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Europe and America Criss-Crossing Perspectives, 1788-1848

Jacques Portes

Première partie. America Viewing Europe

I.2. Europe and the New American Union: an Official View from Washington to Jackson

Jean Heffer

Texte intégral

  • 1 Elise Marienstras, Les mythes fondateurs de la nation américaine, Essai sur le discours idéologique (...)

1Every new nation needs to define its identity, especially when its unity is fragile. Currently, we may observe this fact every day, mainly in the Third World countries born from European colonies, where the rulers have recourse to an anti-imperialist rhetoric to mitigate the dangers created by a heterogeneous population- By defining themselves against something which is foreign to them, they sidestep the question of the real cement of national unity. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the newly-independent United States was still an heterogeneous nation, with big differences, from one State to another, in economic interests, social structures, customs and manners. Nevertheless, at the same time, some forces were preparing what the Constitution called a more perfect union. around the founding myths so well analyzed by Elise Marienstras1. In spite of its success, American nationalism suffered temporary setbacks, for example during the war of 1812 or during the nullification crisis in 1832-1833. That may be the reason why Americans were in need to define themselves not only positively, but also against other people, particularly against the Europeans from whom they descended. In this paper, I try to examine what function Europe plays in this American quest for identity, as viewed through the messages of the first seven Presidents, from Washington to Jackson. Of course, it is an official vision. Moreover it is essential that one make the distinction between the two levels at which it was developped: the implicit one and the explicit one. The first one, without referring to Europe, depicts America with such words that the Old World is only the opposite of the new country. The second one characterizes the continent which the colonists came from directly.


  • 2 James D. Richardson, ed. Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Washington, GPO, 1897-1899, 10 vols

2The source of this paper is the set of presidential messages collected at the end of the 19th century by James D. Richardson2. Among these documents, we find:

31. the annual messages sent to the Congress, every fall, where the Presidents, from Washington to Jackson, report on the past year’s activities and eventually outline a program for the coming session. These messages become more voluminous from Monroe’s Presidency on, and especially from Jackson’s, a fact which indicates the growing importance of the President in the federal political structure;

42. the veto messages;

53. the inaugural addresses, and, for Washington and Jackson, the Farewell addresses.

6The set is voluminous (1500 pages), but it is not a sample of American public opinion- Seven presidents give their opinion, which is a small number, not statistically significant, although some of these papers were written partially or totally by advisors- Nevertheless these documents are not devoid of importance for our theme, since the president is the chief magistrate of the Union. Moreover, their nature is responsible for certain limits to their usefulness. Firstly, as adresses to the Congress or to the people, they employ a solemn tone, lacking in spontaneousness. Then, because foreign countries scrutinize them, – remember how many vexations Jackson suffered from France in 1834-1835 for having used a threat of reprisals against the July Monarchy – it was necessary to tone down the actual feelings. That is the reason why the implicit view is so important- Diplomatic customs forbid a too frank exposition of the Presidents’ personal judgments.

7The analysis of the diplomatic situation occupies a much larger place in these messages than the value judgments on Europe. But there is a relation between the international relations of the United States and the vision the Americans had of the Old World. Indeed, from 1792 to 1815, the new Republic could not escape the consequences of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Its commercial interests were threatened by the blocade policy of the French and British governments. The United States was involved in a quasi-war with France under the Directory, and in a real war against England in 1812. These bellicose times left dark memories. Consequently, we understand that, from Washington to Jackson, Europe appears with more negative than positive features.

8The official view also depends on the principles which the U. S. foreign policy followed. Now these varied very little during this half-century. Washington defined them, and his successors endlessly repeated the same maxims. Firstly, the Americans wanted to have peaceful and friendly relations with every power; they were ready to conclude trade and amity treaties, suppressing discriminating duties and establishing the most favored nation clause; according to the Constitution, these agreements will be the supreme law of the Land. Then, consequently, they behaved impartially, when European powers were involved in war. Washington and his successors recommended avoiding any entangling alliance. The United States must not be the satellite of any European country. This isolationism nevertheless was not a cowardly acceptation of aggression against the American interests. John Adams, Madison, Monroe, and, of course, Jackson, did not tolerate any onslaught against the rights and the honor of the United States. Moreover, from Monroe on, the isolationist policy did not apply to the Western Hemisphere. In his famous 1823 message, he exposed his two principles – no further colonization on the American continent and hostility to any European intervention against the newly independent countries born from the dislocation of the Spanish and Portuguese empires – risking eventually war with the Holy Alliance. Therefore, in the messages, a growing part of the reports was devoted to national defense, the militia, the army, the navy and the building of coastal fortifications. These official documents don’t present the vision of an idyllic world; the United States was not isolated from the foreign turbulences. The constant motto is: si vis pacem, para bellum. So between 1792 and 1825, the country was so entangled with European conflicts, in hot or cold wars, that its official view of the Old World was dark.

9A last element may have influenced the Presidents’ vision: their own personal knowledge of the Old Continent. Three among them had never been there; Washington, Madison, and Jackson. They knew Europe only by their readings or by the informations given them by friends or counselors. The four other presidents stayed on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean for several years, at different times. Jefferson remained in France from 1785 to 1789; John Adams was absent from home during his long sojourns in France, in Holland and in England. Later, Monroe spent several years in France (1794-96, 1802-03), in England (1803-05, 1806-08) and in Spain (1805-06), whereas John Quincy Adams is the President who has lived for the longest time in foreign countries, with his father or as minister; in France (1778- 79), in England (1783, 1815-17), in Holland (1780-81, 1782- 83, 1794-97), in Belgium (1817), in Prussia (1797-1801), and in Russia (1781-82, 1809-1813). Seldom in American history have statesmen been so directly familiar with the exterior world. So, if the sample is not significant of the American people’s opinion of Europe, it is still relatively valuable, not only because of the importance of the Presidency as representative of the people, but also because those seven Presidents were usually more informed than most of their successors in the 19th and 20th centuries.


10In their messages, the Presidents depicted their country as an exceptional one, therefore different from the European powers. The American model they offered to their citizens was exactly what Europe was not. The positive vision of the United States was Europe’s negative. The Old World was the opposite image of the New one.

11The exceptionalism of the United States is revealed firstly in its prosperity – which means implicitly that the European countries (the other continents are seldom refered to) are poor or suffer from slow economic growth. According to Jefferson, the new republic is

  • 3 Id., I, 323.

"a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and the thousandth generation"3.

There is, he says, enough space to prevent any territorial expansion, contrary to the aggressive policy of the European powers, too densely inhabited – a rather weak argument, since the Jeffersonian agrarian myth fostered an extensive growth, prelude to an imperialist conquest. We find the same paean to prosperity by John Adams, or Monroe, who says:

  • 4 Id., II, 10.

"If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy"4.

or Jackson who boasts of

  • 5 Id., II, 591.

"the marks of prosperity and happiness unequalled, perhaps, in any other portion of the world"5

or who rejoices because the United States is

  • 6 Id., II, 490.

"presenting to the world the sublime spectacle of a Republic of more than 12,000,000 happy people, free from debt and with all her immense ressources unfettered!"6.

The American taxation policy is the feature of a free country.

12Secondly, the United States is indeed a land of freedom, a republic meaning implicitly the opposite of European monarchies. The idea is already present in the first inaugural address of Washington:

  • 7 Id., I, 53.

"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people"7

  • 8 Id., II, 384.

A self-governed country, the United States enjoys liberty and equality of opportunity, rights which, according to John Quincy Adams, are suited to the genius and temper of the American nations 8. And in the era of good feelings, before the reappearance of tensions between sections over slavery extension, Monroe saluted the American political regime as near perfect:

  • 9 Id., II, 10.

"In contemplating what we have still to perform, the heart of every citizen must expand with joy when he reflects how near our government has approached to perfection; that in respect to it we have no essential improvement to make; that the great object is to preserve it in the essential principles and features which characterize it, and that that is to be done by preserving the virtue and enlightening the minds of the people... If we persevere in the career in which we have advanced so far in the path already traced, we can not fail, under the favor of a gracious Providence, to attain the high destiny which seems to await us"9.

  • 10 Id., II, 94, 183, 262.

Several times, Monroe made the same statements; the United States has succeeded in reconciling contraries, having a strong government without oppressing the people, whereas implicitly in Europe there is no authority without limits to the political and religious freedoms of the inhabitants. Therefore the Americans are the happiest in the world10.

13Land of prosperity and freedom, the United States also appears in the messages as a land of peace, respectful of its principles. It makes war only when it is reduced to so doing, to protect its honor and its vital interests according to international law. In peace as in war, it behaves virtuously. During the War of 1812, Madison remarks that, when fighting,

  • 11 Id., I, 524.

"No principle of justice or honor, no usage of civilized nations, no precept of courtesy or humanity, have been infringed. The war has been waged on our part with scrupulous regard to all these obligations"11.

14It is not surprising to find such an ideal vision of their country in these official and solemn speeches of the Presidents. It would be rather astonishing that a President disparage his fellow-citizens, recognize that his administration does not respect the rules of universal ethics, or detail the negative features. The messages’ style is conducive to self-congratulation. Consequently, in the rhetoric it is not easy to discriminate between the devotion and the fervour on one hand, and on the other one, the incantation. Nevertheless it is likely that, in this time when the American nationalism was ripening, the images of prosperity, of freedom, and of peace awakened in citizens’ hearts a love for the Union endangered by European events, the "peculiar institution", or the various constructions of the Constitution.

15American exceptionalism is not, according to the Presidents, an eternal feature of the new Republic. Indeed, America is an example which must be imitated. The United States should prove equal to the task of its destiny, so that the whole world can take heart in looking at this lighthouse on the road of progress. In his last message, Madison speaks of

  • 12 Id., I, 580.

"a government, in a word, whose conduct within and without may be speak the most noble of all ambitions that of promoting peace on earth and good will to man"12.

16For Monroe,

  • 13 Id., II, 194-195.

"The United States owe to the world a great example, and by means thereof, to the cause of liberty and humanity a generous support... It has been often charged against free governments that they have neither the foresight nor the virtue to provide at the proper season for great emergencies; that their course is improvident and expensive; that war will always find them unprepared, and, whatever may be its calamities, that its terrible warnings will be disregarded and forgotten as soon as peace returns. I have full confidence that this charge so far as relates to the United Stats will be shewn to be utterly destitute of truth”13.

The Americans should not keep selfishly the advantages of their experience for themselves, but share them with others, through example. Therefore, if the present situation of the European continent is rather dark, it is not without hope for the future.


  • 14 Id., I, 258, 292, 323, 361; II, 194, 222, 260, 337.

17In the presidential messages, if one excludes the statements concerning the diplomatic situation, references to Europe are not very numerous. And remarks about some particular country are still more uncommon. They usually underscore the differences between the Old and New World, separated by the distance of a vast ocean14. On the other side, the predominance of negative images over positive ones shows that Europe is more a push than a pull, but both coexist.

3.1. Europe’s positive image

18This positive image appears in the messages only after 1815, after the end of the wars (or quasi-wars) which threatened american commercial and political interests for a quarter of a century. Only Washington recommended hiring foreign artists to develop the U. S. Mints, during the years of conflicts! After 1815, on the contrary, the Americans felt more secure; they knew they were sheltered from continental attacks. A strong navy would suffice to protect their coasts- Therefore, Europe offered less negative features in the official speeches; sometimes it was even recommended as an example for the Americans.

19Among the particular countries, England was no longer considered only as the ancient metropolis and the oppressor of American freedoms. Jackson saluted her as the birthplace of liberal institutions. He rejoiced at the good relations between both countries,

  • 15 Id., II, 593.

"cemented as it is by a community of language, manners, and social habits, and by the high obligations we owe to our British ancestors for many of our most valuable institutions and for that system of representative government which has enabled us to preserve and improve them"15

After Napoleon’s fall, the image of France also improved. In 1827, John Quincy Adams, notes

  • 16 Id., II, 383.

"the gallant and honorable spirit which has at all times been the pride and glory of France"16.

  • 17 Id., II, 500, 592,; III, 100.
  • 18 Id., II, 193, 551.

Jackson saw in the 1830 Revolution the sign of a rapprochement between the political systems of both countries17. That is one of the reasons why he was so angry at the July Monarchy when France refused to pay the 25 million francs indemnity settled by the 1831 treaty immediately. There were very few other remarks: on the Germans, "enlightened and industrious", who have contributed to the population of the colonies, or on the Greeks, whose heroism is applauded by Monroe18. Therefore, after 1815, statements became more moderate in tone. In 1823, Monroe al lowed that

  • 19 Id., II, 224.

"justice will always have great weight in the cabinets of Europe"19,

but he immediately afterwards added that to be treated justly, the United States should be ready to show its military strength.

20Exceptional and isolated was John Quincy Adam’s position in his first message (1825). The eminent professor of rhetoric and belles-lettres at Harvard was the only president to consider that, in certain fields, America was backward compared to Europe. This backwardness was particularly notable in the domain of culture. According to him, the federal government should follow the example of France, England and Russia in actively participating in geographical and astronomical research. No other American President felt ashamed of this lack of patronage. Adams alone could write:

  • 20 Henry Steele Commager, ed., Documents of American History, 7th ed., New York, Appleton-Century-Crof (...)

"It is with no feeling of pride as an American that the remark may be made that on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe there are existing upward of 130 of these light-houses of the skies, while throughout the whole American sphere there is not one... And while scarcely one year passes over our heads without bringing some new astronomical discovery to light, which we must fain receive at second hand from Europe, are we not cutting ourselves off from the means of returning light for light while we have neither observatory nor observer upon our half of the globe and the earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes?"20.

It is easy to understand that these disparaging remarks on American backwardness, compared with the enlightened monarchies of Europe, were little appreciated by Adams’s fellow-citizens, who jeered at his light-houses of the skies. Among the presidents, Adams is the one who had the best knowledge of Europe, not only because of his long sojourns there during his childhood or as minister, but also due to his broad culture. The most intellectual of them, he recommended in his third message (1827) teaching the Navy of ficers

  • 21 Richardson, op. cit., II, 390.

"the literature which can place (them) on a level of polished education with the other maritime nations"21.

According to him, the United States was a guide for political and social institutions, but it was backward from a cultural point of view. Nevertheless these statements were relatively rare. The dominant image of Europe was the negative one.

3.2. Europe’s negative image

21Explicitly Europe was often depicted with features exactly opposite to those which characterize the positive image of America already analyzed.

22Firstly, Europe was seen as a land of endless wars between rival powers. Between 1792 and 1815, the continent was bloodied by the battles, and even after Napoleon’s fall rumors of armed conflicts persisted. These wars would be a lesser evil if the Europeans didn’t try to pull the United States into their own rivalries and to compel it to stop being neutral. For that purpose, they violated the international law of blocade, the French government with its decrees of Berlin, Milan or Rambouillet, as well as the British one with its orders in council. They were ready to foster disunion in the United States, they helped some factions or parties which divided opinion and threatened the cohesion of the new nation. This is the main theme of Washington’s Farewell Address:

  • 22 Commager, op. cit., I, 174.

"Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government"22.

  • 23 Richardson, op. cit., III, 175.
  • 24 Id., I, 524-525.
  • 25 Id., I, 545.

Europe’s bellicose humor is a danger for the stability of the Union. So, by emphasizing the negative features of the Old World, the Presidents expected to reinforce national cohesion, while the new country felt the effects of tensions between sections. The hand of foreigners explains the bad feelings between North and South; "the emissaries of foreign parts"23 disseminate propaganda against slavery. Therefore it had to be shown that European behavior was not consonant with the practice of civilized people. For instance, Madison, comparing American and British methods of warfare blamed the English troops for not following the American example. They held American citizens as prisoners, contrary to the usages of civilized warfare. They considered former British subjects who had been naturalized for a long time as traitors. They urged the Indians to use barbarous means, and "in further contempt of the modes of honorable warfare"24, they prompted some states secede. Moreover, they burned public buildings in Washington, "which exhibit a deliberate disregard of the principles of humanity and the rules of civilized warfare, and which must give to the existing war a character of extended devastation and barbarism"25. Future historians cannot help being angry at these British who destroy

"other depositories of the public archives, not only precious to the nation as the memorials of its origin and its early transactions, but interesting to all nations as contributions to the general stock of historical instruction and political science".

23Europe was different not only because of its bellicose mood, but also in its political instability, marked by revolutionary convulsions, which lasted after 1815 in Spain, in Portugal, in central Europe or in the Ottoman Empire. The United States, on the other hand, was a stable country, because free from despotism. Monroe’s doctrine was founded on the idea that a fundamental difference does exist between the European, or monarchial, and the American, or republican, political systems:

  • 26 Commager, op. cit., p. 236-237.

"The political system of the allied powers, he says in his famous message, is essentially different in this respect from that of America. This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments... It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent, without endangering our peace and happiness"26.

The warning was directed towards the Holy Alliance, of which England was not a member, but, since Europe, at that time, had very few Republics, and no democratic ones, the opposition between the Old and the New World is basically political: republic against monarchy. For Americans, the concept of republic was as strongly positive as the idea of monarchy was negative.

24Finally, Europe is also a danger for American prosperity- Its advance in the manufacturing sector made the United States dependent on it. So, in times of war, the new country may suffer from wants- The foreign countries represent a threat to a balanced and harmonious growth. Consequently, President Washington recommended the imposition of duties on imports- There is a clear relation between national economic self-sufficiency and an isolationist foreign policy- Such statements appeared frequently in the messages of his successors. The taxation of imports was justified by the necessity of becoming independent of Europe, and protectionism was reinforced up to the point that South Carolina did not accept the policy and threatened to nullify the tariff voted in 1832 by Congress. England’s wealth was also a danger for national independence. One of the principal arguments used by Jackson in his U. S. Bank veto is that the "monster" was owned partially by foreigners (one quarter of its capital). The whole message is written in a highly nationalistic, even chauvinistic, tone. Jackson uses the world "foreign" several dozen times, always in a disparaging sense. Through the Biddle’s Bank, the foreigners threatened national independence, the purity of elections, and the virtue of the citizens. This is certainly a document as xenophobic, i.e. antieuropean, as the 1825 Adams’s message was favorable to some European influence. It is difficult to say wether the explanation lies in life experiences or in personalities.


25In the presidential messages, from Washington to Jackson, Europe’s view is rather negative. During the first half-century of its national existence, the United States defined itself by opposition to the Old World, from which their white population sprang. It seems that Europe constituted the negative reference group which fostered national union, the new country went in search of its unity. Characteristically, Washington’s and Jackson’s Farewell Addresses, at fifty years interval, emphasize the need of union between sections; one feels the anguish about the fragility of the compact that binds the states together. The early United States was an inward-threatened country. To mitigate the consequences of these tensions, a first reaction consisted in creating a positive image, mythical and real, of the new nation. Later, to bring out contrasts, it was used to oppose America to the Old World, whose negative features reinforced the prominent value of the Republic. After 1815, indeed, the United States seemed to feel more secure, more serene, but fear of the experiment’s failure was never very far. It is doubtful that the rhetoric could have exorcized the dangers that came more from inner than from external tensions. That is the case today in most underdeveloped countries, where anti-imperialist rhetoric cannot replace the lack of cohesion. It was the same thing in the United States, during the first half of the 19th century. National unity was definitively founded on the Civil War battlefields. And Europe had nothing to do with it.

Notes de fin

1 Elise Marienstras, Les mythes fondateurs de la nation américaine, Essai sur le discours idéologique aux Etats-Unis a l’époque de l’’indépendence (1763-1800), Paris, Maspero, 1976, 377 p.

2 James D. Richardson, ed. Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Washington, GPO, 1897-1899, 10 vols.

3 Id., I, 323.

4 Id., II, 10.

5 Id., II, 591.

6 Id., II, 490.

7 Id., I, 53.

8 Id., II, 384.

9 Id., II, 10.

10 Id., II, 94, 183, 262.

11 Id., I, 524.

12 Id., I, 580.

13 Id., II, 194-195.

14 Id., I, 258, 292, 323, 361; II, 194, 222, 260, 337.

15 Id., II, 593.

16 Id., II, 383.

17 Id., II, 500, 592,; III, 100.

18 Id., II, 193, 551.

19 Id., II, 224.

20 Henry Steele Commager, ed., Documents of American History, 7th ed., New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1963, I, 244.

21 Richardson, op. cit., II, 390.

22 Commager, op. cit., I, 174.

23 Richardson, op. cit., III, 175.

24 Id., I, 524-525.

25 Id., I, 545.

26 Commager, op. cit., p. 236-237.

© Éditions de la Sorbonne, 1988

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