Realism and Idealism 2

This was the essence of Gilbert’s view, the fruit of his research for the Institute’s remarkable seminar and of twenty-five years of involve¬ment in American life. But the book is not simply an essay in abstrac¬tions. It focuses on the importance of a single document, the Continental Congress’s draft treaty of 1776, which John Adams took with him to Europe as a formula for the diplomatic alliances he was instructed to make for the embattled new nation. Gilbert viewed that document as an effort to establish American foreign relations on the basis of a new idealism in the relations among states, on sheer ratio¬nality, not on power politics. Behind it lay the enlightened conviction that the free flow of commerce between nations would be advanta¬geous to all, that neutral carriers should have freedom of the seas in times of war, that the definition of contraband should be severely limited, and that there should be complete reciprocity in commercial rights and privileges between the inhabitants of the contracting pow¬ers. Adams, Gilbert explains, attempted to conclude treaties in the spirit of this draft, which would have established a degree of free¬dom and equality among nations “which would eliminate all cause for tension and political conflicts,” but in this he largely failed. Adams came to realize that the passion for power, for domination over others, would always prevail over ideals, and that, as a conse¬quence, hardheaded realism alone could guarantee America’s sur¬vival. But despite Adams’s disillusion, Gilbert concluded, the strain of idealism embedded in the draft treaty survived, and found one of its most resounding expressions in Washington’s Farewell Address.
The debate Gilbert’s book touched off has not yet subsided. An entire volume has been devoted to challenging his interpretation of the draft treaty, and several articles extend the criticism. But how¬ever one interprets the details of the draft treaty, and however tough- minded and pragmatic Adams and his colleagues can be shown in fact to have become, in a larger and deeper sense Gilbert was right. He had a powerful point of comparison, which American historians lacked. He knew what the politics of Europe had been; he knew what Machiavellianism could lead to; and he, like every one of the Hitler refugees, knew only too well what unconstrained power could mean in its most brutal forms. Yes, American politicians were, or became, realists, but for him what stood out in America’s Revolu¬tionary history was not the opportunism and self-interest of the nation’s new leaders, but their idealism, their determination to restrain the misuse of power and to protect the individual from an overmighty state.
Gilbert’s sources were limited. His focus was concentrated on diplomacy. But he could have found a hundred expressions of his theme in the broader history of the Revolution. He centered his dis¬cussion on Adams because Adams played a vital role in writing the draft treaty, which he felt expressed America’s original aims in diplo-macy, and was entrusted with the task of concluding treaties in Europe. But Adams was only one of a team of diplomats the United States sent to Europe in the 1770s, and the key figure, flamboyantly successful, was Benjamin Franklin, commissioner, then minister plenipotentiary, in France throughout most of the decade after 1776.
The two men, Adams and Franklin, were forced by fate and the Continental Congress to collaborate in negotiations abroad, and an odder couple never existed. Adams was an introspective, self- conscious, awkward, driven, fiercely dutiful, upright neo-Puritan— lacking, his old friend Mercy Otis Warren wrote in her history of the American Revolution, in the “je ne scat quoi” necessary to succeed in European society. He was never a politician—never, as he confessed, practiced “in intrigues for power.” Sensitive to insults, imaginary and real, he felt the world was generally hostile, to himself and to the American cause, which was the great passion of his life. There were enemies on all sides. Even the French, supposedly America’s allies, he believed, were determined “to prevent the growth of our peo¬ple … Gratitude to France is the greatest of follies,” and, Franklin reported of Adams’s views, “to be influenced by it, would ruin us.” Which led Franklin, who correctly gauged the workings of French diplomacy, to say of Adams that “he means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things absolutely out of his senses.”

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