No, George Washington DIDN’T Say America Should Stay Out of Foreign Affairs

With the talk of how bad Islam is for civilization and the question of just what to do about it, we are seeing those lightly informed about American history claiming that our founders–in particular George Washington–warned us to stay out of “foreign entanglements.” In fact, however, Washington neither said this, nor meant for such a policy to be enacted.

Many on the left and the isolationist right try to use the father of our country to support their ideas against the GOP and to justify their hope that the USA will pull out of the Middle East. Specifically they cite Washington’s farewell address where a retiring president supposedly warned Americans against getting involved with foreign nations and getting caught up in those evil “foreign entanglements.”

On one hand, it is quite amusing to see lefties in love with a founding father or American history and principles for the first time in their lives, certainly, but it isn’t just the left revealing a sudden respect for a founding father with citation of Washington’s address. On the other hand those Ron Paulites and his isolationist wing on the right have for years been bandying about Washington’s farewell address as some sort of “proof” that one of our “first principles” was to stay away from foreign nations.

So, what was Washington really saying? Did he warn us against “foreign entanglements”? Did he think the U.S. should steer clear of all outside political situations and relegate ourselves only to trade with foreigners?

We have to point out, that Washington never used the exact words “foreign entanglements” in his farewell address. That has been a decades-long misconstruction of his last letter to the nation. He did ask why we should “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition,” but he never used the exact words “foreign entanglements.”

That dispensed with, we move on to the assumed isolationism of George Washington’s address. What did he mean and did he mean it to be a permanent principle from which the U.S. should never stray?

First of all we must realize that the U.S. had been up to its neck in “foreign entanglements” before it had even become a nation. With wars against the French decades earlier, then the rebellion against Britain with help from the French, pleas to the Dutch for loans, not to mention intrigues in Canada and clashes with Spanish holdings in the new world, the progenitors to the United States, with all that our nascent nation was already a key player on the international stage.

Further the United States had envoys in most of the major European nations long before Washington’s farewell address. So, to say that the U.S. was isolated from the rest of the world and that Washington’s entreaty meant for us to stay that way, to say that this was some axiomatic delineation of American foreign policy is a wrong headed claim. The U.S. was already so “entangled” that it couldn’t be untangled.

One of the important goals of Washington’s letter was to shore up his own foreign policy decisions. Washington had angered the Jefferson/Madison wing of the federal government when he decided not to side with France against England after our revolution ended. In fact, while leaning toward being an anglophile, Washington tried to tread a fine line of “neutrality” between France and England. His farewell address was in part meant to justify a policy choice he had made as president. It was less a doctrine for the ages and more an immediate act of politics.

There was also an important bit of reality that caused Washington and Alexander Hamilton to eschew full support of France and lean toward England. We didn’t have the naval power to back up any major involvement in Europe. In fact, if we had decided to jump in with France, there was no way at all we could have escaped major damage from the extensive and powerful British Navy if we sided too directly with France.

Washington’s idea of neutrality was based in part on the complete inability of the U.S. to back up its foreign policy. But even in that case he did not say in his address that we should forever stay away from any foreign involvement.

Here is the key section of his address:

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

To warn Americans against “permanent alliances” really should go without saying. Decades later a fast friend of the United States basically said the same thing when he, Winston Churchill, said there are “no eternal allies” and “no perpetual enemies” for any nation.

Washington went on to say, though, that sometimes we must form alliances. “Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture,” he wrote, “we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

Obviously he understood that always staying neutral–as Paulites and liberals maintain–is not possible.

It should also be realized that this was Washington’s (and Hamilton’s) vision. The farewell address was not an explication of standard practice even when it was written, but Washington’s ideals. Many founders disagreed with this vision. So to act as if an isolationist policy was a singular founding principle is a horrible misread of history.

In To the Farewell Address, the seminal book about Washington’s document and the era in which it was given, Felix Gilbert warned us all not to accept these flawed misconstructions we are discussing here as an explanation what was going on with Washington’s farewell address.

In the conclusion to his essay, Gilbert wrote:

Because the Farewell Address comprises various aspects of American political thinking, it reaches beyond any period limited in time and reveals the basic issue of the American attitude toward foreign policy: the tension between Idealism and Realism. Settled by men who looked for gain and by men who sought freedom, born into independence in a century of enlightened thinking and of power politics, America has wavered in her foreign policy between Idealism and Realism, and her great historical moments have occurred when both were combined.

In other words, today’s neo-isolationist view of America’s “real” foreign policy ideals is woefully incorrect. The U.S. was never isolationist as a first principle. Ron Paul and his isolationists are wrong and so are the liberals who have a sudden and uncharacteristic respect for a founding father.

Finally, it must be noted that this article of mine is discussing only one thing and that is the purpose of Washington’s farewell address when it was delivered in 1796 and what it means to American first principles. I have no interest in using this piece to excuse or justify anything that happened after Washington left the scene. This article is not meant to ascertain what amount of foreign policy is optimal, only that isolationism is not an American first principle.

If WWI or WWII were wrong or our Middle East policy is misguided, those are discussions for other articles, not this one.

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  • Commander_Chico

    This is the full relevant passage from the Farewell Address. It sounds like Washington was warning us about Israel and Saudi Arabia and their servants in the Congress and Executive:

    Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?

    In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

    So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

    As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils. Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

    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. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

    The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

    Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

    Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

    It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

    Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

    Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.

    • jim_m

      You are so full of crap.

      • Commander_Chico

        I quoted Washington. He also despised chickenhawks.

        • jim_m

          He shot traitors like you.

        • jim_m

          By your estimate Washington despised Franklin, Adams and Jefferson, none of whom served a single day after having provoked a war with the world’s greatest power by authoring the Declaration of Independence. Heck, two of them removed themselves overseas during the conflict.

          You’re a lying ass.

          • Commander_Chico

            Those guys were all leaders and would have been hung by the British. They had skin in the game, they weren’t sitting in a cubicle typing their war fantasies.

          • jim_m

            Claiming that isolationism means no international trade is a lie.

          • Commander_Chico

            The whole passage I quoted above is an indictment of American interventionism and imperialism.

          • jim_m

            And as others have previously pointed out, a complete misrepresentation of what he said.

            I’ll wait for your claim the we should never have gone after the Barbary Pirates and that the founders would have been unanimously against it.

          • Commander_Chico

            It is what he said, you dolt. Warner is the one twisting things by selective quoting and “interpretation.”

          • jim_m

            You quote and interpret too. Having a larger block of text is not proof of accuracy in your interpretation

          • Commander_Chico

            The quote is verbatim from the Farewell Address.

          • So were mine.

          • Commander_Chico

            Yeah, you cut out the most powerful words and substituted “interpretation.”

          • jim_m

            You applied an interpretation to that quote. I and everyone else here tell you that you are full of crap

          • WHO’S THE BUSTER

            Just out of curiosity, how does posting the more exhaustive text point to “interpretation”, when juxtaposed with a reference to an essay about the text, which can only be defined as interpretation?

          • jim_m

            And doesn’t prove your bogus interpretation.

          • Commander_Chico

            Why do you have to suck the balls of Israelis and Saudis so much?

  • Charles Harkins

    I enjoyed that piece. Nice work!

  • Richard Hicks

    This is why I can’t stand republicans/conservatives.THEY stay trying to change facts and peoples words around. George Washington said we should mindour damn business and thats what he meant. This country is ran by bankers. The same bankers responsible for almost all wars.