Gilbert Stuart, "George Washington," from the collection and website of the Clark

As protests continue to challenge and alter governments across the Middle East, discussions have expanded beyond the domain of the bloggers, full-time talking heads, and future presidential candidates who initially jumped at the chance to explain “what it all means.” As the universe of academics writing columns expanded, I started wondering which Eph (from beyond the blogosphere) would weigh in first. Would it be Professor Susan Dunn? Jim Burns ’39? Michael Beschloss ’77?

None of the above, at least to cross my desk. Instead, it’s Washington College President Mitchell Reiss ’79. Writing for Fox News, Dr. Reiss celebrated President’s Day with an article in the “Great Man” historical tradition that discusses George Washington, his initial feelings about the American Revolution, and the role of leadership in ensuring success for democratic revolutions:

For Washington, the unfolding crisis presented an awful choice: the terrifying disorder of revolution or the stability of despotism. “The once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with blood, or inhabited by slaves,” he wrote to a friend that spring. “Sad alternative!”

Today, Americans viewing the scenes of revolution across the Middle East may share some of Washington’s ambivalence. We cheer those Arab voices articulating many of the same ideals that roused our Founding Fathers as they fight for a future of greater dignity and freedom. And yet we are anxious because we know from history that revolutions can often spin out of control, leading to chaos and civil war. Dictators or extremist groups often seize power, pervert the original revolutionary ideals and impose new brands of tyranny.

Invoking Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa alongside Washington, Reiss declares his skepticism about the chances for a favorable outcome, noting the role of “decades of corruption, economic stagnation and political repression” in shaping the future leadership of the countries currently convulsed by revolution.

A better hook to connect Washington and today’s Middle East events, though, would be the French Revolution, not the American Revolution.

As president, Washington faced the challenge of setting the early course of American foreign policy against the backdrop of the revolution in our key ally from our own founding. Like most Americans, Washington followed the French Revolution closely, seeing it as the praiseworthy spread of the ideals of the American Declaration of Independence, although, according to Henry Cabot Lodge’s 1889 biography, “even then he doubted its final success.” In 1790, he accepted the key to the Bastille as a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette, and it hangs on display today at Mount Vernon.

By 1793, public opinion in the United States began to turn against the revolutionaries in France. After Lafayette was declared a traitor in 1792, Washington, too, was forced to confront the ugly side of events in France, and “he came to hate and dread its deeds, its policies, and its doctrines.”

Faced with the ugly turn of events in France, Washington did his best to put the interests of the United States first. As John Richard Alden describes in <em>George Washington: A Biography</em>, he:

sought to be neutral in mind, as well as deed…. He could not give his blessing to the monarchs of Europe, including Britain; he could not endorse an extremist republic [either].

Because of the dispatch of Edmond-Charles Genet to South Carolina to recruit privateers (and arguments that the U.S. was obliged to side with the French government — any French government — because of its Revolution-era treaty obligation), Washington was soon put in a position where he had to act. In a series of cautious moves that satisfied no one, he acted to formalize American neutrality:

It was right, he concluded, to face the fact that the Convention ruled France and accordingly to accept Genet as minister. Since France had not formally asked for American help in accordance with the treaty of 1778, he decided that it was not necessary to decide whether the United States would actively assist France . . . . He issued a proclamation of neutrality [and] wished that America . . . should ‘live in peace and amity with all the inhabitants of the earth.’ [But] [i]t was much easier to assert neutrality than to maintain it.

Much of the commentary on American reaction to today’s events in the Middle East has focused on the recent actions and policies of Presidents Bush and Obama. Historical perspectives have mainly turned to Iran and President Carter, or Indonesia and President Clinton. President’s Day and Reiss’s piece are a good reminder that even in our relatively young country, we have a lot more history to draw on than just the last twenty years.

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