• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • The Founders on War & Peace

    Next Tuesday, the contenders for the GOP presidential nomination will square off in another debate, this time focused on foreign policy. If the last few months are any guide, at least one of those debaters will argue that if America just withdrew its military and stopped taunting other countries, then peace would be more likely. Take Iran, for example (as one candidate has), which recently attempted to carry out a targeted bombing in Washington, D.C.: What about just “offering friendship to them” instead of trying to keep them from acquiring nuclear weapons through coercive measures?

    Happily, the misguided assumption at the core of this question has been answered before: “Let us recollect,” wrote Alexander Hamilton, “that peace or war will not always be left to our options; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation or hope to extinguish the ambition of others.”

    What, then, should the United States do in an uncertain and dangerous international environment? According to James Madison, “Security against foreign danger is one of the primitive objects of civil society. It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.”

    These sentiments are not just the anachronistic or overly cynical views of our Founding Fathers. In conducting American foreign policy 200 years ago, they dealt with the same irrational and dangerous sentiments that plague our foreign policy thinking today.

    There have always been isolationists, anti-war activists, and utopian idealist voices in American history. At the time of the American founding, they included some eloquent and respectable voices such as Patrick Henry (revolutionary firebrand and governor of Virginia), who thought that America was safe because of its distance from Europe and, therefore, did not need an army and navy. Civic groups formed throughout the American states based on these utopian ideas.

    In December of 1815, the Reverend Noah Worcester founded the Massachusetts Peace Society, which counted among its members the Massachusetts governor and lieutenant governor, two judges, and Harvard’s president and faculty members. Worcester supported international arbitration of conflict and a “confederacy of nations” to prevent wars from occurring—ideas that would soon present challenges to American sovereignty in different ways.

    In contrast to these utopian notions, that same year, responding to Barbary attacks on American commercial ships a world away, then-President Madison proclaimed: “The United States while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none, it being a principle incorporated into the settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, so war is better than tribute.” Madison backed up this statement with a brief war against Algiers in 1815.

    At the successful conclusion of that war, Madison directed that, because of continued Barbary intransigence, the U.S. Navy would maintain a permanent presence off the North African coast. Madison’s “settled policy” and permanent overseas military force followed George Washington’s timeless counsel to prudently preserve America’s independence and military strength so that we can always “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

    The Founders approached foreign policy with a realistic assessment of human nature and the nature of international relations. To imprudently assume that, for example, 21st century Iran will give up its nuclear weapons program or ambitions for regional hegemony in the absence of U.S. efforts is to most definitely calculate on the “weaker springs of human character.” It is also to neglect the most important task of the federal government—“security against foreign danger.”

    In these primary debates, let us hope to have serious discussions about prudently protecting our interests and principles abroad. Let us reject those who would attempt to reverse the philosophical foundations of American statecraft, so well laid by our Founding Fathers.

    Posted in Featured, First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    8 Responses to The Founders on War & Peace

    1. Reed W says:

      James Madison faced Reality and put forth his best ideal on how to harness the power of human behavior. He is, was, and shall be America's preeminent framer. I dedicate my Independence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N32edq4iQHQ&fe

    2. Jake Jacobsen says:

      Fortunately, most conservatives I know have come to the same realization that I have, which is that the US would be threatened more by attacking Iran than by the chance that Iran develops it's own weapons because of the hatred we would incite by forcing them to obey us and by the huge financial burden of another war that we cannot bear. If the US has the right to attack Iran for developing nuclear weapons, it follows that Iran has the right to attack the US for developing nuclear weapons. The US has certainly been threatening to Iran.

      We have to be careful about how we deal with terrorists. Most of the terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, yet it would have been foolish for us to invade Saudi Arabia. We should be just as prudent dealing with terrorists from Iran. It was foolish for us to attack Afghanistan when we were attacked by Saudi terrorists. We should have done what Ron Paul said, which was to kill Osama bin Laden, rather than invade Afghanistan.

      Furthermore, we, as conservatives, should not allow the Constitution to be further degraded by allowing any other war that has not been authorized and delcared by congress according to the due process of law laid out by the Constitution.

      • William says:

        You're not speaking for any Conservatives I know. Iran must be stopped not simply because they want to develop a nuclear bomb, but because of their stated purpose to destroy Israel, and draw the entire world into war in the region.

        I'm serious when I say your post does not represent one thinking Conservative that I know.

    3. grandmasue says:

      Ron Paul…who you are citing as an example in your article… does advocate a strong national defense. He rejects the policy that we have followed for far too long, of interfering with other countries sovereignty. We need to be strong, close our borders, stop handing out money to our "friends" and non-friends, and just take care of the USA! It is understandable that people would resent us. As far as Iran… what makes you so sure that you are being given the truth about their "attempted" DC attack… just trust the source?? Would you like to send our troops into yet another war…Iran? What would that make… #4. Then how about Pakistan next??? I am ready for another solution!!!

    4. I think that you are missing Ron Paul's point, which is to quit meddling in other country's affairs and offer trade relationships with everyone who wants to trade – and play by the rules (which China IS NOT doing). An interesting question to all of the presidential candidates would be "What would you have done if you were president and learned about the Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on American soil?" I believe that you would learn that Ron Paul's response wouldn't simply be to ignore it like the Obama administration has done and the media has covered up.

    5. Bobbie says:

      Ron Paul is a great man some fear to admit!

    6. Bobbie says:

      Ron Paul is a great man some people fear to admit!

    7. Carlos says:

      The foreign policy stance of the founders in one sentence: We reserve the right to choose between war or peace, interference or neutrality, based on the interests of our nation. Ron Paul is to resolutions what fuel is to fire, it would seem he's liquid enough to stop the burning, but he would actually make the flames bigger.

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.