Monday, February 21, 2005

 

George Washington, Anti-Imperialist

An excerpt from a column by John Nichols. To read the original, click on the title, which is a link.


When dissenters from the impulse toward American empire held their annual gatherings in cities and towns across the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, they would meet on the anniversary of George Washington's birth. It was the accepted wisdom of the day that, in addition to having been "the father of his country," Washington was, as well, the father of the anti-imperialist movement. The first president had given his ideological descendants ample evidence on which to base their claim. His 1793 proclamation of American neutrality in regards to European political and military conflicts explicitly rejected international entanglements, with Washington later explaining that, "The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations." But it was Washington's Farewell Address, delivered in 1796 toward the end of his second presidential term, that became a touchstone for ensuing generations of anti-imperialists. Washington used his last great statement to the nation he had shepherded through the struggle to loose the grip of British colonial rule, "to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." Washington saw great danger in any step that would "entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice" but it was not just alliances with European states that worried him. The first president counseled that it should be "our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."

The commander of America's revolutionary armies did not want his country to follow the European course of collecting colonies and establishing spheres of influence that would need, ever, to be defended. He warned that the new United States might "pay with a portion of its independence" for involving itself in "projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives." And he asked a question that would echo across the ages as his presidential successors moved the country further and further from its founding principles: "Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?"



(John Nichols)


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