As his presidency winds down, we are told that Barack Obama will deliver a farewell address*just like* President George Washington. Well, I know about George Washington. And YOU, Barack Obama, are no George Washington.
The far left Huffington Post told readers that Obama was “inspired” by Washington’s farewell address delivered to the nation on September 19, 1796, when it appeared in print in the Philadelphia American Daily Advertiser.
Certainly George Washington is renowned for building up the very country Barack Obama spent eight years trying to tear down, so it remains to be seen if Obama is going to try to make of himself a modern day Washington. Silk purse from a sow’s ear, comes to mind.
But one of the points in Washington’s farewell address is something many today misconstrue. Too many insist that our first president told the nation to stay free of the “foreign entanglements” that come with getting too involved in the affairs of other nations.
Along with the laughable claim that Obama might somehow be like George Washington, the question over what to do about Islam has liberals citing Washington’s supposed warning these days. But it is an inapt comparison to make to pair Washington’s world with the threat we face today.
Regardless we are seeing those lightly informed about American history claiming that our founders — especially George Washington — warned us to stay out of “foreign entanglements.”
Today many on the left and the isolationist right try to use the father of our country to support their ideas against a muscular foreign policy and to justify their hope that the USA will pull out of the Middle East by insisting Washington said to steer clear of dealings with other nations.
The truth is, though, Washington never really said this and what he did say is illegitimately used to push an idea he didn’t advocate.
We must admit how hilarious it is to see liberals all of a sudden in love with a founding father, our first principles, or American history for the first time in their lives. But it isn’t just the left revealing a sudden respect for a founding father with these citations of Washington’s address. Along with the left the isolationist wing of the American right has also been holding up Washington’s farewell address as some sort of “proof” that one of our “first principles” is 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 entanglements and did he think we must restrict ourselves solely to trade with foreigners?
Firstly, despite the traditional misconstruction, Washington never actually used the words “foreign entanglements” in his farewell address in the first place. Unfortunately, this is a decades-long misconstruction of Washington’s 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.”
From there we move on to the assumed isolationism of 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?
It would be a bit odd to assume Washington was proposing we stay away from other nations. After all 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 and he appointed some of them himself. So, to say that the U.S. was supposed to be 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 patently silly claim. Even in Washington’s day the U.S. was already so “entangled” that it couldn’t be untangled.
So, what was Washington talking about?
Well, 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.
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 isolationists 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. Much of the address was Washington’s ideal vision. 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. Right-wing nationalists 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.