Realism and Idealism 8

But portraiture, statuary, and allegorical engravings did not intense mortification, was obliged to witness. “After dinner,” Adams later recorded in his autobiography,
we went to the Academy of Sciences, and heard Mr. D’Alembert as Secretary perpetual, pronounce eulogies on several of their mem¬bers lately deceased. Voltaire and Franklin were both present, and there presendy arose a general cry that Monsieur Voltaire and Monsieur Franklin should be introduced to each other. This was done and they bowed and spoke to each other. This was no satisfac¬tion. There must be something more. Neither of our philosophers seemed to divine what was wished or expected. They however took each other by the hand … But this was not enough. The clamour continued, untill the explanation came out “Il faut s’embrasser, a la frangoise.” The two aged actors upon this great theatre of philoso¬phy and frivolity then embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms and kissing each others cheeks, and then the tumult subsided. And the cry immediately spread through the whole King¬dom and I suppose over all Europe Qu’il etoit charmant. Oh! il etoit enchantant… to see Solon and Sophocles embracing!
Is it not true that America’s successes, its great historical moments, have occurred when idealism and realism were combined? Three months earlier, the life-saving Franco-American alliance, largely negotiated by Franklin, had been concluded. It was secured not by one treaty but by two: the first a treaty of amity and commerce that conformed to the ideals of the model treaty; the second a secret pact—pure power politics—by which France guaranteed American independence and gave the new nation the right to conquer Canada in exchange for France’s right to seize the British West Indies; both sides pledged not to conclude peace with Britain without the other’s consent. By June France was at war with Britain, and the configu¬ration of Atlantic power politics was transformed. The question thereafter was not if America would win the War of Independence, but when.
The blending of realism and idealism permeates the entire history of the Revolutionary era. The climax—and perhaps the most vivid example of Gilbert’s argument—came a decade after Adams arrived in Paris and a decade after the most creative phase of Franklin’s iconography, in the drafting, ratification, and amending of the fed¬eral Constitution.
For many years it has been fashionable to view the Constitution as the conservative reversal of the idealism of the early years of the Revolution—a counterrevolution, a Thermidor. But it was not. It was much more complicated, much more subde, than that. The Constitution was written not by hard-nosed, conservative political bosses determined to reverse the meliorist enthusiasm of the early years, but by idealists, tempered idealists, who had come to recog¬nize, reluctantly, the need to create the dangerous instruments of centralized power. Survival, they realized—economic, political, military—depended on it. But they knew the dangers. They had fought a war to escape the controls of a powerful imperial govern¬ment that could impose military rule at will, destroy civil liberties, and impoverish the population by taxation. The possibility that the independent government they were creating might reproduce pre¬cisely the same dangers was never far from their minds, and in the ratification debate the powerful opposition was there to remind the Federalists of the dangers of excessive executive power, autocratic majoritarianism, military adventurism, the loss of civil liberties, and the emergence of oligarchic or aristocratic domination. It was to eliminate or closely control those dangers while creating an effective national government that the Federalists devised their complex tissue of compromises, balances, checks and cross-checks that make up the federal Constitution. So the empowering Section 8 of Article I enu¬merates in eighteen paragraphs the central powers of the national government, but the eight paragraphs of Section 9 that immediately follow lay down restrictions on precisely the powers enumerated. So the president proposes, but Congress disposes. So armies are cre¬ated, but financed by civilians, biennially. So the president devises treaties, but the Senate enacts them. So the executive nominates judges, but the Senate confirms them. Every sentence was parsed, weighed, challenged. Some wondered whether such an intricately balanced machine could ever work.
But still it was not enough. The purpose of it all was to secure the needs, the rights, of the people. Why was there no Bill of Rights? Good, logical, apparently irrefutable answers were given by the Federalist leaders. First, the government could not invade areas of personal rights, since its mandate extended only to specified and limited powers; second, most states already had bills of rights, and it was at the state level that such matters should be handled; third, if you enumerate rights, you limit their plentitude to the few items you happened to think of; and fourth, “parchment barriers,” as Madison put it, a few luminous words on paper, would not keep ambitious men from exercising undue power: freedom can be preserved not by glowing statements but by the balance of real forces.
Good arguments, but the opposition was unconvinced. They saw a deeper logic. If rights were not specified in some form but were simply assumed to exist, in the end someone in government would have to say, in a contested situation, what precisely the rights were that should be legally protected, and so those who held office could silence opposition simply by refusing to recognize rights that were claimed. In the end—after one of the most exhaustive public debates in modern history—the message was clear: there would be no Con¬stitution unless the corpus of powers that had been created were bal¬anced by an equally powerful enumeration of rights; unless it were explicitly stated that all powers not specifically delegated to the fed¬eral government were reserved to the people or to the states; and unless the enumerated rights were understood not to deny or dispar¬age or limit all other rights, whatever they were, which were reserved in their totality to the people.
Like the Franco-American alliance of 1778, the Constitution is not a singular document; it is two documents, one creating the powers necessary for survival, the other expressing enlightened aspirations. It is a bill of powers and a bill of rights combined, and in its amended, complete form it reflects precisely the creative tension between idealism and realism in American public life that Felix Gilbert saw so clearly in his earliest studies in America. His conclusion, that America’s “great historical moments have occurred when both were combined”—the perception of a mind shaped by harsh Prussian realities and studies of Renaissance politics, sensitively responding to North American ideals—is as true today as it was when he wrote it, over forty years ago.

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