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  • The Myth of American Isolationism

    If there is one thing that the left and the right often agree about these days when it comes to the Founding, it is that the Founders were isolationists. Look no further than George Washington, we are told: he proclaimed neutrality in the war between Britain and France, and he cemented the policy of isolationism in his Farewell Address, admonishing America to avoid entangling alliances.

    The Founders, though, were not isolationists or even non-interventionists. The Founders’ isolationism is a convenient narrative from progressive historians who are eager to dismiss the Founders’ wisdom as outdated and inapplicable to the modern world.  As Marion Smith highlights in his latest essay on the myth of isolationism, what these historians dismissively consider “eras of virtuous and glorious isolationism are better understood as periods of uncontested independence when the U.S. was afforded the luxury of following a policy of neutrality.” Thus, the true consistency of American foreign policy is found not in particular policies, which prudently change and adapt, but in America’s unchanging and permanent guiding principles found in the Declaration of Independence.

    Sometimes America’s principles call for abstention: we all recall Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation, keeping the United States from taking sides in the conflict between France and Britain. But some situations call for action, such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849 against the Austrian Empire.

    Although the Austrians and the Russians ultimately suppressed the revolution, the Hungarians received aid from Americans in private and public capacities. When the Hungarian leader faced a potential extradition to (and execution in) Austria, the U.S. Navy forcibly freed him. The United States’ actions strained diplomatic relations and trade with both the Austrian and Russian Empires—of no small significance to the security and economic well-being of a young America.

    The Austrian government confronted America about her support of the Hungarians: America, they asserted, had violated the principle of neutrality. Secretary of State Daniel Webster corrected their misconception of America’s guiding foreign policy principles. America was established on the principle of liberty, he explained, and Americans cannot “fail to cherish, always, a lively interest in the fortunes of Nations, struggling for institutions like their own.” Therefore, when America saw foreign people moving spontaneously and without interference toward liberty, the United States could not “remain wholly indifferent spectators.”

    Austria threatened open hostility against America for interfering in the situation and refusing to apologize for aiding the Hungarians. Webster replied that nothing would  “deter either the government or the people of the United States from exercising, at their own discretion, the rights belonging to them as an independent nation, and of forming and expressing their own opinions, freely and at all times, upon the great political events which may transpire among the civilized nations of the earth.”

    There is a difference between abstaining as a principle and abstaining as a policy. An isolationist country withdraws from the world, like seventeenth-century China or twentieth-century North Korea. But America stands for the principles of liberty, independence, and self-government, and those principles shape and define her interests. The same principles that led George Washington to refrain from aligning with Britain or France also led Zachary Taylor to support Hungarian independence, and can still guide our policies today.

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    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    5 Responses to The Myth of American Isolationism

    1. Jim, CT says:

      Well, of course. That's why, when Zachary Taylor and Danial Webster were helping draft the Constitution, they made sure it said "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States and to make the world safe for Democracy." Because our government threatening to jail its own citizens if they don't pay money to fight monsters in the far corners of the world is just the right thing to do in order for our government to best serve its one and only function according to the Declaration of Independence – securing the life, liberty, and property of its own citizens.

    2. Dennis Georgia says:

      Wish that obama had the guts to read this and enough sence to understand what America was and is.

    3. Mike Sutton, Anchora says:

      Ms Shaw,

      It is interesting that you have to use an example (Hungarian Revolution) that is 7 decades after the Declaration of Independence and 50 years after the death of George Washington. Could it be that Daniel Webster got it wrong? I don't recall Daniel Webster being counted as one of the founders, am I wrong? Did the founders maybe mean what they said? Can't you find quotes from the founders to support your position?

      How have the Swiss managed to excel as a nation with such a silly foreign policy? And they are among the poorest of nations for doing so. Think about it.

      My 2 cents.

      Mike

    4. Leon Lundquist, Dura says:

      Julia, you are right. There is, however a seemy side of American Foreign Policy that found us supporting Dictators and talking the talk but now walking the walk. It has made me furious throughout my life to see our failures to support Representative Democracies. Realize we let Lebanon slide into the abysse. We let Afghanistan go South. I can't name them all it has happened so often. Why has the Free Trade Agreement with Columbia gone nowhere? And gee! Big news, suddenly we are supporting South Korea! There is only one Representative Democracy in the Middle East, Israel and we haven't supported them recently in any significant way.

      Modern History is written by the likes of the New York Times, and those guys are Perfectly Crazy they are so Left Wing biased. What we are doing is far from Isolation, being Policeman for the World (Oh! Yeah! For free!) But I think the United States would come off more sincere if we actually supported the former Soviet satellites who are trying to be good citizens. Here we are sucking up to the Russians! Like we already forgot the Evil Empire? What they tried to do? I think American Foreign Policy should have a spine and actually promote freedom, not drop the people who listen to us like Iraqis listening to Geo Bush Sr. "Rise up! But we won't stop the slaughter!"

    5. Homer N. Jethro; Gra says:

      Greetings Mike,

      I cannot think of one US citizen that would like to trade the Swiss "government for government" in regard to personal freedom and individual liberty… Furthermore, the Swiss pay a lot for their relative freedoms…. I don't want their brand of "freedom" here. In the USA, I can say so and vote so and if I get enough friends to see it from my point of view, I win the issue. Same for you, Mike. If you can get enough people to agree with you, you can vote in like minded people. Good Luck!

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