Home / From Colony to Superpower: Part II

From Colony to Superpower: Part II


George Washington composed his Farewell Address in cooperation with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The process took roughly five years, as the initial text was prepared in anticipation of a 1792 retirement. In one of the drafts of the address, Washington/Madison/Hamilton look forward to a time in which the United States

shall possess the strength of a giant, and there will be none who can make us afraid.

George Herring introduces the second chapter of From Colony to Superpower with this quote, and highlights in in his introduction. Washington’s Farewell Address is a remarkably important document for the study of American foreign policy, but discussion of it tends to focus on other elements, most notably Washington’s injunctions against alliances and other entanglements with Europe. Unlike some such documents, the Farewell Address isn’t a sphinx without a secret; it lays forth a relatively straightforward and coherent vision of what American foreign policy should look like. Fans of hegemonic and liberal internationalist approaches to American foreign policy should, I think, disagree with much of what Washington argues, although they can excuse him for writing under different circumstances than hold today. In any case, the decision to highlight a quote from an unfinished draft of the Address is curious, and I have to suspect that Herring would not have done so if the book had been published prior to the September 11 attacks. Those attacks demonstrated that the strength of a giant was insufficient to protect us from being afraid.

What strikes more than anything about the quote is its naivety. It feels particularly naive in the context of the last ten years of American history, but it was naive at the time, and misunderstands the relationship between fear and power. We fear when we believe that our values are threatened; national security is about the protection of those values. The more things that we have (whether territory, freedom, economic well-being, etc.) the more likely we are to feel fear. It’s hardly accidental that the most notable moments of raw terror over foreign affairs in the United States have come as the US ascended to a new apex of power. During the McCarthyite hysteria of the 1950s and following the attacks of September 11, the United States had great capacity to protect itself than ever before, but this capacity didn’t translate into a feeling of security. The power of the United States depends on an interlocking series of relationships both domestic and international. More stuff translates into more power, but it also means more threats; whereas the United States could be utterly indifferent to the course of a Greek civil war in the 19th century, in the 1950s such a war could potentially threaten the edifice upon which American power was built. Power and fear in the international system are tightly bound together; more of the first almost invariably means more of the second.

This should not have been lost on Washington, as he certainly could see that neither Britain nor France, in spite of their great power relative to the United States, were free from fear. There is also a neoconservative interpretation of the comment; Washington could have meant that as a powerful republic, the United States would reshape the world such that there would be nothing to fear. That’s seems to be a bit of a stretch, however, especially since Washington makes direct reference to size and power, rather than ideology. The notion of a United States reaching out and transforming the world through raw power is also alien to the rest of the Farewell Address, most of which (as alluded to above) is consumed by warnings against entanglement with the Old World.

It’s also possible (perhaps likely) that Washington meant nothing of the sort when he wrote the comment:

That our Union may be as lasting as time for while we are encircled in one band we shall possess the strength of a giant and there will be none who can make us afraid Divide and we shall become weak a prey to foreign intrigues and internal discord and shall be as miserable and contemptible as we are now enviable and happy.

In context, it seems to me much more of an injunction against disunity than a dream about the rise of American power. However, because Herring uses the quote to generate interesting thoughts rather than to illustrate the political vision of Washington/Hamilton/Madison, I can forgive the out of context citation.

The second chapter of Colony to Superpower brings us from the ratification of the Constitution to the election of Thomas Jefferson. The revolutionary spirit still animated American foreign policy to an extent, but it was tempered both by the severe constraints on US capabilities and by the motivating ideology of the American Revolution. While there was some sympathy for the French Revolution, there was also deep concern about its extent. No such confusion existed in reference to the Haitian Revolution; in a pattern that would be repeated ad nauseum throughout US history, the young Republic gave military assistance to the counter-revolutionary planter class of Haiti, and accepted its refugees following the rebel victory. The Haitian revolt played some role in the deep political divide that followed the French Revolution, as the Southern planter class argued for military and financial assistance to France so that the new government could put down the rebellion. This isn’t to say that the Federalists were enthused by the Haitian Revolt, but they didn’t tend to find the idea of a bloody slave revolt as frightening as did the Republicans.

Herring capably covers the familiar story of the conflict between the Federalists and the Republicans throughout the 1790s. I’ve seen it argued that this early battle between supporters of France and Britain raised the political salience of foreign policy to a degree unmatched in American politics until the 1950s, and Herring seems general in accord with that view. Herring is generally sympathetic to the Federalists, suggesting that much criticism of the Jay treaty was unwarranted, and that Adams accomplished a difficult task in keeping the US mostly out of war with France. The Alien and Sedition Acts receive curiously little attention.

I have more, but I’ll pass it over to Erik…

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