But understood in their context, neither quote cited by Paul backers actually justifies applying the isolationist label to the Founders. Jefferson was president when he led the nation, with congressional approval, into its first foreign war, against the Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean. What is less often recalled is that Jefferson had previously, as secretary of state under George Washington, secured congressional approval to build the U.S. Navy specifically for the purpose of attacking the pirates. Jefferson clearly was no isolationist, and the fact that he abided by the Constitution in initiating hostilities does not mean he would agree with Paul’s views today.

As for Madison, during and after his tenure in the White House as America’s fourth president, revolutions — often led by Simon Bolivar– erupted across South America. The revolutionaries frequently appealed to America for aid, much as the Libyan rebels did last year. Viewing these political upheavals as part of “the great struggle of the Epoch between liberty and despotism,” Madison endorsed providing American aid to “sustain the former in this hemisphere at least,” and he joined Jefferson and John Quincy Adams in backing the Monroe Doctrine.

Often portrayed as an isolationist act, the Monroe Doctrine was anything but.