Reading between rhetorical lines

AMERICANS, not unlike other peoples, have a tendency to rewrite their history, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. The Vietnam war is recast today in favorable hues absent a decade ago. And President Reagan's currently debated hostage policy may be seen differently in generations to come. It's happened that way from the earliest days of the republic. And even with George Washington. His Farewell Address, issued 190 years ago this fall, is a case in point. For a good many politicians and historians over the years, the Farewell Address has been seen as one of the keystones of American foreign policy.

Washington used the occasion of announcing his disinclination to seek a third term to set forth a foreign policy direction for posterity. ``Observe good faith and justice toward all nations,'' Washington stressed, but avoid ``passionate attachment'' with any nation. ``The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.'' In commerce, Washington cautioned against having ``as little political connection as possible.''

Taken out of context, this sounds good and to a certain extent was followed by the United States. But at the time, Washington's parting shot was less a philosophical treatise on the conduct of foreign affairs than it was unabashedly political.

Washington's administration had negotiated a treaty with Great Britain - the Jay Treaty of 1794 - that attempted to tie up a number of loose ends left over from the American Revolution. To some, the Jay Treaty fell short of its goals; for others, it exacerbated relations with France, Britain's enemy and our ally since 1778. In the wake of the Jay Treaty, French ministers did their utmost to interfere in American politics in order to effect a pro-French administration, specifically in the person of Thomas Jefferson. The party strife between the followers of Washington and Jefferson extended into both foreign and domestic matters.

The Farewell Address, appearing in a partisan newspaper, did not fool party leaders, although its criticism of French machinations was artfully cloaked. Nor did it stop the strategems of French ministers, who propagandized that war with France would be imminent unless Jefferson were elected president.

Washington's Farewell Address did not remedy the political divisions of the time. Much later, as Americans carved out a national identity, the speech would join a number of other incidents in his life that would reflect both myth and fact.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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