Free and Independent: The Foreign Policy of Washington and Jefferson

By: Michael Boldin



Anxious to preserve their hard-won independence, Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson championed a foreign policy centered on avoiding “entangling alliances.” They envisioned America pursuing peace, trade, and “friendship with all nations,” but beholden to none.

A major theme of George Washington’s Farewell Address was foreign policy. He advised that the United States should take advantage of its political and geographic situation – a massive physical separation from the old countries – to pursue a truly independent course.

You can see this same line of thinking in a letter Washington sent to Alexander Hamilton, just four months before his Address.

“But if we are to be told by a foreign power what we shall do, and what we shall not do, we have Independence yet to seek, & have contended hitherto for very little.”

As someone who lived through the Revolution and the war against what was at the time the largest empire on earth, this view from George Washington reiterated core principles of sovereignty and independence that came straight from the Declaration of Independence:

“To assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”

In other words, if a country remains separate from other nations and equal to them, it is truly independent and can chart its own path, despite geopolitical changes.

The states declared their independence as “Free and Independent States.” That means, in the words of the Declaration itself, “they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”

Washington emphasized this view in his Farewell Address:

“With me a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.”

There’s an element of equality in treatment and reciprocity with other nations throughout Washington’s foreign policy advice. This was also based on a foundational principle expressed in the Declaration. In effect, exercising the authority to do all “Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do,”  implies that other nations have the same claim to this status.

“We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”

In other words, America’s founding principles demand a policy of respecting the sovereignty of other nations.

Thomas Jefferson put this principle into practice in a letter to the Pasha of Tripoli, discussing his dispatch of a squadron to the Mediterranean:

“We have yet given them in strict command to conduct themselves towards all friendly powers with the most perfect respect & good order it being the first object of our sollicitude to cherish peace & friendship with all nations with whom it can be held on terms of equality & reciprocity.

We’ll cover Jefferson’s foreign policy views more deeply later in the article.

But it wasn’t enough to simply respect the sovereignty of other nations. The U.S. had to determine how it would interact with them.

Washington warned of the danger of “foreign influence.”

“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”

Washington went on to argue that avoiding foreign influence and acting with impartiality go hand-in-hand. He pointed out that for “the jealousy of a free people” to be useful, it has to remain impartial. If not, “it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it.”

As Washington went on to explain, both favoring or disdaining another nation creates problems.

“Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.” 

It follows that “Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.”

That brings us to Washington’s warnings against permanent alliances.

True independence and guarding against “the insidious wiles of foreign influence” – requires a rejection of what he called a “habitual hatred” or “habitual fondness” towards any other nation:

“In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated.”

Washington minced no words.

“The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

Washington’s warnings about how “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations” would play out seem almost prophetic today.

“Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy.”

Failure to heed this warning has destroyed the peace and sometimes, as Washington warned, the liberty of many nations.

That’s why Washington wanted a foreign policy of peace on the terms of equality and reciprocity.

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.”

But Washington’s foreign policy strategy didn’t stop at guarding against a “habitual hatred” for particular nations. He also warned of the evils of a habitual fondness – and special treatment for “the favorite nation.” Again, his warnings were prophetic.

“So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.”

The danger doesn’t end there.

“It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld.”

Washington hammered home the dangers of “a passionate attachment of one nation for another.” His description of the consequences sounds like a perfect description of many politicians and lobbyists today.

“It gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.”

Washington said these attachments create “avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways.” This should alarm “the truly enlightened and independent patriot.”

“How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils. Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.”

So, instead of constant political and military engagement, instead of a habitual hatred or fondness for other nations, George Washington told us to handle foreign policy like this:

“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.”

Even while pursuing a foreign policy that leads with commerce rather than politics or military might, Washington still advised equality and reciprocity:

“But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing.”

He went on to say, “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.”

Thomas Jefferson was certainly inspired by George Washington’s Farewell. Years later, he and James Madison recommended the speech as one of six essential resources to understand “the general principles of liberty and the rights of man in nature and in society.” 

More specifically, you can see George Washington’s foreign policy influence in Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address as he summarized the foreign policy of his administration. It was clearly built on the foundation Washington laid.

“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

Jefferson put this restrained policy into action in his approach to the Barbary Pirates.

Washington and Jefferson’s policies shouldn’t be construed as advocating that the United States renege on current agreements. Instead, the U.S. should fulfill them but then end them as soon as possible.

Washington put it this way.

“Let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.”

Jefferson agreed. He advised that the path forward away from “entangling alliances” is to “disentangle.”

“Let our affairs be disentangled from those of all other nations, except as to commerce which the merchants will manage the better, the more they are left free to manage.”

Ultimately, Thomas Jefferson summed up this original American foreign policy best:

“Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.”