In today’s political landscape, taking a side on any particular issue is likely to get a person on the wrong side of about half the country. But that’s not really news. We live with a strongly-divided two-party system with each one holding positions that are, in most cases, diametrically opposed to each other. Whether it be about the size of government, some social issue, or whatever, taking a position generally involves very little middle ground.
But sometimes, taking a stand in the middle offers little or no protection, either. Let’s look at one such instance from the pages of history.
As the 18th century came to a close in America, few issues were more divisive than the French Revolution. Whether it was the general population, or those Founders in charge of the fledgling government, opinions pretty much fell into two camps. There were those that favored the uprisings that began in Paris, heralding them as “the son of the American Revolution”. Others maintained that it was little more than a sadistic, reverse-engineered purge, one in which the people not only overthrew their leadership, but led them to the guillotine to relieve them of their “headship”.
Once Louis XVI had felt the blade’s bite on his neck in January of 1793, it took but a week for the French to declare war on England and Holland. And that put President Washington in a difficult position. Did he side with the French, who had clearly been an ally in America’s own struggle for independence? Or would it be with England, an enemy not so long ago, but not so now? The country was deeply split on the issue, but the President didn’t pander to either side.
In his biography of the man, Ron Chernow writes that “Washington hoped to win respectability from foreign powers, but he also wanted to stay free of foreign entanglements so the young nation could prosper.” And on April 22, 1793, he did just that, landing directly in the middle of the issue with what came to be known as the Proclamation of Neutrality. The final document didn’t actually contain the word neutrality, but asked the nation’s citizens to “pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers.”
And you can probably predict what happened. A few people (mostly those less inclined to the French position) were pleased with the President’s stance. But many others had a completely different reaction, one that was neither friendly nor impartial. They believed Washington and his “minions” were turning their backs on the one alliance that had sustained them during the Revolution. It mattered little that a strong case could be made for France supporting the Colonies out of self-interest (keeping the British pre-occupied) as opposed to some sort of Revolutionary altruism. Also ignored in much of the negative feelings was the small fact that most of the French supporters of the Revolution now had their disconnected heads stuffed between their knees.
Members of Congress was also upset, believing they had been side-stepped by the President. They contended that if Congress had the power to declare war, it also had the power to declare neutrality. Some went so far as to say that Washington was acting the part of a monarch, issuing an edict from his Hamiltonian-inspired throne.
There appears to be truth to the old adage that landing in the middle of an issue only serves to make everybody mad. It certainly worked for Washington on this day in history…
Recommended Reading: Washington – A Life