Fewer Affairs is Probably Better…

Well you know…..foreign entanglements being what they are and everything….

“The present situation of the world is indeed without a parallel and that of our own country full of difficulties.”

“To cherish peace and friendly intercourse with all nations having correspondent dispositions; to maintain sincere neutrality toward belligerent nations; to prefer in all cases amicable discussion and reasonable accommodation of differences to a decision of them by an appeal to arms; to exclude foreign intrigues and foreign partialities, so degrading to all countries and so baneful to free ones; to foster a spirit of independence too just to invade the rights of others, too proud to surrender our own…sentiments and intentions such as these can aid the fulfillment of my duty, they will be a resource which can not fail me.”

James Madison, First Inaugural Address, 04 March 1809

(Emphasis added by me)


Honestly, pulling quotes from the founding fathers on the neutrality and extreme care we should take when dealing with foreign nations and enacting foreign policy is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.  It’s James Madison this week simply because the context of his quotes is just so much more delicious.  For those who paid no attention in history class (I’m assuming that’s the great majority of the internet reading public), Madison was the fourth US President, and is frequently hailed as the “Father of the Constitution”.  So he was kind of a big deal.  Also a bigdeal, Madison already knew war was brewing when he gave this speech.  But he really, really wanted to avoid it.  Hell, he kept trying to end it by any and every means possible once it started.  The war in question?  The War of 1812….you know, the one where the British burned the White House to the ground.  The situation of the world he discusses before he talks about cherishing good relations with other nations?  The Napoleonic Wars…..you know, where literally all of the Old World was embroiled in a grand conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte that saw the landscape of Europe fundamentally altered afterwards.  Just little international incidents like that.

So if we’re wondering what the Founding Fathers intended, and what the Constitution relies on in terms of dealing with foreign policy, it’s the presumption that most anything is better than actual war or armed conflict with other nations.  This wasn’t the attitude of some peace-loving hippie people either, the Founding Fathers had fought a bitter war of Revolution with Britain.  The Revolutionary War wasn’t Washington’s first go at command; the colonies had been a peripheral part of Britain’s endless wars with France during that period.  These were people that tried to gain their independence with words before weapons.  They knew there was a time when only armed conflict would resolve issues, but they firmly believed, and built our country on a foundation that there were better ways.  They had this crazy idea that a nation built on better ways of internal governance should have a better way of dealing with other nations as well.  Like trying to avoid endless, needless wars, not getting involved in other people’s internal issues…..and you know working problems with other countries out the grownup way….with our words.

So why did the Founding Fathers so dislike war as the first option, and prefer a more neutral, careful type of foreign policy?  Honestly for tons of reasons, the biggest among them that war adds to debt and war demands large military forces.  Large debt and large armies endanger public liberty and cause problems at home when they drag on too long (yeaaah….poor Founding Fathers, Jefferson is face-palming himself in the afterlife right now).  So basically they believed  we should deal with other nations fairly and equally, and only resort to war in extreme cases when all else failed.  The War of 1812?  After numerous diplomatic failures, the US went to war with Britain mostly over the practice of impressment.  That would be where the British Navy would seize American citizens on the high seas and force them into being sailors in the British service so they could have more manpower for their war with France.  You know, that and the British Navy blocked American trade with France because they could.  Irony is, America at the time was not on the side of Britain or of France, nor had any interest in going to war with either.  Which was why Madison tried to stay out of it, but it proved impossible the longer the Napoleonic Wars dragged on.  The thing is, the litmus test for this and other early wars wasn’t one provocation, it was many, and it was whether the war would actually serve any useful function that could honestly be accomplished through the use of armed force.  Could American force of arms convince Britain that impressing US sailors was a bad idea?  Yes.  Could (and should) American force of arms convince Britain and France to stop fighting one another?  Not a chance, they had other issues to work out.  And that last great War, World War II?  Let’s not forget it took Pearl Harbor to drag us into that one, and four years after our entry into that war, it was over.  Key word ‘drag’… or as the Founders’ frequently put it “reluctance” because let’s face it, a war with an achievable end goal is endless.

Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

James Madison’s First Inaugural Address, 04 March 1809


Credits to the Gutenberg Project for its hosting of digital versions of historical documents

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