Review in your memory the main episodes of nineteenth-century history and you will see how American statesmen stayed the course. Jefferson, for all his wild talk in favor of the French Revolution, announced in his inaugural, “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans,” pledged “no entangling alliances,” clung to neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars, and acquired Louisiana peaceably. When the long-suffering son at last asked Congress to declare war on Britain in 1812, it was a unilateral act in defense of American honor: there was never a question of alliance with Bonaparte. After 1815 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams made permanent peace with Britain on the Canadian frontier and a treaty with Spain, which ceded Florida and extended U.S. claims to the Pacific. His Monroe Doctrine then warned European powers against new colonization in the Americas and promised in return that the United States would not intervene in European affairs.
Andrew Jackson was so fiercely protective of American honor that this land soldier sharply expanded the U.S. Navy but avoided gratuitous conflict even during the Texas war of independence. His protégé James K. Polk, by contrast, risked (some say invited) war against Mexico for annexationist goals. But when northern humanitarians tried to turn the war into a crusade to occupy and uplift all of Mexico, Polk recoiled. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded to the United States only those strategic, sparsely populated lands it was in their national interest to acquire.
Weren’t some Americans tempted to charge into ideological wars in support of republicanism? Yes, indeed. Jefferson, Henry Clay, William Seward, U. S. Grant, and some others displayed a split-mindedness, a utopian streak that led them to imagine vain things like global revolution or global government. But such fanaticism never came close to capturing U.S. foreign policy.
What of the Civil War? Didn’t that great moral crusade eventuate in Reconstruction, America’s first nation-building project? Yes, it did, but it also ended—and was seen to have ended—in tragic failure. Well, didn’t the Civil War mobilization prepare the United States for a career as a paladin of democracy in the world? Not to hear Lincoln tell it. There isn’t a word—not a word—about foreign policy in all his collected works save for the irenic hope at the close of the second inaugural that Americans might “cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Nor is there any evidence that the Civil War deflected U.S. diplomacy from its Washingtonian principles.
On the contrary, two of the most striking features of postbellum politics are the frugality of the Congress and its vigorous reassertion of constitutional powers in matters of foreign policy. The budget shrank from $1.3 billion in 1865 to a lean $241 million in 1877 before inching back upward with the building of the so-called New Navy. Of course, the United States was blessed by a neighborhood that needed little active defense. But wise policy also ensured that the nation made no enemies, and no one imagined the United States imitating European imperialism in Africa or Eurasia. Indeed, Republican Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated emphatically: “Empire obtained by force is un-republican, and offensive to the first principle of our Union, according to which all just government stands only on the consent of the governed. Our country needs no such ally as war. Its destiny is mightier than war. Through peace it will have everything.” The Gilded Age was also the era when the Senate made a habit of reciting Washington’s Farewell Address at the start of each session.
Why did the old ways seem good?
They seemed good, I think, because between 1787, when the Constitution was drafted, and 1897, when William McKinley was inaugurated, the United States was contained—selfcontained—by four powerful checks against zealotry:
1: Doctrine of Separate Spheres
The first was relative weakness. The United States might be a potential hegemon in the New World but remained a minor player in the world at large. So American statesmen proclaimed the doctrine of separate spheres and were pleased that it seemed to stick.
2: Westward Expansion
The second was westward expansion. No one in his right mind wanted to risk the nation’s Manifest Destiny in North America by picking ideological quarrels overseas.
3: Wisdom of History
The third was the wisdom of history. American statesmen in the nineteenth century‐unlike today’s ignoramuses—knew the lessons of Athens and Rome and lived in healthy fear of an American Alcibiades, Caesar, or Cromwell.
4: Incorrigible Imperfection of Human Nature
The fourth was the residual Christian anthropology embedded in U.S. institutions. Almost all the Framers had believed, if not in original sin or Calvin’s total depravity, then in their philosophical equivalent, the incorrigible imperfection of human nature. That is why Federalists were anxious to check and balance powers, while Anti-Federalists feared any general government at all. Indeed, a major check on hubris and adventurism was the Constitution itself.
Finally, standing above and validating the prudent traditions and checks was the American civil religion, which taught that law must follow the flag so that any peoples and lands acquired must be accorded statehood. Under that dispensation even white racism served as a check on colonialism. In retrospect, since we know what happened in 1898, it is easy to build an argument that the United States was destined to bid for world power, and probably sooner than later given the thrust of the Progressive movement.
But it certainly would have surprised most Americans of the time to learn their hallowed foreign policy traditions were about to be jettisoned. Just listen to the inaugural address of Democrat Grover Cleveland, in 1885:
The genius of our institutions, the needs of our people in their home life, and the attention which is demanded for the settlement and development of the resources of our vast territory dictate the scrupulous avoidance of any departure from that foreign policy commended by the history, the traditions, and the prosperity of our Republic. It is the policy of independence, favored by our position and defended by our known love of justice and by our power. It is the policy of peace suitable to our interests. It is the policy of neutrality, rejecting any share in foreign broils and ambitions upon other continents and repelling their intrusion here. It is the policy of Monroe and of Washington and Jefferson—“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliance with none.”
Listen now to the Republican Benjamin Harrison, who ran against Cleveland in 1888. The first to imagine the presidency as a bully pulpit, Harrison preached old-time civil religion. Thus he took it as axiomatic that piety, virtue, and hard work were rewarded with material plenty, but also reminded Gilded Age American audiences “that it is not, after all, riches that exalt the Nation. It is a pure, clean, high, intellectual, moral, and God-fearing citizenship that is our glory and security as a Nation.” Harrison taught the “good old Biblical maxims” on which Lincoln had said all sound policy rested. He insisted America’s truly dangerous enemies were not Great Powers abroad but a lapse of integrity and purity at home. He believed republicanism would spread in the world by “sympathy and emulation” and feared the harm Americans might do to themselves and to others should they undertake to extend their institutions by force. That is why Harrison never recanted his slogan:
“We Americans have no commission from God to police the world.”
This excerpt from "Promised Land: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Founding Era" by Walter A. McDougall, was originally published in the Modern Age Vol. 56, No. 4, Fall 2014, as a part of the Modern Age symposium, "America Supranational: A Symposium on American Foreign Policy." Photo courtesy of David Uy.