While controversy continues about the precise meaning of the term "isolationism" and about the relative importance of various factors that might explain the phenomenon, some areas of agreement emerged from the research. It became clear, for example, that isolationists of whatever stripe always regarded themselves as traditionalists with respect to American foreign policy and regularly invoked the Founders, particularly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, in support of their position.
Washington was the father of the first American neutrality act (1794), which incorporated both the principle of his Proclamation of Neutrality (1793)—that the United States should pursue "a conduct friendly and impartial towards the Belligerent Powers"—and the subsequently developed Rules Governing Belligerents. The neutral stance of the United States was noteworthy primarily because of its obvious incompatibility with the French alliance that had been concluded despite strong misgivings in 1778. Since France chose not to invoke the alliance in the 1790s, American neutrality remained unchallenged, and could thus develop into a tradition that was reasserted, at least initially, with respect to every major international conflict up to World War II.
In his Farewell Address in 1796, Washington supplied the rationale for this policy and urged its continuance. He pointed out that "Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation," and advised his countrymen "to steer clear of permanent Alliances" and involvement "by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics and the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships and enmities." Less than five years later, Jefferson put substantially the same advice into even more enduring phraseology in his first inaugural address, where he insisted that American policy should continue to be based on the principle of "peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."
Neither Washington nor Jefferson, however, regarded themselves as advocates of a policy of isolation and, indeed, that word had not yet migrated to the English language from the French at the time they expressed their views. Both men actually sought to increase American contacts with the outside world. Washington vigorously espoused the expansion of foreign trade and promoted a series of commercial agreements on the model of the one negotiated with Prussia in 1785. Jefferson, although he would, in moments of great frustration, have preferred the United States "to practise neither commerce nor navigation, but to stand, with respect to Europe, precisely on the footing of China," clearly recognized after he had become president the necessity of fostering commerce and other forms of international intercourse. Indeed, he sent the U.S. marines to the shores of Tripoli to protect American commerce and acquired the whole Louisiana Territory from France in order to keep the mouth of the Mississippi open to the new nation's trade. Both presidents welcomed continued immigration and, Jefferson in particular, the influx of European ideas and culture.
The two did not even categorically rule out alliances. Washington indicated in his Farewell Address that the new nation might "safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies." Jefferson advised President James Monroe in 1823 to accept Foreign Secretary George Canning's invitation to joint action with Great Britain against the threat posed to Latin America by the Holy Alliance. While reasserting that the "first and fundamental maxim [of the United States] should be never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe" and the second maxim, "never to suffer Europe to meddle with cis-Atlantic affairs," Jefferson nevertheless concluded that "the war in which the present proposition might engage us, should that be its consequence, is not her war, but ours," and that if "we can effect a division in the body of the European powers, and draw over to our side its most powerful member, surely we should do it."
The basic aim of both Washington and Jefferson was to safeguard the independence of a new and weak nation by avoiding, whenever possible, involvement in the military and political affairs of the major powers while at the same time expanding trade and commerce as a means of fostering national development. But both men were fully aware that economic and political matters could not be separated as neatly as their phraseology suggested, and neither can be regarded in any meaningful way as an isolationist. Together with many of the other Founders, they merely followed the logic of the American Revolution and its consequences.
Thomas Paine had pointed out in Common Sense (1776) that one of the advantages of breaking the connection with Great Britain lay in the possibility of assuming a position of neutrality with respect to a Europe "too thickly planted with Kingdoms to be long at peace" and thus promoting and protecting trade with all nations even in wartime. John Adams urged the Continental Congress to enter only into treaties of commerce and "to lay it down, as a first principle and a maxim never to be forgotten, to maintain an entire neutrality in all future European wars." Were the fledgling United States to do otherwise, Adams feared, "we should be little better than puppets, danced on the wires of the cabinets of Europe." The Congress that he addressed had earlier established a committee to draft a declaration of independence and, at the very same time, one to devise a model treaty for regulating relations with foreign nations. The model treaty, Adams declared, was to be only commercial and have neither political nor military clauses. Such a treaty proved impossible to conclude, however, and foreign aid was needed if independence were to become a reality. Less than six months after adopting the Declaration of Independence, therefore, Congress dispatched John Jay to Spain, Benjamin Franklin to France, and John Adams himself to Holland to seek both money and full-fledged alliances. Isolating the United States from the rest of the world was the last thing they had in mind.
The United States was involved almost from the beginning in the first world crisis after independence was achieved: the quarter century of wars spawned by the French Revolution. That was due in part to the fact that the new nation could not be indifferent to the outcome of these wars, and that Jefferson and the Republicans generally favored the cause of France, while Washington, Hamilton, and the Federalists favored Great Britain. Washington's Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 was not intended primarily to insulate the United States against foreign conflicts, but was rather an anti-French measure for evading America's obligations under the Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1778 and thereby helping the British cause. Both Jefferson and James Madison denounced it on that account, particularly after the Washington administration negotiated a new treaty, this one with Great Britain, shortly thereafter. Alexander J. Dallas, the future secretary of the Treasury who would have been much happier to have the French alliance continue, in 1795 denounced the treaty that John Jay had negotiated in London as a scheme for "wantonly involving ourselves in the political intrigues and squabbles of the European nations."
After Napoleon came to power in France, Jefferson played a role in the ongoing struggles by buying Louisiana from the financially strapped emperor and by a series of manipulative trade measures including the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Nonintercourse Act of the following year. Over the protests of staunchly Federalist New England, the United States even went to war in 1812 with Great Britain and attempted to conquer Canada, thereby becoming in effect an ally of Napoleon. The Boston Gazette promptly lamented the shedding of American "blood for Bonaparte" and, after the French occupied Moscow, Czar Alexander I offered his services as mediator in the conflict between his British ally and the United States.
The nation was thus, in its early years, neither isolated nor isolationist. It consistently recognized its involvement with the world but sought to pursue its international interests unilaterally without making long-term commitments or entering formal alliances. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams correctly assured the assembled multitude on 4 July 1821 that the United States "does not go forth in search of monsters to destroy" because "by once enlisting under banners other than her own" it would become party to "all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition." But Adams had already served as minister to the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain and had been one of America's negotiators of the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. As secretary of state, he was to conclude formal treaties with Spain and Great Britain and to protect the newly independent states of Latin America with the Monroe Doctrine.