"Partisan politics should stop at the water's edge," said a White House spokesman Wednesday, noting that it "used to be a pretty important principle that originated in the Republican Party, I believe." He was responding to criticism (much of it Republican) of President Barack Obama's handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
During last year's presidential campaign, I put on my wordsmith hat and wrote about the etymology of this hoariest of political cliches. Like most observers, I traced its popularity to the Cold War, when it was invoked by such commentators as James Reston and Walter Lippmann and, famously, by Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. I also speculated on its link to common-law rules about certain rights ending at the high-water mark.
Now that the Obama administration has once more suggested that stopping politics at the water's edge means not criticizing the president domestically for his foreign policy — an interpretation that seems to me exactly backward — it is worth delving a bit more deeply into the origins of the usage.
When I wrote my earlier column, some readers asked why I didn't mention Daniel Webster, who is often credited as the originator of the phrase. I omitted Webster for reasons of space, and because he is irrelevant. He isn't the author of the phrase — not in its current sense, anyway.
The much-cited Webster usage occurred in a famous speech on the floor of the House in 1814: "Even our party divisions, acrimonious as they are, cease at the water's edge." Webster, in context, meant something very narrow. He was calling for Americans to enlist in the war against Britain, because, notwithstanding our domestic divisions, "the united wishes and exertions of the nation will go with you." Webster was not speaking of the propriety or impropriety of criticizing the president's policy; he was simply stating what nowadays is a political cliche: that whatever our view of a particular war, we all stand behind our fighting men (and women).
Nevertheless, I have changed my mind about how the phrase became popular in its contemporary sense. I now believe that the signal event was likely a speech delivered during World War I by the Republican politician and lawyer James Montgomery Beck.
Beck, a leading domestic critic of President Woodrow Wilson's policy of neutrality, spoke in London in July 1916, before the U.S.'s entry into the war the following year. The London venue matters to Beck's argument and, indeed, to the proper genealogy of the phrase itself. He was speaking to an audience perplexed by the U.S.'s professed neutrality toward the war then raging in Europe. Beck was well known for his view that the U.S. should enter the war on the side of the Allies, but if his hosts expected to hear him make once more his passionate case for intervention, they were disappointed.
At the outset of his remarks, Beck set forth a warning: "Whatever may be my views at home, I cannot discuss the political policies of the party of the day in the United States. I have very strong convictions with respect to many of these policies, and I have not hesitated to express them with great freedom to audiences of my own countrymen, but if I shall ever be tempted to criticize in a public gathering in a foreign land either the president of the United States or the government of the day, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!"
A few minutes later, he explained further: "I have said that I cannot discuss the political policies of the party of the day of my country. While I am not of that party, still it speaks for my nation, and while I reserve the right to criticise it in my own country, yet with every true American, politics stops at the margin of the ocean, and therefore I cannot criticise the present administration at Washington in a foreign land."
Thus did Beck — who in later years would achieve his greatest renown for resigning his House seat to protest the New Deal — popularize the phrase that has since been subject to so much misuse. Beck's book, writes the historian Celia Kingsbury, "was widely read before the date the United States entered the war."
Strikingly, Beck did not stop at the statement that he would not attack his nation's policies abroad, nor did he try some sly trick to enable him to criticize them obliquely. Instead, he sought to explain for his British audience the way that the policy of neutrality fit into the American tradition. In other words, he took it upon himself to justify abroad the very approach that at home he would criticize. This Beck saw as his patriotic duty.
It is in that sense — that when abroad our shared Americanness is greater than our political divisions — that the phrase "politics stops at the water's edge" came into common usage. Defenders of this president — like defenders of his predecessor — should stop invoking the phrase as a talisman to ward off criticism. Domestically, we should squabble as we like. Abroad, we should be united.
That's the way I learned the phrase from my father: that one shouldn't travel abroad and criticize his own country's policy. And as I said in my original column, you may count me a curmudgeon, but I believe it still.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of "The Violence of Peace: America's Wars in the Age of Obama" and the novel "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln."