before. Woven through this period of his life was Jefferson’s struggle for domestic peace of mind. Perhaps, if he could not claim exemption from the laws of chance that cost him his wife, he could augur a better fate for his state.16
Adams, like Jefferson, had found a unique historical cement for American political materials. The United States were different from other nations, he opined, because they were wiser. Adams’s chief work of this period, the three-volume Defense of the Constitutions of . . . the United States, was culled from many continental sources—typical of Whig comparative history—but undercut the Whig thesis, for its moving force was his own effort to draft a constitution for Massachusetts that would surmount the difficulties of its European predecessors. How was this possible? From his first paragraphs, in volume 1, Adams boldly preached the virtues of America’s enlightened representative government. He began with the general premise that “the arts and sciences in general, during the three or four last centuries, have had a regular course of progressive improvement,” but he emphasized that only in America, where the general population had excelled in the Whig “science of politics,” were the lessons of experience wisely employed. All the settlers understood and protected their old civil liberty. “The people [of the colonies] were too enlightened to be imposed upon by artifice, and their leaders, or more properly followers, were men of too much honor to attempt it.” A foundation thereby existed in shared institutional experience for balanced government, and, consequently, “The United States of America have exhibited perhaps the firmest examples of government directed on the simple principles of nature; and if men are sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider [the American Revolution] as an era in their history.” Even as he penned these encomiums to American constitutionalism (and his own Massachusetts document) his optimism was severely shaken by Shays’s rebellion. Though he was never again to expect so much, so easily, from his country, he never foreswore his underlying faith in its incomparable preparation for its special mission of republicanism.17
Barlow and Rush were ambivalent; Jefferson and Adams clung to Whig precepts even as they hurled Whig “laws” overboard; but all had discerned that American institutions would survive the constitutional crises of the 1770s and 1780s and surmount unknown crises to come if and only if the new republic was historically unique. Only then would the United States not be bound by the laws that doomed other republics. The recognition of the need to make American history incomparable, to isolate the American experiment from foreign antecedents, was tied to no particular view of political reform. It was instead a product of a new maturity in the revolutionary generation: a drive to uncover the possibility of intimacy beneath the disorderly surface of the confederation. Even Hamilton, who had no illusions about the superiority of American character, readily conceded that “it is ridiculous to seek for models in the simple ages of Greece and Rome” to refashion American institutions.18
At the Constitutional Convention, which met in Philadelphia in the spring and summer of 1787, Whig comparative history was tested against the most immediate and pressing needs of American politics and found wanting. At first, young and old delegates turned for political wisdom to the history of other peoples. During the early weeks of the convention, James Madison often referred to ancient councils and the Belgic and Helvetic Confederations, and Wilson tried to draw lessons from Persia and the Roman Empire. Yet these references no longer were convincing, and Wilson admitted that “if a proper model was not to be found in other confederacies—it was not to be wondered at. The number of them was small and the duration of some at least short.” In these circumstances, it was logical and astute of the federalists among the generation of 1776 to attempt to establish their new view of American history as the orthodoxy of federalism. The preparation of a federal system was the solution these young men of the Revolution assayed to the problem of intimacy, and into it the notion of an unparalleled history fit perfectly. Madison, the leader of the young federalists, announced that a serious detriment existed in the use of examples from the histories of other nations. On June 21, he told the convention: “All the examples of other confederacies proved the great tendency in such systems to a disobedience of the members.” He argued that this, and not “a tendency to a tyranny . . . of the federal heads,” was the prospective fate of the American confederation. But if all other attempts at confederated government had ended ruinously, and Madison admitted they had, there was only one chance for America’s success. Madison found it to be in “the character of liberality, which had been professed in all the constitutions and publications of America.” American history, with its “representative principle” and its “enlightened people,” was different from the history of the Old World. As Charles Cotesworth Pinckney put it, “The people of this country are not only very different from the inhabitants of any state we are acquainted with in the modern world, but I assert their situation is distinct from either the people of Greece or Rome, or any of any state we are acquainted with among the antients.” Pinckney’s implication was clear: Americans should use their own past as the source of political instruction. The other young men of the Revolution at the convention agreed.19
The logic of history was now on their side: a new federal system, unseen in other nations’ histories, could be conceived and would be successful in America because American history was unparalleled. The appeal of this dual revelation about American history and the federal Constitution was irresistible. In state after state, public debate on the Constitution, climaxing in the state ratification conventions, proved that American history was fast being accepted as unique and superior by federalist and antifederalist. The younger federalists wasted no time employing their idea of a unique American history to support the proposed Constitution. Noah Webster wrote a pamphlet for the Connecticut ratification convention in which he “showered the architects of the new government with praise . . . [for] this western world now beholds an era important beyond conception . . . the names of those men who have digested a system of constitutions for the American empire, will be enrolled with those . . . collected by posterity with the honors which less enlightened nations have paid to the fabled demi-gods of antiquity” (my italics). Webster extolled the American Constitution as an advance over all previous forms of confederated government: “In the formation of our constitution, the wisdom of all ages is collected, the legislators of antiquity are consulted, as well as the opinions and interests of the millions who are concerned. In short, it is an empire of reason.” Such an accolade to American reason was common in the federalist publications and echoed their use of American history during the Philadelphia convention. As Webster put it, “Experience is the best instructor—it is better than a thousand theories . . . but I appeal only to American experience.” Webster then compared the new American Constitution to its two most respected predecessors, the Roman and the English. He found the American document incomparably superior because it truly embodied the popular will. Webster believed American reason, incorporated into the federal system, would guarantee the continuing excellence of the new Constitution—just as it would Americanize the English language.20
Another younger revolutionary turned federalist who found the Constitution a product of America’s special historical virtues was New York Chief Justice John Jay. In his addresses to the people of that state on the proposed Constitution, he wrote that the escape from the old European historical cycle of loose confederation, followed by political dissolution, lay in the careful reading of the lessons of American history. The proper model, according to Jay, was the American Revolution: “The people answered ‘Let us unite our counsels and our arms.’ . . . Confiding in the probity and wisdom of Congress, they received their recommendations as if they had been laws.” The events of 1775 and after had “proven the wisdom” of listening to America’s political leaders when they called for a strong federal congress. The representatives of the people, according to Jay, must again recognize the vision of those same leaders.21
Detail of a portrait by John Singleton Copley, Harvard University Portrait Collection.
Portrait by John Trumbull, Harvard University Portrait Collection.
Copy by Gilbert Stuart (1826) of a portrait he painted in 1823, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, Independence National Park Collection.
Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, National Gallery of Art.
Portrait by Thomas Sully, American Philosophical Society.
Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College.
Portrait by Joseph Wood, Virginia Historical Society.
Portrait by Asher B. Durand, Library of Congress.
Miniature by Charles Willson Peale, Frick Art Reference Library and Nathaniel Burt.
Portrait by John Trumbull, National Gallery of Art.
Portrait by P. T. Weaver, Museum of the City of New York.
Sketch by Gordon Fairman, New-York Historical Society.
Even when the generation of 1776 resorted to Greek, Roman, and English historical arguments to support the Constitution it was to show how different America was, in temperament and experience, from those other nations. It was the thesis of The Federalist, for example, that America’s new Constitution had remedied the defects of the older governments; in this context historical examples from Greece or Rome proved only the inadequacy of copying Greek or Roman forms of government. In scholarly pieces, Madison and Hamilton, with the assistance of Jay, presented the conventional wisdom of Whig history with this twist: they employed standard historical illustrations in a negative sense, to prove how superior the new American Constitution was to the political arrangements of the other nations. One of the papers Madison and Hamilton collaborated on gives an idea of the historical tactics of The Federalist. The eighteenth number began a summary of the confederacies and republics of the past and found: “Among the confederacies of antiquity the most considerable was that of the Grecian republics . . . from the best accounts transmitted of these celebrated institutions, they bore [a] very instructive analogy to the present confederation of the American states.” The analogy was drawn out by the authors: “The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy . . . it happens but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party.” The conclusion, the point which the authors elicited from ancient history, was that America was different from the older confederacies because she had the capacity to make an unparalleled improvement upon the ancient constitutions. The references in The Federalist to the history of other nations had meaning only when its readers understood, as the authors intended, that the new American government defied comparison.22
A few of the young men of the Revolution opposed the Constitution as it was presented. These men had nevertheless arrived at the same general conclusions about American history as the young federalists. Elbridge Gerry, though a delegate to the convention, was not pleased with its product and campaigned against it in Massachusetts. There he published a pamphlet, Observations on the New Constitution, in which he reproached the federalists, “who have made the most costly sacrifices in the cause of liberty.” He accused them of forgetting the lessons of British tyranny in America, “which the brave sons of America have fought with a heroism scarcely paralleled even in ancient republics.” Gerry’s indictment of the proponents of the new government was precisely that they, and not the antifederalists, had forgotten the bloody lesson of the American Revolution and aimed at the establishment of a new despotism. He appealed to Massachusetts voters to reject the proposed Constitution “before they are compelled to blush at their own servitude, and to turn back their languid eyes on their lost liberties.”23
The maturing revolutionaries of 1776 on both sides of the ratification issue presented their most involved and complete historical arguments in the state ratification conventions. In each of these extraordinary gatherings, the controversy over the meaning of American history was renewed in face-to-face confrontations. The Massachusetts convention assembled in January 1788, and the first session gave an indication of the changed attitude toward and increasing attention given to American history. The very first issue considered by the delegates was the two-year term for congressmen. In Massachusetts, one-year terms for the lower house were the rule. Theodore Sedgwick, who entered politics as a young revolutionary and had become a prominent political conservative, rose to discuss the effect of the two-year term. “It had been mentioned by some gentlemen that the introduction of tyranny into several nations had been by lengthening the duration of their parliaments,” the reporter of the debates recalled, and Sedgwick wished to know “what were the nations which had been thus deprived of their liberties.” He believed they were few in number. He added that he did not see how the change from a one-year to a two-year term “had any effect in American history” (my italics). The next day, Fisher Ames, whose political conservatism had grown strong in the days between his youthful revolutionary activity and the present debates, returned to the matter to argue for a longer term of office for elected representatives. He avowed that no evidence from “the paltry democracies of Greece or Asia minor” would convince him that a two-year term was improper. Rufus King, a young revolutionary who would later lead the Federalist party in New York, agreed that “from the continent of Europe . . . we could receive no instructions,” and he would not attempt to manufacture them. But “it has been said that our ancestors never relinquished the idea of annual elections: this is an error.” It was an error King attempted to correct by explicit reference to Massachusetts’s political history alone.24
King, who had been at Philadelphia, also attempted to explain why the authors of the document had begun with the phrase: “We, the people . . .” instead of “We, the States . . .” as the convention had been instructed. Once again he turned to America’s unique history to explain: “In the ancient governments, this has been the principal defect. In the United Provinces of the Netherlands, it has been conspicuously so,” but “in America . . . the representative principle has ruled.” Thus, “we, the states” was a preamble inappropriate “to a representative government.” Another federalist, John Gorham, proposed to go further and “exposed the absurdity of conclusions and hypotheses, drawn from ancient governments, which bore no relation to the confederacy proposed,” for again, “those governments had no idea of representation as we have.” The youthful federalists made clear that they intended to appeal to American history, not to examples drawn from ancient or European history.25
Before the final balloting, Ames tried to rally the remaining undecided voters to the federalist standard with the now proven appeal of American history. He spoke to “those who stood forth in 1775 to stand forth now; to throw aside all interested and party views.” To this plea one antifederalist delegate retorted that he, too, had stood forth in 1775 and he found in the present Constitution the same design as the British conspiracy of 1775: “Does it not take away all we have—all our property.” Representative John Nason of Maine summarized the antifederalists’ fears of the Constitution with an extended historical reference to American history, which was by that stage of the debate the expected form of historical illustration:
When we felt the hand of British oppression upon us, we were so jealous of rulers, as to declare them eligible but for three years in six. In this constitution we forget this principle. . . . A standing army! Was it not with this that Caesar passed the Rubicon, and laid prostrate the Liberties of his country? . . . We had a Hancock, an Adams, and a Warren. Our sister states, too, produced a Randolph, a Washington, a Greene, and a Montgomery, who led us in our way. Some of these have given up their lives in defence of the liberties of their country. . . . and had I an arm like Jove, I would hurl from the globe those villains who would dare attempt to establish in our country, a standing army.
Both sides had come to draw their historical lessons from Massachusetts and America, not from Rome or Europe or even England. Older revolutionaries, as in 1776, came to adopt their younger colleagues’ views of American history. All ages and sides had agreed that the proper aim of government was the preservation of America’s unique political freedoms.26
In the Pennsylvania convention, James Wilson, a supporter of the proposed Constitution, made the same two points about the inapplicability of non-American historical examples to the current political crisis as were made by both the Massachusetts federalists and antifederalists. First he noted: “we were deprived of many advantages which the history and experience of other ages and countries would, in other cases, have afforded us.” This was the result of the lack of proper historical works, to the end that “the facts recorded concerning their constitutions are so few and general, and their histories are so unmarked and defective, that no satisfactory information can be collected from them concerning many particular circumstances.” There remained a second obstacle in that “the situation and dimensions of those confederacies, and the state of society, manners and habits in them, were so different from those of the United States, that the most correct descriptions could have supplied but a very small fund of applicable remarks.” A truer lesson could be derived from the experience of the American people than from the history of any other nation.27
To the south, the Virginia ratification convention was marked by even fuller exploration of the nature of American history. The first sessions saw the establishment of a clear pattern: Patrick Henry, an antifederalist who had grown to intellectual maturity in the generation before Wilson, Madison, and Hamilton, opposed the Constitution with copious comparative historical references, while young federalists Robert Nicholas, Edmund Randolph, and Madison insisted upon the incomparability of American history. In traditional Whig fashion, Henry insisted that “revolutions like [ours] happened in almost every country in Europe; similar examples are to be found in ancient Greece and ancient Rome—instances of the people losing their liberty by their own carelessness and the ambition of a few.” He implied that this would be the result of the adoption of the federal Constitution. Henry lamented the lost passion of America: “When the American spirit was in its youth . . . liberty, sir, was then the primary object.” He even ventured the alternative of a confederation modeled upon Switzerland to the document now before them. Henry’s first speech thus moved easily between American and European history, seeking in both effective replies to the federalists’ case.28
Edmund Randolph gained the floor on the following day to dispute Henry’s ideas about history. He believed Henry had been misguided in his reasoning by the use of irrelevant historical arguments, such as those he drew from the case of Switzerland: “Sir, references to history will be fatal in political reasons unless well guarded. . . . Examine the situation of [Switzerland] comparatively to us: the extent and situation of that country is totally different from ours.” Randolph warned, “From the year 1776 to the present time . . . the history of the violation of the constitutions of America extends.” The people of America had simply lost their respect for law. The real alternative to the proposed Constitution, Randolph suggested, was not a recreation of Switzerland’s cantons in the New World but a recreation on American shores of the “perpetual scene of bloodshed and slaughter” in Europe. This above all was to be avoided.29
Madison was no more satisfied with Henry’s use of history, especially Henry’s attachment to foreign histories. Madison dismissed the example of Switzerland as “quite unworthy of our imitation” and proceeded to pinpoint the real dangers to the republic, as he saw them: “Turbulence, violence, and the abuse of power, by the majority trampling on the rights of the minority, which have produced factions and commotions which, in republics, have, more frequently than any other cause, produced despotism.” Later in the session, Madison summarized his extensive researches into the history of confederations, with different conclusions from Henry’s:
If we recur to history and review the annals of mankind, I undertake to say that no instance can be produced by the most learned men of any confederate government that will justify a continuation of the present system. . . . The uniform conclusion drawn from a review of ancient and modern confederacies is, that, instead of promoting the public happiness . . . they have, in every instance, been productive of anarchy and confusion, ineffectual for the preservation of harmony, and a prey to their own dissensions and foreign invasions. [My italics.]
Madison concluded that American history had in it the material for a much sounder, in fact, a unique constitution, and no other nation’s history could be cited to disprove this.30
Nevertheless, Henry returned to the floor to defend his reading of Swiss history. “They have stood the shock of four hundred years,” he told his critics, “and enjoyed internal tranquility most of that long period.” Throughout the following days, he offered the political history of Holland as an example of the evils of a strong central government. He pronounced the inordinate power of Stadholder to be the cause of the ruin of the Dutch. Finally, he decided to appeal to the history of Virginia, adopting the tactics of the younger federalists to prove his case. “What did the genius of Virginia tell us? Sell all and purchase liberty.” He continued, “On this awful occasion, did you want a federal government?” Virginians had not known feudalism or vassalage or tyranny, at least for long, and thus the lessons of the failures of weak ancient republics or modern confederacies cited by the federalists did not apply to Virginia. “We differ in this from all countries,” Richard Henry Lee, another older antifederalist now agreed, for “our present government is well suited” for Virginia’s own needs. With the conversion of their Whigschooled fathers to the exclusivist concept of American history, the victory of the young federalists was inevitable.31
When the Constitution was ratified, all the young revolutionaries of 1776 rallied to it. Regardless of their particular interpretation of its articles, the document became the symbolic fruition of their quest for stable domestic relationships. In this situation, it was entirely appropriate (though, one must admit, also expedient) that late federalists and recent antifederalists found the Constitution, and the American experience that gave the new government its form, to be unparalleled in history. If it were circular to use the Constitution as proof of the incomparability of American history, it was neither inconsistent nor novel to place the Constitution at the apex of the long development of American institutions. At a 1788 Philadelphia Fourth of July commemoration also celebrating state ratification of the Constitution, Wilson extolled, “A people, free and enlightened, establishing and ratifying a system of government they have previously considered, examined, and approved . . . is the most distinguished spectacle that has yet appeared on our globe.” Wilson was convinced of the truth of his oratory. In his later law lectures at the University of Pennsylvania, he displayed vast erudition about other nations’ legal systems but persisted in the assertion that American law, derived from American history, was superior to all others.32
The establishment of a national government brought the fruition of domestic pursuits closer to these men. Skeptics, such as Thomas Jefferson, put aside serious reservations to serve in the new government. The once-young revolutionaries, with a few exceptions, controlled the first federal offices. In a very real way, the federal government became a home for these men, not replacing their own families but enlarging the family and projecting it upon the screen of national life. The generation of 1776 went on to dominate the first twenty years of federal policymaking. Once again, the path out of a personal life-cycle challenge for them had led to public service, aided by a new vision of the meaning of American history. Madison rested at his home between sessions of the first United States Congress, confident that the nation would now survive. The extraordinary and taxing diplomatic missions of Adams in London, Jay in Madrid, and Jefferson in Paris ended as these men returned home. Though they would all serve in federal posts, their domestic lives would never again be as irregular as they were in the 1780s. Typically, George Nicholas, who had served alongside Madison in the heady debates in the Virginia ratification convention, joyfully wrote to Madison of his resettlement in Kentucky, “following the business of a farmer and a manufacturer without any interruption but what the calls of my profession [as a lawyer] cause.” Of course, true to his identity as one of the young men of 1776, he added, “Unless indeed I also add the moments I employ in trying to point out the real situation of this [frontier] country.”33
The young men of the Revolution had solved the problem of intimacy by turning their energies inward. They promoted harmony with a federal union, permitting loyalties to state and local governments to exist untouched. By so doing, they denied themselves full participation in world revolution. Declaring friendship and commerce with all, but commitment and debt to none, they isolated America. The neutrality policies grew from, among other sources, the combination of celebratory and exclusivistic themes in the new historical nationalism. Hamilton, writing a draft of a farewell address for George Washington, went beyond his own generally cautious view of the virtues of Americans to celebrate the “magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence” (my italics). Hamilton had reached for and found the central tenet of the nationalistic historical consensus of the 1780s.34
To be sure, American history could not be separated from events that were to come—no American revolutionary went that far. When delegations of revolutionaries from other countries approached American leaders for direct assistance in the years after 1789, they were rewarded with sympathetic lectures on the American historical model. This they were to copy, if they could. If the American Revolution could not be directly exported (because American history was “too novel”), others might still learn from it. Wilson proposed at the end of the ratification debates: “We shall probably lay a foundation for erecting temples of liberty in every part of the earth.” He told the Pennsylvania convention that its example “will induce princes, in order to preserve their subject[s], to restore to them a portion of that liberty of which they have for so many ages been deprived.” Wilson and Hamilton were far more chary of foreign upheaval than Jefferson or Madison, but the latter two did little more for their French and South American supplicants than offer their own faith that revolution abroad was following the American model and deserved American goodwill.35
In the 1780s, the revolutionaries were maturing. The great enthusiasm of youth was falling away before the political realities of adulthood. Political uncertainties in the 1780s had accelerated the process. The contraction of revolutionary history’s boundaries to the Western Hemisphere was not a cynical view so much as a considered judgment of grown men, forced to confront more immediate problems than the eventual fate of the oppressed peoples of the world. Who among them anticipated that a European revolution would explode in the very first year of the new federal government or that the French Revolution would force American revolutionaries to review the meaning of colonial independence from a new perspective? Not as youthful participants but as sober parents, the American revolutionaries would have to determine if their own rebellion was complete or unfinished. As we shall see, the importunings of the French radicals for advice came at another critical time in the life cycle of the American leaders and would leave their concept of their uprising permanently altered.