Was George Washington Really an Anti-Imperialist?





Mr. Marina is Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, CA.

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John Nichols has just compiled a volume entitled, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), coupled with a Nation Online article, "The Anti-Imperialist GW," the "GW" referring to George Washington.

While it is important to remind the American people at this juncture in our history, with a number of pundits and policymakers beating the drums for World War IV and the glories of an American Empire, that the United States once had an Anti-Imperialist tradition, one might question exactly how George Washington fits into that story?

Two instances, one during the American Revolution, another during Washington's presidency, suggest GW was something less than a consistent opponent of Empire.

Writing on what he perceived as a rather "empty gesture" of a President's Day, Nichols argued that Washington has become an "inconvenience" for men such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Negroponte "and their ilk" pushing America toward a "greedy, self-absorbed, and frequently brutal empire." He holds Washington forth as the "father of the anti-imperialist movement" in America, as well as the father of the country.

Two examples are offered to sustain this view. The first is Washington's Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, which found American opinion divided with respect to the struggle then being waged between France and Great Britain, the second, that Nichols considers even more significant, was Washington's Farewell Address of 1796, warning not to "entangle our peace and prosperity," and to "steer clear of permanent alliances."

Now, neutrality is not the same as anti-imperialism, as even Nichols seems to sense, but the Farewell Address can just as easily be interpreted as advocating the Unilateral foreign, economic and military policies pushed by neoconservatives today.

Let us explore Washington's actions, and not his words, to determine whether he can be viewed as the "father" of American opposition to Empire.

In 1775, after the confrontation at Bunker Hill, the first American offensive was an expedition to take Canada. Initially successful, costly, and ultimately a failure, it made a hero of Benedict Arnold. Could not these resources have been better used in New York, where Washington almost lost his army, reprieved, some historians suggest, only because of the Whiggish sympathies of the Howe brothers, still hoping for a reconciliation with the Americans?

Fast forward to 1781, after the Americans' greatest defeat of the war, the loss of some 5,000 troops at Charleston, South Carolina. Washington finally freed Nathaniel Greene, his most brilliant general, from quartermaster duties and sent him South in what one must perceive as the great crisis of the Revolution. Yet, he also spread his assets thin by sending the Marquis de La Fayette North to talk to Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys militia about launching another expedition to conquer Canada, which by this time had made it clear did not wish to be a part of an Anglo-Protestant Confederation.

This imperial thrust failed only because the militia demanded "double pay, double rations, and plunder" for what they clearly perceived is an effort to take Canada as a part of an expanding American Empire. When La Fayette replied he had no authority to grant such terms, the whole venture collapsed. No wonder Washington disliked militia!

The militia understood that if the Anglo-Canadians and French-Canadians wished to break with the British Empire, there was nothing preventing them from doing so, and joining the American revolt. They did not need the Vermonters intervening and occupying the country in order to give them the "blessings of Liberty." Washington's proposed expedition is closer to the vision of George W. Bush today, inflicting freedom with a gun, than it is to any tradition of Anti-Imperialism.

In 1792, a year before the Neutrality Proclamation, Washington offered "foreign aid" to Haiti, that nation which has become the "basket case" of the Western Hemisphere, despite, or because of, over two centuries of intervention, occupation and aid.

This help was meant for the French Creoles there, to assist as the French Revolution spread to that nation, in keeping the blacks from power. That effort failed, but if that is not non-neutrality and intervention, and, against the self-determination principles of the American Revolution, what would be? American Southern slaveholders had a morbid fear and loathing that black revolutions in the Caribbean might spread north to the mainland.

This same American attitude was evident a century later, in the emerging age of segregation, when William McKinley intervened in Cuba to halt the success of the revolutionary forces led by the black leader Antonio Maceo, and in the Philippines, where the insurgents under Emilio Aguinaldo had the Spanish surrounded in Manila before the American army arrived. American leaders had grown to fear both revolution and race.

It is more accurate to view Washington, not as the father of American Anti-Imperialism, but as an American slaveholding, land speculating Nabob, like Ben Franklin, seeing the American colonies as the evolving potential center of a British Mercantile Empire, which, denied by London, soon began to develop "a rising empire" of its own. Even neutrality could be violated, if necessary, and a non-entangling policy espoused until the nation was strong enough to pursue a forceful, unilateral policy worthy of a world power.

Americans today badly need to understand such issues as expansion, empire, colonialism, and economic imperialism in the history of this nation, as well as many of the euphemisms often substituted for them. One can only hope that Nichols's book does a better job on these questions than does this confused article arguing that GW is the father of American Anti-Imperialism.


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Nathaniel Brian Bates - 3/10/2005

"It is more accurate to view Washington, not as the father of American Anti-Imperialism, but as an American slaveholding, land speculating Nabob, like Ben Franklin, seeing the American colonies as the evolving potential center of a British Mercantile Empire, which, denied by London, soon began to develop "a rising empire" of its own."

Please have some respect. George Washington was certainly not a democrat, to be sure. He was part of the ruling class of America. His treatment of the Shaysites made that clear. It could also be argued that the "Novus Ordo Seclorum" of that generation has often been interpreted as a tool of power.

However, we should have respect for the Founding Fathers as founding fathers. They are not to blame for the fact that We The People have allowed Imperialists to rise to power ever since. They are not to blame for the fact that we have fixed elections. They left us a Constitutional infrustructure that was far more just than other Gentile world systems that have arisen.

There were also substantial differences between the Founders. Franklin was indeed a British Imperialist before he became a Patriot, and carried much of that imprint with him. Much more than the other Founders, he wanted a Continent "free" of Indians, a country able to lead the world in to a "Novus Ordo Seclorum", or a One World Government in which G-d and His Torah are supplanted by centralized authority. Most of the Founders would have been appalled at this notion, and few if any Americans in the hinterland would have stood by this betraying of Judeo-Christian Torah Principles.

Washington does not appear to have been influenced nearly as much by such visions as one might think. Hamilton tried to convince Washington to become an Imperialist, while Jefferson tried to convince him to ally with Revolutionary France. Washington was not swayed by either argument. He truly stood above the frey as a Founding Father, a mature adult.


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 3/10/2005

"It is more accurate to view Washington, not as the father of American Anti-Imperialism, but as an American slaveholding, land speculating Nabob, like Ben Franklin, seeing the American colonies as the evolving potential center of a British Mercantile Empire, which, denied by London, soon began to develop "a rising empire" of its own."

Please have some respect. George Washington was certainly not a democrat, to be sure. He was part of the ruling class of America. His treatment of the Shaysites made that clear. It could also be argued that the "Novus Ordo Seclorum" of that generation has often been interpreted as a tool of power.

However, we should have respect for the Founding Fathers as founding fathers. They are not to blame for the fact that We The People have allowed Imperialists to rise to power ever since. They are not to blame for the fact that we have fixed elections. They left us a Constitutional infrustructure that was far more just than other Gentile world systems that have arisen.

There were also substantial differences between the Founders. Franklin was indeed a British Imperialist before he became a Patriot, and carried much of that imprint with him. Much more than the other Founders, he wanted a Continent "free" of Indians, a country able to lead the world in to a "Novus Ordo Seclorum", or a One World Government in which G-d and His Torah are supplanted by centralized authority. Most of the Founders would have been appalled at this notion, and few if any Americans in the hinterland would have stood by this betraying of Judeo-Christian Torah Principles.

Washington does not appear to have been influenced nearly as much by such visions as one might think. Hamilton tried to convince Washington to become an Imperialist, while Jefferson tried to convince him to ally with Revolutionary France. Washington was not swayed by either argument. He truly stood above the frey as a Founding Father, a mature adult.


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 3/10/2005

"It is more accurate to view Washington, not as the father of American Anti-Imperialism, but as an American slaveholding, land speculating Nabob, like Ben Franklin, seeing the American colonies as the evolving potential center of a British Mercantile Empire, which, denied by London, soon began to develop "a rising empire" of its own."

Please have some respect. George Washington was certainly not a democrat, to be sure. He was part of the ruling class of America. His treatment of the Shaysites made that clear. It could also be argued that the "Novus Ordo Seclorum" of that generation has often been interpreted as a tool of power.

However, we should have respect for the Founding Fathers as founding fathers. They are not to blame for the fact that We The People have allowed Imperialists to rise to power ever since. They are not to blame for the fact that we have fixed elections. They left us a Constitutional infrustructure that was far more just than other Gentile world systems that have arisen.

There were also substantial differences between the Founders. Franklin was indeed a British Imperialist before he became a Patriot, and carried much of that imprint with him. Much more than the other Founders, he wanted a Continent "free" of Indians, a country able to lead the world in to a "Novus Ordo Seclorum", or a One World Government in which G-d and His Torah are supplanted by centralized authority. Most of the Founders would have been appalled at this notion, and few if any Americans in the hinterland would have stood by this betraying of Judeo-Christian Torah Principles.

Washington does not appear to have been influenced nearly as much by such visions as one might think. Hamilton tried to convince Washington to become an Imperialist, while Jefferson tried to convince him to ally with Revolutionary France. Washington was not swayed by either argument. He truly stood above the frey as a Founding Father, a mature adult.