James Madison
James Madison; drawing by David Levine


The American republic was founded amid the misfortunes of two European empires. The failure of the British in the American war of independence demonstrated the limits of military power in an extended and discontented empire. The failures of the French empire demonstrated a more insidious condition, the political costs of imperial power, particularly in the Napoleonic period. Both spectacles were of intense interest to the American statesmen of the time, and they are of continuing interest, two centuries later, in a republican America which is apparently ever more preoccupied with its own imperial destiny.

The British Navy was in the 1770s by far the most imposing military force in the world. The words of the naval anthem “Heart of Oak,” which was adapted as a “Song for American Freedom,” by the early revolutionary John Dickinson, were uncompromising:

We’ll still make them fear, and we’ll still make them flee,
And drub ’em on shore, as we’ve drubb’d ’em at sea.

But naval power proved to be quite unhelpful at several stages in the nearly decade-long war of American independence. The British possessed what Admiral A.T. Mahan described as the “powers to injure an enemy from a great distance,” which are “common to the sailing vessel and the steamer.”1 But these powers, in a civil war within a distant part of empire, turned out to be only intermittently usable.

One reason was that the American provincials, the British Navy’s “enemy,” were able to change the terms of the military conflict, so that power was less unequally divided. They were able, in particular, to move the conflict inland in the American continent; to fight neither on sea nor on shore. General John Burgoyne’s journey to Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, with a baggage train over three miles long, and at a speed of sometimes not more than one mile per day, is a vivid illustration.2 So is the Americans’ use of information. The British had the power to injure at a great distance, but their power to understand was diminished by distance. As Burgoyne himself wrote, “we are destitute…of the most important of all circumstances in war or negotiation—intelligence. We are ignorant not only of what passes in congresses, but want spies for the hill half a mile off.”3

The British failure was associated, above all, with the multiplicity of their objectives. They were constantly threatening to use terrifying force. “I have but to give stretch to the Indian forces under my direction,” Burgoyne proclaimed in June 1777, and “devastation, famine, and every concomitant horror” will await the king’s enemies. But they were concerned, at the same time, with the world after the war. They were interested, as Gordon Wood has suggested, in the eventual restoration of political relations and imperial harmony. They had objectives of military security and other objectives of economic reconciliation. The war was far more unpopular with English domestic public opinion than the earlier, less distant, and more frightening wars with France. The Americans, unlike the French, posed no threat of invasion; the security to be won in a victorious war with the Americans would have been commercial, political, and psychological. “Warriors, you are free!” Burgoyne said in 1777 in his speech to the Native Americans assembled at the River Bouquet. But he also conveyed the multiple and slightly bathetic objectives of the British forces. Go forth, he said, and strike at the “destroyers of commerce, parricides of the State.”4

The French philosopher Denis Diderot in June 1776 wrote to John Wilkes, in London, to congratulate him about his recent speeches criticizing the American war (“the affair of the provincials,” as it was called in France). He reported on various rumors circulating in Paris, including that the “secret project of the mother country” was to cut the throats of half the colonists and reduce the rest to slavery. He also provided Wilkes with a suggestion for a new speech. Gentlemen, he imagined Wilkes saying to his fellow members of Parliament,

I am not going to speak to you at all about the justice or injustice of your conduct. I know very well that this word is nothing but noise, when it is a question of the general interest. I could speak to you about the means by which you could succeed, and ask you whether you are strong enough to play the role of oppressors; this would be closer to the heart of the matter. However I will not even do that, but I will confine myself to imploring you to cast your eyes on the nations who hate you: ask them; see what they think of you, and tell me to what extent you have resolved to make your enemies laugh at you.5

The British were not “strong” enough, as it turned out, to play the role of oppressors, or at least to become the carriers of devastation and horror as the Americans anticipated. They were unable to fight the kind of war they could have been certain of winning. They were unwilling, in the end, to be hated, and even less willing to be laughed at.



The destiny of the French empire, in North America and elsewhere, was the object of continuing anxiety in the early republic. At least in the view of the more bellicose of English observers, the American Revolution had been precipitated by the decline of French power. (“Fear, the great chain that united America to Britain, is broke,” the author of a 1774 pamphlet wrote; “the dread, the terror of the Canadian scalping knife is removed.”) But the British were also alarmed at the prospect of a new and moderate France. The “present tolerating spirit of the French Court towards their own protestant subjects,” one of the British government’s informers wrote in 1773 from Jamaica Plain in Massachusetts, could remove the “natural aversion” of the colonists to a connection with France.6 France, even before the American Revolution and the military alliance of 1778, came to be seen, or to see itself, as a good or innocent empire. As Dupont de Nemours wrote of the economist Turgot’s period as minister of the navy in 1774, the appropriate role for France was one of “protecting freedom on the entire surface of the globe.”7

The idea of France as a virtuous empire was extraordinarily persistent in the early United States. At least some of the founders of the American republic were faithful to the French alliance throughout the 1790s. James Madison, responding to the honorary French citizenship conferred on him in 1792 by the revolutionary national assembly, praised the “public connection” between the United States and France, and expressed the hope that the French would complete “the triumphs of Liberty, by a victory over the minds of all its adversaries.” In a letter to Jefferson in 1798, he praised George Washington’s “eulogy on the Revolution & people of France posterior even to the bloody reign & fate of Robespierre.” In 1799 he compared the accusations against the French Directory explicitly to American experience: “Similar imputations were constantly thrown on the congress during our own revolution.” Two years earlier, in 1797, welcoming the end of the revolutionary terror, John Dickinson expressed understanding for the past difficulties of the French (who “as we did in a similar struggle, bore many things that were wrong”) and evoked “Universal France,” and the “FRENCH MIND,” in opposition to the evil empire of the English (“CARTHAGE, like a stupendous colossus, bestrode the sea, waving his terrific flag over its subject billows, and in a voice of thunder, imperiously dictating law, hard law, to nations”).8

But France was also, by the end of the 1790s, a frightening illustration of the political costs of military power to a republican form of government. Madison’s and Jefferson’s arguments against federal power had been concerned, since the ratification of the Constitution, with “executive aggrandizement,” of which, Madison wrote in 1793, “war is in fact the true nurse.”9 Among Madison’s most powerful political writings were his criticisms of the Alien and Sedition Acts imposed by the administration of John Adams in 1798, under which the rights of aliens to protection under the Constitution were suspended, including their rights to a writ of habeas corpus; aliens were subjected to preventive detention or deportation on the basis of the President’s decision (“his suspicion is the only evidence which is to convict”). The Alien Acts were such that all the principles “of the only preventive justice known to American jurisprudence, are violated,” Madison wrote in his “Report of 1800”; the Sedition Act would be likely to repress “information and communication among the people,” and eventually to “destroy our free system of government.”10

These were only possible oppressions, or incipient usurpations. The rise of imperial power in France was a demonstration that foreign dangers and foreign conquests really could bring about the destruction of republican government. As Madison wrote in “Political Reflections,” an essay about France (and America) published anonymously in 1799, events in the French republic could not “be too much pondered and contemplated by Americans who love their country.” There were two truths in the “whole field of political sciences,” in Madison’s account, which ought to be engraved on the American mind. One was that liberty does not survive a standing army; the other (the italics are Madison’s) was that “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.”11

In Madison’s account, the French fears of foreign invasion in the mid- 1790s, and French victories under Bonaparte, had together destroyed liberty in France. The statesmen of the early republic were not indiscriminate Francophiles, as depicted in what Madison’s biographer Irving Brant described as the “Federalist miasma that turned Presidents Jefferson and Madison into fawning servitors of Bonaparte.”12 But it was the spirit of empire, more than the terror, which led to the anti-Federalists’ disillusion with France. After the American Revolution, John Dickinson wrote in 1803, “Frenchmen succeeded to all that love which had been for ages confined to their rivals.” The election of 1800 had showed Americans that “aversion to France was not a recommendation to your confidence.” With the usurpations of Napoleon, “it has now become our painful office to declare, that these pleasing hopes have vanished. The virtues appear to be prescribed by ambition. A gigantic Power seems animated by the devastating spirit of conquest, and glares with a fierce aspect on all around.”13


Madison’s and Dickinson’s criticisms of the spirit of empire were echoed in France itself, or at least in the writings of French critics of Napoleon. The “spirit of conquest,” Benjamin Constant wrote in his De l’esprit de conquête et de l’usurpation, was contrary to the peaceful and commercial virtues of modern times, and Napoleon’s government was therefore obliged to defend its military projects in the “vocabulary of hypocrisy and injustice.” Napoleon and his officials spoke of commercial interests, as they exposed their own people to “a universal hatred.” They justified their foreign wars as “precautions dictated by foresight,” to prevent planned aggressions; or in order to “deliver nations from the yoke of their governments, which were presumed to be illegitimate and tyrannical,” in “deceitful protestations of respect for the rights of man, and of zeal for humanity.”14

But Napoleon’s new imperial policies—and it is in this respect that Constant’s and Madison’s apprehensions were so similar—would also lead to the destruction of political liberty at home. It was thus the introduction of “military tribunals” which was for Constant the most ominous of all the imperial policies in France:

a military justice, of which the first principle was to abridge formalities, as though all abbreviation of formalities was not the most revolting sophism.

Individual suspects were interrogated by military judges and condemned without appeal. There were “military commissions,” and “special courts” to try “all persons suspected of favoring the enemy, of providing intelligence to him.”15 The spirit of empire had transformed the freedom of the press into a parody, intoxicated the people with fear and enthusiasm, and subverted the sanctity of judicial forms; it had made possible the usurpation of Napoleon.

Seeing France as like America and America as like France were continuing preoccupations of nineteenth-century observers of American politics. The effect of the “tyranny of the majority” in America is to trace “a formidable circle around thought,” Tocqueville wrote in De la démocratie en Amérique, which is about France as well as about America: “I know of no country in which there is in general less independence of spirit and true freedom of discussion than in America.” But in Tocqueville’s judgment the uniformity of public opinion was still innocuous in America. The Americans had no great wars or financial crises or conquests; “they have almost nothing to fear from a scourge more terrible for republics than all of those together, military glory.” It was these circumstances, or “accidental causes,” which limited the extension of executive power in the United States. “If liberty were ever to be lost in America,” Tocqueville wrote, it would be because the omnipotence of the majority would have driven minorities to despair. It would be because of an excess, and not an insufficiency, of “force and resources.”16

“James Madison expressed the same thoughts,” Tocqueville wrote at the end of this passage, and he went on to translate an extended excerpt from Federalist 51, about the security of rights in a large and disparate republic, with divided powers. But for Madison, too, the scourge of military glory, or military fear, was the only serious risk to liberty in America. The most important foundation of political security, in Federalist 51, was to be found in the multiplicity of interests which “will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable.”17 It was just this diversity of interests and opinions which was so threatened by the imperial spirit, in Madison’s as in Constant’s later accounts. In Constant’s description of Napoleon’s return from Egypt, in 1799, “he found a nation which prostrated itself before him, like a single individual.” “The propagation and management of alarms has grown into a kind of system,” Madison wrote of the United States (and France) in 1799, and “the people more firm and enlightened than ought to be expected, if they are not in some measure awed or duped into a tacit acquiescence under oppression.”18

Madison’s view of political security was founded, in the end, on a series of expectations about human beings—that their interests and opinions are various and that their passions are moderate, or transient, or inconsistent. The most insidious of all the risks of empire was that it would contribute, over time, to transforming these psychological conditions for what Madison called self-government. The freedom of information in which Madison reposed such confidence was itself particularly threatened by the conduct of foreign relations. As he wrote to Jefferson in 1798, “the management of foreign relations appears to be the most susceptible of abuse, of all the trusts committed to a Government, because they can be concealed or disclosed, or disclosed in such parts & at such times as will best suit particular views”; the “prerogative that superintends all foreign dangers and designs,” he wrote in 1799, can “exhibit and vary the pictures of them, at its pleasure.” War, or the fear of war, was associated with “the strongest passions, and the most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast.” It made individuals less disparate, and less mild.19


Americans “live remarkably close to [their] past,” Bernard Bailyn observed in the Millennium Lecture he gave at the White House in 1998. Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln, he said, “seem to be part of our present political discourse,” and even the earliest commentaries on the Constitution “lie at the heart of our current thought.”20 This is odd, in several respects. For one thing, the world of the Federalist Papers, as of the French revolutionary wars, is extraordinarily distant and different from our own. The “pictures” of foreign dangers to which Madison referred were reports in American newspapers, and in the correspondence of American citizens, about events which might or might not have taken place at least two months earlier. They were not pictures in the sense of the images of Kabul or Baghdad which are present, instantaneously, in all our modern lives.

The present interest in the political and constitutional ideas of the late eighteenth century is odd, too, because it leaves out so much of what was most important to people at the time (as Bailyn has also observed).21 In particular, and this has been my concern here, it leaves out the preoccupation with foreign events and experiences, and with the destinies of empires, which was so consuming for Madison and other Americans of the revolutionary generation. It also leaves out their anxiety over the psychological consequences of political institutions. Madison was confident, in the spirit of David Hume and Adam Smith, that there were universal characteristics of human nature, of which one of the best established was the propensity to differ over opinions and interests. This was the foundation of his great evocation, in Federalist 10,22 of the requirements for political security in large republics. But there were also circumstances, as he observed in his account of France, in which the passions of individuals became frighteningly strong, and frighteningly similar. As Tocqueville wrote at the very end of Madison’s own lifetime, it is in “large empires” that “political passions become irresistible,” because “millions of men experience them in the same way, and at the same instant.”23

The eighteenth-century Americans with whom I have been concerned were fascinated by ancient and modern empires: by the limits of imperial power (as in the British failures of the 1770s) and by the costs of imperial power (as in republican France). They had been born in an empire, and they lived in a world full of empires, of whose defects they were continuously conscious. John Dickinson, who was a most conservative revolutionary, began one of his “Fabius” letters of 1797 by reciting the lines that Polybius attributed to the victorious Roman general Scipio, “among the blazing houses, and the flying, falling citizens” of Carthage:

POLYBIUS asked the general why he repeated those lines in so tender a manner, in the midst of his success against enemies? Scipio answered, that in viewing the destruction of Carthage, he contemplated the uncertainty of empire, with a foreboding apprehension, that the most prosperous, might some time or other share the same fate.24

In the foreboding view of these and other early Americans, all empires come to an end. Empires were not good things to be.

This Issue

March 25, 2004