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isolationism is a convenient narrative from progressive historians who are eager to dismiss the Founders’ wisdom as outdated and inapplicable to the modern world.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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