Speakers discuss the founding of the United States, the priorities and goals debated during the framing of the U.S. Constitution, and what eighteenth century politics can teach us about modern U.S. foreign policy.
The Lessons From History series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.
For further reading, please see the CFR Backgrounder “U.S. Foreign Policy Powers: Congress and the President” and the CFR blog The Water’s Edge by James M. Lindsay.
ROBERTS: Well, hello, everybody. It’s nice to be here with you for lunch with this distinguished panel. You have their bios, so I’m just going to very quickly tell you sort of highlights of what they’re up to.
John Avlon, right next to me, is the editor in chief of the Daily Beast and a political analyst at CNN. But for the purposes of this discussion, most importantly, he is the author of Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations.
Carol Berkin, presidential professor of history emerita at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. And she has written eight books, many of—all of them about the—most of them, this period, and many of them about the women of this period. The book today that is sort of the most relevant, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution.
And Noah Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter professor of law and director of the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School. And, again, for purposes for this discussion, the author of The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President. I’m Cokie Roberts. I have also written about this period and am a commentator at ABC and NPR.
And I need to tell you that this series of the Lessons of History—which is a wonderful idea, it is really is—is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubinstein, who makes many things possible. (Laughter.) And so I’m glad that he is also doing this.
We will invite questions after about 20 minutes—20-25 minutes of conversation among ourselves. So please be ready to do that.
And I was thinking, you know, this topic of the Founding Fathers and foreign policy is not one that people really think about much. I mean, I think that you think that, you know, ah, no foreign entanglements, the Monroe Doctrine. (Laughs.) It kind of stops there. I’m from New Orleans, so the Louisiana purchase is important to me, but the truth is, is that there was a lot of foreign policy going on because here we were, this brand-new little country—you know, these little states, huddled on the Atlantic Ocean, trying to deal with these enormous superpowers. And that was a large part of what shaped the foreign policy at the beginning of the country.
And, Carol, you want to talk for a few minutes about that, about how the United States, the baby United States, was trying to deal with France and England, not only great, big powers, but perennially at war?
BERKIN: I think the 1790s, which is the period I know the most about, are marked by two diplomatic goals. The first is to stay out of the war, because America had no army, no navy, no way really to defend itself. And whichever side they took, the other side would come at them guns a-blazing. But I think the second real key is the desire to establish and protect American sovereignty because both England and France—particularly France in the 1790s—were very eager to if not recolonize the United States, to turn it into a satellite and a pawn in their motives in the war. The French were outlandish in this. And I think that Citizen Genet’s behavior in 1793—where basically he wanted Americans to fight in the French Army to attack Spanish territory to the west of the United States and wanted to use American forts at will to attack British Naval forces—I think that’s one of the major things that inspired the proclamation of neutrality.
ROBERTS: Which was 1793, we should say.
ROBERTS: So George Washington is president. Is, you know, the first president, and trying to figure it all out. And he himself, not the Congress—eventually they did pass this law—but he himself proclaims that we’re not going to be—we’re going to be friendly and impartial towards the belligerent powers. And it was a big upset, because there were a lot of pro-French people.
BERKIN: And there were certainly a lot of people anxious, especially in the Northeast, that relations—trade relations with England not be interrupted.
BERKIN: So Federalists and Republicans fought with each other over this policy. Mostly, you have to admire, I think, Washington’s handling of what was such a delicate and difficult task of trying to navigate between these two superpowers, and not wind up being seen as the enemy of one or the other.
ROBERTS: Noah, Carol talked about ports. And of course, that was a huge part of our concern as a baby country, was being able to trade. And the president’s meeting today on trade. (Laughter.) It’s a different view. But the—as part of that, we had the infamous Jay Treaty.
FELDMAN: So before I dive into the Jay Treaty—I’m sure you’re all waiting with baited breath—I just want to say thank you, Cokie, because this is—this was not an easy assignment. At least three books had to be read in preparation for this, and Cokie read them. Thank you.
ROBERTS: Good books—they’re good books. (Laughs.)
FELDMAN: You know, to me, the really striking thing about the moment that Carol was talking about is that the pressing question for the United States, having effectively Brexited—you know, having left the British empire—(laughter)—was how do we now get access to the ports that we used to have access to? I mean, it’s easy to forget this, but the way that these empires worked is that they were basically free trade zones. And you could only trade within your zone. And you couldn’t trade in the other side’s zone. And we suddenly didn’t have any kind of a zone.
And this obsessed Madison, for example. In fact, it was his biggest concern about why we needed a constitution. He thought we needed a constitution because we needed a unified national trade policy. And the point of that trade policy was just to use whatever leverage we could—and it wasn’t going to be, as Carol says, an army or a navy—to try to force the British, and then later the French, to allow us port access. And he read every event that happened subsequently, including the Jay Treaty, through the lens of whether it advanced the ball here. And, you know, he, like other Republicans, hated the Jay Treaty because they essentially saw it as giving up to the British. Essentially—
ROBERTS: Right. Who we had just fought.
FELDMAN: Who we had just fought a war against. And they’re generally—the Republicans in this period, as I’m sure you all know, the Republicans were pro-French and the Federalists were, at least to the Republicans, pro-British.
ROBERTS: They were. And they were. (Laughter.)
AVLON: Well, but that’s what’s so fascinating, right? I mean, the partisan system we have emerges from this debate over the proclamation of neutrality. And Washington and co, who want to remain neutral, get labeled pro-British by Madison and Jefferson, who were all-in with the French, with the Empire Liberty Act.
ROBERTS: And also, as monarchists, and all of that.
AVLON: Right, of course.
ROBERTS: And, you know, at the same time, they’re trying to figure out everything else, right? So even the levees that Martha Washington had to have were attacked as being monarchical, you know, even though anybody could show up as long as they were nicely dressed. (Laughs.)
BERKIN: We think today that the press is—and that people are divided. But the press was scurrilous in the 1790s—absolutely scurrilous.
ROBERTS: Oh, yeah. The fact that they approved the First Amendment is really remarkable. (Laughs.)
FELDMAN: We did not—our generation did not invent fake news. (Laughter.)
BERKIN: And the Republican presses attacked not only on Hamilton, but on Washington himself, and then later on Adams, who was their number-one target, and so easy to attack. (Laughter.)
ROBERTS: There was the wonderful story about Adams, that he came home from England with—no, that Charles Pinckney came home from England with four women, two for him and two for Adams. (Laughter.) And this is the Republican president. And Adams says: If it’s true, I got gypped out of mine. (Laughter.) But, so, we got through this first period—with a lot of animus, but we get through it. And George Washington decides not to run again.
ROBERTS: And it’s a huge moment. A lot of people think the country is not going to survive, right?
AVLON: And, indeed, he hadn’t wanted to run for a second term, but was convinced to do it because the one thing Hamilton and Jefferson could agree on was that if Washington left, we were going to have a civil war. But Washington, after two terms, does set this precedent. He does voluntarily retire from power. It is this final revolutionary act. And to mark it—by the way, undercutting all the accusations of monarchy that had been thrown his way—he writes his farewell address. And he publishes it in a newspaper in September of 1796. But he writes it as a warning to future generations about the forces he felt could destroy our democratic republic, rooted in his own life but also the lessons of history. And that’s where I think, you know, this lecture series is so important, because the Founders absolutely drew on the lessons of history in divining our system.
ROBERTS: And they expected people to draw on them. I mean, they write with great purpose, for people to be reading 200 years later.
AVLON: Absolutely. And the bad news is that Washington defined hyper-partisanship, excessive debt, and foreign wars/influence in our elections as the great threats to our Republic. (Laughter.) Good job, everyone. (Laughter.) But on the foreign policy piece, it tends to be, as Cokie said, what people remember—no entangling alliances. Actually, that phrase does not appear in the farewell address. It’s Jefferson’s inaugural. But the idea has often been misinterpreted and twisted in history as an endorsement of isolationism. Not true. It is a foreign policy of independence, however. He does not want America to be a satellite.
He wants us to take advantage of the great benefits of geography, which we take utterly for granted today, that, you know, the ocean gave us insulation from these old fights, and we could develop as a nation economic strength, military strength, until we could make our own decisions. But that proclamation of neutrality, he wanted to walk a middle line between monarchy and the mob. And as a result, for determining to do that, came under vicious partisan fire, and the French tried to undermine his administration and an election, which is where those warnings come from, which Putin obviously got the memo on that. (Laughter.)
BERKIN: Right, right. Well-put.
ROBERTS: Well, and then Adams is president. And we have what’s coming to be called the quasi-war with France, with Abigail Adams, by the way, desperate for war with France—those despicable French people, in her view. (Laughs.) They—as she said to him constantly: Why haven’t you declared war yet? Why haven’t you declared war? But he didn’t. Who wants—Carol, you want to take this?
BERKIN: I think he was, to say the least, not a skilled administrator and not a—I’m very fond of John Adams. He’s a curmudgeon and an insecure on. (Laughter.) But he was not good, especially in comparison to Washington, who understood exactly what needed to be done and was usually pretty deft at doing it. Adams just goes in and says: You made the Jay Treaty, and that calmed things down with England. I’m going to make a treaty with France and do the same thing. And then he sends over three of the most inexperienced—one of whom was not entirely sane—men to negotiate with Talleyrand. And Talleyrand just mops up the floor with them.
ROBERTS: Ate them for breakfast.
BERKIN: So his failures in diplomacy lead to this—he calls it a half-war—a half-war with France. And then he pulls back and won’t go the full way. Abigail is, you’re right, saying: Declare war already. Declare war already. And Adams is saying, I don’t think really we need to, because I don’t think the French are really going to attack us—a change in view. And it led, ultimately, to the demise of the—one of the main factors in the demise of the Federalist Party.
FELDMAN: Two sort of lessons from that episode. One, it was our first undeclared war. So they had just ratified a constitution that said: If you’re going to go to war, you have to get a declaration of war from Congress. Now we’re sort of used to wars that are fought without a declaration of war. Then it was sort of assumed that we would get that. And sure enough, we didn’t. And so that’s a really important, you know, sort of pathbreaking lesson, and one to keep in mind. It was quasi partly because it was undeclared. And in that sense it wasn’t war, even though it was war.
The other sort of interesting thing to me about this is, much like the farewell address, from our distance we don’t remember just how hyper-partisan the world was at the time. So the—as far as the Republicans were concerned, the quasi-war had always been planned by Adams, untrue. They thought he was prosecuting it to its fullest, untrue. And they thought it was perfectly consistent with the pro-British policy of the Federalists. And actually, you know, Jefferson and Madison took a very dim view of the farewell address. They thought that was partisan too. I mean, it’s hard to believe from this distance, but in their private letters to each other they make it really clear that they think Washington is just justifying flouting our treaty with one of the sides—namely, the French—whom we were supposed to be—we promised them that we would aid them if they went to war with Britain, and we didn’t. So to them, this was a partisan production, not a speech for the ages.
AVLON: And then, yet, though, when Jefferson gives his inaugural, one of the great documents, it’s basically a re-articulation of the farewell address. He becomes a born-again Washingtonian.
BERKIN: Typical of Jefferson. Typical of Jefferson.
AVLON: Yea, exactly. So where you stand is a matter of where you sit. Once he becomes president, he decides Washington’s kind of a wise guy.
ROBERTS: And he—and trade also had a tremendous amount to do with his foreign policy, which was the Louisiana Purchase. I mean, this remarkable deal of doubling the size of the country. But it was mainly to open the port of New Orleans—my hometown, so I get to say it that way—(laughter)—
BERKIN: But also had the great failure of the embargo. I mean, he had his failures also.
ROBERTS: Right. And so—but they needed to have the port open to him, and open to the country. And, again, went against sort of principles that he had articulated.
FELDMAN: Very strongly.
ROBERTS: Yeah. So you want to talk about that?
AVLON: Sure. Well, I mean, Noah—just on the broad point of trade, and Noah makes this point too—the Founding Fathers were very focused on the economics of things, not just the military side of life. Even Washington, right, he’s coming to power as a soldier, very insecure about his abilities as a statesman. But his vision is actually commercial relations with all, political relations with none. He has this actual vision that we should just keep our—you know, do not—do not get involved with the squabbles in Europe, but a trading nation, that’s what he thinks can bind the world together and benefit the United States.
FELDMAN: And there’s a great moment in the Louisiana Purchase which, as you both said, is driven by economic interests, where Jefferson just says, well, it’s unconstitutional. We can’t—we can’t just acquire territory by purchase. There’s nothing about that in the Constitution. So then he recommends privately to Madison, let’s just do it then—because, you know, tick-tock, Napoleon might change his mind. So let’s take the deal. Then let’s go to go Congress and say: Look, we broke the Constitution. So can we have an amendment to retrospectively validate this?
ROBERTS: And everybody says: Are you out of your mind? (Laughs.)
FELDMAN: Yeah. And Madison sort of very subtly pushes him in the direction of realizing that it’s not such a good idea to openly announce that you violated this brand-new constitution.
ROBERTS: Right. (Laughter.)
FELDMAN: But the—of course, the alternative is just to break it without saying you’ve broken it, which is what they did.
ROBERTS: Right, which is what they did. Right. And it worked out fine.
FELDMAN: Yeah, it worked out fine. (Laughter.)
AVLON: More or less.
ROBERTS: (Laughs.) But then we get into a real war that is a declared war. And, again, highly partisan. Not one Federalist voted for the declaration of the War of 1812. And in fact, at the time in the House of Representatives there was still—you could filibuster in the House of Representatives at this point. Can you imagine? And the way they broke the filibuster is somebody stood up and threw a spittoon across the room. So don’t even wrap your mind around that. I mean, that’s so disgusting. But it did stop the debate. (Laughter.) And they went to a vote. But this is Mr. Madison’s war. And it was very unpopular.
FELDMAN: Yeah. I mean, the only thing—there’s almost nothing to be said in defense of the War of 1812, except that Madison tried very, very hard to avoid getting into it. I mean, he was secretary of state for all eight years of Jefferson’s administration, trying to use economic sanctions, which he pioneered, to attempt to force Britain and France to open trade again. And he failed. The embargo failed. And then he got a little better when he was president at the efforts, and he continued to try to play the French and the British off against each other. And he actually did succeed but, as you know, tragically he only discovered that he had succeeded after they had declared war.
ROBERTS: Right. (Laughs.)
FELDMAN: So the movement to the declaration of war is—
ROBERTS: You might not know this. Let me just say, so they did go to the British Parliament and did get a deal that was going to take away the immediate causes of war. And it did not get back to Washington in time. And so the Congress had declared war before the orders and council got back.
FELDMAN: Almost the same day, in June of 1812. And so, you know, at that point, Madison had developed this very counter to character desire to use force, which is—he had spent the previous 12 years trying to avoid doing. And the war plan was really simple: Invade Canada. That was the whole war plan. (Laughter.) And the idea was that would put pressure on the British, and they would be required to knuckle under. And the reason it failed turned out to be the very reasons that Madison had put into the Constitution to stop us from going on wars of invasion, namely no standing army, no significant navy. So Madison used a militia. And it turns out militia are pretty good at defending home and hearth, and really bad at invading. And it—
BERKIN: Which they should have known from the French and Indian War, when they were turned around at the border.
FELDMAN: Right, absolutely.
BERKIN: If you were a Connecticut militia and you hit the Massachusetts border, you turned around and went home.
FELDMAN: And that—exactly that happened by Niagara Falls, when about 3,000 New York militia, under General Van Rensselaer just refused to cross the border into Canada. So hard to invade a country if your troops won’t actually invade the country.
ROBERTS: Canada actually—Canada loves the War of 1812.
FELDMAN: Yeah, rightly.
AVLON: Yeah, of course, it’s one of the high points of their military adventures.
ROBERTS: Right. (Laughter.)
FELDMAN: And they did defend themselves actually very bravely. I mean, the reason that it was plausible to invade Canada is that the British were kind of occupied with the Napoleonic Wars. And so the British had very few regular troops to spare, and almost none in Canada. So it was militia and a handful of very brave regular troops who did defend Canada, very, very bravely.
ROBERTS: But, fortunately for us, the British were preoccupied. And so we were able to keep fighting. And then Treaty of Ghent is negotiated. And, again, we don’t know about it until after the Battle of New Orleans.
FELDMAN: So if I could just add one more little thing about how we got away with it. We almost didn’t get away with it. It’s worth mentioning this, because it’s the big disaster of the war. When in the fall of 1813 Napoleon marched into Russia with 600,000 men, and then by just after Christmas he was down to 10,000, suddenly the British had troops and ships they could devote to this war. So it was about to go very seriously upside down. And that led to the burning of Washington, which was burned by fresh—troops who were fresh from the real war, the Peninsular War, you know, the one that Goya was drawing.
ROBERTS: Well, but the same thing was true of the ships that came around into the Gulf, and they were defeated handily.
FELDMAN: Yes. Yes, that’s true, again, by militia in defense of New Orleans.
FELDMAN: And that’s why the war ended up looking like a success. I mean, you might think that Madison would have been treated, as he is today, as not a very successful foreign policy president. Not so at the time. At the time he was considered to have won this great victory, partly because of the Battle of New Orleans, partly because we had survived a war that we could potentially not have survived.
ROBERTS: And it really—it really solidified the United States as a country. I mean, it even—and I’m not saying the citizens. I’m saying in the eyes of the Europeans.
AVLON: Yeah, and I think pushing back that attempt at an invasion does lay the framework for the Monroe Doctrine, you know, we’re going to hang a “closed for colonization” sign over the new world, because people forget. I mean, even during the time of the Jay Treaty the British had ports in, you know, the western continent. I mean, this was far from settled. They all thought the American experiment would fail and they’d recolonize. So that pushed—
ROBERTS: Not to mention the Spanish.
ROBERTS: And that was—that’s really a very little-known treaty, the Adams-Onis Treaty. But that got us Florida. (Laughs.)
BERKIN: But I think the main—that reason is often called by historians the second American revolution is it established in American minds, if not everywhere else, the idea that we were a sovereign nation. And what is interesting afterwards is there’s this outpouring of nationalism—I mean, the Hudson River School, there’s a new dictionary—an American dictionary. There’s this solidification of an American identity that really, in the 1790s, as you follow crisis, after crisis, after crisis, you see how fragile that relationship. And I have to say, having grown up in Alabama, in my childhood when you said the government, it was the state government. No one really thought about the federal government at all. And that was uniform in the 1790s and the early 19th century.
ROBERTS: Well, people referred to my country meaning their state.
BERKIN: States, exactly.
ROBERTS: So it was, in fact—I think when Rufus King married someone from Massachusetts wrote, these mixed marriages—(laughter).
Well, we’re going to turn it over to you, but one last thing which—because it’s the last of the Founders as president, was Monroe. And that doctrine remains something that we continue to cite today.
AVLON: Yeah. I mean, and I think set a sort of precedent that I think other nations are going to try to create their own versions of, over things like the South China Sea. It’ll be interesting to see how we navigate that. But that was really extraordinary, because all of a sudden, you know, the new world isn’t only going to be protected by the ocean, it’s going to have a protectorate in effect. And that changes everything.
BERKIN: Well, in a way, you can thank John Adams, whose main goal was to build a Navy.
ROBERTS: And he did.
FELDMAN: And, you know, I think we haven’t used this word, but really the dominant theme, if you sort of look at it from 50,000 feet, of this whole period is expansion.
FELDMAN: Every president of every political stripe in this period is seeking expansion, and ultimately expansion across the entirety of the continent, and the expansion of our influence, also looking downwards to the Central and South America. And that is, you know, the headline, as it were, of the framers’ foreign policy. They wanted to expand.
AVLON: Yeah, although I would—I would push back slightly and say, though, they were certainly interested in expanding on the continent. I mean, there was—certainly Washington had the sense that, you know, these foreign adventures run wise. John Quincy Adams gives this great speech about, you know, we do not go abroad in search of dragons to slay, which gets quoted in the Vietnam War protests and the Iraq War protests. So there is constantly this tension between this native optimism, expansionism, but also, you know, trying to recognize the republic not an empire wisdom, because that over-extension is what not only birthed the nation, but what tends to breach tragedies. That’s one of the ways empires fall.
ROBERTS: So, questions. Who’s got a question? Go ahead.
Q: President Trump often refers with pride to his having attended the University of Pennsylvania. What lessons do you think he has in mind from his education there about this period which guides him in his present responsibilities? (Laughter.)
AVLON: We got through 25 minutes without talking about Donald Trump.
ROBERTS: I know.
BERKIN: Without mentioning him.
AVLON: Which I think is a land speed record.
ROBERTS: Right, it really might be. (Laughs.)
AVLON: Oh, well.
ROBERTS: So does anyone want to—
BERKIN: That page was torn out of his book. (Laughter.)
AVLON: Yeah, I’m not sure how much, yeah, the legacy of Philadelphia was imprinted upon him in that regard.
Q: Ron Shelp.
It’s always amazing to me how at this period of time there’s an extraordinary group of leaders, Americans, all living at the same time, from Washington to Madison. I wonder if you agree, and if you wonder why it’s never happened again? (Laughter.)
ROBERTS: So I actually disagree. And part of the reason I disagree—Carol and I were talking about it earlier—is I’ve read all their wives’ letters. (Laughter.) And they did not see these men as bronze and marble statues. But I think that makes them so much more admirable. They were human beings just like, and with all the flaws and all of the foibles, and hyper-partisanship, and all of that. And still, they managed to create this nation. And I think that makes—a deity can easily do something. These men were—
BERKIN: Stealing from A Brilliant Solution, thank you.
ROBERTS: (Laughs.) So these men were not deities. And they were flesh and blood people. And I think that they were well-read, they were well-educated, the certainly knew about the Enlightenment. But to see them as extraordinary I think is putting a gloss of history over them.
BERKIN: But you have to—they were from an elite.
ROBERTS: That’s true.
BERKIN: They were from the colonial and revolutionary-era elite. After Andrew Jackson and the rise of the common man, you begin to get people who come from much more diverse backgrounds who are not raised with a certain kind of experience that these men were raised with. And so they probably are an exceptional cadre, although you might not want to advance the elitism that is involved in having a cadre like that.
FELDMAN: And if I could just follow onto that, you know, four of these first five were Virginians. And they belonged to a common culture that did actually value some things that are not always valued in every other culture. They were very ambitious, in the sense that they wanted to be famous. But for them, fame did not come from wealth and it did not come from popularity. It came from achieving something that history would remember has having contributed to the public good. And they genuinely believed that. That was actually what they were seeking to achieve.
Now, that said—
ROBERTS: By their lights.
FELDMAN: Yeah, by their lights. That said, they had slaves. They have a very mixed, mostly not very good, record of doing anything about their slaves. They wrote a Constitution that entrenched slavery. And even though they didn’t fully anticipate what that would mean, because they didn’t see the cotton gin coming, that was partly the source of the Civil War. But I—so I—you know, this is not to whitewash them. But it is to suggest that their cultural values were not the ones that necessarily prevalent, you know, in our—in our historical moment. And that may have something—if you believe, as I do, that individuals sometimes have an impact on history, then it may matter what the beliefs of those individuals are and what their values were. And I think those values were in many ways, not in every way, but in many ways really admirable.
BERKIN: And public service. Their assumption was that they had a right to govern because of their social class. But the governing itself they saw not as a route to fame, fortune, influence—but as a public service, an obligation.
FELDMAN: Mmm hmm. Not a game. It was never a game.
BERKIN: And all that changes in the 19th century.
ROBERTS: Well, really with expansionism. I mean, that’s what—that’s what really changed it. People started showing in Washington who, you know, had never seen a piano.
BERKIN: Right. (Laughter.)
ROBERTS: And it was—you know, it was the frontiersmen.
ROBERTS: More questions.
Q: Washington had said to look west. And he always thought that expansion would be west, and not going back to Europe. And he—the question I have is, who did they think would run the country after the generation of the revolution had passed? Because there’s no qualification or mention or indication. And yet at the same time, we were inviting thousands and thousands of poor immigrants into the country. Did they think that there would be a university-level education available?
ROBERTS: Well, Washington proposed that. He proposed a national university.
AVLON: Yeah, on the naval—the grounds of what is now the Naval Observatory. And ultimately, it’s a good example, Congress said no to Washington on that, which is why we get University of North Carolina, University of Virginia. But, look, the country was diverse within a type, right? I mean, they spoke Dutch in upstate New York, and German in Germantown. And that’s why Washington in the farewell talks about citizens by birth or choice. The name American is what you should, you know, focus your attention on, over your regional discriminations. So even then, obviously, there was awareness of being an immigrant nation. There was the primary importance of forging a national character and a national unity.
But one thing that always jumps out to me is Washington has an aside to his nephew Bushrod, who later goes on to become a Supreme Court justice. And they’re talking about the Constitution. And it really is a deep rebuke of originalism as we would understand it today. Washington says, you know, I do not assume that we, the current generation, have a monopoly on all human wisdom. They’re basically inviting amendments. They’re inviting evolution. They don’t think what they’ve created is a perfect, sacrosanct document because it’s the product of principles compromised. So there’s an openness to evolution.
ROBERTS: Absolutely. But it was also very important that he had no children.
ROBERTS: The fact that Washington had no children meant that there was not going to be an heir who immediately came. John Quincy Adams was the closest to that. And the children of all these people were involved in public service, again, because they believed that they had a duty to perform public service. But I don’t think that the founders themselves expected to hand it on to their children.
Q: So did they expect to hand it onto the immigrants they were inviting?
ROBERTS: Well, I don’t think they thought about it. You know, look, white, property-own males—property-owning males were the only people who could vote.
BERKIN: But this—but this idea—this idea that the Constitution would evolve and change, you know, that’s why they had the amendment process. And Hamilton has a similar statement. He says: We cannot let the icy hand of the past hold the future in bay. You know, that there is a kind of sense that they couldn’t predict what would happen in the future. They were trying to solve the problems of right now. And they thought if they did that, that the next generations would solve the problems that confronted them.
ROBERTS: And they gave us a framework for it. I mean, the fact that the Constitution still works is remarkable.
FELDMAN: It certainly is. We also did get a little bit lucky on the dynastic front. I mean, Washington didn’t have any sons. Jefferson had some sons. They were African-American and not acknowledged. (Laughter.) Adams had a son, one good son. He became president. Madison had no children. I mean, there was some luck in the picture too.
ROBERTS: OK. Who’s got the microphone? OK.
Q: Do you think that Donald Trump sees himself in same vein as some of our Founding Fathers, in the sense—
BERKIN: Better! (Laughter.) Trump is better.
Q: What—no, what I mean by that is we talked a little bit about the interest of the Founding Fathers wanting to have economic relationships and free trade and that kind of thing. Yet, at the same time, they were reluctant to get involved—necessarily in the political squabbles. And it seems to me that Donald Trump’s version is sort of the same thing. Let those political things in those particular countries go as they may, but as long as I can have good free trade, I’m the best guy to deal with that—
AVLON: Well, I wouldn’t say he’s the poster boy for free trade. (Laughter.) But I think—I think to, you know, to your point, if I had to look for points of commonality—and you got to really squint to see it—I’d say that a lot of what Trump supporters would say is, look, this is peace through strength, invest in the military. Well, that’s certainly—you know, President Washington picked that up from the Romans. You know, the best way to achieve peace is to prepare for war. I do think it’s a broader commercial vision of interconnection between nations. And that was a focus—not political dependence, not permanent alliances, but commercial relations.
That said, I think the tragedy of Trump within the context of this conversation is about history, and the Founders’ very conscious determination to learn from history when, during the Constitutional Convention, they’re talking about ancient Greek and Roman states.
AVLON: You know, that’s informing The Federalist Papers. And, you know, the president has told biographers, one in particular, proudly, while preparing his inaugural address, that he’d never read a presidential biography. And this is somebody who has wanted to be president—or, you know, was allegedly trying to get on the 1988 ticket with Bush. So—and if you like power and politics that much, to not read a presidential biography in your life, that’s extraordinary and, I think, deeply troubling.
ROBERTS: The president he identifies with is Andrew Jackson.
BERKIN: Andrew Jackson.
ROBERTS: And he has the portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office. And when the Native Americans were there, there was Andrew Jackson staring over them.
ROBERTS: But that’s because he understands, from somebody telling him, that Jackson was a people—you know, a populist. And so that’s why he identifies with him.
Q: Can I—can I go back to your point about how the Founders put it about the Constitution and your notion of originalism? Did they think that even though the Constitution allowed for amendment, that there was some core to it that were it to be—that core to be amended out, it would somehow lose the purpose of the document? Was there a part of it that—
BERKIN: The structure. They were—you have to, I think, think about the Constitution in two ways. There was the structure, the separation of powers, the bicameral Congress, the independent judiciary. And I think that there was not one among them who would have advocated any change in that. But there’s the interpretation of, say, the preamble, that there was so many vague and uncertain areas that could be filled in by interpretation. And that, they—I think they believed was the right of the American citizen, is to fill in, to alter, to—
ROBERTS: Grow with.
BERKIN: And even with the amendment process, don’t forget this, they realized—they did not suffer from hubris—they realized in the election of 1800, uh-oh, we goofed. We forgot to separate the president’s election from the vice president’s election. Let’s make a—let’s amend the Constitution. So I think even with structure, they were able to see that they hadn’t gotten everything right.
BERKIN: I’m so struck by their lack of hubris when I look at politics today.
FELDMAN: There is one exception, though, to that, which is that, you know, in Philadelphia the big fight that almost broke the Constitution was about the state’s representation in the Senate. They were so worried about that that they stuck in a provision that said you can only take away a state’s Senate representation with the consent of the states, which pretty much made that unamendable permanently. So that shows you what they were really worried about. That’s our only truly unamendable constitution provision.
ROBERTS: Gentleman in the middle of the room.
Q: Yeah. Stephen Schlesinger.
I’m wondering, you point out at the very beginning of the nation there was a sense—it was no isolationist. It was in the need for independence and sovereignty. Yet, by the 19—by the end of the First World War, everything had hardened into isolationism. So how do you explain how that doctrine from independence became one of isolationist, so it defeated the League of Nations and—
AVLON: Right. So it’s a fascinating story. The Cliff’s Notes version is it comes out of the debate over the First World War. To some extent, the debate about whether we should get in the First World War is a debate about Washington’s wisdom. And it’s conducted between Woodrow Wilson, who’s written a Washington biography, and Henry Cabot Lodge, who’s written a Washington biography. (Laughter.) And they’re both basically arguing over Washington’s legacy, farewell, what would Washington do. And ultimately, you know, we go into war. The world doesn’t end. It’s relatively quick. Versailles gets get screwed up, but we don’t know at the time. But then Lodge wins the debate over the League of Nations.
In the interregnum between the First and Second World War, there’s a lot of soul searching about whether it was a good idea, why we actually got into the war, were bankers and munitions makers influencing our debates? And that really creates a backlash that starts people to say, you know what, that was a mistake. Let’s never do that again. American first. That phrase come in. And it’s Henry Ford and industrialists and Lindberg and various crackpot anti-Semites. And they really use Washington’s farewell as a cudgel saying we shouldn’t get in the Second World War.
There’s a surreal moment in New York. And there’s a German-American bund rally in Madison Square Garden, where they claim themselves—they read Washington’s farewell address, the keynote’s based around it. They’ve got a 30-foot banner of Washington surrounded by swastikas. They’re trying to appropriate it. And then, of course, Washington’s warning against foreign powers trying to influence our election really blows up in their face when it’s found out that they’re being funded by the Nazis and Adolf Hitler.
But what it is—so there’s a great debate, but it’s willfully misconstrued and twisted into an isolationist document, where Washington very clearly says in its correspondence around it: This is for a period of time. We need to gain strength economically and militarily.
ROBERTS: We need to grow up a little bit.
AVLON: Right. And then we can decide peace or war as justice and interest may decide. So it’s very clear when you look at it in context. But it’s fascinating when these documents—it’s great to have debates about them. It’s terrible when they get twisted sometimes and really—
BERKIN: And taken out of context. That’s right.
ROBERTS: Well, honestly, I—you know, in covering Congress the Founders are invoked constantly. And 99.9 percent of the time, inaccurately. It’s just how it goes.
We’re going to come down here.
Q: Thank you. Steve Robert from the Source of Hope Foundation. Thank you to the panel.
The name, I think, of this program is the foreign policy legacy of the Founding Fathers. And you’ve all pointed out, I think, over time, how malleable our foreign policy has been, and therefore that legacy has been. So as you look at the time after the Founding Fathers, has that legacy really impacted our foreign policy and made much difference? Or, in fact, have we been so malleable that the legacy is interesting, but doesn’t have much effect on more recent foreign policy?
ROBERTS: Noah, you want to?
FELDMAN: Well, I guess I would give a two-part answer. First, our global position changed so much from being a kind of—I tell my students, think of it as the I-95 nation, you know, not even, just a handful of states huddled on the eastern seaboard, to being a global superpower. That the nature of the foreign policy that you’re going to pursue is just inevitably and definitionally going to be different. So, in that sense, I would say the change is so great that the lessons are at the level of moral principles. If you contrasted foreign policy, say, to the Constitution, the Constitution remains, even though it’s evolved, profoundly shaped by its original design. Whereas in foreign policy, the invocation of the Founders tends more to be, as Cokie was describing, rhetorical.
However—and this is a big however—it was the framers’ foreign policy that created the conditions for the United States to go from being a tiny, peripheral, unimportant country to eventually a continental power, then a hemispheric power, and then ultimately a global superpower. Their steps were crucial steps along that way. And there were steps not taken that were alternatives. You know, it would have been very easy not to take the Louisiana Purchase. You know, the Louisiana Purchase was also luck. It fell into their laps by luck. If it weren’t for the yellow fever destroying Napoleon’s army in Haiti, Napoleon probably would never have turned around and said: I’m not going to try to establish a North American empire. So here’s this. Would you like to buy it for nothing?
So, you know, there are—there are many steps at which, as well—you know, John mentioned that when Jefferson became president he—and this was true of Madison, too—became a lot more like Federalists. That didn’t have to have happened. They could have stuck with their original Republican vision, which was of an agricultural country that would trade a little, expand a little bit at the periphery, grab up some Spanish territory, but really not—
BERKIN: And keep slavery.
FELDMAN: Maintain slavery. And, you know, but essentially maintain itself as a bucolic, you know, slaveholding agricultural country, which would not have led us to becoming any kind of a superpower at all. So there were crucial decisional moments that were part of their policy, and those have a huge impact over the long course of history.
ROBERTS: Let’s go to the back of the room. Yeah, there’s a question back there. A female person. (Laughter.)
Q: Hi. Ashika Singh.
The Constitution seems to contemplate some balance when it comes to foreign policy power between Congress and the executive. You know, we mentioned Congress has the power to declare war, to regulate foreign commerce. The executive has the power to receive and appoint ambassadors, negotiate treaties, but again with the advice and consent of the Senate. And through centuries of practice, a lot of that power really seems to become much more concentrated in the executive than the Constitution necessarily contemplates on paper. How do you think the Founders would feel about that and would feel about the extent of concentration of foreign policy power in the executive today?
BERKIN: I always worry about the Shirley MacLaine let me—let me channel the Founders. (Laughter.)
FELDMAN: I kind of like that.
AVLON: Yeah, that’s good. (Laughter.)
BERKIN: But in the 20th century, the rise of what Schlesinger called the imperial presidency really tipped that balance. This is certainly something that none of these men would have envisioned happening. So I think there’s a disconnect between their view that Congress was supreme.
ROBERTS: Yeah, Article I.
BERKIN: Remember, the First Amendment—the first article is about Congress. That was the heart of the republic. The presidency was really both symbolic and sort of the administrator—we’ll pass the laws, and then you’ll make sure that they are enforced.
BERKIN: That has changed so dramatically that there’s almost no way to imagine what they would say about—I’m always reminded of a friend of mine who said, when he’s asked what would Ben Franklin say about the world today, he walks over to a light switch and he goes, on/off, on/off, on/off. (Laughter.) So there’s a danger in kind of moving their moment in time to our moment in time.
FELDMAN: I mean, Carol’s warning is absolutely correct. But we’ve given the short shrift to Hamilton, and we actually know what Hamilton thought about this because in the Constitutional Convention he got up and gave a speech where he said only a constitutional monarchy will ever work to govern a country of this size and scope. And he—his policies were clearly oriented towards producing something on the model of a very strong executive, as in Britain—an elected king who, in his view, would probably serve for life. And he would be thrilled with the developments that we’ve seen. (Laughter.) So I think—and I don’t think that requires any great projection backwards.
AVLON: And the fight over the Jay Treaty actually presages a lot of fights about executive privilege, about documents and notes. So, you know, a lot of this stuff, you know, you learn by doing.
ROBERTS: And that’s where he and—that’s where Hamilton and Madison really first went at swords’ points with each other. I mean, remember, they had been good friends.
AVLON: Very good.
ROBERTS: They had—they had done The Federalist Papers together, along with John Jay. And so they—you know, this was—that was the break.
BERKIN: If I could rap, I would defend Hamilton. (Laughter.) I think that that is—he is an extremely complex and brilliant man.
ROBERTS: To put it mildly.
BERKIN: I’m not so sure that that one comment in the Convention explains his full view about politics.
ROBERTS: Although The Federalist Papers—he’s also very strong about the executive in The Federalist Papers.
BERKIN: Because he wanted to see a united country and he worried about the states continuing to see themselves as sovereign powers.
AVLON: I think—that’s one point about the way these debates echo, right? I mean, obviously, the facts of history change with regard to technologies. But, you know, even before there are political parties, the debates at the Constitutional Convention, you could distill it to largely urban residents who want a stronger central government and focus on national unity versus rural populists who are afraid of encroaching federal power and want to defend their way of life, cultural and economically.
BERKIN: Yes, that’s true.
AVLON: And they both think they’re fighting for freedom. That’s the rub. So that debate is as old as the republic.
ROBERTS: Right here. Mmm hmm.
Q: Hello. I’m Catherine Bertini.
Thank you, first of all, all of you, for the enthusiasm and energy you bring to this topic. You really bring these people alive to us, and it really helps understand very much.
Cokie, my question is for you. Are there any of the Founding Mothers who actually had some influence on foreign policy?
ROBERTS: Well, we were talking earlier. Dolley Madison was really an incredibly influential person.
ROBERTS: And Noah was saying, I think quite correctly, that she’s been given short shrift. And part of that is that we don’t—so these men were very self-conscious. They knew that if they won that they would be famous, and that their words would be published and handed down to posterity, and so they wrote with that in mind. And they edited and they, you know, corrected, and their letters are very studied and pompous. (Laughter.)
The women either didn’t write—but most of them did write—but their letters are much breezier. I actually think they give you a much better sense of American society because you learn about the economic situation, who’s having babies and all too often losing them, fashion, all of that. So you get a much broader picture. But what they don’t—they write about politics. They do write about politics, particularly Abigail, but it’s in passing along with everything else. So you don’t se Dolley saying I think we should do X in foreign policy, although you do see Abigail saying that. But what she did was have such influence on keeping the country together. And she was—she ran an establishment in Washington from 1801 until she left with the newspapers talking about the sun setting on the city because she was leaving. And she made people come together at a time of such hyper-regionalism and partisanship that the country could have fallen apart, and she really kept that from happening in large measure by just insisting that people sit down together, have a glass of wine, and work it out.
Q: Hi. Josh Harlan, Harlan Capital.
One foreign policy thinker who’s tried to develop an argument that American foreign policy still can be viewed in terms of categories that trace back to the Founders is Walter Russell Mead. As you know, he’s got a four-fold division into schools of thought that he associates with Jefferson, Hamilton, Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson. Do you—do you buy these categories? Are they still useful?
FELDMAN: I like Walter’s work tremendously. He was a fellow here at the Council at a time when I was also a fellow here, and he influenced me a lot.
I think those are—I think of them sort of like ideal types. You know, Max Weber did a lot of good for our thinking by describing these ideal types, but like those ideal types you can’t exactly map them perfectly onto every contemporary foreign policy debate because we pick and choose among these ideal types. And, you know, there was a bit of discussion earlier about President Trump’s foreign policy as he tries to consolidate and figure out what that will be, and, you know, it’s borrowing from, among those types—other than the Wilsonian one, which is right out, he’s got bits and pieces of all of the other—of the other three. So I think—I do think it’s a—it’s a super-useful framework, but I don’t think that it determines any one actual person’s foreign policy.
ROBERTS: Every time you get into those kinds of frameworks you start to say, hold on a second, you know. It’s true in polling today, for instance, where they sort of say the urban activist and the suburban mom. And people just cross all those characterizations, and it simplifies to a point of absurdity in many cases.
AVLON: Every time.
ROBERTS: Yes, right here. Sir.
Q: Thank you. Steve Gutow, visiting scholar from NYU.
I think I know the answer, but I just—I sit here more and more questioning this question. Did these men and women have any idea that they were going to be really creating the foundation of the—of what would eventually be the most powerful country in the world? Did they actually get that this little I-95 corridor, as one of you called it, would eventually control a great deal of how the world worked? Maybe not as much as some people think, but still a great deal.
BERKIN: There’s no question that Hamilton did. Even before the war was won, he’s writing a letter outlining what America has to do to within a generation become a major rival of Great Britain. And at one point before he issues his first report on public credit, he’s talking to a British minister and he says—I’m paraphrasing—he says we’re young now and we don’t look like much, but you just wait, soon we will surpass you. I think—
ROBERTS: But think how extraordinary—but think how extraordinary that was to say to, you know, the superpower.
BERKIN: Yeah. Yes. I mean, he is—
FELDMAN: Also wrong. I mean, it took more than a century. Yeah. (Laughter.)
BERKIN: Nevertheless, he had this vision. And I think he thought that if all three of his reports, including the report on manufactures—as it was, he set the trajectory of American liberal capitalism with his first two reports. I think he thought that if the report on manufactures had gone through that our Industrial Revolution would have happened before the Civil War and we would be well on our way toward being a competitor with—I’m not sure—the way I read the Convention, the Philadelphia Convention, most of them were really very concerned with the immediate crisis. And most of them were backward-looking in terms of what they thought the variety of solutions to the problem might be. Hamilton is always, I think—in his writings, in his personal letters, always looking to what could be. His problem is he always thought that if people would just shut up and do exactly what he said—(laughter)—then all would be well. He was—it’s no mistake that he never really ran for public office, because he—
ROBERTS: He would have lost.
BERKIN: —simply believed that he was superior, which he was, and that everyone should just be quiet and do what he wanted. But I think he is the visionary in that group.
ROBERTS: All right. We have time for one more here. Ma’am.
Q: Hi. Carole Artigiani from Global Kids, and thank you very much.
The economic security of the—of the country was very important to everyone. And that, as you said, meant trade was a priority. But I’m thinking about the slave trade, and I’m wondering if you find anything among the Founding Fathers suggesting that this is something questionable and something we need to take care of it.
BERKIN: Sure. Oh, sure.
Q: I mean, I know it’s in the textbooks, but I’d like to know more, if anything.
FELDMAN: Let me just say something about—two quick things. One, they distinguished slavery from the slave trade. So there was a—it was a conventional view at the time to say, if you were a slaveholder, that the slave trade was brutal and immoral—how could you take someone from his or her home and transport them?—but that having slaves was perfectly fine. After all, we do it at home and it works. So that’s the first distinction.
Second, in the Convention, there would have been perfect willingness on behalf of the Virginians to allow the slave—not to abolish it right then, but to allow Congress to abolish it. And a combination of the South Carolinians, who needed more slaves, and the Connecticut delegation, which had close business and familial relationships to the South Carolinians, intervened to insist that the Constitution guarantee the continued existence of the slave trade for 20 years. And they forced it on everybody else, and everybody else said OK.
BERKIN: You have to remember that there were two major British campaigns in the South, and they had really wiped out—one slaveowner in Georgia lamented that there were only five slaves left in his entire county. They really wanted to continue the slave trade because their economy depended on it.
Virginia was already moving, as Maryland was, to wheat production. The market in tobacco had really slumped and it didn’t look like it was going to get better. And Washington, for instance, was moving toward the production of wheat. And so slaves are a burden when you plant wheat. Though I certainly don’t know much about farming, I think you just sit there and watch it grow. (Laughter.) Whereas tobacco and the rice culture of South Carolina were extremely labor-intensive. Consequently, the Virginians—
ROBERTS: Right. And then the cotton gin. And then the cotton gin.
AVLON: And that changes everything.
FELDMAN: Changed everything.
AVLON: Partly I’m laughing because, as I recall, there are some people who get agricultural subsides who lived on Park Avenue. (Laughter.)
But no, look, this was something they actively wrestled with. And, unfortunately, it was—it was a condition of the compromise to get the Constitution through. But even Washington, I mean, this is why they’re—they’re really focused on the danger of civil war early on, and it is along North-South lines. And Washington says to Edmund Randolph, his attorney general, if there is a civil war I’m throwing in with the North, which is pretty extraordinary. And then he—as sort of a coda to his Farewell Address, he releases his slaves upon his death, which you can easily argue is too little too late, but he’s doing it to set an example.
ROBERTS: No, he releases him upon Martha’s—
AVLON: Upon Martha’s death, yeah.
BERKIN: Martha’s death.
AVLON: That’s fair.
ROBERTS: And she was terrified that they were going to kill her.
AVLON: Which is a rational concern on her part. But, you know, he sort of decides in—when he dies, his will states that they are to be released.
AVLON: Correct. But then that precedent doesn’t exactly—you know, isn’t mimicked by all the Founding Fathers. I think there are nine subsequent presidents who owned slaves. But they were aware that this was an original sin early on and it would very likely spark a civil war.
ROBERTS: Abigail at one point, when we were losing some battles in the Revolutionary War, said she thought that this was happening to us because of the sin of slavery.
ROBERTS: And I think that’s a good way to look at it, and it’s the last word. So thank you all so very, very much. You’ve been great.
BERKIN: Abigail gets the last word. (Applause.)
AVLON: Abigail gets the last word.