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MARCH 2016




odern analyses of U.S. foreign

assistance typically describe

it as a post-World War II

innovation that began with the

Marshall Plan and President

Harry Truman’s Point Four

aid program in the late 1940s.

Following the lead of interna-

tional relations theorist Hans

Morgenthau, many practitioners believe that foreign aid arose as

an instrument of Cold War diplomacy, and that aid as we know it

might not now exist without the Cold War.

This article presents an alternative view, expanding on an

article by Glenn Rogers, “A Long-Term Perspective on U.S. Foreign Development Cooperation” (May 2010 FSJ ). Forei


aid is deeply rooted in American history, and has evolved over

more than 200 years to improve the lives of hundreds of millions

of people throughout the globe while also supporting vital U.S.


Extending the American

Revolution Overseas:

Foreign Aid, 1789–1850

Foreign assistance is part of America’s cultural DNA, fostered by the country’s

revolutionary heritage of a commitment to human rights and individual liberties.


John Sanbrailo is executive director of the Pan American

Development Foundation, an affiliate of the Organization

of American States. A former FSOwith USAID, he served

as mission director in Ecuador, Peru, Honduras and El Sal-

vador, retiring with the rank of Career Minister in 1997. Mr. Sanbrailo is

currently working on a history of foreign assistance.

Foreign assistance reflects what historian Gordon Wood

identifies in his book

The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth

of the United States

(Penguin, 2011) as a fundamental element

of the country’s revolutionary tradition: the desire to spread

democracy and development overseas. It is part of the country’s

cultural DNA, fostered by its unique revolutionary heritage of

a commitment to human rights and individual liberties. Aid

expresses the nation’s sense of a universal mission to nurture

freedom and prosperity in other countries, a mission that has

regularly been an integral part of U.S. foreign policy purposes.

The desire to share the principles of the American Revolu-

tion with other countries was driven not only by diplomats and

government officials, but by missionaries, traders, educators, sci-

entists, agriculturalists, academics, progressive reformers, civil

society groups, business leaders and the military. These early

undertakings were similar to aid programs in recent decades,

offering useful comparisons.

Earliest Initiatives

The Founding Fathers were, above all, what we might call

“development philosophers.” The writings of Benjamin Frank-

lin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton explore how

societies move toward greater liberty and progress. Franklin’s

Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind and Peopling

of Countries

, etc., published in 1751, outlined one of the first

comprehensive development theories. In it, he describes how