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Today marks the 223rd anniversary of George Washington’s Farewell Address. It is sometimes mistakenly referred to a speech, but it was actually a six-thousand-word letter to the American people. It first appeared on September 19, 1796, in a Philadelphia newspaper known as the American Daily Advertiser. Why a newspaper in Philadelphia? Because the City of Brotherly Love was the nation’s capital at the time.
Washington’s explicit purpose with the address was stated in the title the Advertiser gave it—“The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America on His Declining the Presidency of the United States.” But Washington wanted to do more than announce that he was not seeking a third term as president. He also wanted to offer his fellow citizens “some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.” In short, the nation’s first president wanted to offer some parting advice.Washington worried about three threats to the fledging country: factions (or what today we would call partisanship); regionalism; and “the mischiefs of foreign intrigue.” Washington’s warning about the evils of faction, which are still worth reading, were quickly ignored as Federalists (think John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) squared off against Democratic-Republicans (think Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) for political power. And Washington’s warnings about regionalism didn’t stop the deepening rift between North and South that would culminate six decades later in the Civil War.
What Washington had to say about the world beyond America’s borders, however, did stick. Indeed, his words would guide U.S. foreign policy for nearly one hundred and fifty years. He wanted the country to “observe good faith and justice towards all nations.” To that end:
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.
Today we know that strategy as isolationism, the name its critics gave it in the 1930’s. That label was always misleading. As Washington’s words make clear, he wasn’t looking to cut the United States off from the world. He favored trade, and the United States for decades welcomed immigrants. Isolationism instead sought to minimize America’s political entanglements with the rest of the world, and Europe in particular. Just as important, it set no limits on the U.S. appetite for an often brutal continental expansion.
Isolationism was a strategy rooted in America’s weakness and geography—as a small country embracing a new form of government it was far more likely to lose than gain by involving itself in the affairs of Europe, and its location gave it the option to sit on the sidelines. But this hard-nosed geopolitical calculation was buttressed by a sense of ideological exceptionalism—by standing apart from the world, Americans thought that they could set an example for others to follow.
The isolationist era in U.S. foreign policy closed on December 7, 1941. Standing apart had worked well for more than a century in sparing the United States from great power conflict, but at Pearl Harbor, it became clear that things had changed. The United States suddenly embraced its role as a global power and charted a fundamentally different foreign policy that brought its own set of accomplishments and challenges.