The American Tradition


Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.

The notion is widely prevalent that the United States followed isolationist policies in the nine­teenth century. Students assert this "fact" with the kind of as­surance that would stem from in­doctrination. But a statement such as that the United States was iso­lationist in the nineteenth cen­tury is not even in the nature of a fact. It is an historical judg­ment, a judgment which would have to subsume a great many facts in order to be valid. Actu­ally, "isolationist" is generally used as invective to denounce those who disagree with the policies which have been adopted by the United States since World War II—though the outline of these policies began to emerge some years before that. It is a key word in a language of argumentation, not a descriptive word.

In like manner, many assume that the trend of twentieth cen­tury American policies has been toward internationalism. More­over, according to the prevailing ethos it is good to be an "interna­tionalist," and it is bad to be an "isolationist." An "internation­alist," judging by those who claim the title and the actions they pro­mote, is one who favors reciprocal trade agreements, foreign aid, permanent alliances, involvement in the domestic affairs of other nations, government-to-government loans, managed domestic currencies, cultural exchanges un­der the auspices of government, and international monetary funds.

It is often assumed, too, that those who support these programs are men of good will, while those who oppose them are at best mis­guided and at worst malevolent.

There should be no doubt that American foreign policy has changed in the twentieth century from what it was in the nine­teenth. On this point, there ap­pears to be general agreement. But changed from what to what is the question. How should the two different policies be described? More broadly, what was the Amer­ican tradition regarding relations with other nations? Was the United States cut off from the rest of the world in the nineteenth cen­tury? Was the general tendency of the policy narrow, provincial, self­ish, and inconsiderate? Have we broken out of our cocoon in the twentieth century to take up our rightful place in the world?

These are not questions which should be answered by the use of invective. They are historical questions which should be settled by a review of the evidence.

A Cosmopolitan View

The first statement to be made on the basis of the record can be made categorically: these United States were not isolated in the nineteenth century, nor did they follow isolationist policies. On the contrary, among the early acts of the Second Continental Congress was to send representatives abroad. The Congress under the Articles of Confederation at­tempted to establish relations on a regular basis with as many countries as possible. The govern­ment established under the Con­stitution of 1787 attempted to op­erate in an international scene that was, to use a word commonly employed at the time, calamitous. For most of the first 25 years of the new Republic, Europe was dis­turbed and disjointed by the events surrounding and following upon the French Revolution. Nev­ertheless, the United States car­ried on diplomatic and trade rela­tions with most countries most of the time and tried to use the in­fluence of example to maintain sanity in a world where it ap­peared to be in short supply. The ideas of the Enlightenment, which informed the thought of the Founders, were cosmopolitan. Americans early wished the United States to become a nation among nations; the efforts of political leaders were usually bent toward accomplishing this objective.

These statements should not be misunderstood, however: the American tradition of foreign re­lations was not internationalist as that term is now used. It was in­ternationalist within the frame­work of the nineteenth century.

To appreciate this, it will be help­ful to look for and to try to recall the principles upon which Ameri­can foreign policy was usually based. These can be approached by studying some of the important statements that were made by Presidents. George Washington’s advice on foreign affairs in his Farewell Address is both the most famous of these and the most im­portant for the formation of the tradition. It is worth quoting at length, because it became a guide for foreign policy makers through much of our history.

Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct. And can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period a great nation to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence….

In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and pas­sionate attachments for others should be excluded, and that in place of them just and amicable feelings toward all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges toward an­other an habitual hatred or an ha­bitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosityor to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur.

Hence frequent collisions, obsti­nate, envenomed, and bloody con­tests. The nation prompted by ill will and resentment sometimes im­pels to war the government contrary to the best calculations of policy….

So, likewise, a passionate attach­ment of one nation for another pro­duces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common in­terest in cases where no real com­mon interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter with­out adequate inducement or justifica­tion. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges de­nied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the conces­sions by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate in the par­ties from whom equal privileges are withheld; and it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite na­tion) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country….

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….

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in ex­tending our commercial relations to have with them as little political con­nection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any por­tion of the foreign world….

Taking care always to keep our­selves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alli­ances for extraordinary emergencies.

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by pol­icy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand, neither seeking nor granting exclusive fa­vors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the Gov­ernment to support them, conven­tional rules of intercourse…; con­stantly keeping in view that it isfolly in one nation to look for disin­terested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its inde­pendence for whatever it may accept under that character; that by such acceptance it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate up­on real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.1

Washington’s Views Upheld

These words of Washington’s became (or were) a part of the consciousness of others, for those who came later to seats of power reiterated them. President John Adams resolved "to do justice as far as may depend upon me, at all times and to all nations, and main­tain peace, friendship, and benev­olence with all the world."2 He said further, "It is my sincere de­sire, and in this I presume I con­cur with you [the Congress] and with our constituents, to preserve peace and friendship with all na­tions…. If we have committed errors, and these can be demon­strated, we shall be willing to cor­rect them…; and equal measures of justice we have a right to expect from France and every other nation."3 To which the Sen­ate replied, "Peace and harmony with all nations is our sincere wish; but such being the lot of humanity that nations will not al­ways reciprocate peaceable dis­positions, it is our firm belief that effectual measures of defense will tend to inspire that national self-respect and confidence at home which is the unfailing source of respectability abroad, to check aggression and prevent war."4

Thomas Jefferson, with his usu­al felicity, states the particular application of these general prin­ciples as he explains how the United States as a neutral nation should behave toward belligerents:

In the course of this conflict let it be our endeavor, as it is our interest and desire, to cultivate the friend­ship of the belligerent nations by ev­ery act of justice and of innocent kindness; to receive their armed ves­sels with hospitality from the dis­tresses of the sea, but to administer the means of annoyance to none; to establish in our harbors such a police as may maintain law and order; to restrain our citizens from embarking individually in a war in which their country takes no part…; to exact from every nation the observance to­ward our vessels and citizens of those principles and practices which all civilized people acknowledge; to mer­it the character of a just nation, and maintain that of an independent one, preferring every consequence to insult and habitual wrong.8

In more general terms, he de­clared himself in favor of "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alli­ances with none."6 There are overtones of Adam Smith in this phrase: "to those who justly cal­culate that their own well-being is advanced by that of the nations with which they have inter­course…."7

One more statement from an early President should indicate a general concurrence in some gen­eral principles. This is from the Monroe Doctrine:

Our policy in regard to Europe… remains the same, which is, not to in­terfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legiti­mate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to pre­serve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every pow­er, submitting to injuries from none.8

From these primary policy pronouncements some general prin­ciples emerge. They can be re­duced to a few heads and stated as imperatives in the following manner:

The United States should

1. Establish and maintain a position of independence with re­gard to other countries.

2. Avoid political connection, in­volvement, or intervention in the affairs of other countries.

3. Make no permanent or en­tangling alliances.

4. Treat all nations impartially, neither granting nor accepting special privileges from any.

5. Promote commerce with all peoples and countries.

6. Cooperate with other coun­tries to develop civilized rules of intercourse.

7. Act always in accordance with the "laws of nations."

8. Remedy all just claims of in­jury to other nations, and require just treatment from other nations, standing ready, if necessary to punish offenders.

9. Maintain a defensive force of sufficient magnitude to deter ag­gressors.

Were Principles Practiced?

The question arises at this point as to whether the statements quoted earlier are anything more than idealistic pronouncements, piously proclaimed. In our times, we are all too familiar with the protective coloration of rhetoric under which politicians and na­tions conceal their thrust to power. These words must be tested by the actions which fol­lowed them. Moreover, the Ameri­can tradition must be discovered in the customs and practices, not in the ideas.

Did the American tradition con­form to the above principles? In answering this question, it should be clear that I am not ascribing an invariable rectitude to American behavior. Americans have prob­ably been no more nearly perfect than have any other peoples. Fur­thermore, they lived in a world where other nations were not per­fect either. Nevertheless, for the first 109 years of the existence of the Republic Americans de­veloped and maintained a tradi­tion that was in keeping with the above principles. During the early years, when Europe was embroiled in a succession of wars, vigorous efforts were made to steer clear of foreign entanglements. The United States adopted a neutral position, attempted to maintain friendly relations with all the countries, and steadfastly clung to independence. Jefferson went so far in his efforts to maintain peace at one point that he in­voked an embargo on American shipping. (For a period of a couple of years the United States was isolated, technically, from most of the rest of the world.)

For the whole of the nineteenth century the United States made no permanent or entangling alli­ances. Generally speaking, inter­course was promoted and advanced with all countries. Goods entered America from around the world with only minor duties upon them until well past the mid-nineteenth century. Export duties were pro­hibited by the Constitution. Peo­ple could enter America freely for most of the nineteenth cen­tury; immigrants were welcome, and naturalization was easy. Cul­tural exchanges took place regu­larly, under the protection but not the auspices of the government. The United States cooperated with other countries to open trade with Asiatic countries.9

No single instance comes to mind of interference in the inter­nal affairs of another country dur­ing the first hundred years of the Republic. There were, of course, boundary disputes, and there was the expansionist war with Mexico, and the latter may well have been a departure from principle. The Monroe Doctrine did not claim for the United States the right to in­tervene in any country’s internal affairs. It proposed rather to pre­vent further European colonizing in America. The Monroe Doctrine was a unilateral undertaking which did not commit America to the policy determination of other powers. In short, American inde­pendence was iterated and pre­served by it.

We can say with confidence that the United States established a tradition of foreign relations in keeping with the principles laid down by the Founding Fathers. The diplomatic history of the nineteenth century is filled with examples of treaties of amity and commerce with other powers, with cooperative efforts to establish rules of intercourse, with the sending and receiving of min­isters and ambassadors, with the opening of trade and commerce with distant powers, and with ne­gotiations to settle peacefully real or imagined injuries which citi­zens of one country had done to those of another.

Western Internationalism

It follows that the United States was neither alone nor acting alone in the world. The American tradi­tion blended with and was a part of the Western tradition of inter­national relations. This greater tradition embraced numerous means for facilitating and main­taining harmony among nations, such means as treaties, congres­ses, ambassadors exchanged between countries, respect for the nationals of one country in an­other, and so on. However, at the time of the birth of the Republic respect for the tradition was in a sorry state. European countries had been embroiled in a series of "world wars" in the eighteenth century, involving the land and naval powers of the world. These appear to have culminated in the cataclysmic struggles which we associate with the French Revolu­tion and the era of Napoleon. These latter developments signify a huge assault upon the corpus of tradi­tions by which Europeans lived. It was a vital question whether any tradition could survive the onslaught.

Yet much of the diplomatic tradition did survive the holo­caust; the zeal of the French rev­olutionaries succumbed to the guillotine; Napoleon was made an unemployed despot. Britain out­lasted France; tradition tri­umphed over ideology. But the England that emerged victorious in 1815 was not the England that had gone to war in the 1790′s. England made great headway in industrialization in the inter­vening years. Men and ideas were having an impact also. The po­litical ideas of John Locke, the economic ideas of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the conception of continuity with the past ad­vanced by Edmund Burke com­bined to buttress tradition, to revitalize the inheritance from the past, and to give a new, and liberal, direction to the future. Order was restored to Europe, trade commenced to heal the wounds of martial enmity, and some measure of decency and justice began to characterize the relations among nations. By the mid-nineteenth century Britain had become a momentous influence in the world for peaceful har­monious relations and free trade.

The Golden Age of Western Civilization, 1815-1914

It is common nowadays to find the period from the Congress of Vienna (1815) to the onset of World War I (1914) referred to as the Golden Age of Western Civilization. The reason for this characterization is not far to seek. Wars were few, brief, and limited. When the peace was threatened, a concert of powers usually met in a congress to avert war. Private property was usually respected, and the boundaries of nations usually enjoyed the pro­tection which stemmed from this respect. The barriers to trade, travel, and intercourse were fall­ing. Country after country adopt­ed or revitalized representative government, and the rights of civilized men enjoyed the defense of a vigilant press and the pro­tection of far-flung navies.

Some despotisms remained, sor­ry and largely ineffectual relics of the past. In these circum­stances, "there emerged a multi­plicity of international organiza­tions. All the ‘civilized’ nations of the world joined the Red Cross society… Thirty formed a Universal Telegraph Union (1875). Twenty-three agreed to make common use of the metric system… (1875). Sixty adhered to a Universal Postal Union, created in 1878…. Nineteen ratified a convention of 1883 for the standardization of patent laws. Fifteen signed another con­vention of 1887 providing for practically uniform copyright laws."¹° It is worth pointing out that these developments took place within what propagandists are now apt to call " international anarchy."

Nations, Liberty, Trade

If the nineteenth century was a Golden Age, and it certainly was in relations among nations at the least, what made it so? First, a system of nations existed in the world. These nations were jealous of their independence of one another but were equally devoted to the maintenance of the general sanctity of the nation-state, its established boundaries and perquisites. Second, within these nations there was a mount­ing devotion to liberty and opposi­tion to state tyranny. Demands arose from every quarter for changes in this direction. As one historian says, "In one country precedence was given to liberation from a foreign domination or to national unity, and in another to the change from absolutism in gov­ernment to constitutionalism. Here it was simply a question of reform of the franchise…, while there it was a question of establishing a representative system…. And over all of them [these demands] rose one word that summed them all up and expressed the spirit which had given them life—the word liberty."¹¹ Third, leading na­tions, particularly Great Britain and the United States, worked to open up the world to trade, com­merce, and intercourse. In the cir­cumstances that resulted, gold be­came the medium of exchange. Goods could be readily exchanged around the world, and prices and production were determined by "the workings of private markets…. Likewise, the task of distributing the gains from trade and the opportunities for growth among national economies was substantially left to the world market…."¹² To put the matter another way, politics and eco­nomics were kept at a decent dis­tance from one another in impor­tant affairs.

In more general terms, a scholar has described the workings of this order:

What first strikes us in considering this order is the respect it enjoyed, which is only accentuated by the bad conscience or apologetics accompany­ing cases of infringement, which made it possible for international law to be regarded as a genuine law…; for the world to be united through a network of long-term agreements which therefore made for the stabilization of international re­lationships; for tensions between large and small states to be continu­ally adjusted—the unjustly suspected "balance of power"—and for a high degree of agreement to exist regard­ing legal conceptions and national standards of justice.¹³

The consequences of this order ought to be well known: peace, and a mounting and spreading pros­perity. The order was invigorated by regulated competition, ordered by some common conceptions of justice, vitalized by its consonance with liberty, and dependent upon the determined independence of nations and the balance of power among them.

U.S. Influence on World Trade

What was the relation of the United States to this order? As I suggested initially, the American tradition of foreign relations was an integral part of the Western tradition. From the outset, the United States participated heartily in the diplomatic, com­mercial, and cultural customs and practices which make up that tradition. There is more to it than that, however. The thought will not down that the United States contributed much to the salvage of the remains of the tra­dition in the early nineteenth cen­tury and to the development of a more vital one later in the cen­tury. The point is difficult to prove because if influence be con­ceived only in terms of power, it must be admitted that the United States was not a world power to be reckoned with in the early nine­teenth century.

But is the thrust of power al­ways more influential than that of example without the benefit of physical force? It is not clear that it is. Let it be noted that during the time of Europe’s mad­ness (1790′s-1815) America re­mained an island of sanity, trying to maintain a neutral position, in­sisting upon the respect for the rights of neutrals, holding to the concept of the laws of na­tions, attempting to establish peaceful intercourse with the rest of the world. Nor should it be forgotten that in the wake of the French debacle few responsi­ble Europeans believed that re­publican governments could be moderate in their actions and stable in their course. The be­havior of the United States re­versed that judgment in the course of the century, as more and more countries turned to con­stitutional republics. Moreover, the central principles governing relations among nations which were the guidelines of statesmen during the Golden Age were the same ones advocated by Washing­ton, Adams, Jefferson, and Mon­roe. However, I ascribe not origi­nality but the influence of ex­ample to the Americans.

It Was Internationalist

At any rate, one of the ques­tions posed at the beginning of this article can now be answered. That is, how should American foreign policy in the nineteenth century be characterized? An un­equivocal answer can be given:

IT WAS INTERNATIONALIST. Thus, the American tradition was one of internationalism, within a framework of a Western tradition of internationalism. It envisioned the existence of independent na­tions which would carry on a great variety of relations with one another according to estab­lished rules. This system permit­ted a rich diversity of practice, custom, and law within countries, in keeping with their desires and traditions, while encouraging a uniformity of practice in matters that would facilitate peaceful in­tercourse. Internationalism on the negative side can be called NON-INTERVENTIONISM. This, too, was at the heart of the American tradition.

A Significant Departure

There can be no doubt that the United States has departed from the earlier tradition in the twen­tieth century, a departure that was preceded, accompanied, or followed by many other countries around the world. Indeed, the initial departure was so abrupt that it can be fixed with near certainty. The year was 1898, the occasion the Spanish-American War, the outcome overseas ex­pansion and the acquisition of empire.

But there were developments which prepared the way for this departure. The most notable of these was the establishment of a policy of protectionism. The United States, of course, had tariffs from the beginning. At first, they were conceived as rev­enue measures. But from 1816 on they were frequently advocated and adopted as protective meas­ures. Even so, until the 1860′s they were very limited in their coverage, adopted as temporary expedients to protect infant in­dustries, and vigorously opposed by a considerable portion of the politicians, and presumably the electorate, of the country. Still, the matter should not be glossed over. There were overtones of economic nationalism in Henry Clay’s American System, set forth in the 1820′s. Nationalism can be and has been used to undermine internationalism. The royal road to this development has been the protective tariff. It intertwines politics and economics, supports the notion that the economic well­being of a nation is opposed to that of others, and promotes dis­cord and jealousies. More, it sets the stage for national expansion and imperialism.¹4


This last point deserves some elaboration. Critics of private capitalism have ascribed imperial‑., parts 1-2.ism to capitalistic industrializa­tion. It is true that industrializa­tion requires markets and raw materials, facts which have been offered as the basis of an econ­omic explanation adduced for colonialism and imperialism. The internationalism of the nineteenth century, however, afforded the op­portunity for markets and mate­rials without imperialism. Free trade was the acceptable means to this end. But in the latter part of the nineteenth century many nations began erecting trade bar­riers by adopting ever higher tariffs. As one historian aptly describes this development, "the laissez-faire principle which had been regarded as a natural and ideal accompaniment of industrial progress in Europe during the era from 1830 to 1870 was re­placed to a large extent during the era from 1870 to 1910 by neo­mercantilism, by governmental attempts to treat industry and agriculture, commerce and labor, as ‘national interests.’ "¹5

The effect was to close off mar­kets and materials from the gen­eral trade of nations, and for a single nation to attempt to monop­olize whole areas. (It is worth noting also that these practices tended to promote domestic mo­nopolies as well.) As protection­ism shut off access to markets and materials, nations moved to ac­quire their own exclusive sources. Hence, the surge of imperialism, the carving up of choice areas of the world into spheres of influ­ence, the territorial expansion which culminated in the first great cataclysm of the twentieth cen­tury—World War I. Much else was involved in these develop­ments, of course. For example, the idea of survival of the fittest, borrowed from Darwinism and applied to nations, played a part. But the protective tariff can be usefully conceived as the forbid­den fruit in the nineteenth cen­tury Garden of Eden.

For the United States, the ac­quisition of Spanish colonies in consequence of the Spanish-American War can be understood, then, as a logical culmination of protectionist policies which had been established from the Civil War onward. Having departed the American tradition by interven­ing in the affairs of Spain, the United States speedily became embroiled in all sorts of foreign undertakings and adventures. Two years after the Spanish-American War the Marines were helping to put down rebellion in far-off China. By the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s nearly two terms in the presidency much of the re­mainder of the American tradi­tion of internationalism was in shambles. There was the sorry episode by which the Canal Zone was leased from the bogusly cre­ated Republic of Panama. This was followed by the proclamation of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, by which the United States claimed the "right" to intervene in other American countries, given certain condi­tions. Matching words with deeds, Marines and customs agents be­gan putting in appearances in various Caribbean ports. Wood­row Wilson talked of reversing many of these trends, but some of his policies succeeded in get­ting the United States more em­broiled in world affairs.

Collectivist Ideas Growing

Much more was involved by this time in the departure from the American tradition than economic nationalism. Collectivist ideas had become a part of the intellectual equipment of many intellectuals, and they were spreading a new conception of reality and of inter­nationalism. Karl Marx was cer­tainly the fountainhead of a new "school of internationalism," and socialists in general were billing themselves as the "true" interna­tionalists. This is one of the great ironies of history. On the one hand, socialists have vehemently denounced nationalism. On the other hand, wherever they have come to power, or begun to come to power, they have thrown up "iron curtains" around the nation, and put all sorts of obstacles in the way of intercourse.

All of this is very confusing, but it has an explanation. Social­ists proceed toward their goal, or they imagine that they do, by way of a planned economy. In order to plan the economy they have to control all the factors involved in it. They cannot have free inter­course of people, goods, or ideas, for any of these would introduce unknowns that could not be con­trolled. They cannot permit their effort to be subjected to a world market. But the existence of inde­pendent countries threatens their existence, or so they think quite often. There is always the invidi­ous comparison with other coun­tries, for socialist experiments have resulted in miserable fail­ures. Besides, they need the ma­terials if not the markets (for they have trouble supplying their own markets) in the rest of the world. The only possibility for achieving this is by the creation of a world socialist state. All in­dependent nations would be gone. Then, socialism would work, or, if it did not, there would be noth­ing left with which to compare it, to prove that socialism was not the "wave of the future." Lest some think that history would pose a problem, it should be pointed out that history has largely been rewritten in the twentieth century to accord more or less with the socialist vision. Brainwashing (or "psychiatric treatment") should take care of the rest.

Abandonment of Principles

What has all of this to do with the United States? Let us note the general outlines of the course of developments in the twentieth century, and we shall see. Ameri­can leaders have discarded one by one, or in bunches, the principles of the Founders upon which the American tradition of internationalism was based. They yielded up a portion of independence by join­ing the United Nations. The United States has intervened in, become involved with, and has her destiny connected with other coun­tries by way of the bending of armies, the giving of foreign aid, and by mutual assistance policies. We have made permanent and en­tangling alliances, beginning with the North Atlantic Treaty Or­ganization. We seek special trade privileges by way of reciprocal trade agreements. The United States supports some foreign gov­ernments and opposes others, not on principle quite often but for expedient reasons. Even those few principles which have not been discarded—such as, to cooperate with other countries to develop civilized rules of intercourse—are being pursued in dubious ways. The United States left the gold standard, so far as Americans are concerned, in the 1930′s, has long ago thrown up formidable bar­riers to immigration, and has to a considerable extent substituted government-to-government loans in place of the activities of pri­vate lenders.

Nationalism and the Welfare State

The major characteristics of our policies in the twentieth cen­tury have been economic nation­alism (particularly in the 1930′s), interventionism, and the turning to collective security. At home, we have established what is com­monly called the welfare state; abroad, we are following policies antithetical to our own indepen­dence and that of other countries.

Enough has been said now to choose a word to characterize our policies. I nominate INTERVEN­TIONISM. "Internationalism" and "isolationism" as they are now usually employed are propagandic appellations for advancing inter­vention, whether knowingly so used or not. The American tradi­tion was one of internationalism. We are now devoted to a course which will eventuate in a world state, chaos, or both, if it is not reversed. A world welfare state would be nearly as close to social­ism as most "moderates" would now wish. Anyone who doubts any of these propositions should restudy the history of the last forty years and review current proposals being advanced by world leaders and advocated by intellectuals.

But is the older American tradi­tion a viable alternative to the current course? Who can say with certainty? Conditions have changed somewhat. Not as much as some imagine, however. Com­munism is a menace today on a scale which I would not minimize. But this Republic was born amidst turmoil that would equal that of our day. Washington’s Farewell Address was delivered shortly after the terror had swept over France. Jefferson took his position when Napoleon was at the height of his power.

Advocates of Collective Security

Think what a field day the ad­vocates of collective security would have had advising Wash­ington, Adams, and Jefferson. They could have argued, with much force, that the United States was too feeble to go it alone. It was "necessary" to get the pro­tection of one of the great powers, to align themselves with one or the other contending groups. Independence is all well and good, but it would have to wait until fairer times.

Let it be noted that this was not the course followed. Despite the temptations to follow such a course, the United States followed a resolutely independent course, even to the fighting of an "inde­pendent" war against Great Britain, disdaining allies (the War of 1812). They must have known what we have forgotten, that independence yielded up for expedient reasons is hardly recovered. We know something of the consequences of the American tradition of internationalism; we are fearful of the end product of interventionism. But it is for the historian to tell the story, not to determine the course.  

The next article in this series will treat "Of Civilizing of Groups."


1 James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presi­dents I (Washington Printing Office, 1896), 221-23.

2 Ibid., p. 232.

3 Ibid., p. 232.

4 Ibid., p. 240.

5 Ibid., p. 361.

6 Ibid., p. 323.

Ibid., p. 369.

8 Henry S. Commager, ed., Documents of American History, I (New York: Ap­pleton-Century, Crofts, 1963, 7th ed.), 236-37.

9 See Dorothy B. Goebel, ed., American Foreign Policy (New York: Holt, Rine­hart and Winston, 1961), p. 108.

10 Carlton J. H. Hayes, Contemporary Europe since 1870 (New York: Macmil­lan, 1958, rev. ed.), p. 307.

11 Benedetto Croce, History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century, Henry Furst, trans. (New York: A Harbinger Book, 1963), pp. 4-5.

12 William Y. Elliott, et. al., The Polit­ical Economy of American Foreign Pol­icy (New York: Holt, 1955), p. 9.

13 Wilhelm Röpke, International Or­der and Economic Integration (Dord­recht-Holland: Reidel, 1959), pp. 74-75.

¹4 See Ibid

15 Hayes, op. cit., pp. 36-37.




Ideas on Liberty


Every young man should understand that he is being watched by many eyes, and often when he least expects it.

Scouts, the baseball word for men who search out promising material for the professional leagues, are everywhere.

Old men and middle-aged men, bankers and lawyers, manufac­turers and merchants, editors and publishers hold this thought uppermost in their minds at all times: Where can I find young men with the right stuff in them, the right habits, the right tem­per, the right balance? These veterans have money that needs watching, that must be put to work. They control enterprises that are floundering, and need the energy of youth in the manage­ment.

Let a young man demonstrate that he has the qualities required for success in modern enterprise, and someone will make him an offer if he exposes himself to opportunity.

Only those who are compelled to depend upon others for the ex­ecution of their plans and dreams can ever know how persistent and relentless is the search for youth of high spirit and capac­ity. It is going on day and night. At many times in our life we all come under the appraising eye of a scout.

WILLIAM FEATHER, The William Feather Magazine, August, 1963


December 1963

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)


The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)