Imperialism and Isolationism: Contrasting Approaches to Foreign Policy

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Imperialists believe that the American government should protect what it considers to be the national interest, even if that means getting involved in conflicts around the globe. They also maintain that it is the government’s duty to spread our political and economic systems to other countries, by force if necessary. In other words, they believe in U.S. leadership of the world. The Federalists were the original American imperialists. Being Anglophiles, they looked to Great Britain as the role model for American foreign policy. Federalists desired strong financial and commercial ties to Europe and an economy based on overseas trade. Power needed to be concentrated in a strong federal government in order to speak with one voice to the governments of other nations. A strong military was needed to protect the interests of American bankers and businessmen. An admirer of Caesar and Napoleon, Alexander Hamilton desired an imperialistic foreign policy for the new nation. In 1799, Major General Hamilton “was a man who dreamed dreams, and in his imagination he was already leading his army into Louisiana, the Floridas and points south. ‘We ought,’ he said, ‘to squint at South America.’” The ideological division in early American public policy is clear: “Hamilton longs for empire, opulence, and glory for the nation, whereas Jefferson seeks virtue, freedom, and happiness for the social individual.” Hamilton was “very opportunistic about international diplomacy” and distrusted “moralizing in foreign policy.”1

Isolationists believe that the American government should be predominantly concerned about the needs and desires of its own citizens. They do not believe our government should be potentially involved in every conflict around the globe. They do not believe our government should attempt to control the governments of other nations. In other words, they believe in national self-determination. The Anti-Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were the original American isolationists. They believed in decentralized politics, agrarian-based economics, no standing army, staying out of Europe’s continual bloodshed, and friendship with the people of other nations but non-alliance with those people’s governments. Isolationists are often characterized as provincial bumpkins. This characterization hardly fits the nation’s premier isolationist. Jefferson was a diplomat and a student of language, science, and philosophy. Cosmopolitan in outlook, he nonetheless opposed national involvement in overseas political and military conflicts. Referring to a controversy about the West Indies, in a 1791 letter to an American diplomat, he stated, “If there be one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American, it is, that we should have nothing to do with conquest.” In 1799, Jefferson wrote, “I am for free commerce with all nations; political connection with none; and little or no diplomatic establishment. And I am not for linking ourselves by new treaties with the quarrels of Europe; entering that field of slaughter to preserve their balance…” In his first inaugural address (1801), President Jefferson urged “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” He held this view throughout his life.2

Using the word isolationism to describe Jefferson’s foreign policy is an oversimplification. Setting aside the negative images with which it is saddled due to 70 years of imperial propaganda, the term is still problematic because it does not express the full range of Jefferson’s thought. In addition to the obvious forswearing of entangling alliances, Jeffersonian isolationism involved support for a republic rather than an empire, for national sovereignty, for ethical conduct, for human rights, and for popular control of foreign policy. These five beliefs could be thought of as causes, components, or concomitants of isolationism. Jefferson “vigorously rejected the view that only individuals are bound by a moral code, and that nations are free to act in accordance with self-interest without any restraints.” Writing to James Madison in 1789, he remarked, “I know but one code of morality for men, whether acting singly or collectively. He who says I will be a rogue when I act in company with a hundred others, but an honest man when I act alone, will be believed in the former assertion but not in the latter.” Despite his belief in the importance of moral conduct in foreign relations, Jefferson was not nave in his view of the world. He had, for example, a realistic assessment of foreign governments. In 1812, Jefferson condemned both the French and British governments for trying to “draw to themselves the power, the wealth and the resources of other nations.” Three years later, he called Napoleon “the wretch…who has been the author of more misery and suffering to the world, than any being who ever lived before him. After destroying the liberties of his country, he has exhausted all its resources, physical and moral, to indulge his own maniac ambition, his own tyrannical and overbearing spirit.” He did not, however, have a favorable view of the British government and other opponents of Napoleon. Jefferson condemned the imperialism of all the leading countries of Europe: “The will of the allies? There is no more moderation, forbearance, or even honesty in theirs, than in that of Bonaparte. They have proved that their object, like his, is plunder.”3

Isolationism is a problematic word. It is an epithet, it is anachronistic when applied to Jefferson, and it fails to indicate the full range of thought involved. Admittedly, it is a flawed term, but it may be the best term available. Non-interventionism is a non-definition that merely calls attention to another undefined term, the word continentalism never caught on after being proposed by scholar Charles Beard, and neutrality is too vague. To some, isolationism may imply ostrich-like, willful ignorance of the rest of the world, but this was never the case with its most famous practitioners. The isolation is not one of intellect, trade, or travel, but one of entangling alliances, military conflict, and imperial domination. For isolationists, national self-determination for colonies and national sovereignty for America are closely-related principles emanating from a common source: a commitment to democracy, freedom, and decentralization. Isolationism is the foreign policy of traditional liberals. As Robert Morss Lovett noted in 1924 in his Progressive Party statement for the elite journal Foreign Affairs,

It is historically characteristic of governments devoted to conservative measures and the maintenance of the status quo in domestic affairs to develop an aggressive policy in foreign affairs, and similarly for governments whose chief outlook is toward the progressive improvement of existing conditions to seek to disembarrass themselves from the complications of foreign policy.

This progressive tradition was first manifested in power through the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.

Isolationism may be an unfortunate term in some ways, but it describes a real, deep, and honorable tradition in American politics. Prior to the 1930s, the ideological underpinning of our approach to the world lacked a distinct label because it was simply accepted as traditional U.S. foreign policy. In his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions…” In 1796, George Washington’s Farewell Address noted, “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….It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world…” The Independence Day speech of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1821 indicated that isolationism was still taken for granted 25 years later. Referring to America, he reminded the House of Representatives, “She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings…She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” The Monroe Doctrine acted as an isolationist bulwark for many years, until it was corrupted by the Theodore Roosevelt Corollary (1904) and virtually set aside by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. The Doctrine asserted,

In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so….It is impossible that the allied powers [of Europe] should extend their political system to any portion of either [American] continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord….It is still the true policy of the United States to leave the [Latin American] parties to themselves, in hope that other powers will pursue the same course.

In opposing the annexation of Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) in 1870, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles Sumner (R-MA) argued that Caribbean islands “should not be absorbed by the United States, but should remain as independent powers, and should try for themselves to make the experiment of self-government….To the African belongs the equatorial belt and he should enjoy it undisturbed.” Things began to change dramatically in 1898. With the annexation of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War, we were well on our way to becoming an empire with extensive political and military ties to the rest of the world. As a result, traditional foreign policy fell into disfavor among U.S. elites and was eventually disparaged by the dismissive term isolationism. Meanwhile, when the word imperialism fell out of favor, it was exchanged for the more euphemistic internationalism.

Jeff Taylor [send him mail] is a political scientist in Rochester, Minnesota. This essay is adapted from the book Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy. Visit his website.

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