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Farewell to the Farewell Address? or A Discourse of the Permanent and Transient in American Politics

ISSUE:  Spring 2001

“The youth of America is their oldest tradition.” Oscar Wilde’s words are even truer at the beginning of the 21st century than they were toward the end of the 19th century. For the themes of birth and re-birth, newness and renewal run through the public language of the United States, and have done so since the United States of America was formally created first through its Declaration of Independence and then in the framing of the Federal Constitution. The 54 inaugural addresses of the presidents are one prime collection of these normally celebratory yet sometimes chastening themes. If Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural best exemplifies this rarer and more sombre aspect, then Bill Clinton’s First Inaugural was surely the most striking example of the re-fashioning of the inaugural ceremony itself. Students of presidential rhetoric (Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, David Ericson, J. David Greenstone, Barbara Hinckley, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Lee Sigelman, Jeffrey Tulis) have identified the recurrent elements which have figured in such discourse—and hence have both offered the new president’s speechwriters likely paragraph-headings for Inauguration Day 2001 and also provided a check-list for future scholarly research. Given the volume and quality of this lexical analysis (which itself helped to inaugurate the journal Public Opinion Quarterly in the 1930’s and has led unsurprisingly to computer-based statistical surveying in more recent years) the purpose of this essay is to explore the history of two particular themes in American history more generally and in presidential rhetoric and public debate more specifically. The two interrelated topics could scarcely be more comprehensive or “elastic” (as one late 19th-century commentator put it): foreign and domestic policy. To make these vast topics manageable within the pages of an essay I shall trace the broad patterns from their sources in two of the classic texts in the canon of American political rhetoric: George Washington’s Farewell Address of September 1796 and Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural of March 1801.

Though united by many common arguments, the two texts differed in various ways, not least the circumstances and nature of their appearance. Washington’s Valedictory was not spoken but first published in newspaper and pamphlet form in Philadelphia as he left the temporary federal capital to retire to Mount Vernon after serving two terms as the unopposed choice of the Electoral College. Jefferson’s Inaugural was delivered in person though rather poorly in the new Senate Chamber of the partially-built Capitol in the eponymous and permanent federal city, Jefferson himself having only recently been elected to the presidency after protracted voting in the House of Representatives—this contest with his fellow Democratic-Republican, Aaron Burr, leading to the passage of the XII Amendment. Jefferson’s Inaugural, though less than a third the length of the Farewell Address, covered all the themes that scholars have detected in subsequent models—themes spelled out not only at greater length but more coherently and systematically by Washington. Yet it is the very aphoristic quality of Jefferson’s words which made his First Inaugural so memorable and helped to lodge the prescriptions of Washington so firmly in the political consciousness of the descendants of those whom the first two Virginian presidents called their “Friends and Fellow-Citizens.”

The two passages which remain so familiar from Jefferson’s Inaugural concern and repeat the key elements of Washington’s Valedictory. They are recorded here for their striking concision; they are then taken back to their sources in the Farewell Address; and afterward they are carried forward in the intellectual and political history of the next two centuries. The first phrases come from Jefferson’s exhortation to his “fellow-citizens” to “unite with one heart and one mind” after the “animation” and “exertions” of the election and the fierce partisanship which had marked political life since the mid 1790’s. Americans, Jefferson insisted, should acknowledge that:

every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans: we are all federalists.

The second excerpt from Jefferson comes from the list of “essential principles” which would guide his administration, principles “compress [ed . . .within] the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations,” So far as foreign policy was concerned, this meant that his administration would pursue:

peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none. . . .

Which of these two Jeffersonian apothegms is the more familiar or more quoted is uncertain and unanswerable. But there is no doubting they echoed the “sentiments” and “counsels” offered by the anxious Washington in 1796. For all the range and allusive detail of the Farewell Address; for all Washington’s insistence on the permeability both of foreign and domestic politics and also of the public and private spheres (to borrow a more 19th-century term)—the core and intertwined theme of Washington’s “disinterested warnings” as he deprecated the “baneful effects of the spirit of party” on the great “Union of the whole” was the necessity of internal harmony so that the infant giant of the United States, unencumbered by ideological and diplomatic commitments abroad, could bid defiance to any foreign combination of powers. As Washington summarized his elaborations and qualifications on the possibilities of “temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies” he propounded his own motto, which would be re-phrased by Jefferson:

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.

The Farewell Address became an instant success with Washington’s supporters—and anathema to his critics: a valuable reminder of the rough battles of contemporary politics which he sought to soften rhetorically. (William Duane, the abrasive Philadelphia journalist who would become Jefferson’s strongest editorial ally, immediately dismissed Washington’s “advice for the future [as] but a defence for the past.”) Long before Horace Binney produced in the late 1850’s the first book-length scholarly “Inquiry” into the sources, drafting, and meaning of the Valedictory, Washington’s words were cited in all manner of foreign policy debates: on Inter-American co-operation, the building of an inter-oceanic isthmian waterway or an overland route, and intervention in the European national liberation struggles of the 1840’s—1850’s. Nor was Jefferson’s contribution forgotten; and in a famous discussion of “the conduct of foreign affairs by the American democracy,” Alexis de Tocqueville quoted with approval the “maxims” and the “principles” of the two presidents.

As the United States expanded territorially, first through the Louisiana Purchase under Jefferson himself and then through the annexation of Texas, the spoils of the Mexican War, and the peaceful acquisition of the Oregon Territory, Jefferson’s contribution to the fixing of the Great Rule was neglected; and it was Washington the anti-sectionalist who was invoked on both sides of the Nullification controversy: by Clay, Jackson, Webster, Calhoun, and Lincoln. Thus for all the interplay between the domestic and foreign spheres in the schism over slavery and expansion, Washington’s Farewell Address was quoted for its strictures against divisive “factions” and “minorities.” (Already in 1796 Henry Tazewell, a Democratic-Republican Senator from Virginia, deplored the removal of officer-holders “South of the Potomack” in favour of “men [from] North of that line.”) “And the war came”—as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural. Yet it was Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, whose own Inaugural is remembered for its defense of “the principle of popular sovereignty,” who quoted selectively from Jefferson to frame the misleading sentence: “To avoid entangling alliances has been a maxim of our policy ever since the days of Washington, and its wisdom no one will attempt to dispute.” And it would be the next Democratic president, Grover Cleveland in his First Inaugural in 1885, who would compound the conflation when he described the “foreign policy commended by the history, the traditions, and the prosperity of our Republic” as being “the policy of Monroe and of Washington and Jefferson—”Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.”

As the preceding quotations suggest and as the historiographical record bears out, for many decades during the 19th century Washington’s Valedictory was cited for its censure of factions and sectionalism, particularly during the debates over slavery, as much as for the foreign policy precepts; but during this time it was the pithy words of Jefferson which were more readily used to support a foreign policy of American unilateralism. It would be tempting to write “American isolationism”; but this term is so encrusted with misconceptions that it cannot be used unproblematically. Fortunately the turn of the 19th century offered a moment to view the issues clearly—and with the bonus of viewing the issues through the language and injunctions of Washington.

In the course of the 19th century and certainly by the time Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Henry Seward wrote the word “isolation,” the term became used to describe a double policy of abstaining from intervention in European politics and avoiding alliances: the very essence of Washington’s Great Rule and Jefferson’s epigram. Yet just as Washington and Jefferson (like other Founders) had looked forward to the growth of the “American empire,” so such a policy of isolation was fully compatible with territorial expansion, increased international trade, and the promotion of American values. At the turn of the century, however, and most obviously during the Great Debate occasioned by the Spanish-American War, the term “isolation” took on pejorative tones. Furthermore, there was double shift. Opposition to intervention abroad, particularly outside the Western Hemisphere, was dismissed as isolation—the term isolationism not yet being coined by English-speakers. Meanwhile such intervention, say in China through Secretary of State John Hay’s Open Door policy, was considered as possibly requiring multilateral action, even a framework of political and military commitments to third parties, usually one or more of the European Great Powers. Thus those who opposed the latter on the classic lines of Washington and Jefferson (and, we may add, James Monroe) were dismissed as devotees of isolation—along with those who more simply wanted to limit American diplomatic and military action to the Western Hemisphere. The conflation of these two meanings and the call for a twin policy of greater intervention abroad and a concomitant acceptance of alliance-politics was neatly expressed by a predecessor of Hay’s, former Secretary of State Richard Olney, only weeks before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. (This was the Olney who had so vigorously asserted the Monroe Doctrine against the British in the Venezuelan-Guyanan border dispute.) Taking the tradition of American unilateralism head-on yet well aware that such “go-it-alone” methods (in the everyday but accurate British phrase) had been adopted to aid rather than inhibit American intervention during the 19th century, Olney called on his compatriots to “shake off the spell of the Washington legend and cease to act the role of international recluse.” What Olney was advocating, in other words, was the continuation of the vigorous promotion of American interests abroad but with the adoption when necessary of co-operative action, even full-blown alliances with other Great Powers.

To summarize the situation at the end of the 19th century: Washington’s Valedictory had been minded both for its domestic and diplomatic precepts; while from Jefferson’s First Inaugural had been taken the gems which crystallized these two elements. But between the twinned ideals, commentators had become inclined to emphasize the foreign and downplay the domestic aspects of the two texts. To explain this particular selection would be to take us into the contemporary characterization (made fashionable by Herbert Croly) of American history as more truly inspired by Hamiltonianism than Jeffersonianism—a binary model which was frequently employed from the turn of the century until World War II. In this dynamic, the vaguely-defined Jeffersonian legacy was no longer depicted as belonging to the non-partisan, supra-political tradition of Washington (“first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”) but rather the oppositional factionalism of States’ rights and limited federal government: complementary yet outdated values which had to be countered and transcended by the “New Nationalism.”


The Great Political Debate surrounding the Cuban and Philippine wars (and the coincidental annexation of Hawaii) and the Great Historiographical Debate over the emergence of the United States as a World Power opened the 20th century—and set the pattern for the next 100 years. At each moment of crisis, whether short or protracted, politicians and pundits, professional historians and concerned citizens looked backward and forward Janus-like to explain, justify, and predict official actions. And, with greater or lesser salience, the literal words and presumed meanings of the American foreign policy canon were invoked favourably or laid aside critically. We have noted that Monroe’s Doctrine had been added to the sacred texts—for such sanctity was attributed to these foundational words. It can also be readily inferred that Alexander Hamilton was revived, both for his domestic “nationalism” and for his foreign policy “realism.” (Since the early years of the 19th century Hamilton’s exact role in the drafting of the Farewell Address has been variously calculated.) But finally we must add in a fifth contribution to the larger Pentateuch, a second generation member of the earlier revolutionary pantheon: John Quincy Adams. Taking bearings from these five different figures, commentators have charted all sorts of courses, sometimes stressing foreign policy, sometimes paying more attention to domestic issues, sometimes insisting upon the interplay between these spheres. Nor has there been a neat pattern of rise and fall, favor and disfavor for these “oracles” (to borrow another 19th-century term). What is shared between them is precisely their common role as reference-points in political and social debate. But, as we shall see, their stars may be fading—a sign, perhaps, that the United States is itself changing.

Historical periods do not exist, of course, on their own by self-propagation; so periodization has to be invented. In the 20th century (the American century, as it was predicted), the task of inscription and description for students of U.S. foreign relations is comparatively simple. A succession of Great Debates has marked the significant moments in foreign-policy making, the “red thread” running through all the controversies and beyond in the less-articulated realms of beliefs and presumptions being the continued expansion of American power and influence beyond its shores and into other countries and cultures.(We may recall that after the formal closing of the frontier within North American continental limits Henry Cabot Lodge saw the “Manifest Destiny” of the 1840’s reaching across the Pacific to the shores of Asia.) Thus the Great Debate of the Spanish-American War was followed by the linked debates over American intervention in the First World War and membership of the League of Nations—the latter issue being by far the biggest cause in the joint Executive-Senate responsibility for the failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. The interwar years prolonged the basic question posed in 1919—1920: was isolationism still valid? was it even still possible? Once the term is translated into less problematical, less pejorative language, then the answer given in the course of World War II and its aftermath becomes clear and the remaining half century makes sense. Unilateralism would continue; but alongside the “go-it-alone” principle would be added multilateralism: working with others in international organizations—but never conceding to the organization the right to determine American policy. Hence the American insistence upon the “veto” power: isolationism (scilicet unilateralism) by technical, legal means. Thus the principles of American diplomacy are shown to evolve by a process of addition rather than by subtraction; to advance by aggregation rather than substitution. This transition during the 1940’s is often referred to as the passage from isolationism to internationalism; but the shift is more accurately and usefully to be interpreted as the adoption of multilateral instruments to supplement an existing and vigorous philosophy and practice of unilateralism.(In the old metaphors: a multilateral arrow is placed in the quiver which once contained only the unilateralist mode; an internationalist string is added to the former isolationist bow.) Failure to detect the basic continuity behind the outward though real change has led to many decades of hostile writing on the persistence of isolationism or the growth of neo-isolationism. Yet if there was one thing Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in one corner and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the opposite corner could all agree upon it was that Bill Clinton’s “indispensable nation” would act with others sometimes and on its own at other times: it is as simple as that. What has been the function of Washington, Jefferson and their slightly lesser lights in this process? To answer this question, we need to return to the early decades of the 20th century.

The American failure to join the League of Nations was undeniably a victory for the Washington-Jeffersonian policy of fundamental unilateralism. Even so, Woodrow Wilson, his bête noir Henry Cabot Lodge, and the future President Herbert Hoover (who stood somewhere between the stereotypical antagonists) all argued that their particular stance on the League sought to disentangle the United States from dangerous permanent alliances. The “bitter-end” irreconcilables, the outright and absolute opponents of American membership in the League, generally avoided such rhetorical subtleties and rejoiced in having followed the Washington-Jeffersonian injunctions to the letter as well as wholeheartedly in spirit. For the rest of the 1920’s and 30’s, as George Washington was increasingly portrayed by his biographers as a Babbitt-figure, the quintessentially ordinary American, the regular guy, so his Great Rule was invoked both by the isolationists and their opponents, the latter insisting upon the contingency, the conditionality of the Farewell Address. During the Washington disarmament conference of 1921—1922, a decade later throughout the “Manchurian crisis,” in the “Ethiopian crisis” a few years later still, while the so-called neutrality legislation was being drafted in Congress from the mid 1930’s—on all these occasions most politicians, whatever their proffered policies, would argue that they hewed to the line of Washington and Jefferson. There was no better expression of this literal faithfulness than the words of the notoriously ambiguous President Franklin D. Roosevelt in October 1935 à propos the first Neutrality Act: “despite what happens in continents overseas, the United States of America shall and must remain, as long ago the Father of our Country prayed that it might remain—unentangled and free.”

December 1941 and Pearl Harbor “ended isolationism for any realist”: so wrote Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a former and proudly self-proclaimed isolationist—and a particular fan of Hamilton. But, as we have seen, isolationism and its cognates remain powerful weapons in the rhetorical armoury of foreign-policy debates. In the postwar slanging match isolationism has lost most of its core meaning as unilateralism simpliciter; and the hostile use of the term is directed at those who oppose particular American policies rather than those who would advocate total and unconditional American unilateralism. If such proponents remain, true to the principles of the Great Rule and Jefferson’s epigram, they are few and far between and with little influence politically though they resonate widely in the public arena. (Pat Buchanan, Jesse Helms, and Ross Perot come nearest to the stereotype.) Rather such advocates are those who wish to minimize the co-operative aspects of foreign policy making; while their opponents pursue the twin-track approach of making the most of multilateral agencies yet still preserving the freedom to “go-it-alone.” It is a racing certainty that the next administrations (plural) will not diverge from this double-play for the foreseeable future. But where do the Framers, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Monroe and Adams the younger, figure in all this? And have later generations remembered the intertwined themes of their Early Republican mentors? The remaining pages of this essay will try to answer these connected questions. But before we survey over half a century of writing and debate we need to say Farewell—not to George Washington but to James Monroe. Precisely because his geopolitics remain even more influential than the foreign-policy ideas of any other member of this quinvirate, Monroe’s continuing legacy must be recounted elsewhere. Instead we resume the story first with Washington and Hamilton; then with John Quincy Adams; and finally Jefferson returns to the public stage. And as we watch these actors themselves being acted upon by their compatriot audience, we shall see the re-emergence of the domestic themes to take a more prominent role in the drama of American politics as scripted in the language of the Early Republic.


Even before the close of World War II another Great Debate started up on the legacy of Washington and Jefferson and their advocacy of “splendid isolation” (as Louis Wright recalled sardonically a British phrase from the 1890’s). A few years later President Harry Truman deprecated the influence the “patron saints of the isolationists” would have in the opposition to his policies of unilateral intervention in the Balkans and the Middle East (epitomized in his eponymous Doctrine) but even more so in the formation of the multilateral North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the event, as a leading historian of NATO, Lawrence Kaplan, remarked, the Founders were also cited in support of a policy of European involvement and a quasi-permanent military alliance. Thus the “shibboleths of isolationism” (Kaplan wryly observed) were turned upon their believers. The classic text in this argumentative reversal was Felix Gilbert’s To the Farewell Address, which appeared in 1961 but which distilled some 15 years’ work on the British and continental European influences upon Washington’s Valedictory. The nub of Gilbert’s thesis was that the quest for a European “balance of power” was central to Washington’s Great Rule (from guidelines drawn by Hamilton); and that in emphasizing the unilateralism of Washington’s counsels, the mid 20th-century isolationists had anachronistically mistaken contingent and appropriate tactics for the supreme strategic goal of long-term American security, which depended upon favourable conditions in Europe.

The appeal of Gilbert perhaps lay partly in his own émigré origins and the monograph’s unashamedly European scholarship.(He cited numerous Enlightenment sources from their French and German originals; and most of his chapters carried Latinate titles.) But Gilbert was by no means the first to argue along these lines. Another émigré, Hans Morgenthau, had advanced a rather more provocative version ten years earlier in his own “Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy,” entitled In Defense of the National Interest. But where the two scholars might agree on the new direction of American policy toward Europe, Morgenthau was already fearful of American policy in Asia and the “crusade” against communism generally and the People’s Republic of China specifically. Here Morgenthau detected the baneful idealism of Jefferson and John Quincy Adams perverting the realism of Washington and Hamilton. Once again there was a history to this particular binary; and once again it had been inverted. For it had been the so-called isolationists of the interwar years who had insisted upon the “realism” of their policies over against the “idealism” (and moralism) of the crusading Wilsonian internationalists.

The most famous scholar associated with the “realist” defense of isolationism during the inter-war years was the historian Charles Austin Beard; the politician best known as an isolationist was William E. Borah, Senator from Idaho and arguably the most powerful member of the Committee on Foreign Relations during the 20th century; while the most informed intellectual case for isolationism was presented by an international lawyer, John Bassett Moore. But Pearl Harbor tended to silence their arguments and make such advocates seem morally as well as intellectually obtuse. It was, therefore, a mark of the hold that such isolationists held in American politics after World War II that the conceptual sources of isolationism were scrutinized for alternative interpretations. Even more significantly, of course, this very re-examination was further testimony to the cultural power of the Founders in setting the rhetorical terms in which American foreign policy was debated.

There was an exception to this particular rule, as we shall shortly see. The Founders had played their part in the two linked Great Debates on the European and Asian origins of the Cold War; but by the time of the next Great Debate, that surrounding the Vietnam War, Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson faded somewhat into the background, and in their place came John Quincy Adams. The explanation for this shift is undoubtedly the paradoxical impact of New Left historical writing, notably from the Wisconsin School led by William Appleman Williams, combining with the vigorous nationalism of Samuel “Wave-the-Flagg” Bemis of Yale. During the 1940’s-1950’s Bemis’s huge, two-volume biography had resurrected Adams the expansionist but anti-slavery, anti-interventionist diplomat, secretary of state, president and (finally) member of Congress; while the New Left (following Beard and other Progressive historians) depicted the first generation of Founders as empire-builders, whose vision of a continental United States foreshadowed the globalism of the Cold War. In the historiographical fusion of the 1960’s, Adams was generally quoted for his now-famous Independence Day speech of 1821, in which he had warned against the harmful and indeed tyrannical domestic effects of foreign crusades. Where the Vietnam War debate was also significant in the rhetorical uses of the wider American pantheon was in posing a contrast between the humane and compassionate Lincoln, the saintly martyr, and the “big stick” aggressiveness of Theodore Roosevelt and his interventionist “police power” corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. To a late-coming critic of the Vietnam War, Senator J. William Fulbright, American policy was being driven by this second destructive impulse in a denial of its coexistent humanitarian traditions.

The Bicentennial celebrations of the mid 1970’s brought the Founders back into scholarly analysis, as part of what was a much wider attempt to recover a consensus on American values, particularly American claims to promote human rights. On the political, electoral level the effort failed for President Jimmy Carter, who was portrayed by his critics as weak and ineffective rather than morally strong and diplomatically successful. At a deeper level both support and criticism of Carter’s program revealed a superficial understanding of the fundamental if simple point that American actions abroad have invariably been couched in terms of promoting human rights, as John Quincy Adams’s Fourth of July oration demonstrated. The key question was what was the practical meaning, or “encoding,” of such elevated and apparently timeless rhetoric, (Lincoln had raised a comparable conundrum in his Second Inaugural.) On a lower level, Morgenthau and Gilbert offered some interesting interplay. For Morgenthau, Hamilton remained the archetypal realist; while Gilbert, in a reprise of Olney, asserted that the “great pronouncements” of the Founders were “no longer applicable” in the “interconnected global system” to which the United States belonged. As a kindred spirit, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., advised: “wrestling with Washington’s ghost was not the best way to enter the third [American] century.”

The next Bicentennial, that to commemorate the writing of the Federal Constitution, produced yet more studies of the foreign-policy legacies of the Framers. But now the terms of the debate had changed. In the intervening years Ronald Reagan had succeeded to the presidency with a campaign emphasizing the weakness and vulnerability of the United States. President Reagan, his speech-writers, and his academic allies promoted an activist foreign-policy of intervention to support anti-Left “freedom-fighters” from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, the latter-day if foreign descendants of the patriots of the American Revolution. Critics of what became known as the “Reagan Doctrine” answered rhetorical like with like. Where Fulbright had counter-posed Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., invoked the moderation and realism of the Founders against the “messianic” and “ideological” crusading (more Rooseveltian than Wilsonian) of the Reagan administration. Edward Pessen argued along similar lines, though with even more emphasis upon the “timeless” value of Washington’s Farewell Address and an accompanying diminuendo of Hamilton’s contribution to the Valedictory—a sign of an uncomfortable sense among some scholars that Hamilton was too easily appropriated for a policy of Machtpolitik. Contemporaneously Norman Graebner was echoing Bemis’s work a generation before on the role of John Quincy Adams even in the 1790’s: the youthful Adams as Realist rather than the mature Adams, the abstentionist Idealist.(The interpretation of John Quincy Adams as the prototypical Realist has now become something of a given in academia.)

As the 1980’s passed into the 1990’s, the formal ending of the decades-long Cold War and the short-lived proclamation of a New World Order encouraged many analyses of these politically paradigmatic shifts. But in rhetorical history the cultural pointer moved back toward Thomas Jefferson. Chief among the new advocates of a Jeffersonian foreign policy were Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, who took from the subjective ambivalence of Jefferson and his consequent historiographical ambiguity the political possibilities of expanding American influence abroad (for territorial expansion on the Louisiana Purchase model was impossible) but without increasing the tyrannical powers of the state: an internal and external “Empire for Liberty” in a post-Cold War world. This Jeffersonian “tolerance of diversity” within an enlarged federal system was not an entirely new theme: Julian P. Boyd had explored such ideas many decades before in the pages of this journal; even earlier Charles Beard had called Jefferson “America’s first great expansionist”; while Alexander DeConde, who had written a revisionist account of the diplomatic and partisan background of Washington’s Farewell Address, later used the “affair of Louisiana” to analyze the overlapping meanings of empire, imperialism, and expansion during the Early Republic. The particular contribution of Tucker and Hendrickson was to bring Jefferson back into the canonical literature as the early 19th-century realist-idealist, ahead of Adams the Younger: a counterpoint to the 20th-century crusading characteristic of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.(This latter pairing was also on the way to becoming another academic datum—in stark contrast to their former symbolic opposition.)

Plausible or not, the renewed interpretation of Jefferson some years ago displayed the protean possibilities of the Early Republic as a conceptual framework in which to debate the present and future of American foreign policy by this traditional reference to the past. Later in the 1990’s Alexander Hamilton would make yet another comeback onto the scene—further if redundant proof of the continued search for a “usable past” in American culture.(Counting only from Vandenberg after World War I via Gilbert after World War II, this was a third encore for Hamilton; and it would be at least the fifth if we went back to Lodge in the 1880’s and Croly in the 1900’s.) Where would it end? Would it ever end? If Oscar Wilde is to be our “oracle,” perhaps never. But there has been something in the air which suggests a real change in political rhetoric and a consequent need to change our focus. Two important clues come from two very different sources; and together they remind us that both Washington’s Valedictory and Jefferson’s First Inaugural were concerned with domestic as well as foreign affairs.


We noted at the beginning of this essay the novelties of Clinton’s Inauguration, particularly its multiculturalism and the many ways in which the perennial newness of America was celebrated; we also quoted Tocqueville’s favourable comments on the joint contribution of Washington and Jefferson to the successful conduct of American foreign policy. It was, of course, Tocqueville who puzzled about the national identity of Americans and the sources of their sense of community in a society of social and demographic flux. Undoubtedly the canonical nature of American political rhetoric has been one major way in which that sense of national unity has been stabilized and promoted. Equally, like the Federal Constitution and all the laws framed within it, that same hegemonic language has been subject to interpretation: words on the page and in the air are not understood by all people at all times in all the same ways.(Lincoln made the point with simple eloquence in his Second Inaugural.) In the case of Washington’s Valedictory and Jefferson’s First Inaugural, it is easy to see that different meanings have been derived from and justified by identical phrases. As for the foreign policy prescriptions, time itself has taken its toll on the purely unilateralist interpretation; but equally the unilateralist option does remain and is employed—a selectivity which can itself be justified by the very conditionality and contingency which is spelled out in the texts themselves. But what of the more obviously domestic aspects of these two documents? And how do their expressed injunctions and implied values figure in the United States of today and tomorrow? The tentative answers to these questions require us to look not only at the words of these and similar documents but also, and more importantly, at the changing society of the United States. Some reflections on the foreign-policy debates may help the transition to the domestic arena.

It is a rare scholar who argues that the expansion of NATO ignores the enduring wisdom of the Farewell Address: but such propositions are made in forums like the CATO Institute. In the post-Cold War world the points of reference are far less the language of the Early Republic and more the lessons of the Cold War itself, one of which was the successful co-operation of the United States with its recent trusty and now long-term allies in a common ideological struggle. Thus the geographical and political separation of Europe and America, which was the major geopolitical premise of Early Republican foreign policy, has become an outdated notion. The bipartisan and eponymous heroes of official rhetoric during the 1990’s were Arthur Vandenberg of the UN and NATO resolutions, Harry Truman of the 1947 Doctrine, and George Marshall of the European Recovery Plan—not the 18th-century revolutionary leaders. Outdated too for some Americans have become the moral and social values of the Framers: what they stood for as much as whom they spoke for. Where Charles Beard and other Progressive historians once stressed the class interests of the Framers, now their race and gender combine to set these same men apart as unrepresentative of all their contemporaries and inappropriate models for everyone today. The literary and cinematic portrayals of Jefferson the slave-owner and hypocritical miscogenist are not new, with many decades of scholarship behind them. But they accompany similar representations of Washington and comparable charges against John Quincy Adams. In such a cultural climate the famous eulogies of “Lighthorse” Henry Lee, Daniel Webster, and Edward Everett; the hagiography of Mason Locke Weems and the Parson’s own successors; the anthologies of homilies and “maxims” of Washington from “respectful” biographers such as John Frederick Schroeder—such words and images are either fading by unconscious neglect or are actively rejected by some putative descendants of the Father of his Country. That such a fate might overtake Washington was ironically predicted over half a century ago by one of the most astute commentators on the Farewell Address (and author of the classic work on Manifest Destiny), Albert Weinberg. Instancing the Great Rule explicitly, Weinberg noted that “in all periods the dominant interpretation . . .exhibits such a striking correlation with the contemporaneous interests or desires of the American people that pure exegetical logic scarcely seems to have been the dominant influence” in the many variant readings of the text.

Weinberg’s words, written on the eve of Pearl Harbor, a time when Washington and his fellow heroes were called once again to the rhetorical battle over foreign policy, offer the clue to the more recent uses of the Farewell Address.(Jefferson’s short and somewhat repetitive First Inaugural has not yet lent itself to such scrutiny— unlike the Declaration of Independence, of course.) For it is not through the foreign-policy sentiments but rather in its domestic injunctions and private observations that Washington’s Valedictory has made a return to one level of political debate. The most striking example of this selective re-appearance came in a study of the Valedictory to commemorate its bicentennial. In 1996, in a monograph subtitled “George Washington’s Farewell Address and the American Character,” Matthew Spalding and Patrick J. Garrity offered what was effectively the longest essay on the Valedictory to be published since the pre-Civil War period. In their joint work, entitled A Sacred Union of Citizens, Spalding and Garrity engage somewhat indirectly with the internally divisive aspects of contemporary American life. For while the authors cover the history of the Valedictory in successive foreign policy debates until the 1960’s, their concern (reflected in other writings of theirs) is to re-call George Washington as a voice of reason and moderation into an increasingly fractious American society. Reaching back even beyond the more detached scholarship of Horace Binney in the 1850’s to the rhetorical flights of Daniel Webster in the 1830’s, the two most recent scholars of the Valedictory seek to recover “the character of Washington” as the Websterian “bright model” for the “ingenuous youth of America.”

Webster’s hopeful phrases, Tocqueville’s reflections on political culture in a new democratic society, Lincoln’s poignant observations on the equivocation of shared political texts, the Wildeian aphorism on the perennial celebration of American novelty, Weinberg’s delicate reminder of the selective and hermeneutic aspects of the use of the American canon, the patent attempt of Spalding and Garrity to find a common ground among competing social groups in today’s United States—this succession of disparate clues reminds us that the common political language which characterizes the general history of the United States has always been contested, not least because the rival groups have appreciated that the rhetorical frames of references represent the past and present supremacy of opposing groups or sections. Even now the process continues, but from a different quadrant of the American political compass, as Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and the “warriors of Manifest Destiny” are celebrated by Pat Buchanan and his intellectual allies as the foreign policy spokesmen for “ordinary” Americans neglected by the cultural élite. Yet, Buchanan has argued, these same “warriors . . . remained true to the teaching of Washington.”

Earlier in these pages it was admitted that a decent survey of the uses and impact of Monroe’s Doctrine of 1823 needed to be offered elsewhere, given the intricate and influential history of that classic unilateralist policy. Here, it must also be acknowledged that this brief review of the history of Washington’s Valedictory and Jefferson’s Inaugural has merely skimmed the surface of their rhetorical uses. We have only alluded to the sociology of the users and the effectiveness of particular applications of these texts; we have hardly even mentioned the actual content (as opposed to the superficial discussion) of specific political crises; the rise and fall in popularity of one or other of these foundational documents and their authors has been sketched rather than elaborated. What does emerge, though, from this brief review is the vitality of these self-same texts, their plasticity, and their continuing hold upon the American people. Maintaining this tradition of political rhetoric is challenge enough for any president before a people so conservative politically and institutionally as Washington and Jefferson’s present-day “Friends and Fellow-Citizens.”


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