Idealism without pragmatism is impotent. Pragmatism without idealism is meaningless. The key to effective leadership is pragmatic idealism. (Richard Nixon). Were the very first years of the new nation, born of the American Revolution, marked by a spirit of pragmatic idealism, as B. Bailyn pointed out with almost two centuries of hindsight? As a matter of fact, the Confederation period, as this era was called, enclosed major changes in American history: during this short decade, the Articles of Confederation, ratified in March 1781, were gradually replaced by the Constitution of 1787. The Declaration of Independence, proclaimed in 1776, had brought about dreams and ideals which, in the minds of the people, suddenly seemed reachable, palpable and intended to turn real. The idealistic dimension of the Revolution lies at the core of the first Constitution of the new nation, for it attempted to create an ideal state, built upon principles such as liberty and democracy. In the wake of independence, the colonists were eager to form a government that would differ altogether from that of the British oppressor. However, hope was soon disappointed, since the Articles of Confederation, quickly deemed too idealistic to be put into practice, and did not hold their promises. All the expectations were set on a new document, one of the most important in the history of the United States: the Constitution of 1787 was born, and had to buckle down to the arduous tasks of reconciling antagonistic views, of preserving democracy while averting anarchy, of strengthening the central government while avoiding oppression, and to provide a brand new political expression to a nation which had been so far a loose league of friendship among the Confederate States. It is not surprising that the Constitution of the United States was soon nicknamed the Great Compromise; it was a successful attempt at putting an end to the strong dichotomy and to the bipartite systems that had been either remnants of the past or creations of the Revolution and the ensuing Articles of Confederation: Conservatives v. Radicals, big states v. smaller ones, Nationalists v. the Statesright School, North v. South, democracy v. monarchy, and idealism v. pragmatism.
[...] The ideals born of the Revolution could not be practically put into practice: idealism could not merge with pragmatism and reality. The Articles of Confederation had implemented a political system based on the assumption that the people would be able to govern themselves, which proved to be unworkable and impracticable: the ideal form of an almost democratic government did not work. How could the league endure if it was based on no higher authority than the sovereignty of the people? [...]
[...] In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Jay and Madison argued that the delegates acted in order to cure the ills of the nation, for the benefit of the population as a whole. However, the debate over representation and the problem of the legitimacy had been mentioned even before the meeting took place. The bicameral system was accused of extending political prerogatives to a clearly aristocratic assembly, in other words, to adapt the British political system to the American setting! The Representatives were a chosen elite, they were well-educated men, either moneyed or with landed interests. [...]
[...] The process of nation-building was a very ambitious enterprise, but one which eventually managed to break the antagonism between idealism and pragmatism, overcoming the limits of the two and unifying those two notions under a Constitution which ideally embodied the people's desires, while it pragmatically worked within the realistic framework of rationality, wisdom and moderation. However, the system has its limits, since it sometimes proved ambiguous and paradoxical, as we shall see. The first part of our analysis will be dedicated to the idealistic heritage of the Revolution, which the Articles of Confederation were a direct descendent of, underlying that extreme idealism often leads to a failure when put in practise: it can't merge with pragmatism and reality. [...]
[...] The colonies were not at all represented in the British Parliament, and yet taxation had been implemented on them –this would give birth to the motto of the Revolution, taxation without representation”. The despise of monarchy and the fear of tyranny were still present in the minds of the people during the drafting of the Articles of Confederation, which led them to proclaim that there would be no powerful centralized government. It was then much more a treaty between sovereign states than a treaty for the creation of a new nation, since it established a “loose league of friendship” between the confederate states and implemented no strong executive power. [...]
[...] Indeed, one is entitled to wonder whether an American nation actually existed at the time, and whether the expression of the nation could be uttered in the midst of conflicting interests. The end of the eighteenth century in America was marked by the emergence of the concept of nation-belonging. In fact, this notion was not brand new, since it came from the concept of Manifest Destiny, which was the driving force responsible for changing the face of American history –from the Pilgrim Fathers to the twenty-first century–, the philosophy that created the nation. [...]
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