The idea that a foreign power might try to impact an American election sounds like a chapter ripped from a dystopian novel. It’s not. Serious questions emerged this week—in the aftermath of WikiLeaks publishing DNC emails that appear to have been stolen by Russian hackers trying to help Donald Trump—about whether Vladimir Putin is tampering with our domestic politics.
The Founding Fathers saw this coming.
It’s why President Washington and his speechwriter Alexander Hamilton devoted much of our first president’s Farewell Address to warning “against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
Here’s the story: Two hundred and twenty years ago, the sweltering streets of Philadelphia were buzzing with rumors that a foreign power was trying to destabilize the American government and determine the outcome of the next election.
At the executive mansion on Market Street, George Washington was preparing to kick off the first truly contested election in American history. His vice president, John Adams, represented the Federalist Party, while Washington’s former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was the leader of the Democratic-Republicans. While the parties broadly represented North versus South, urban versus rural interests—one might say blue states versus red states—the underlying animosities were rooted in associations with England versus France. Each faction saw the other as a quasi-treasonous proxy for foreign nations, and each saw the other as a threat to the republican covenant created by the Constitution.
This was not without reason. The English were abusing Washington’s policy of neutrality between Britain and France and they fully expected that the lost colonies would return to their rule. The new revolutionary government in France saw Washington’s neutrality as treason to the larger cause of international liberty and they dispatched an agent named Citizen Genet to destabilize the government through popular uprising. As historian Harlow Giles Unger explains, “If Washington’s government refused to cooperate, [Genet] was to exploit the Jeffersonian pro-French ferment in America to foment revolution, topple the American government, and convert the United States into a French puppet state. Once under French control, the United States would become part of a French-dominated American federation of Canada, Florida, Louisiana, and the French West Indies.” Jefferson’s partisans were seen as useful idiots in this effort.
So “history and experience” were anything but casually invoked in Washington’s parting words to his country.
Nor were they new concerns, even then. The dangers of foreign influence destabilizing democracy had been top of mind to the Founding Fathers since the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.
In preparation, James Madison set about studying the mistakes previous republics had made so that America might avoid the same fate. He found history was littered with examples of republics losing their sovereignty through destabilization by foreign powers who wormed their way into domestic politics through pretend friendships and partisan alliances.
One prominent case was the ancient Greek city-states that banded together to beat back a foreign invasion from Persia. But the Greeks then continued to place their loyalties in their cities, not in Greece as a whole. Athens and Sparta, Madison noted in Federalist #18, “became first rivals and then enemies; and did each other infinitely more mischief than they had suffered from Xerxes,” the Persian king. The final blow to their freedom occurred when King Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, infiltrated select cities with bribes dressed up as foreign aid and splintered the alliance in order to ultimately conquer it. As Hamilton later explained, “ambitious Philip, under the mask of an ally to one, invaded the liberties of each, and finally subverted the whole.”
This lesson was reinforced during Washington’s presidency, when Poland ratified the first written constitution in Europe, attempting to press past the polarization and paralysis of its parliamentary monarchy. But squeezed between Russia and Prussia, Poland found its sovereignty systematically undermined by senate candidates who secretly served those neighboring states. With a weakened military, a series of forced partitions reduced Poland to a skeletal state.
So Russia’s got experience in this kind of thing, even before Stalin and his admirer Putin.
This fear of “the enemy within”—which has resurfaced throughout our history, often as a feature of the paranoid style in American politics—has its roots in real scars sustained in the early years of the republic. For more than a century, the fact that America was separated by the Atlantic from the contagious intrigues of Europe could mitigate those dangers. But the distance afforded by oceans was bridged long ago and now cyberspace makes a mockery of physical defenses.
Putin has shown a willingness to meddle in foreign elections to pursue his interests—chief among them is a destabilization of international alliances that check his own expansionist ambitions. The idea that Russia is seeking to influence America’s presidential election and propel a more admiring and compliant candidate into the White House may sound far-fetched on the surface, but a passing glance of history shows this play has been invoked to destabilize democracy for centuries.
Putin is well aware of this history. And we can’t say that George Washington didn’t warn us.