George Washington once said to Patrick Henry in a letter in 1795 “My ardent desire is and my aim has been to comply strictly with all our engagements, foreign and domestic but to keep the United States free from political connections with every other country; to see that they may be independent of all and under the influence of none.”

Many Americans remember the famed founding father George Washington as a man who was bigger than us all in spirit and in some ways in figure. Seeing him lead the troops through the Delaware River into New Jersey to fight the British is an image that every American sees at least once in their lives. He is seen as the best of us and the one that all Americans strive to be. 

But the true legacy George Washington left behind when he passed away was his true intention to ensure the experiment he conducted outlasted him. This came through in his decisions to resign from the presidency to teach the people how to move on from one leader to another, through his domestic affairs ensuring the institutions were strong enough to outlast him while providing people their due freedoms. And on the foreign front, keeping the U.S. out of wars that would have surely compromised the vulnerable position of the U.S. in the world.

As the first president of the United States, Washington was in a truly unique position. The U.S. had just broken off from the largest empire in the world, the British, in a brutal war lasting almost 10 years and the French were about to enter their own vicious revolution, many believing it was a result of the American revolution. The separate Native American nations were trying to understand what it meant to live in the newly-established United States while the world was trying to reckon with the humiliating defeat of the British against a rag-tag militia of their own colonies. Any country could have come and tried to take over the colonies while the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans were fighting over how to structure this new government fairly and with long-term stability.

But there was one moment in his extraordinary career that defines his legacy on American foreign policy: The Neutrality Declaration.

During the French Revolution of the 1790s, Washington faced immense pressure to declare an alliance with the rebels as a result of the Genet Affair. The Genet Affair occurred when the French Ambassador to the U.S. came and tried to rally support from the South before speaking to Washington. It made sense, the French helped the Americans during their revolution from Britain and there was a belief at the time that the Americans set off a domino effect as the world saw their ability to overtake the powerful British and believed that they could pursue a life of liberty in their country. Why not support that? The public was in support of it, the British were not, it seemed like an easy enough decision for Washington.

But then the Revolution became bloody. Hundreds of people were getting killed and the country was falling apart at the seams. Washington looked at his young country that was still determining their new structures of government and understanding how this new life was going to look like and he realized that any decision on the French Revolution would tear his country apart. 

If he supported the war, the public and rebels would support him—but the elite would surely not, and they would punish their former allies economically and in future battles if they won the war. If he opposed the war, the elites would support him while the American public and the rebels would surely not, and he would encounter the same result. 

Then, in 1793, he wrote a declaration that said, “The duty and interest of the United States require that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers.” In this proclamation, he explained that if an American citizen were to act against this decision, they would be prosecuted and if they were caught committing a crime overseas, the United States would not support them. He decided to keep the country neutral, and he enforced this law. There was a controversy in which an American citizen Gideon Henfield joined a French crew and helped to capture British ships in Philadelphia. Washington charged him and though he lost the trial, he showed the country that he was serious about maintaining this position.

What was the value of keeping the young nation neutral in its first foreign test? He could have easily sided with the ally that helped them win the Revolutionary War or he could have sided with his people who supported the rebels. But he didn’t. He knew that our country at the time could not handle being sucked into a war. The country was at its most vulnerable position and if we were to join a foreign war, not only would our structures not have been strong enough to last almost 300 years as our attention would have been diverted but we also would have lost men and credibility to make our own decisions. 

Had we joined the war, the U.S. would have been seen as a puppet of France, had we opposed the war, people would have questioned whether we were still under the control of Britain as they were enemies at the time. This way the world saw that the United States was a nation that was not going to let outside pressures or powers influence what we do.

Washington was not a perfect leader. He made mistakes like all leaders do but what he showed in this moment and in his foreign policy agenda was that the survival and prosperity of his nation came first. It didn’t matter that the public didn’t support him, and it didn’t matter that he was going to make enemies with the French. He knew that the only way to ensure the survival and credibility of his nation was to remain neutral. 

This is not an argument to only remain neutral on international matters. As we have seen through history, there are moments when war or opposition to war may be the answer, but Washington’s inherent desire to conduct a foreign policy where the interest of the country comes first, is something that lives on today and hopefully well into the future. That is the making of a true “America First” president.