Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Modern American Presidents have a rare predilection for crusades. Wilson sent American troops into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy,” and a few days after 9/11 George Bush outbid Wilson by declaring that history calls us to “rid the world of evil.” British Prime Ministers warn darkly of iron curtains and bolster the nation with stiff-lip realism about defending civilization. That’s too modest for American Presidents, who give their military engagements apocalyptic labels like “Operation Infinite Justice,” the original name for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Peter J. Leithart Many Americans regard this grandiosity as a twentieth-century, or a twenty-first century, or a neoconservative, aberration. The original American stance was Jeffersonian (“no entangling alliances”) and Adamsian (we don’t “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy”). Even today, we like to think we prefer to live and let live. When honor or security is threatened, we fight and we fight hard. But we’d rather be home. Armor is not our native habit, and we see ourselves as a nation of Cincinnati, eager to rush back to our farms and our factories, happy to be back to the business of America. Freedom, not crusading, is our credo.

From the beginning, though, the instinct to leave and be left alone has uneasily coexisted with an equally powerful impulse to support freedom whenever and wherever it bursts into the open. Not all Presidents have always been crusaders, and our crusades have not always been military. Still, if we have not always been out saving the world, we have always been a solicitous nation. Precisely because our credo is freedom, we see ourselves as guardians of human liberty. A historical vignette illustrates the point.

James Monroe’s seventh annual State of the Union Address , delivered in December, 1823 is remembered today, when it is remembered at all, as the speech that articulated what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe echoed Washington’s famous Farewell Address by reiterating American policy to leave European politics to Europeans, but added that “circumstances are eminently and conspicuously different” in the Western Hemisphere. European meddling would threaten the “peace and happiness” of the United States. With independence movements erupting in Latin America, Monroe stated that the U.S. regarded any European effort to subdue those new governments as “the manifestation of unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”

Monroe’s speech was intended for international consumption, but it was also an intervention in a roiling debate within the United States. The American Revolution served as a model for independence movements not only in South America but throughout Europe. In response, Russia, Austria and Prussia formed the Holy Alliance to defend monarchy against revolution, democracy, modernism, in a word, against Americanism. In response, Americans such as Daniel Webster argued that it was America’s duty to “come forth, and deny, and condemn” the absolutism embodied in the Holy Alliance.

Greece’s 1821 revolt against the Turks had particularly captured the American imagination. In his first draft of his State of the Union speech, Monroe explicitly recognized Greek independence and attacked the Holy Alliance for trampling down reform efforts in Europe. Alarmed at the aggressive tone, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams warned that Monroe’s speech would “have the air of open defiance to all Europe” and pick a “quarrel with all Europe.” Adams convinced the President to soften his rhetoric, but even in its final form Monroe’s speech expressed “strong hope” that Greece would achieve independence and condemned attacks on republican freedom by European autocrats.

The Monroe Doctrine is frequently viewed as affirmation of American isolationism: We don’t care what the rest of the world does, so long as everyone respects U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. In explaining that very doctrine, however, Monroe expressed American sympathy for republican revolutions half a world away, and Europeans understood that Monroe aimed to nudge Europe in an American direction. This upstart nation, Metternich observed, wanted to “foster . . . revolutions wherever they show themselves” and gave aid and comfort to “the apostles of sedition.”

Like most Americans of his time, Monroe viewed the struggles in Europe as ideological not geopolitical. He saw a threat to American ideals, and therefore to America’s experiment in liberty, in the rise of organized absolutism. Though an ocean and more separated Monroe’s America from the Holy Alliance, the latter was a threat to America because it was a threat to the idea of America. Americans still share Monroe’s perceptions. However sincerely we might like to leave the world alone, we cannot look ourselves squarely in the mirror unless we do something to foster freedom, American-style. No matter how distant, struggles between tyranny and freedom are seen as matters of American national interest.

Blame it on the Puritans, if you must. Massachusetts Bay was a retreat, but it was a tactical retreat designed to remake Europe, perhaps the world. New England was to be a city on a hill, and the Puritan settlers hoped that nations sitting in darkness would one day come to the light. Though in a very different idiom, the same impulse is embedded in our founding documents. We are founded on principles, not nationality, and the founding principles, we claim, are universal ones. “ All men are created equal” and all are endowed by the Creator with natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we take the Declaration of Independence at all seriously, we cannot remain neutral if rights are ignored and infringed. For better or worse, we are a democratic republic with universal ambitions, a very strange species indeed.

No particular policy prescriptions immediately follow from this insight into the contradictory dynamics of our national institutions, ideals, and character. What should follow instead is a more realistic assessment of who we are. America’s aspiration to be a “Redeemer Nation” has risen and fallen. Americans have not always been seething with crusading zeal. But solicitude for all humanity has marked our relations with the world from the beginning , and this solicitude was inevitable from the moment the ink dried on the Declaration. Indifference has never been an American option. The truth is, we cannot not care

Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College . His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic) .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles