Historical illiteracy is bad enough, but even more infuriating is encountering someone who thinks they have a good grasp on history but who in fact really knows nothing more than a few good quotes that they’ve heard mentioned somewhere else. Like biblical fundamentalists picking out pieces of scriptures divorced from all context, these would-be professors can recite bits and pieces of speeches and writings that they think bolsters their argument, but instead prove nothing more than that they can ape what others have said.
And so was the case on this thread on the Other McCain’s blog related to the Israeli offensive in Gaza. The first commenter – someone signing as “Rae” towards the bottom – quotes the usual litany from some of our Founding Fathers that supposedly proves their isolationism and which, I suppose, is meant to be an argument against a “blind” defense of the state of Israel. I’m not going to get into the debate surrounding the latest happenings in the Middle East (though, as always, Chris Blosser has an excellent roundup if you are interested), but I’d like to take a closer look at this “holy trinity” from Washington, Jefferson, and Adams.
Helpfully at least, Rae provides links to the full speeches that he rips selective quotes from. He first cites Washington’s farewell address, specifically this part:
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens,) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove, that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican Government. But that jealousy, to be useful, must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defence against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation, and excessive dislike of another, cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots, who may resist the intrigues of the favorite, are liable to become suspected and odious; while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.
He then quotes a shorter sample from Jefferson’s first inaugural:
peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none . . .
And finally, an extended pull from John Quincy Adams’s speech before the House of Representatives on July 4, 1821.
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.
But 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.
She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force….
She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….
Let’s address the first two, since they are in many ways intertwined. We have to remember the context of Washington’s address. America is a newly formed Nation, less than a generation removed from gaining its independence from Great Britain. The major political issue gripping the new Nation is the conflict between England and France. To put it another way, the initial source of partisan strife is a conflict between Anglophiles and Francophiles. Generally speaking, the Federalist Party is more sympathetic to Great Britain, and is generally suspicius of revolutionary France. Meanwhile, Jefferson and his Republican cohorts want the United States to back the newly formed French “republic.” One of the greatest sources of turmoil centers on both the Jay Treaty with England (in which the United States ceded much) and the Proclomation of Neutrality, which essentially states that the United States would have nothing to do with the conflict overseas.
Jefferson and the Republicans balked at this, especially because it signified that the United States was turning its back on – what’s the term? Oh, right, it’s ally, France.
Now, did Washington, Jay and the Federalists support these developments out of an ideological committment to isolationism? One can spend a great many hours discussing the manifold motivation for the President’s policies, but it suffices to say that there were more practical considerations at work. Washington’s address should thus be read as the final words of a retiring sage who wishes to temper the partisan rancor tearing apart his Nation.
As for Jefferson – fine sentiments (as usual), but what exactly do they mean? It is but one in a litany of statements expressing Jefferson’s general political philosophy. Is it a call to isolationism? It would seem odd for Jefferson to issue such a call considering what we know about him. He is the same man who desired a more rigorous defense of France, and who certainly showed intense favoritism towards said Nation. If people think that many conservatives today are part of an “Amen corner” as regards Israel, then Thomas Jefferson was part of France’s “AMEN, HALLELUJAH and GLORY BE!” corner. Could the desire to avoid”entangling alliances” mean nothing more than that the United States should be wary of engaging in pacts with foreign nations that would be detrimental to our welfare? Certainly Jefferson – the man who oversaw America’s first shooting war as an independent Nation with the Barbary Pirates, and who helped instigate our war with Great Britain in 1812 – was not a man who believed in shutting off America from the rest of the world. This is a man whose rhetoric foreshadows the “Manifest Destiny” movement. Surely we cannot look to Jefferson as an exemplar of the motto of “splendid isolationism,” nor as a man who forsook showing favoritism towards one nation over another.
Finally, we have Adams. Again, these are fine sentiments which I can largely agree with, but does it apply to the current situation? Has America gone looking after monsters? Perhaps Adams’s words have more relevance to something like the war in Iraq – though I think not – but in Adams’s day “monsters” did not attack American soil as did the terrorists on 9/11. Nor is American engaging in some kind of naive, idealistic foreign policy in supporting a friendly, democratic government that is trying to defend its sovereignty and very existence. It is also difficult to ignore that the world has changed a wee bit since 1821, though that does not mean we should not take Adams’s words to heart.
This has all been a long way of saying, “You keep using [these words]. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.”