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Early Isolationism Revisited: Neutrality and Beyond in the 1790s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 January 2009

Marie-Jeanne Rossignol
Marie-Jeanne Rossignol is Associate Professor in English and American Studies, Institut Charles V, Université Paris VII-Denis Diderot, 10 rue Charles V, 75004 Paris, France. She thanks Barbara Karsky, Elise Marienstras and other colleagues for their advice.


The term “isolationism,” still used today in discussions of contemporary United States policy, is “ fittingly…identified with a revulsion against the entanglements of world war.” For analysts using this concept, isolationism means American withdrawal from political connections with the rest of the world (no treaties and permanent alliances) and idealism in foreign policy (no secret clauses or deals). They consider that it has characterized American foreign policy since the first president took office and was expressed in Washington's Farewell Address in 1796 for the first time. Although the term appeared only in 1922, it is thus applied to early American foreign policy, as Lawrence S. Kaplan does in the chapter entitled “Toward isolationism: the Rise and Fall of the Franco-American Alliance 1775–1801” of his Entangling Alliances with None: American Foreign Policy in the Age of Jefferson. According to Kaplan, this speech “became an enduring symbol of America's isolation,” and he defines early “isolationism” as follows: “…a freedom to enjoy access to all ports interested in receiving American products. It meant further a freedom from subservience to any foreign power, of the kind which had forced them into the service of a maternal economy or of dynastic wars in the past. Finally, it extended to a self-image of virtue and innocence that would be protected by advancing principles of peaceful relationships among nations.”

Even if one thinks, like Albert K. Weinberg, that “isolationism” is a “poor theory,” which “has placed the discussion of American foreign policy in a sad predicament of obfuscation,” one has to admit with him that “mere scholars can change no social habit.”

Notes and Comment
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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