After Donald Trump described himself as a nationalist in 2018, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin replied that nationalism is not only “contrary to the principles of a multiethnic, multiracial democracy” but also “antithetical to America’s founding creed.” On this question, however, the preeminent founder, George Washington, had more in common with Trump’s position than Rubin’s. Though Washington never used the term “nationalism,” the nation—its identity, interests, and honor—was central to his statesmanship.
The most famous expression of Washington’s nationalism can be found in his Farewell Address of 1796. Although it is common for Enlightenment-era figures to view government as an artificial human contrivance, devised solely to secure individual rights, Washington did not speak of the nation in such terms. For him, America was something given and precious—his “beloved country” to which he was bound by an “inviolable attachment.” The nation, he taught, had a “right to concentrate” not only the calculated support of its people, but their “affections” as well. It was based not only on common “interest” but also common “sympathy.” Its identity was predicated not only on common “political principles” but also on having the “same religion, manners, habits,” and a shared history of struggle in the cause of “independence and liberty.” For Washington, these ties were “sacred.”
Thus understood, the nation must be protected. Accordingly, Washington’s Farewell Address also emphasizes the centrality of the national interest in foreign policy. America, Washington held, should have “as little political connection as possible” with “foreign nations,” because “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation.” Americans should avoid both “passionate attachments” to and “inveterate antipathies” for other nations, because such emotions undermine their attachment to “the interests of their own country.” “There can be no greater error,” he concluded, “than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation.” In caring for their own country first, Americans would be doing what all peoples do all the time.
When we think of economic nationalism and the American Founders, our minds usually turn first to Alexander Hamilton and his Report on Manufactures. Hamilton, however, wrote his celebrated state paper at the behest of the House of Representatives, which was in turn responding to President Washington’s suggestion. In his 1790 message to Congress, Washington had noted that “the safety and interest” of a “free people” demanded “that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent” of other countries “for essential” and “particularly for military supplies.”
Like Hamilton, Washington recognized that nations routinely regulate their foreign trade in their own interest. Accordingly, the president thought not in terms of a right of access to a global free market but instead in terms of the “privileges of carrying our productions” into other countries—privileges that would be granted or withheld at the discretion of other nations’ governments. Leaving aside the question of government policy, Washington personally preferred to buy American. He intended, he once said, to give “a decided preference to the produce and fabrics of America, whensoever it may be done without involving unreasonable expenses or very great inconveniences.” On another occasion he declared it “shameful that we should be the sport of European whims” and that we should “discourage our own industry and ingenuity by purchasing foreign superfluities.”
As this invocation of the “shameful” indicates, Washington’s nationalism reached beyond a concern with the country’s material interests. It was also a matter of pride.
Here we discern the natural root of nationalism in the human soul. It is a reflex of what Plato’s Republic refers to as thumos—spiritedness, the love of honor, not only for oneself but also for the group to which one belongs. Modernity is in some respects a flight from thumos. For the moderns, the great desideratum is peace, while thumos is famously combative. Accordingly, the most influential modern thinkers tried to downplay thumos, either belittling or ignoring its concerns. Nevertheless, these thinkers did not—and could not—entirely succeed in eliminating the power of thumos in human nature and hence in the culture they hoped to reshape. Thumotic attachment to national glory was still an important force in George Washington’s soul and in the world he inhabited.
Washington recognized that nations are routinely moved to action not only by their material interests but also by a sense of national pride. As a patriot fighting for American freedom from Great Britain, he hoped that England and France would end up at war. As a sober analyst of foreign affairs, however, he believed it unlikely. Such a war could only come if England felt sufficiently irritated by French provocations. But England’s collective thumos was engaged elsewhere. As he put it in private letters, its “honor” was staked on its “contest” with America; and it would therefore probably submit to “any indignity” from France, because Britain could not be distracted from its determination to “reek her vengeance upon America.”
Washington went further, holding that nations not only ordinarily do but ordinarily should act to protect their honor. For him, national pride was not only an empirical but also a moral fact: a consideration that no conscientious citizen could ignore. As president, for example, Washington noted his aim to keep America free from foreign disturbances, “if it can be done consistent with honor, and the respect which every nation owes to itself as well as to others.”
Washington framed national honor as a key consideration at the pivotal moments in the young nation’s career. The point of the Revolution, he suggested, was not only to protect individual rights but to vindicate America’s dignity—to secure “the honor, the glory and happiness of my country.” If Americans failed to prevail in their eminently winnable fight, he warned, we would “become contemptible in our own eyes, in the eyes of our enemy, in the opinion of posterity, and even in the estimation of the whole world, which will consider us as a nation unworthy of prosperity, because we know not how to make a right use of it.”
Washington similarly understood the creation of the Constitution as an effort to secure America’s national greatness. In 1786, he warned that the failure of the Articles of Confederation was a national embarrassment. The powers of the government of the Union had to be altered, lest the country “sink into the lowest state of humiliation and contempt, and become a byword in all the earth.”
He believed that ratification of the Constitution was necessary to preserve the Union, which was in turn the basis of America’s fame in the world. “We are known,” he observed, “by no other character among nations than as the United States.” Ratification would therefore determine whether America would preserve its status as an “independent republic” or “decline from our federal dignity into insignificant and wretched fragments of empire.”
Moral Agency and Universalism
For generations, liberal rationalists have tried to debunk nationalism. The nation, they’ve contended, is wholly artificial, merely an abstraction invented by certain men in order to govern other men more easily. Worse, it is an error and a superstition—a projection of the human mind into which we have naïvely and dangerously poured our thumotic passions. The result: war, destruction, and death. Hence the persistent liberal desire to deconstruct the nation in the pursuit of peace.
A recent expression of this tradition can be found in the work of contemporary philosopher George Kateb, who has contended that love of country is both an “intellectual” and a “moral mistake.” For Kateb, the patriot commits an intellectual error by wrongly assuming that his country is a “real object worthy of devotion” when it is in fact merely an “abstraction.” This mental misstep then leads to moral error, Kateb adds, because patriotism is “almost always the direct or indirect source of vice, wrongdoing, harm, the infliction of suffering and the endurance of suffering.”
As we have seen, George Washington didn’t think this way. For him, the nation was something real—a moral, psychological, and political fact that men had to respect to live rightly. It was in some sense a living whole of which its citizens were parts, sharing in its greatness and its misery.
Aristotle can assist us in fully understanding Washington’s nationalism. According to Aristotle, honor points beyond itself to something more fundamental: virtue. Men seek to be honored for their goodness. Washington was not a philosopher, but he shared Aristotle’s common-sense view of this question. Thus, Washington’s concern with national honor was connected to his concern with national morality. For him, it was reasonable to honor or blame a nation because nations are capable of virtue and vice. Moreover, Washington believed that individual citizens necessarily share in the moral responsibility, and hence in the honor or dishonor, of the nations of which they are members.
Washington routinely pronounced on the moral qualities of nations. When the British sought to depreciate American currency during the war, he held that they had stooped to “such low and dirty tricks as will forever remain a reproach to them.” As the newly elected president, he urged the Congress to remain mindful of the needs of the “Indian tribes whose happiness, in the course of events, so materially depends on the national justice and humanity of the United States.” And, when preparing to lay down his office, he used his Farewell Address to anchor in the minds of his fellow citizens the importance of national character: “It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no great distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”
What’s more, Washington believed that individual citizens, like it or not, share in the moral responsibility for the actions of the nations of which they are members. Thus, during the Revolution, he repeatedly contemplated retaliation on British prisoners of war for harms inflicted on American prisoners by their British captors. Although he worried in some cases about the prudence or humanity of such conduct, he did not doubt its justice. “The law of retaliation,” Washington wrote to British General William Howe, “is not only justifiable in the eyes of God and man, but absolutely a duty which in our present circumstances we owe to our relations, friends, and fellow citizens.”
Similarly, Washington felt personal shame at the failures of America’s government under the Articles of Confederation and at the domestic tumults, such as Shays’s Rebellion, that had arisen as a consequence. “I am,” he wrote to Henry Lee, “mortified beyond expression whenever I view the clouds which have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any country.” It was the same kind of thinking, linked to a religious sensibility, that led him, in his famed Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, to call upon his fellow citizens to seek God’s “pardon” for “our national and other transgressions.”
Washington, then, was clearly no liberal universalist intent upon demystifying man’s traditional attachment to his nation. At the same time, however, he was also not the sort of extreme nationalist that liberal universalists have feared the most. His love for and identification with his country has little in common with the fanatical, imperialistic passions that disfigured the 20th century. Washington would have indignantly rejected a nationalism that seeks unlimited dominion for one’s country at the expense of the rights of other peoples.
He was, like most of the founders, a liberal nationalist, combining a special attachment to his own country with a respect for the rights of all nations and a desire for their well-being. In his letters, he styled himself not only a “member” of the American “infant-empire,” but also a “philanthropist by character” and a “citizen of the great republic of humanity at large.” Although he was solicitous of American glory, he condemned that “false ambition which desolates the world with fire and sword for the purposes of conquest and fame.” He averred that he would “never so far divest” himself “of the feelings of a man, interested in the happiness of his fellow-men, as to wish” his “country’s prosperity might be built upon the ruins of that of other nations.” There is, then, nothing sensible and decent in the moral aspirations of liberal universalists that is not also included in Washington’s sensible and decent nationalism.
Washington’s Nationalism Today
How is George Washington’s thinking relevant to our present disputes about nationalism? First, the preceding discussion reveals that nationalism is not a betrayal of America’s original identity but an expression of it. Washington’s meditations remind us that nationalism is not only American but human. The father of our country correctly perceived that all countries are animated by feelings of national pride. Nationalism is not a dangerous aberration but a normal expression of human nature, because spiritedness or thumos is a permanent element of the human soul. Thumos seeks to attach itself to something honorable, and the nation is among the most common and respectable objects of its attachment.
In the second place, Washington’s moderate nationalism is no threat to a decent and just international order. He sought to promote the interests and honor of his own country but also acknowledged the principles of justice that nations must observe in their dealings with each other. Washington in fact teaches us that nationalism actually presupposes a certain cosmopolitanism. The decent nationalist wants his nation to be honored in the eyes of other nations. This desire presupposes that the nationalist cares what other nations think about his country. But caring what other nations think presupposes that they are respectable, too, and have rights and interests that also deserve consideration.
Finally, Washington’s thinking suggests that nationalism is not a threat to, but a necessary condition of, democracy. This is the lesson of his belief that the Revolution was an expression of America’s national pride. The demand for self-government arises not only because individuals wish to protect their interests by having a say in how they are ruled. It also arises—and is perhaps felt and expressed even more powerfully—when a sense of national honor leads a people to insist that they are good enough to rule themselves, and not be subordinated to an elite that disdains them. The American Revolution was not only about the individual rights to life, liberty, and property but also the collective right of self-government. And just as the founding demand for individual rights expressed a just personal pride, so the demand for self-government expressed a just national pride—the pride that, in Washington’s words, recoiled at the thought of being ruled by “our lordly masters in Great Britain.”
Jennifer Rubin and others fail to grasp Washington’s insight that America needs nationalism. Citizens’ identification with the nation and an accompanying national pride are required if America’s interests are to be protected, its way of life preserved, and its people made fit to govern themselves and not be ruled by elites indifferent or hostile to their aspirations. This permanent imperative will remain long after Donald Trump and his detractors have passed from the scene.