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Pragmatism and idealism in the process of nation-building (1781-1788)

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  1. Introduction.
  2. The idealistic heritage of the Revolution.
    1. The spirits of optimism.
    2. The Articles of Confederation.
    3. The ratification of the Articles of Confederation.
    4. The ideals born of the Revolution.
    5. Shay's rebellion in 1786.
    6. The lack of a political party.
  3. The Nationalists of the 1780s.
  4. The Constitution adopted in 1787.
    1. Constitution submitted to the public in October 1787.
    2. This notion of 'pragmatism idealism'.
    3. A 'Great Compromise'.
  5. The question over slavery.
  6. Conclusion.
  7. Bibliography.

?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 new Constitution managed to give a key answer to many antagonisms, in the creation of pragmatic idealism ?Great Compromise??, but it also drew another separating line between the two concepts: the idealism of equality was not put into practice, for pragmatism spoiled the spirit of ?practical? men ?among which you found some of the Founding Fathers? who, as slaveholders, continued to run their business as the matter of fact, the whole economy of the new nation? thanks to this ?Peculiar Institution?, without even trying to do away with it ?although the Northern fraction of the new nation gradually came to the abolition of slavery. [...]

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