The main problems confronting the second administration of President George Washington (1793–1797) were rooted in the conflict between England and France. The French Revolution in 1789 quickly moved from a period of moderate rule through ever more tumultuous stages. In 1793 King Louis XVI was guillotined and the monarchies of Europe mobilized for war with France. Until 1793 the revolution had little direct impact on the young American republic, although it is difficult to overstate how important the events in France were to Americans with respect to their political beliefs. Americans believed that their own revolution and republican institutions would serve as a guide for a world shackled by tyrannical government. For citizens of the United States, the revolution in France and the triumph of republicanism validated their own experiment with democratic government. Both the American and the French revolutions were seen as harbingers of a new golden age of worldwide individual liberty and representative government. These were lofty ideals and few held them more dearly than Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and his political supporters, who were loosely organized in the Democratic-Republican Party.
As head of state, Washington felt obliged to plot a moderate course for the United States. As Europe plunged into warfare, Washington labored to keep the fragile republic out of harm's way, convinced it would suffer great, perhaps irreparable, damage if it became entangled in the European war. This war, in a sense, was the first "world war" and it unleashed frightening levels of violence. Washington feared that the new nation might be caught underfoot in this elephant stampede. To this end, Washington addressed the delicate problem of the United States' relationships with France and with England. Under the alliance of 1778, the United States was obliged to defend the French West Indies "forever against all powers." Other treaty provisions allowed French privateers to equip themselves and operate in U.S. ports.
Even though France had been a critical factor in the Revolutionary War against Britain, Washington was unwilling to honor what he felt were unrealistic and dangerous obligations. On the one hand, he believed France was outnumbered on the European continent and would likely lose the war. More importantly, France was clearly weaker in naval power than Great Britain, and the United States had virtually no navy at all. Defending the French West Indies or allowing French privateers to operate out of U.S. ports appeared to be an unrealistic task. Furthermore, the European war brought Spain and Britain together as allies. Any official or unofficial aid to France ran the risk of bringing the weight of Spain and Britain—whose colonial possessions bordered the United States—and their numerous Native American allies against the United States.
Other calculations were also important. Even though the two nations had fought a war against each other, Great Britain was still the United States' main trade partner and eastern merchants lobbied against any action in support of France. Indeed, those who had commercial interests at stake usually supported the Federalist Party and the policies of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton (1755–1781), which favored supporting Britain. After conferring with his advisors, Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality in April 1793.
Although the United States had no navy to speak of, it did have a large merchant marine, and British treatment of U.S. trading vessels made it difficult for Washington to maneuver safely among the belligerents. Great Britain rejected its former colony's definition of neutral rights, based on one strand of international law that held that "free ships make free goods." Instead, the Crown embraced a narrower definition that permitted the seizure of neutral ships' cargoes. Britain also regularly boarded U.S. merchant ships at sea and "impressed" (kidnapped) U.S. seamen who, they claimed, were deserters from the Royal Navy. This issue would foul Anglo-American relations until the War of 1812. Between 1803 and 1812, 8,000 American sailors were impressed by the British. But impressment was already an important complaint during the 1790s. Another issue between the U.S. and Great Britain was that the British forces had not vacated the forts in the Northwest Territories as they had agreed to do in the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War. They also foiled Washington's efforts to make peace with the region's tribes, who were reportedly told by the British Governor General of Canada to prepare for war with the United States.
Washington dispatched Chief Justice John Jay to Britain to negotiate a settlement. Jay's Treaty was signed on November 19, 1794. When it arrived in the United States in March of 1795, it re-ignited political warfare between the Republicans and the Federalists. The treaty failed to resolve the most divisive issue: Britain refused to recognize the United States' rights of neutrality. The treaty also prevented the United States from imposing discriminatory tariffs on British goods, and provided for the payment of pre-Revolutionary war debts still owed to British businessmen. For its part, Britain agreed to evacuate its forts in the disputed territories and to make compensation for U.S. ships recently seized in the West Indies.
Widely viewed as a humiliating and one-sided document, the treaty was unpopular and Washington suffered the indignity of scattered calls for his impeachment. Critics argued that the treaty stripped the United States of the weapon of trade sanctions, the only weapon that could persuade Britain to change its position on the neutrality issue. The Republicans also charged that the treaty was yet another effort by the Washington administration to bring the United States closer to Britain, albeit in a subordinate position, and away from any sympathetic treatment of France. Washington, however, supported the treaty, fearing war with Britain.
Amid renewed criticism of his judgment and character, Washington brought his still considerable prestige and power to bear on the issue of ratification and, with the aid of committed Federalists, secured passage. But a high price was paid for the treaty in that it moved the nation further from Washington's long-standing hope that the republic, through the goodwill of its leaders, could achieve elite and popular consensus. The treaty further polarized elite and popular opinion. It also widened and hardened divisions in Congress between New Englanders and much of the Middle Atlantic states, on the one hand, and the South, on the other. In the vote in the House of Representatives over whether or not to support the treaty, 79 percent of those supporting the Jay Treaty were from New England or Middle Atlantic states, while over 73 percent of those rejecting it were from Southern states.
Despite its divisive political repercussions, the Jay Treaty must be judged as an important achievement. By working to normalize relations with Britain, the treaty helped protect American security and promote economic development during the vital formative years of the republic. One of its key provisions was the British agreement to turn over to the United States several military posts (including Detroit) that the British had illegally occupied since the Treaty of Paris (1783). The date for the Britain evacuation of the forst was July 1, 1796. Equally important, the treaty marked the advent of modern international arbitration. It authorized the formation of three boards or commissions of arbitration to resolve three important issues: the northeast boundary of the United States; the amount of losses and damages to British creditors who suffered breaches of lawful contracts due to the Revolutionary War; and compensation of U.S. citizens for losses sustained by the seizure of their vessels or cargoes by the Crown or its agents during the war with France.
Although the arbitration approach was important as a concept of international relations, the commissions formed to address the issues of the U.S. boundary and compensation to British businessmen were less than successful. The findings on the first matter were inconclusive, while the deliberations on the second matter were eventually deadlocked. The tribunal dealing with the claims of U.S. citizens against Great Britain, however, had lasting importance. Similar in structure to the other two commissions, it was comprised of two members appointed by both Britain and the United States. The final member was chosen by mutual consent, or in the case of disagreement, by the drawing of names submitted by each side.
Significantly, the commission was able to avoid deadlock over differing positions on substantive law by enlisting an outside expert to resolve the issue. This marked the beginning of the use of neutral, third parties to make binding decisions to resolve disagreements.
Flexner, James. George Washington: Anguish and Farewell, 1793–1799. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington, A Biography, completed by J.A. Carroll and M.W. Ashworth. 7 vols. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1948–1957. Abridgement by Richard Harwell, New York: Scribner's Sons, 1968.
Reuter, Frank. Trials and Triumphs: George Washington's Foreign Policy. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1983.