- Keeping the Republic: Ideology and Early American Diplomacy
In Keeping the Republic, Robert W. Smith teases out the relationship between ideology and diplomacy from the eve of independence to the end of the War of 1812. He tracks four key figures—John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—as he studies the impact of what he sees as three different versions of republicanism: classical, Whig, and yeoman. Smith hits most of the key events in early American diplomacy in this book. But, at less than 150 pages of text, Keeping the Republic reads like an analytical essay rather than a comprehensive narrative. [End Page 302]
Different ideas of virtue, according to Smith, shaped the different versions of republicanism that guided early American foreign policy. From ancient Greece and Rome came a "classical" version of virtue that emphasized the subordination of private interest to the public good, particularly in terms of military service. In diplomacy, classical republicanism suggested that the United States would be able to draw more strength from the support of its virtuous citizenry than Europe's monarchies could from their corrupt subjects. From eighteenth-century England came a "Whig" notion of virtue that required "respect for the constitution and adherence to the law" (6), but not the self-sacrifice expected in the classical model. Whig foreign policy demanded the preservation of the republic and recognized the advantages of the United States' unique geographic position. The "yeoman" idea of virtue arose from a combination of historic forces and received its clearest expression in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Yeoman diplomacy relied upon the international demand for American agricultural production and "made the preservation of an agrarian political economy a main goal" (7).
Adams and Hamilton, Smith argues, "went from classical to whig" (5) in response to the failure of the public to meet their expectations during the Revolution. Jefferson and Madison, in contrast, "never doubted the yeoman virtue of the American people" (7). As such, they never reevaluated the relationship of "republicanism and diplomacy" (7) in the way that Adams and Hamilton did. Their inflexible devotion to yeoman diplomacy was a near-fatal error, in Smith's view. His account of American foreign policy from the early 1790s through the War of 1812 makes clear that he considers the Whig diplomacy of Adams and Hamilton far better-suited to the situation of the new nation than the yeoman diplomacy of Jefferson and Madison.
In a number of ways, Keeping the Republic feels a bit dated. Smith shows very little engagement with the most recent work on early American foreign relations. Just a few works from the last ten years appear in his bibliography or citations; even those do not seem to have made much of an impact upon his interpretation. Furthermore, his focus upon republicanism and reliance upon Lance Banning, Drew R. McCoy, and others recalls a debate that peaked some two decades ago. Even more striking is Keeping the Republic's recurring engagement with the great idealism/realism debates that dominated the 1950s and 1960s. While Smith ultimately criticizes this interpretive framework, his assessments of Whig and yeoman diplomacy and his evaluations of Adams and Hamilton [End Page 303] relative to Jefferson and Madison recall many of its features. Readers who are versed in the realist critique of Jeffersonian policymaking, from Robert W. Tucker and David Hendrickson in the early 1990s all the way back to Henry Adams a century earlier, will find much that is familiar in Smith's judgments. At a couple of points, he even refers to a "whig republican realpolitik" (103).
Smith runs into some of the same problems as other writers on early republic ideology. His categories feel somewhat artificial. Individuals and policies often seem to have been shoehorned into their respective places largely for the sake of the argument. I find it hard to imagine his subjects recognizing their thinking or their policies in his terms. "Republicanism" itself, moreover, becomes so capacious in Smith's...