Policing the World

Benjamin Harrison 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: “We Americans have no commission from God to police the world.”

As the United States pulls its troops out of Afghanistan after a 20-year war, The Imaginative Conservative looks back at what its writers thought of the conflict in its early and middle years. The results surprised us and may well surprise you. —Editors

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.

Were some Americans not 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? Did that great moral crusade not 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, did the Civil War mobilization not prepare the United States for a career as a paladin of democracy in the world? Not to hear Lincoln tell it. There is not 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.

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