Friday, August 31, 2012

Hamilton: On Promoting Liberty Abroad

In the second Pacificus essay, Alexander Hamilton offered a sharp condemnation of France's conduct in the war that engulfed the Europe after the French Revolution. Hamilton stressed that France's offensive conduct relieved the United States of whatever obligations it might have to guarantee France's West India islands by virtue of the 1778 US treaty with France. But the essay went on to offer observations, not irrelevant today, regarding the circumstances in which it was legitimate to promote liberty abroad.

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France committed an aggression upon Holland in declaring free the navigation of the Scheldt and acting upon that declaration; contrary to Treaties in which she had explicitly acknowleged and even guaranteed the exclusive right of Holland to the navigation of that River and contrary to the doctrines of the best Writers and established usages of Nations, in such cases.

She gave a general and just cause of alarm to Nations, by that Decree of the 19th. of November 1792 whereby the Convention, in the name of the French Nation, declare that they will grant fraternity and assistance to every People who wish to recover their liberty and charge the Executive Power to send the necessary orders to the Generals to give assistance to such people, and to defend those citizens who may have been or who may be vexed for the cause of liberty; which decree was ordered to be printed in all languages.

When a Nation has actually come to a resolution to throw off a yoke, under which it may have groaned, and to assert its liberties—it is justifiable and meritorious in another nation to afford assistance to the one which has been oppressed & is in the act of liberating itself; but it is not warrantable for any Nation beforehand to hold out a general invitation to insurrection and revolution, by promising to assist every people who may wish to recover their liberty and to defend those citizens, of every country, who may have been or who may be vexed for the cause of liberty; still less to commit to the Generals of its armies the discretionary power of judging when the Citizens of a foreign Country have been vexed for the cause of Liberty by their own government.

The latter part of the decree amounted exactly to what France herself has most complained of—an interference by one nation in the internal Government of another.

Vatel justly observes, as a consequence of the Liberty & Independence of Nations—“That it does not belong to any foreign Power to take cognizance of the administration of the sovereign of another country, to set himself up as a judge of his Conduct or to oblige him to alter it.”

Such a conduct as that indicated by this Decree has a natural tendency to disturb the tranquillity of nations, to excite fermentation and revolt every where; and therefore justified neutral powers, who were in a situation to be affected by it in taking measures to repress the spirit by which it had been dictated. . . .

Whatever partial[it]y may be entertained for the general object of the French Revolution, it is impossible for any well informed or soberminded man not to condemn the proceedings which have been stated; as repugnant to the general rights of Nations, to the true principles of liberty, to the freedom of opinion of mankind; & not to acknowlege as a consequence of this, that the justice of the war on the part of France, with regard to some of the powers with which she is engaged, is from those causes questionable enough to free the UStates from all embarrassment on that score; if it be at all incumbent upon them to go into the inquiry.

The policy of a defensive alliance is so essentially distinct from that of an offensive one, that it is every way important not to confound their effects. The first kind has in view the prudent object of mutual defence, when either of the allies is involuntarily forced into a war by the attack by some third power. The latter kind subjects the peace of each ally to the will of the other, and obliges each to partake in the wars of policy & interest, as well as in those of safety and defence, of the other. To preserve their boundaries distinct it is necessary that each kind should be governed by plain and obvious rules. This would not be the case, if instead of taking the simple fact of who begun the war as a guide, it was necessary to travel into metaphysical niceties about the justice or injustice of the cause which led to it. Since also the not furnishing a stipulated succour, when it is due, is itself a cause of War, it is very requisite, that there should be some palpable criterion for ascertaining when it is due. This criterion as before observed, in a defensive alliance is the commencement or not of the war by our ally, as a mere matter of fact.

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Source: The full texts and expert commentary on these essays may be found on-line at Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty, reproducing The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates of 1793-1794: Toward the Completion of the American Founding, edited with and Introduction by Morton J. Frisch (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007).