Growing Up Without Morals

Jeremy Hubble
Februrary 11, 1997

America international affairs have been governed by the conflicting principles of isolationism and moralism. Today, the United States sends troops to all corners of the globe to intervene in moral crusades for humanity.  However, moralism, though it has always had a place in American ideology has only recent become a significant factor in foreign policy decisions.  In America’s first century, isolationism dominated American political thought.  Money was a key player, and Americans were reluctant to launch costly moral crusades.  Only after a century of isolation was America able to prepare itself for the moral intervention of today.

 The 1778 treaty of alliance with France was a classic example of the conflict between isolationism and moralism. The United States was morally bound by the treaty to come to the aid of France in any conflict.  When war broke out in Europe, France called on her ally to aid her in the effort.  Moralists argued about the validity of the treaty and the necessity of supporting the just cause in Europe.  Furthermore, France had supported the cause of freedom in the United States, and Americans felt they should return the support.  Isolationists, however, saw France as being out of the sphere of influence of the United States, and thus desired to stay away.

Even before gaining its independence,  the United States sought a position as a neutral state. When Russia organized the League of Armed Neutrality, Americans jumped at the opportunity to join.  Even though they were fighting a major war with England at the time, American citizens still saw themselves as neutral.  Their interest was in commerce.  They lacked the strength or desire to involve themselves in the bickering of other nations.  As long as trade routes were open and free, Americans were happy.

The Greek revolution of 1821 was another case in which the isolationists won.  The Greek rebels were fighting for democracy in the very birthplace of the ideal.  The United States, however, turned down the plea for help.  Though the moral forces strongly encouraged US intervention for the democratic ideal, isolationists beliefs prevented intervention.

In early US history, isolation was not only a factor of US political thought.  It was also a necessity.  America lacked the resources to successfully launch and defend it’s moralistic goals.  As a new nation, the United States lacked a military to effectively compete with the major European powers.  Furthermore, the distance involved made international operations difficult.  It would have been mere foolishness to attempt to meddle heavily in foreign affairs before it were ready. The United States had strong commercial ties with Britain, the strongest power of the 19th century.  Since Americans primary interests at the time were commercial, the threat of British intervention served as a deterrent to any foreign nation. With English trading interests serving as a protective force, the United States was able to grow, and build up its economic, structural and military base without any costly foreign warfare.

During this time, America did, however, engage in minor warfare at home to protect its interests. In the Mexican-American War, morals were only used to sugar-coat the harsh reality of a daring land grab.  Since the Mexicans fired first at American troops, the United States was technically fighting a defensive battle.  She was doing a service to the backwards Mexicans by adopting them in to the more civilized United States.  In spite of this positive rhetoric, America was truly in it for the land.  Americans envied the great ports of California.  Had she truly been serving their brother, she would have permitted the entire country to join the United States, (or at least instituted reforms throughout Mexico).  However, the Americans instead chose to carve off the parts of Mexico that they found the most attractive.  The morality of raising up a lower civilization was simply rhetoric.  America’s true desire was to protect its interests and acquire land that would allow it to continue to function alone in its continent.

In the Spanish American War the United States appeared to escape from its isolationist view and equalize moralistic views.  However, even in their expansionist zeal, the United States shied away from alliances and complex entanglements.  If the United States had had to fight multiple powers in the Spanish American war, it would likely not have made such a bold imperialistic move.  However, due to the weakness of Spain, the United States took all the land that it could without upsetting the international balance of power.  The prime reason for failing to annex Cuba was her huge war debt.  Using a protectorship, the United States could exercise great control without assuming the debts.  The Phillippines remained were annexed because of US trading interests.  The United States desired Manila Bay as a gateway to the Far East trade.  Since Spain had organized the Phillippines as such, America took it all.  Only when it was realized that the opportunity costs of quelling the Filipino insurrections far exceeded the expected gain from Far Eastern trade did the United States dispose of the port.

Other territorial acquisitions were governed by principles of neutral isolation rather than morality.  Foreign interests in Texas were one of the deciding factors in the American annexation of Texas.  Hawaii was quietly annexed as an ocean port.  Other countries also held an interest in the island, but the United States had a greater force on the land.  Furthermore, the other nations interests were not strong enough to lead to war.  The annexation of both territories helped keep other nations out of America’s sphere and allowed her to remain isolated.

Using similar logic, America refused to annex Mexico following the Mexican War.  The racial and cultural differences were insignificant (These differences didn’t stop America in Hawaii).  However, the annexation would result in a defensive logistical nightmare.  The same desert that made it impossible for Mexico to defend its northern territories would make it difficult for the United States to defend an annexed Mexico.  Furthermore, the annexation of a sovereign nation would signal alarms in Europe, and could provoke a major war.  This disruption of the balance of power would destroy the isolation of the United States, and thus had to be avoided.

The Napoleonic wars present yet another exhibit of the pervasive force of neutrality in American foreign affairs.  The United States did not align itself with either side.  Instead, it attempted to remain neutral, trading actively with both sides.  It took advantage of the conflict to purchase Louisiana from France.  They took advantage of the opportunity to obtain more land at a minimal cost.  They did not mind that the money from this purchase would be use to finance despotic empire building.  Americans simply knew they needed land, and that France had land to sell. Finally, when British and French blockades seemed to demand American involvement in the war, Americans took an ‘economic’ stance on the issue.  The country that was able to meet the United States’ concessions would be her ally, while the other would be her enemy.  Thus, the United States went to war with Britain in the War of 1812.  The United States took advantage of this declaration of war to attempt to annex Canada.  However, the Canadians refused, and the British proceeded to annihilate the United States.  Only after a few key victories was the United States able to conclude the war, restoring the pre-war status-quo.  From this war, early Americans had learned the necessity of avoiding foreign conflicts.  Any interventionary views held at the time were quelled, and American returned to their isolationist stance.

America avoided the colonization of Africa and China because of the complex entanglements it would involve.  Because the United States had no vital trading interests in Africa, she allowed the Europeans to do as they wish without involving herself.  In China, America did however, have strong interests.  Thanks to Britain’s  Opium Wars, the United States was able to gain trading rights in China, and had started a healthy trade.  European colonization, however, threatened this trade.  The United States would much rather trade with the Chinese than have to appease  the interests of major European powers.  Not desiring to provoke war, Secretary of State Hay declared the American policy with the “Open Door” note, circulated to various governments.  In this note, he declared the principle of “equality of treatment of all foreign trade throughout China.  The note lacked any teeth to back up the policy.  However, Hay knew that the British and French already had their hands full with colonies.  Their tacit agreement was virtually assured  (Brands, 1994: 246).  Other countries followed suit, and the United States achieved a diplomatic victory while remaining aloof to the international intervention.

The United States of the 19th century was not the major power it is today.  It was a developing nation, searching for its place in the international arena.  Isolationism was the best policy, for it allowed America to continue its lucrative trade business and build the basic infrastructure necessary to become a first class nation.  This time of isolationism and expansionism coincided with great technological advances of the industrial revolution.  Free from the turmoils of international conflict, the 19th century isolationist policies of the United States allowed it to become the major power it is today.  Isolationism of the 19th century bred the moral interventionism of the 20th century.


Brands, H. William.  The United States in the World: A History of American Foreign Policy, Volume I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

Dull, Jonathan R..  A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.1985

Morgan, H. Wayne.  America’s Road to Empire: The War With Spain and Overseas Expansion.  New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1965.

Patterson, Thomas G. And Dennis Merrill.  Major Problems in American Foreign Relations, Volume I: To 1920, 4th Ed.  Lexington, MA: D. C.  Heath & Company, 1989.