In Joseph Ellis’ view, it’s just fine for us to love the Founders, but not for anyone to understand them in ways that might derail the march of progress.
The prospect of Scottish independence has spurred a great deal of discussion here and elsewhere. It’s worth remembering that the Act of Union of 1707, which drew England and Scotland together, factored into the story of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson and other colonists believed that each colony had the same relationship to Britain in the 1770s that England and Scotland had to each other before the Act of Union: as an equal state with a common monarch.
And after 1776, Jefferson envisioned the entire world on a similar model—as a world of equal nations, without any sovereign above them.
This week’s referendum is, in part, a result of policies of the British Labor Party going back to the 1990s. Scotland has been given more autonomy, including the creation of a Scottish Parliament. (As Theodore Dalrymple said on this site, should the split take place, it would be Labor’s chickens coming home to roost—if it has to do without Scottish votes, the party will have a hard time winning an election in what’s left of Britain.)
To be sure, though the Union took place 307 years ago, Scottish nationalism has never really gone away. The 84-year-old Sean Connery’s “Scotland Forever” tattoo does not come from nowhere. Still, it is striking that the rise of supranational institutions like the European Union and the United Nations by no means quenches outbreaks of smaller nationalisms.
A look back to the age of the American and French Revolutions may shed light on current developments. In particular, it raises questions about the liberal international order, about national boundaries, and about the problem of self-determination in our time.
Let’s see if Jefferson can help us understand what is going on here. He had interesting thoughts about nationhood and progress toward peace among nations, which Peter Onuf has highlighted. Onuf notes, for example, that in Jefferson’s famous “Adam and Eve” letter of 1793, he did not posit the return to a single pair, but to an “Adam and Eve in every country.” The letter is Secretary of State Jefferson’s effort to buck up his friend William Short, an American diplomat in Paris who is witnessing the French Revolutionary turn to Terror. In practice Jefferson was, as Hamilton noted, “as likely as any man I know to temporize.” Jefferson’s extreme flourishes in this letter show the direction of his thought. His practice, meanwhile, suggested that he knew that circumstances placed practical limits on what could be done at any given time.
“In the struggle which was necessary,” writes Secretary Jefferson to Ambassador Short, “many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death.”
But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.
Note what was at stake. “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest.” And so, “rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.” The goal, in other words, was to transform the world. To that end, human life had to be remade, as the French Revolutionists were hoping to do. That’s what’s so interesting about the line “an Adam and Eve left in every country.” Reducing nature back to its point of departure for a reset, as it were, implies going back not before nations to a single pair, but to many pairs, each with its own country—as if the nations of the world were simply natural creations, with obvious borders, and featuring clear lines distinguishing one nation from another.
If the lines separating nations are clear, that, surely, is one great cause of war forever removed. Germany would have had no reason to take the Sudetenland, nor Russia part of Ukraine. Remember that President Jefferson would later declare that “peace is our passion.” That was why he hoped that embargo might replace war.
Jefferson, in other words, shared the dream of perpetual peace. To secure peace among nations, boundaries delineating who belongs to what nation had to be clear. Recall that Jefferson’s first draft of his land ordinance for the West used a ruler simply to draw straight lines on the map, ignoring topography in deference to clarity.
In time, these two goals—peace among men, and the maintanence of clear lines distinguishing one nation from another—have come into conflict. The more global and nation-effacing our institutions become, the less attachment we have to the nation states that we know. Ironically, that might spur a return of tribalism, for the idea of a global family is utopian whereas we human beings crave particulars.
And yet even so, there are too many national groupings to have a state for each in a functioning international system. Many of the great nation-states are in fact composites. (Even Woodrow Wilson believed that self-determination had to have limits.) The United Kingdom has—for the moment—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Belgium has Walloon and Flemish parts. Northern and Southern Italy could be classed as different nations. Are Bavaria and Prussia really part of one nation? It depends upon how one defines the term. The same is true on other continents.
Looking at the wreckage of the French Revolution, Jefferson blamed Napoleon for “the demolition of the fairest hopes of mankind for the recovery of their rights, and amelioration of their condition.” The French could have pulled it off had it not been for that meddling Corsican!
Well, but on the other hand it might not really be possible to resolve the tension between hopes for perpetual peace and the advent of a world of free and equal nations. Nations are political creations. They are not, pace Jefferson, artifacts of natural history.
 One skeptic said it was absurd to suggest that George William Frederick, the Third of the House of Hanover, was “King of Massachusetts, King of Rhode Island, King of Connecticut, &c.” To which John Adams replied, “this is no absurdity at all. He will appear in this light, and does appear so” in law.