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Foreign Relations

Foreign Relations

John Jay ...87
George Washington ...101
U.S. Congress ...112

The U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1788, and the first two presidents who served under the new government framework concentrated on developing the government and the nation's economic stability. However, foreign affairs demanded much of their time. George Washington (1732–1799) served as the first U.S. president, remaining in office from April 1789 to March 1797. The second U.S. president was John Adams (1735–1826), who served from March 1797 to March 1801.

Relations with Britain and Spain

U.S. relations with Britain and Spain had been strained since the end of the American Revolution (1775–83). The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, ended the war and granted the United States independence from Britain. However, Britain violated the treaty by keeping its troops in fur-trading forts in the Old Northwest. The Old Northwest included land north of the Ohio River to the Great Lakes and Canada, east to Pennsylvania's western border, and west to the Mississippi River. The British troops stationed at the forts supplied Native Americans with guns and encouraged them to resist American settlement.

Spain controlled all lands west of the Mississippi River, south to New Orleans and north to Canada. Spain also controlled Florida; at that time, Florida included a strip of land that extended along the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River. Spain maintained outposts in the area and, like Britain, encouraged Native American uprisings against American settlers. Spain feared that if American settlers populated the southern areas near the Mississippi, Spanish territories could eventually be taken over by the United States.

After the American Revolution ended, U.S. merchants, manufacturers, plantation owners, and small farmers all looked forward to selling their goods to foreign markets. However, Britain closed its ports and those of its territories to U.S. goods. Neither Britain nor Spain was willing to sign significant commerce (trade) treaties with the new nation.

French Revolution

France posed another dilemma for the United States. Just as the new U.S. government was starting to take shape in 1789, the French Revolution (1789–99) began. Encouraged by the success of the American Revolution, poor French peasants and powerless French workers successfully rebelled against the French king and the ruling aristocracy. Aristocracy refers to wealthy, usually well-educated, powerful people who are considered the privileged class in a society.

During the first four years of the French Revolution, the U.S. population largely supported the French people in their struggle for liberty. The French people were fighting for freedom from the overpowering and unjust rule of the French aristocracy, just as Americans had fought to free themselves from the British. By 1793, the French revolutionaries had overthrown the rulers of France and declared France a republic. A republic is a government run by representatives elected by the people. The revolution then took an extreme turn as revolutionaries murdered thousands of the ruling class. They beheaded the overthrown French king, Louis XVI (1754–1793; reigned 1774–92), and many of his supporters. As many as forty thousand powerful and wealthy French citizens were killed, most beheaded at the guillotine. The period of excessive bloodshed, called the Reign of Terror, lasted for one year, from June 1793 to July 1794. In 1793, France also declared war on Britain in hopes of stirring up a revolution there. The French Revolution and the Reign of Terror fueled a political split among the U.S. population.

Emergence of political parties

By the early 1790s, two political parties had emerged in America: the Federalists and the Republicans. Political parties are groups of people who have similar viewpoints or philosophies about how to run the government. Although not as well organized as political parties of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Federalists and the Republicans were two distinct parties.

Federalists were largely merchants, manufacturers, and shippers living in the Northeast. They were well educated, wealthy, and members of long-established prominent families. They believed they were well suited to run the government and did not trust ordinary Americans with important government decisions. To expand American industry, Federalists encouraged renewed trade with Britain. Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), President Washington's secretary of the treasury and the leader of the Federalists, believed renewing and maintaining close trading ties with Britain was central to developing a strong U.S. economy. President Washington and Vice President Adams shared the Federalist viewpoint, but both disliked the idea of political parties. They believed parties promoted selfish interests rather than the common good.

The Republicans were led by Virginians Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and James Madison (1751–1836). The Republicans of the 1790s were an entirely different party than the modern Republican Party, which was founded in the 1850s. Differing sharply from the Federalists, they championed the common people and wanted America to be a farming nation, not an industrial power. In Britain, industrial strength had made the aristocracy wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyday workers. Republicans wished to avoid the same fate for America. For them, the fight for independence from Britain included economic independence. They continued to consider Britain the enemy and did not want the U.S. government to be allied with or influenced by the British.

Jefferson and the Republicans still felt a strong allegiance to France, because France had backed the American colonies during their fight for independence. The French signed an alliance in 1778, promising to aid the Americans in any battle against Britain. Each nation also agreed not to come to a truce with Britain without the formal consent of each other. French aid ultimately provided the boost that American revolutionaries needed to win the war.

The Reign of Terror going on in France served to further separate the two American political parties. Federalists were appalled at what they perceived as the ruthlessness of the new French government and turned firmly against revolutionary France. They then focused on promoting better relations and trade with the stable and wealthy British. Jefferson, Madison, and other Republicans considered the violence in France to be the price of freedom for the French commoners. They continued to see Britain as America's enemy and remained supportive of France. Jefferson urged President Washington to join France in its declared war against Britain.

Neutrality Proclamation of 1793

Ignoring the plea from Jefferson, Washington announced a policy of neutrality, declaring that the United States would not favor either side in the battle between France and Britain. The Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 maintained that the United States could continue to trade internationally with any nation as long as war materials were not involved.

Neither France nor Britain respected the U.S. neutrality policy. Both frequently seized U.S. ships and cargo, preventing the ships from trading with their enemy. Britain also captured U.S. sailors and forced them to work on British naval ships. This practice, called impressment, greatly angered Americans. Further, the British seized hundreds of U.S. ships that were trading with the French West Indies, a small set of islands in the Caribbean Sea, between southeast North America and northern South America. Some islands in the West Indies were controlled by Britain and called the British West Indies; some were controlled by France and called the French West Indies.

Calls for war with Britain

The actions of France and Britain created great political friction within the United States. Many Americans, especially Republicans, called for war with Britain. Washington, Hamilton, and the Federalists insisted a war with Britain would economically devastate the United States.

American organizations in support of France grew rapidly; they called themselves Democratic-Republican societies. These organizations supported the Republicans and soon joined forces with them. By late 1793, members of the Republican political party were called Democratic-Republicans. The Democratic-Republicans demanded that the United States honor the 1778 alliance with France and declare war on Britain.

President Washington decided once again to try to avoid war with Britain. In 1794, he sent Supreme Court chief justice John Jay (1745–1829) to Britain to negotiate a resolution. Jay was able to conclude a treaty in November 1794. "The Jay Treaty" is the first excerpt in this chapter. Even though the treaty avoided war with Britain, its terms proved extremely controversial and caused more and more Americans to align with the anti-British, pro-French Democratic-Republicans.

The second excerpt is President George Washington's "Farewell Address." In this famous address, Washington announces his retirement from public office and warns Americans against forming military alliances with foreign nations. His opinion on military alliances influenced U.S. foreign policy into the twentieth century.

The third excerpt is the "Alien and Sedition Acts." A Federalist-controlled Congress passed these acts in an attempt to discourage immigration of pro-French individuals into the United States. The Federalists in Congress also wanted to silence pro-French Democratic-Republican newspaper writers and editors. Their legislation struck at the heart of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. However, when writing the Alien and Sedition Acts, Congress decreed that they would have to be renewed in two to three years or they would expire and no longer be in effect. Congress did let them expire. No case ever came before the Supreme Court to formally determine their constitutionality.

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