Long before isolationism became an established policy in the nineteenth century, citizens of the American colonies recognized that they could not live apart from the rest of the world. They existed within an imperial system that involved them in numerous crises and four world wars (Queen Anne's War, King William's War, King George's War, and the French and Indian War), mostly related to trade and territories. Early Americans understood that international law applied to them as they redefined their relationships toward their neighbors and their mother country. William Penn reflected the cosmopolitan atmosphere when he drafted his Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe (1693), in which he called for a congress of states to promote stability. Evidence of a broad perspective also appeared in a colonial union, the New England Confederation of 1643, and in the suggestion for joint action embodied in the Albany Plan of 1754. Joseph Galloway's proposal for an Anglo-American council in 1774 also expressed a cosmopolitan outlook. Such experiences, as well as an awareness of the Iroquois League of the Five Nations, may explain why revolutionary leaders like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine spoke favorably of an international organization. Certainly, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1789 revealed a general awareness that sovereign states could combine to promote their interests.
Events during and after the Revolution related to the treaty of alliance with France, as well as difficulties arising over the neutrality policy pursued during the French revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic wars, encouraged another perspective. A desire for separateness and unilateral freedom of action merged with national pride and a sense of continental safety to foster the policy of isolation. Although the United States maintained diplomatic relations and economic contacts abroad, it sought to restrict these as narrowly as possible in order to retain its independence. The Department of State continually rejected proposals for joint cooperation, a policy made explicit in the Monroe Doctrine's emphasis on unilateral action. Not until 1863 did an American delegate attend an international conference. Even so, Secretary of State William H. Seward reflected prevailing views by refusing to sign an 1864 multilateral treaty related to the Red Cross. The United States did not subscribe to such a convention until 1882. Thereafter, cooperation on economic and social matters seemed acceptable, but political issues, especially those involving Europe, were generally avoided until the end of the century.