Friday, February 23, 2007

Stoking Revolution, in France, in Iran

I know that this is almost a re-statement of a previous entry, but I have re-worked the paragraphs. The story that is told here might be very relevant for our own times, as we face a potential US attack on Iran. If we understand the current Iran to be analogous to France in 1787, the current US to be analogous to England in 1787, and current Europe as analogous to the US in 1787, we can perhaps sympathize with Jefferson's position. In addition, we can take pause when considering our own situation. Our country might be doing things in the international sphere so as to radicalize Iran, making her look to be the kind of country we should fight. Whereas, if we were to leaver her alone or engage her diplomatically, many of the democratic changes that we claim to hope for, might happen anyway (as they were happening in France).

And so due to the French political situation, it seems to be the case that Jefferson, during the summer of 1787, remained silent about the book translation project, and while he probably did not block the project, he probably did not fight to get the book translated and published either. One aspect of the problem had to do with the political situation of France and how Jefferson saw the French experiment in relation to the ideal as compared to the English Constitution in relation to that ideal. The second aspect of the problem had to do with what Jefferson saw to be the larger political situation in Europe, and where Britain and the soon-to-be United States of America stood in relation to that larger situation.

As Jefferson wrote to Adams in the summer and Fall of 1787, he described mobs gathering in the streets of Paris. They hissed at the nobles. The King was perceived as being aloof, as he was drinking wine rather than addressing the problems of the nation. While Jefferson did not make direct attacks on Adams’s book, his letters to Adams indicate that he was aware of the ideas in Adams’s book, and that he was, perhaps, trying to draw attention to what he saw to be a more refined view of the problem of Constitutions and society. Jefferson thought that a revolution had already taken place in France, a revolution that outstripped any revolution in England: “I think that in the course of three months the royal authority has lost, and the rights of the nation gained, as much ground, by a revolution of public opinion only, as England gained in all her civil wars under the Stuarts” (Paris, August 30, 1787. Jefferson to Adams, 196-197). Jefferson did not think that the ground gained by the nation would ever be lost.

Jefferson continued this theme in a second letter sent in September in which He explained to Adams the principles of good government: “the first principle of good government is certainly a distribution of it’s powers into executive, judiciary, and legislative, and a subdivision of the latter into two or three branches.” He admitted that the English constitution was better than previous constitutions, but that it was only better in relation to this standard (Jefferson to Adams, Paris, Sept 28 1787).

As Jefferson pondered the progress made in constitution-building, he also was aware of the difficulty of building an advanced constitution, given a complex political situation. And so, he discussed the Constitution of France and England in the light of events in Europe. In August he indicated that at the same time that France was undergoing her revolution, Jefferson feared that London and Berlin might have been pining for a war against France.

France did not want such a war, and France would look for ways to change Europe rather than submit to the aggression of the English and the Prussians. France, he predicted, would change all of Europe, making it conform to her laws, rather than submit to the yoke of England (Paris, August 30, 1787. Jefferson to Adams, 196-197). In his second letter, Jefferson indicated that the French clearly saw England as her enemy, and was making diplomatic efforts to unite Russia and Austria against England (Jefferson to Adams, Paris, Sept 28 1787).

Jefferson then commented on the situation in Holland, which he thought showed that it was better to never have hereditary offices. Overall, Jefferson hoped that the nations of Europe would be able to chasten England, if only a little. He feared that a conflict was coming with England, and that the nations of Europe were hesitating before confronting her. Jefferson hoped that, in this coming conflict, America would be able to remain neutral. He feared that the English, or rather the King, would force America to take the side of the English. Jefferson thought that common sense would lead the English to leave America neutral, and so she would not.

In this letter of Jefferson to Adams, we can see the beginning of what would come to be divergent views between Jefferson and Adams over the emphases necessary to keep America closest to the ideal constitution, given the coming war in Europe. Jefferson and Adams agreed on the desirability of revolution for France. They also agreed that the best kind of Constitution involved a balancing of three powers. Their disagreements were more matters of emphasis than principle. Jefferson, from his letter to Adams, thought that the popular branch should keep a legislative power.

Adams thought it should keep a diplomatic power. Jefferson admitted that the British Constitution was better than most Constitutions, but it was very imperfect in relation to the ideal. If the French were to change their constitution, they should look to change it with respect to the ideal, not with respect to the British Constitution. The English Constitution was a compromise, given the historical circumstances, with respect to this standard. France might have already outstripped England in achieving rights to bring about this standard. By implication, it would be foolish to propose the British model for a society which was on the verge of better adhering to the ideal standard than the British compromise. A book like Adams’s, if widely distributed, might confuse the French population as to real gains that had been made in France in 1787.

In addition, Jefferson thought that to extol the English government too much might be dangerous with respect to foreign policy, and how foreign policy could affect the internal order of the soon to be United States. The English seemed to be on the verge of a war against France and come combination of other European states. To extol England at a time such as this might lead Americans to think that they were allies of the British, and to drag Americans into the war alongside the British against the other nations of Europe. This policy, Jefferson thought, would be potentially harmful to the young democracy in the US. It could also lead the US to see Britain as the standard of government, rather than the ideal that was currently being established, one of a balance of powers between the three branches of government, with the principle of representation being popular sovereignty.

This strain would only be exacerbated by the coming of the French Revolution. And, in a way, England’s bellicosity from even before the Revolution might have been partly responsible for the radical turn taken by the Revolutionaries during the revolution. Jefferson thought a great war was about to take place in Europe, and that the United States should stay out of the war. He was convinced that the end result of the war will be progress in the art of free government, furthering the advances made in the British and American revolutions, as well as the revolution in public opinion that was happening in France. In a European war, England would attempt to draw the United States into a conflict to defend aristocratic constitutions, which Jefferson, overall, did not think upheld the standard of free governments.

Adams, it seems, did not respond to the statements of Jefferson about balance of powers between the three branches. He was, overall, ambiguous about America’s relationship with England. He was ambiguous about the question of whether the United States should commit to helping England or not in the upcoming conflict. Instead, he admitted that only “Force, Power, and Strength” would restrain some nations. He thought that not England, but that Europe would try to draw America into its conflicts, and he hoped that the United States would come out richer for it, in the end (Adams to Jefferson, Grovenor Square, October 9, 1787).

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Blogger Tortoise(notHare) said...

Your analysis is insightful.

As a general rule, it seems that Jefferson did not like direct confrontation. Adams, in contrast, had an in-your-face personality. Adams was a skilled and admired "litigator" (to use a modern term) and was quite skilled in argument. I could be wrong, but it seemed that Jefferson used his legal education for government service as a Virginia legislator (for example he was the primary draftsman of a recodification of Virginia law) but did not practice law and represent clients in court.
Even the famous post-1813 correspondence between JA and TJ bears this out: Adams wrote 2/3 of the letters and TJ would often ignore topics and questions on which the two might disagree. In other instances TJ's behavior might be termed "passive agressive" in today's jargon. He was not one for dealing with disagreement head-on. So he tried to write to JA to signal his position on legislatures and governments but would not say something direct like "I wouldn't lift a finger to see your book translated into French" but instead went on his wine-tasting tour and certainly did not engage in the dogged pursuit of a translator and printer for JA's book.
I think that JA was quite comfortable with adapting the "British model" because he was primarily concerned with checks-and-balances. JA thought that the primary structural requirement for a government that would best safeguard the liberty of its citizens was to build-in an adequate method to prevent any one arm of government gaining unchecked power so that it would have the tyranny of unaccountability. {And the blood-bath in France soon proved him right.)
Despite all his Federal service, TJ was at heart a Virginian. I think of the example of Robert E. Lee struggling with the thought that he wished to break his oath as an officer of the U.S. Army. He had been offered command of the Union army but declined and then resigned to command "The Army of Northern Virginia." I think that the name is instructive as is the fact that Lee did not become the overall commander of all Confederate armies until February 1865 as the war was in its final 2 months. But it was Lee's deep devotion to his Virginia that held the greatest place in his heart. TJ also saw himself primarily as a Virginian (witness that 2 of the 3 items on his tombstone were exclusive to his beloved Commonwealth) and he was the leader of the "strict construction" and "state's rights" approach. His behind-the-scenes drafting of the Kentucky Resolutions shows that, as well as his passive aggressive character flaw. Even the last major issue he became engaged in (the Missouri controversy) showed his total focus on state's rights and that the Federal government should not control or legislate on issues that were the exclusive province of any given state. In 1786-87 TJ would have preferred the Articles of Confederation be given a tune-up rather than having a convention to draft a new Constitution. (Washington and Madison were the Virginians most prominent in seeking a new Constitution).
I think that JA was striving to help create a Constitution that would last down through the centuries (and it has!). It is interesting also to note that the 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts was drafted by JA and is the only state constitution of that era that is still in place today.
TJ had a much less permanent timeframe in mind. He believed that the debts of one generation should not be visited on the next (and he defined a generation as 19 years) and so he would have expected that the structure of government would change as the generations changed (he was never clear as to what the starting date was for any particular generation, but TJ was not "detail oriented").
Adams essentially founded the U.S. Navy and he wanted to have a strong Navy to serve as the "wooden wall" to protect America from England, France or another nation. (Jefferson stripped-down the Navy almost as soon as he became President).
JA did believe in diplomacy and one of his great achievements as President was how he handled the Quasi-War with France (culminating in the Treaty of Mortefontaine). JA kept the USA out of war (in contrast Madison was pushed and sucked into war with England in 1812).
In any event, the whole quagmire in Iraq could have been avoided with more diplomacy, inspection, sanctions etc. We did not need to invade.
Sad news today that Seymour Hirsch (of Pentagon Papers fame) has a piece in New York magazine that the Pentagon is drawing up lists of targets to bomb in Iran. The Pentagon spokesman refuted that by saying that he was unaware of any such plans...not that they don't exist just that he was unaware of any!!!
Pray that The Decider doesn't decide to widen the war.

11:48 AM  

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