Jeffrey J. Malanson is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. This interview is based on his new book Addressing America: George Washington’s Farewell and the Making of National Culture, Politics, and Diplomacy, 1796-1852 (Kent State University Press, 2015)
JF: What led you to write Addressing America?
JM: During my first semester in graduate school I wrote a paper about the debate in the United States Congress over U.S. participation in the 1826 Congress of Panama. The debate was wide ranging, touching upon a variety of the proverbial hot button issues of the day, including slavery, commerce, and freedom of religion. I was especially interested in how the principles of George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 and the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 were used by President John Quincy Adams to justify the Panama mission and by the mission’s opponents to argue that participation would violate the Farewell Address. Of special note was how the opposition repeatedly cited Washington’s promise of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” as the central argument against participation. This is important because the quote didn’t come from Washington, but instead originated with Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address.
When it came time to start thinking about my dissertation I came back to the question of why members of Congress were quoting Jefferson and attributing it to Washington in an effort to dictate the course of American foreign policy. Many years of researching, writing, and revising later, Addressing America answers that question.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Addressing America:
JM: George Washington’s presidential Farewell Address was the central text through which Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century understood their country’s principles of foreign policy and place in the world. Debates in Congress and in the public press, and annual speeches in cities and towns throughout the country on Washington’s Birthday made the Farewell Address a living document with which politicians and policymakers, regardless of party or agenda, had to contend.
JF: Why do we need to read Addressing America?
JM: Historians generally understand that Washington’s Farewell Address was important, but with few exceptions have never investigated the nature of that importance. Washington died in 1799, but remained a very real (if somewhat mythologized) source of guidance and authority in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. As the country struggled with the tension of becoming a single nation versus remaining a series of sovereign states, there were only two civic holidays annually celebrated throughout the United States: Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday. Birthday celebrations frequently involved readings of the Farewell Address and speeches explaining the ongoing relevance of Washington’s foreign policy principles to the rising greatness of the United States. By the 1840s and 1850s, these speeches, along with newspaper editorials and debates in Congress made clear that most Americans saw loyalty to Washington’s principles as the central reason that the United States had grown into the nation it had become. To put all of this a different way that more directly answers the question, Addressing America uncovers the life and influence of Washington’s Farewell Address on U.S. foreign policy, politics, and political culture.
The book is especially relevant for readers interested in early U.S. foreign policy, as the Farewell Address was virtually ever-present in this realm in the first half of the nineteenth century. At its core, the Farewell Address called upon Americans to carefully and honestly assess the national interest and to pursue foreign policies that best defended those interests. In the short term, this meant strict neutrality, but Washington predicted that as America grew in size and strength and was better prepared to defend its interests on the world stage (and could more reasonably expect its rights to be respected on the world stage), its foreign policy would necessarily change. Thus the Farewell Address put forward general principles for the establishment of an evolutionary foreign policy. Most presidents at least implicitly endorsed Washington’s principles, and whenever a politician or diplomat broached a policy that seemed to run counter to Washington’s teachings, a chorus of voices sang out in defense of the nation’s traditional principles. As the 1826 debate over participation in the Congress of Panama revealed, though, the vast majority of Americans saw the Farewell Address as meaning “entangling alliances with none,” and not as the more flexible set of principles that Washington intended. “Entangling alliances with none,” which forbade any foreign entanglements mandated strict neutrality in perpetuity. The central debate over U.S. foreign policy in the period covered by this study was a debate between constructive engagement with the rest of the world (under the flexible Farewell Address) and permanent isolation from it (under the Address as viewed through the lens of “entangling alliances with none”).
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JM: I knew from the time I was in elementary school that I wanted to study history. I can still remember sitting in my classroom as a fifth grader reading about George Washington, or reading kids books about Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln while waiting to get a haircut. I went to college thinking that I was going to be a high school teacher, but halfway through my first education course it clicked for me that what I really loved about history was research and writing. It was as an undergraduate, studying primarily under Drew McCoy at Clark University that my fascination with the founding fathers solidified, and as a graduate student I became drawn to their foreign policy.
JF: What is your next project?
JM: I am in the early stages of a book project that investigates the relationship between James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in the 1780s and 1790s. We tend to focus on Thomas Jefferson as the pivot between Madison and Hamilton; on the friendship between Jefferson and Madison or the animosity between Jefferson and Hamilton. In some respects this makes perfect sense given Jefferson’s ideological influence on the period. In other respects, though, the emphasis on Jefferson is misplaced, especially if we want to understand Madison and Hamilton. Jefferson was in France in the 1780s while Madison and Hamilton worked to establish a stronger national government, and Jefferson largely deferred to Madison in the 1790s to fight against Hamilton’s agenda in Congress and in the press. Madison’s shift from nationalist to advocate of limited government has long troubled historians, and my hope is that by examining Madison and Hamilton in tandem it will allow for a greater understanding of the development of their respective political principles.
JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!