*I note up front that this post runs a bit long and covers a lot of ground, and I thank you in advance for your indulgence.
Among the other topics that Washington discusses in his Farewell Address is the issue of foreign relations. This was a subject of particular importance in 1796, as the United States daily ran the risk of being torn apart by the competing sympathies of its citizens and the demands of its allies and trading partners. Ever the pragmatist, Washington advised a neutral course, and in spelling out his position arguably created a framework that, in some form or another, guided American foreign policy for over two centuries.
But let’s take a step back for a moment.
Following the Revolutionary War, which ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Britain and the newly formed United States of American maintained many of the commercial ties that had existed during the colonial era. This relationship ran in both directions, with Britain exchanging manufactured goods for American raw materials, and constituted perhaps the most important form of commercial exchange for either nation. Those Americans that were engaged in shipping, as ship-owners, ship-builders, sailors, merchants, or bankers, were located mainly in the urban north, in cities like Boston and New York, and benefited greatly from the thriving Atlantic trade during the 1780s and 1790s. They were also, perhaps because of their trans-Atlantic business relationships, the Americans most likely to be sympathetic to Britain and its culture. As, over the course of the early 1790s, Britain became increasingly involved in an expansive conflict with Revolutionary France (which had cast off its monarchy in 1793 and declared itself a republic), these same Americans unhesitatingly expressed their support for their former countrymen and expected their government to do the same.
In the Southern states, however, things were not so clear cut. Though many Southern planters (like Washington, Jefferson and their contemporaries) sold their produce to British buyers, they were suspicious of British motives and of commerce in general. Staunch republicans, they believed that only by owning land could a person be free from the influence of others, and that a successful republic required its citizens to be at liberty to freely express their will, rather than the will of their business partners, creditors, or employers. And as republicans they were thrilled when France, their ally during the Revolution, declared itself a republic. In their eyes the American Revolution had successfully spread, and toppled one of the oldest and most entrenched monarchies in Europe. It was thus incumbent upon the government of the United States to honor its wartime alliance (sealed by treaty in 1778) and give whatever aid was necessary to ensure that its sister-republic thrived.
Forced to confront the competing sympathies of the American people, Washington at all times urged neutrality and non-intervention. The United States, he believed, was too young and too fragile to risk being dragged into a European conflict in which it had no direct interest. To that end he first issued a proclamation of neutrality in 1793, threatening legal action against any Americans who participated in the European conflict or aided any of the belligerents, and then endorsed and signed the Jay Treaty into law in 1795. This concord between Britain and the United States resolved a number of issues that had remained unsettled following the Treaty of Paris (continued British occupation of certain forts in American territory, a demand for compensation by Britain of property seized during the Revolution, etc…) preserved diplomatic relations between the two nations and ensured the United States’ continued neutrality in Britain’s war with France. Hotly debated in the Senate between those who wished to preserve commercial ties with Britain and those that felt the treaty aligned the United States too closely with British interests, the accord was ultimately ratified and came into force in early 1796.
Having at last decided to retire from public life, and no longer fearing the recriminations of his fellow Americans for supporting a neutral course, Washington dedicated a sizeable portion of his Farewell Address to an explanation of the dangers of entangling alliances and the benefits of keeping the United States free and independent on the global stage. This explanation, which begins in section 31 and ends in section 49, revolves around the assertions that alliances or rivalries with other nations would inevitably endanger America’s independence and that if America were to ally with another nation it would be a hopelessly lopsided union.
Considering his role in helping to achieve the independence of the United States, it stands to reason that Washington would value that independence very dearly and would not want to see it hastily cast aside. This he asserts in section 32, claiming that “the Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an 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.” Though Washington believed that the government of the United States was, unlike the monarchies of Europe, dedicated to servicing the public good, it too could be led to abandon its well-reasoned plans and policies if prompted by ill-will, animosity, pride, or ambition. While these sorts of vices were in some sense unavoidable for a nation as young and untested as the United States was in 1796, the first president thought it prudent not to invite them unnecessarily in the form of national alliances and national enmities.
He reinforced this assertion by also claiming that alliances between nations, when they do exist, must always benefit one party more than the other. Considering that in the 1790s the United States found itself caught between Great Britain on one hand and France on the other (both vast, wealthy, militarily experienced empires), it’s not an unreasonable argument that America could never be an equal partner to either one. “Europe,” Washington writes in section 37, “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.” This geographic isolation, combined with the fact that the United States was the sole republic in a world of monarchies (with a few odd exceptions), ensured that America’s interests could not help but be separate from the majority of nations that might seek to ally with it. Hence, Washington argues, whatever Britain or France might seek to gain from allying with the United States could not possibly benefit America or its citizens in anything more than a tangential way.
What all of this means, essentially, is that Washington believed the United States increasingly ran the risk, in the late 1790s, of becoming a pawn in the machinations of its potential allies, and in the process stood to lose the independence it had fought so hard to attain. Though he was willing to admit that trade with other nations was admissible, even desirable, he refused to entertain the idea of extensive foreign commerce unless it was dictated by practicality and reason, and not by a sense of favouritism or hostility. “Even our commercial policy,” he writes in section 42, “Should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences.”
Evidently Washington believed that the United States needed to adopt a stoic posture, taking events as they came and evaluating potential relationships by first and foremost weighing its own interests. Perhaps I’m projecting, but I see in these cautions almost exactly the nation that American became. Granted, I don’t know whether I or anyone else could say beyond a shadow of a doubt that Washington’s Farewell Address had a direct influence on subsequent generations of Americans. Nevertheless, I see in the first president’s words the America of the 19th century that traded with other nations, had relationships with other nations, but kept them always at arm’s length. I see the America of the Monroe Doctrine, jealously guarding the Western Hemisphere from European interference; the America that waited until 1917 to enter WWI, and until 1941 to enter WWII, in both cases on its own terms and for its own reasons. And I see the America that between 1778 and 1949 (when it took the lead in forming NATO) had no permanent alliances, military or otherwise, with any other nation.
Perhaps I read too much into Washington’s caution. Judge for yourself his somewhat cynical conclusion:
“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 that 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.”
If later generations didn’t take Washington’s address to heart and plan their foreign relations strategy accordingly, than the first president’s foresight was downright uncanny.