On American Universalism

At the First Things site today, I have a review of a current exhibit, “Canova’s George Washington,” at the Frick Collection in New York. I argue that Canova’s famous statue of our first President is not a celebration of Enlightenment universalism, but an admonition against the course of empire:

In fact, the Farewell Address, which Canova depicts Washington writing, famously warned Americans against involvement in world revolution. Not only should America “steer clear of permanent alliances” with foreign countries, Washington wrote, she should have “with them as little political connection as possible.” Neutrality with respect to foreign quarrels was the best policy for America.  Why risk the new nation’s peace and prosperity by entangling it in the intrigues of the old?

The context for this warning was, of course, the French Revolution, and the campaign by Jeffersonians to commit the United States to Republican France’s war against Great Britain. Jeffersonians thought the French Revolution, with its universal Declaration of the Rights of Man—all men, everywhere, not just the French—its rationalism, and its destruction of the old regime, was a natural continuation of our own, and thus worthy of American support. But Washington had proclaimed American neutrality in the conflict. The Farewell Address was a rejection of the Jeffersonian, universalist interpretation of our Revolution, and everyone would have seen it that way at the time.

To my mind, then, Canova’s statue doesn’t suggest a celebration of universalism and progress. It suggests, instead, that Americans, like the Romans before us, are apt to stray from republican virtues in a quest for empire, and warns us against such a path.

You can read the whole review at the First Things site, here.

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