America’s Founders Were Not Isolationists by Gregory Hilton

Lafayette Square is directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, and contains four statues honoring foreigners who had key roles in the American Revolution.


Many isolationists use quotes from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to claim they represent the Founders’ viewpoint. This was also the tactic of the America First organization in its campaign to keep the nation neutral in World War II. At every large rally they displayed Washington’s portrait, and even though the Nazi’s controlled all of Europe, they claimed America would never be attacked by the “Axis of Steel.” They went out of business the day after Pearl Harbor.
Today the isolationists are against all foreign alliances, want to disband NATO, the American system of collective security, as well as breaking many treaties. They hold this view even though isolationism resulted in World War II. It was a conflict which could have been easily avoided if Britain, France, America and other powers had reacted during the nightmare years of the 1930s.
The quotes the isolationists use are from Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address and Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 first inaugural which advocated “entangling alliances with none.” The advice was excellent for their time, but not for all time, and the Founders fully understood the importance of foreign alliances. With substantial foreign assistance, the Founders were able to take a disorderly, outnumbered and ill-equipped army, and to defeat the greatest empire on Earth at the time.
More than anyone, they knew that without foreign alliances, America would have remained a British colony. The Continental Army initially had only 3% of the country’s support, was completely under-funded by its own people, but not by France and other allies.
Numerous foreigners embarked for America as soon as the Declaration of Independence was published. Pierre L’Enfant (who designed Washington, D.C.) and the Marquis de Lafayette both enlisted in 1776.
The war cost France one billion livre tournois, and the first American Congress listed a $13 million war debt to France. This is equivalent to $164 billion today, and the war debt greatly contributed to the French financial crisis. It was a major factor in the French Revolution which overthrew the monarchy in the same year Washington was inaugurated. Ironically, Britain, not France, became America’s major trading partner after the war.
A Foreign Alliance Won The War
The American Revolution was won at Yorktown but there were more French soldiers than American. There were 29 French warships in the Chesapeake Bay, but no American vessels (we only had two). George Washington’s Chief of Staff was Major General Baron von Steuben of Prussia. He was also the Inspector General of the Continental Army.
When Washington arrived at Yorktown, the Marquis de Lafayette was already there. He was by this time a Major General in the Continental Army. It was Lafayette’s strategy that won the war. General Washington had been trained by the British to fight in straight lines, but that tactic proved to be disastrous and there were numerous early losses including the city of Philadelphia. Lafayette convinced Washington to change to guerrilla hit and run tactics. His strategy was to scout, raid and evade, and thus to avoid defeat.
Statues of Lafayette and Von Steuben are now in Lafayette Square across from the White House. Also there is Lt. General Rochambeau, the commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force. He was later Marshall of France.
Good Advice Then, But Not Now
The George Washington and Thomas Jefferson quotes are well known, but the Founders were not isolationists. Washington’s advice was wise for the years after the French Revolution and before the War of 1812. This was a time when France and Britain were finishing a century of conflict.
Washington was correct in urging his countrymen not to choose sides between France and Britain, which was the focal point of the campaign when the first president left office. Jefferson was sympathetic to France, while John Adams was favorable to Britain.
Today America is the world’s only military superpower, but in 1796 we were one of the weakest nations.
The Founders Confronted Terrorists
The Founders did not have to deal with al-Qaeda members flying airliners into skyscrapers, but terrorism was been a problem since the begging of the republic. Thomas Jefferson had to battle the Barbary Pirates in what is today Libya. He was not like Ron Paul who calls the war on terrorism a “farce.”
The U.S. Congress never formally declared war on the pirates, and Ron Paul’s claim that the founders would have insisted on a declaration is wrong. Jefferson’s most prominent opponent, former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton said a formal declaration was not required, and the Congress agreed with him. The Congress did pass a joint resolution similar to the authorization of force George W. Bush received in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Jefferson did make a mistake when he initially acted liked Ron Paul and dismantled the U.S. Navy against the advice of John Adams. It was an error he later corrected.
George Washington Was Not a Libertarian
In his Farewell Address, Washington also advised against the creation of political parties, which he called factions. All of the Founders thought campaigning was wrong. The 6th president, John Quincy Adams, said a gentleman would not seek the office.
The Constitution allowed slavery until 1866 and poll taxes and other forms of voting discrimination were not abolished until 1965. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920. The American population of Washington’s time was 20 percent slave, 50 percent (women) had no say in government, and many white males were disenfranchised by property requirements until 1850s. We have a different outlook from the time when Washington spoke in 1796. The geopolitical considerations of two centuries ago are not relevant to the problems we face today.
Washington would never have agreed with the Libertarians. Ron Paul advocates a $1 trillion reduction in the Pentagon budget which would be devastating. In his 1793 fifth State of the Union Address, Washington outlined a two-part formula for peace through strength. He said first be ready for war and second let it be known that we are ready.Isolationists always want America to ignore evil and have no sense of morality. General Washington did not agree and said “Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”
Are The Iraq and Afghan Wars Justified?
Libertarians also believe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not justified. Washington again would not have agreed with them, and would have urged our citizens to support the American military. Washington said: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
Is It Contained in the Constitution?
Libertarians falsely claim they represent the united views of the Founders. Congressman Paul says “With regard to foreign policy, we must follow the Founders and the Constitution and mind our own business.” The 1776 generation rarely agreed on anything. They were divided into two distinct camps from the beginning.
The Libertarian response to many government initiatives is “Show me where it is in the Constitution.” The Constitution does not mention many things.
It is only four pages and does not include words such as an Air Force, Border Patrol, God, immigration, political parties, the Electoral College, executive orders, etc. Unlike today’s Libertarians, the strict constructionists of the founding generation were flexible. Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, but the Constitution has no express grant of power to the federal government to purchase new territory.
They Claim No One Will Attack America
Libertarians acknowledge Afghanistan’s responsibility for 9/11 and in 1991 Ron Paul admitted Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, but in both instances they wanted to do nothing in response. They ignore all the state sponsors of terror.
Rep. Paul’s repeated insistence that “There is no risk of somebody attacking us” is just what the isolationists of the 1930s believed, right up until Pearl Harbor. They did attack us: 1993 (World Trade Center I), 1996 (Khobar Towers), 1998 (African Embassies), 2000 (USS Cole), and 2001 (WTC/Pentagon).
Their logic was to keep America neutral in World War II and their policy remains “non-intervention.” The isolationists also did not want America to help West Berlin (1948), South Korea (1950), Grenada (1984) or Kuwait (1990).
The Founders Acted For All Nations
The United States had the first democratic revolution, and many of the founding fathers acknowledged they were acting for all nations. Thomas Paine said: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” America inspired the French Revolution of 1789 which began at the Bastille. The key to this prison was presented to the greatest revolutionary of that era, General George Washington.

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