Great Men and Men Who Think They Are Great: The Challenges of Teaching Foreign Policy History during the Trump Presidency

Amy Greenberg

John Trumbull, “General George Washington at Trenton,” Oil on Canvas, 1792. Smithsonian Art Inventory Catalog, IAP 07260601; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Trump presidency poses unique challenges for teachers of American foreign policy, including the ability to quickly revise one’s syllabus. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama pursued strikingly different domestic agendas while in office. They adopted rhetorical postures, vis-à-vis the rest of the world, that were just as divergent. But all three men, like their post-Cold War predecessors, shared a conviction that American empire was beneficent, and that the U.S. must necessarily play a role in international affairs commensurate with its status as the leading world power. All three intervened abroad for humanitarian reasons, and all three shed both American blood, and the blood of citizens far distant, in foreign wars with important implications for U.S. economic interests.

So while the presidency has changed hands, and parties, over the past twenty years, the challenges of teaching American foreign policy have remained, for the most part, constant. First off: how to problematize the “natural” and “beneficial” nature of American empire for an undergraduate audience that assumes that America’s political leaders have always understood the international mission of the nation in expansive terms? Because I believe successful teaching requires meeting students where they are, the answer has, in the past, appeared obvious. Rather than lecture on the evils of imperialism I hand them the text of George Washington’s 1796 farewell address, warning his fellow citizens about the dangers of foreign entanglements. This approachable primary source by the most beloved of Founding Fathers is perfect for undergraduate students, and can be easily excerpted, beginning with Washington’s statement, “The Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.”

For many students, the idea that the Father of the Country wished to see the United States keep its own counsel is revelatory. With the farewell address as origin story, it’s possible to narrate the growth of American empire before the Civil War as a messy, contingent series of events, rather than the foregone conclusion that the ideology of Manifest Destiny suggested. In the context of Washington’s vision of an independent, self-reliant American nation, the antebellum push for empire looks calculated and remarkably aggressive. Consider James K. Polk’s June 30, 1846 diary entry, written less than two months after he declared war on Mexico, in which he expresses his blatant disregard for the views of European nations about his designs on California, and asserts to his cabinet that Mexico would be forced to hand over California at the end of the war. Or you could give students the New York Herald’s account of a January 1848 Tammany Hall meeting in favor of annexing all of Mexico, and let them debate Sam Houston’s assertions that the Anglo‒Saxon race is destined to pervade the entire hemisphere, that might makes right, and that if Mexico is annexed the men in the audience should “take a trip of exploration there, and look for the beautiful senoritas, or pretty girls, and if you should choose to annex them, no doubt the result of this annexation will be a most powerful and delightful evidence of civilization.” Nor should one forget the 1854 Ostend Manifesto, in which Minister to England James Buchanan and two fellow American diplomats serving in Europe asserted that if Spain refused to sell Cuba to the U.S., the U.S. had a right to take it by force.[i]  Is any of this in keeping with George Washington vision for America? Students care about the answer.

But Donald Trump’s isolationism resonates with George Washington’s Farewell Address in a new and problematic way. “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course,” than European nations, Washington wrote. “If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality, we may at any time resolve upon, to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel. Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? . . . . Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies. . . it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another. . . . There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.”

Nicholas Shepherd, Quarter plate daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln, Congressman-elect from Illinois, 1846.; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Unless one wishes to enlist George Washington in support of Trump’s “America First” vision, the farewell address may not be the best document at this current moment.

But the current moment is all too liable to change. Donald Trump could easily jettison his isolationism, and make good on his recent threats against Venezuela or North Korea. Might Donald Trump embroil the United States in another foreign war? By the time you read this, he may already have done so. I hope not. But if so, how might the teacher of early U.S. foreign policy respond?

One thing Penn State students care deeply about is patriotism. Penn State students are a fine group of young people: civic minded, well mannered, and exceptionally nice. The vast majority wish to be patriotic. This is, of course, a worthy goal, except that many enter college convinced that patriotism demands assent to the wishes of the Commander in Chief in times of war. Fortunately, there are plenty of primary sources available that reveal that dissent against unjust war is not only both just and patriotic, but that it has a long and storied history.  One of the best is the first speech delivered in Washington by newly seated Congressman Abraham Lincoln, the so-called “Spot Resolutions” in opposition to the U.S.‒Mexican War. Lincoln’s stinging attack on President Polk, and the lies Polk employed to sell war to Congress and the American people, offers a vision of heroic dissent from another individual whom students believe to be above reproach. While there were other opponents of the war who were more eloquent, or who spoke out earlier, none of them were Abraham Lincoln. There’s something to be said for employing great men to counter the worst impulses of a man who believes himself to be great.


[i] All three of these documents can be found in Amy S. Greenberg, Manifest Destiny and American Territorial Expansion: A Brief History with Documents,  second Ed., The Bedford Series in History and Culture (Boston, 2017)

5 September 2017

About the Author

Amy Greenberg is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

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