War and Diplomacy in the Atlantic World

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In 1754 the thirteen colonies belonged to Britain. By 1829 they were the core of an independent nation becoming a burgeoning power in the Atlantic world. The United States' capacity to impose its will beyond its borders had become manifest. From 1754 to 1829, this transformation occurred in four periods.


By 1754 the thirteen colonies had experienced decades of cooperation with Britain. During the eighteenth century Britain taxed, borrowed money, and waged war in unprecedented fashion. As it did so, the colonies helped to extend the British Empire. In 1754 war again erupted in North America between Britain and France, and the colonists contributed to the imperial war effort as never before. The French and Indian War (1754–1763) ended with utter French defeat. Anglo-American cooperation allowed Britain to achieve mastery in North America. The skillful diplomacy of William Pitt, the first minister of Parliament and, after the king, the most significant representative of the British Empire, fostered this cooperation. Pitt's successes demonstrate the great "what could have been" in the relations between Britain and the colonies.

In 1757 Pitt realized that it was impossible to render the colonists—most of them independent landowning heads of household or members of such households, at a distance from Britain of three thousand miles—obedient inside their colonies. Such independence was rare in Europe, where webs of dependencies shaped society and ordered people in relations of superiority and subordination. Unlike Europeans, Americans had to be convinced to voluntarily cooperate.

Pitt accepted the limits of his (and Britain's) coercive power, and despite those limits, forged a mutually beneficial connection between the colonies and Great Britain. His achievements show that skillful diplomacy might have prevented the American Revolution. Pitt wanted the colonists to help pay for the war. He knew that the colonists jealously guarded their colonial assemblies, the only bodies that they believed should tax them. Thus he announced that he would not tax the colonies but instead asked the assemblies to tax themselves. He then set aside £200,000 and pledged to return a proportion of about one-third of a pound in gold and silver for every pound of voluntary taxation. After 1758 the colonies eagerly taxed themselves at record levels and so turned the tide of the war. Between 1758 and 1761 the colonists taxed themselves above the levels Parliament demanded after 1763. The conflict that led to war by 1776 began in 1764 with Parliament's insistence that it could tax the colonies. Pitt showed that the colonists would pay voluntarily if Parliament respected their assemblies.

After 1763 the ministers who followed Pitt replaced his cooperative diplomacy with coercion, precipitating the greatest failure of diplomacy in the period. In 1763 the affection colonists felt for Britain had never been greater; by 1776 it was gone, and the new United States fought the most powerful country in the world. The war necessitated diplomacy with Britain's enemies, particularly France. This situation had been unimaginable just thirteen years earlier, and Pitt's successes—assuming continuing high levels of subsidies—suggest that it need never have arisen.


The American Revolution established two principal themes that shaped war and diplomacy from 1776 to 1829. First, the war showed how difficult it would be for the United States to project power and influence beyond its borders. Second, it showed that, to survive, the nation would have to participate in a dangerous, triangular relationship with Britain and France. At times, after 1776, Spain too forced the United States into difficult diplomacy, but it never managed to pose the threats to American foreign policy that Britain and France did.

The fighting after 1776 showed that the British armed forces could control whatever part of the Atlantic world they cared about most. Before 1778 it was the U.S. coast, particularly New York and Philadelphia. Both fell to the British in the first two years of fighting. British naval supremacy meant that the United States would have difficulty asserting its sovereignty, especially on the oceans. This weakness demanded allies and led the United States to enact what became known as the "model treaty" with France in 1776 and to forge a formal alliance with that nation in 1778. The model treaty, the work of John Adams, showed that despite the danger of the triangular relationship, the United States was determined to observe the codes of international law. The treaty was a commercial agreement that gave France special status but that maintained the dictum of the law of the seas that free ships made for free goods. This dictum, which became the cornerstone of U.S. commercial policy and diplomacy until 1829, meant that the United States reserved the right to free trade with any nation, excluding trade in contraband.

The 1778 alliance forced Britain to rethink its priorities because the French navy could now threaten the British West Indies. The British proved unwilling to jeopardize their sugar islands. Transferring resources to the Indies meant that, though the fighting was protracted, after 1778 independence was highly probable. Britain could not defeat France, Spain, and its former colonies. With the Treaty of Paris of 1783, the United States claimed all the land south of Canada, north of New Spain, and east of the Mississippi River.

Yet the two realities emerging from the Revolution—the difficulty of projecting power and the need to maneuver between Britain and France—had not changed. During the 1780s the United States sought to consolidate its independence while Britain attempted to reduce it to neocolonial dependency. These incompatible agendas made for difficult diplomacy. Britain out-manufactured the United States and exported cheap, high-quality goods, causing ruinous harm to American craftsmen. Britain's goal was to keep the United States a simple producer of agriculture, a society dependent on Britain. During the 1780s Britain closed off the West Indies, making any access to what had been the colonies' principal market either strictly temporary or illegal. British hostility forced the United States to find new partners in diplomacy. Though the alliance with France remained significant, the United States also sought diplomatic relations with Spain.

The most revealing example of U.S.-Spanish relations was the Jay-Gardoqui Treaty of 1786, which the Articles of Confederation government ultimately rejected. Desperate to promote foreign trade, John Jay agreed to Spanish control of the Mississippi River for thirty years in exchange for access to Spanish markets. Had the United States accepted the terms, Westerners would no longer have been able to use the Mississippi River to get to market. The extraordinary terms Spain felt comfortable demanding, reminded Americans that independence was hollow if the nation had to give up so much to make its way in the world. The 1780s were years of economic depression and uncertainty. Given the weakness of the new nation, diplomats could do little to improve the situation.


The diplomatic problems of the 1780s prompted the ratification of the Constitution and the formation of a stronger national government. President George Washington's inauguration signaled a new era in the nation's affairs. This early national period soon produced new diplomatic complexities and ended with a second war with Britain. The years 1789 to 1815 were dominated by the French Revolution and the wars that followed; throughout the period, the United States needed to maintain its difficult relationships with France and Britain. Also significant for future diplomacy was the Constitution's declaration that the slave trade could become illegal in 1808. After 1815 this abolition would have a major impact on American diplomacy.

Before 1793 Americans were preoccupied with domestic concerns. In Europe war returned in 1792 as revolutionary France fought Britain. By 1794 the seas were again unsafe, both belligerents sought to prevent the United States from dealing with the other, and Americans divided over whether to support Britain or France. This division reinforced the growing rift between the Federalist Party and the Jeffersonian Republican opposition.

The Federalists, led by Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, sought order and stability and viewed France as the graver threat. In 1793 the Federalists moved the nation closer to Britain, an effort that culminated in 1794 with Jay's Treaty, which partly vitiated the 1778 alliance with France. The treaty created a close commercial relationship with Britain and, at the very least, suggested that the United States favored Britain over France. The treaty intensified the divisions within the United States caused by disagreements about the desirability of Hamilton's economic and financial programs. Jay was so hated that he joked he could travel at night illuminated by his burning effigy.

Debate over whether to support Britain or France continued to be connected to domestic disagreements between Federalists and Republicans. Federalist John Adams's presidential election in 1796 did not temper this conflict, and by 1797 France waged undeclared war against the United States. Most Federalists felt the United States should declare war on France and forge a military alliance with Britain. Instead, Adams tried diplomacy, insisting that France honor the international law dictum that free ships made for free goods. The United States was an independent nation; thus France violated its rights under international law when it attacked ships that peacefully and lawfully traded with Britain. Unfortunately, in the XYZ affair Adams's negotiators were treated so contemptuously by the French that war appeared inevitable. Yet by 1798 it was clear that Britain preyed on American ships at least as much as did France. In addition, Adams distrusted the extreme war voices in his own party. With an election looming, Adams honorably refused to call for a war he might not be around to fight.

In one of the closest elections in the nation's history, Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800. The Federalists were swept from power and never regained it. Though the major diplomatic issues remained, the new administration had a different perspective. The differences began with domestic policy, which was intimately connected to foreign policy. The Republicans rejected the Federalist plan to create a powerful national state on the European model and a dynamic economy based on high finance and manufacturing, associating such policies with dependence, inequality, and loss of liberty. The Republicans sought a society of independent farms that could spread west and replicate a simpler, more egalitarian and republican, social order.

Building this "empire of liberty" shaped foreign policy during Jefferson's years as president (1801–1809) and during those of his successor James Madison (1809–1817). Both presidents envisioned a nation of farmers producing agricultural surpluses. This foundation for a republican society necessitated worldwide free trade and full U.S. access to foreign markets because farmers could not sell their surpluses domestically to each other.

Free trade was the raison d'être of Jefferson's diplomacy, with the free ships–free goods dictum at the core of his foreign policy. A nation of republican commercial farmers required complete access to foreign markets and land to farm. In the most stunning achievement of his presidency, Jefferson secured that land in 1803 by purchasing the Louisiana territory from Napoleon. For $15 million, the United States added 828,000 square miles to the nation—a price of roughly 3 cents per acre. Jefferson now had his nation of farmers, but could he use diplomacy to secure foreign markets for their wares?

It proved difficult. By 1805 war between Britain and France engulfed the Western Hemisphere. Both nations sought to deny the other any advantage, particularly access to American agriculture. After 1805 Napoleon, with his Berlin and Milan Decrees, and the British, with their orders-in-council, declared that the Americans could not trade with the other. Thus there was no free trade, and the Republicans had to worry about idle farmers and failing farms.

In 1808 and 1809 Jefferson and Madison responded with forceful diplomacy that stopped short of war. The Republicans enacted a two-year embargo that prevented virtually all commerce. They reasoned that the United States produced agricultural necessities that war-ravaged Europe needed, but Europeans exported luxuries that Americans could temporarily live without. With peaceful coercion, Britain and France would accede to American demands that they honor international law and especially the free ships–free goods dictum. Commercial coercion and diplomacy would eradicate the need for war. This plan might have worked had Britain and France been less desperate to defeat each other. But by 1810 the situation had not changed, and Madison understood that he could not again suspend foreign commerce. The only option left seemed to be war, though Republicans had believed that an agrarian republic would never have to fight one.

War came in 1812. From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the United States fought Britain until 1815. The war clarified several things, resolved some concerns, and introduced new ones. The war demonstrated that the United States was a regional power and possibly more. The war also emphasized Britain's continued dominance on the oceans and its ability to hamper U.S. pursuit of its sovereign rights beyond its borders. After 1815 the nation's leaders turned inward as never before. With protective tariffs and internal improvement bills, they encouraged the rapid development of the domestic economy, turning their backs, to a certain extent, on the oceans and British hegemony.


Thus by 1815 the war had clarified the nation's position. The United States was a burgeoning regional power. This new status led to the two biggest issues for diplomacy in the period from 1815 to 1829. First, the United States insisted that Europe stop interfering in the affairs of the Americas. Second, the United States decided to act on its stated opposition to the international slave trade. U.S. conduct regarding both issues continued to be influenced by the difficulty the nation had asserting its sovereignty beyond its borders.

Its new status as a regional power shaped the U.S. position on South America. By 1820 the farsighted perceived that the United States would be the dominant economic force in the Americas. During the 1820s about 15 percent of U.S. exports went to Latin America, and the United States was increasingly committed to removing the European presence from the New World. In 1822 President James Monroe (1817–1825) announced that the United States would recognize Latin American nations that gained independence. For once, U.S. and British interests coincided. After 1815 Britain sought to weaken its rival European empires and concluded that U.S. prominence in the Americas was preferable to the continued presence of France and Spain.

The British stance helped make possible the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which was the culminating statement of U.S. policy regarding the Americas. In his address, Monroe announced that Europe would no longer direct the affairs of the Americas. Henceforth, American states would be free to shape their own destinies, Monroe concluded, with the United States the likely leader and dominant partner.

British acquiescence was due in part to the impact the Monroe Doctrine had on other European empires. But also important was the hostility Britain felt for the Atlantic slave trade. The abolition movement in Britain captivated both the elite and the ordinary. Britain took the lead in challenging slavery, and no nation was more responsible after 1815 for creating the Atlantic world consensus that the slave trade should be illegal.

The United States remained committed to slavery domestically, but after 1815, with diplomacy and moral pressure, Britain convinced the United States to oppose the slave trade. Britain was able to embarrass the United States by challenging its claim to promote liberty and freedom. Indeed, as Britain became associated with abolition, the British claimed that their constitutional monarchy pursued justice more capably than did the democratic Republic. Britain suggested that limited monarchy was superior to republicanism.

Jefferson's administration had kept the Constitution's vague promise by an act of Congress declaring the slave trade illegal from 1808. But enforcement was difficult. From 1815 to 1829 all the mistrust in the Anglo-American relationship interfered with policing the slave trade. In 1824 Britain made slave trading punishable by death (though no one was ever executed) and urged the U.S. to enter into treaties of similar stringency. The constant stumbling block was that enforcement required allowing Britain to board and search U.S. vessels. For U.S. policymakers such as Monroe's Secretary of State (and president from 1825 to 1829) John Quincy Adams, such searches were reminders of the U.S. weakness beyond its borders. Since 1776 U.S. diplomacy had been a long quest for legitimacy and sovereignty, especially on the oceans. Anxiety over sovereignty prevented many meaningful anti-slave trade treaties. In 1823 the U.S. seriously considered a treaty with Britain that would have made the slave trade an act of piracy. Fears over allowing Britain to search U.S. vessels doomed the treaty. Not until 1862 did the U.S. execute a participant in the international slave trade, and between 1808 and 1850 perhaps 50,000 slaves were illegally imported into the U.S. Still, after 1830 these illegal imports were seriously curtailed as the U.S. fully embraced the Atlantic world's anti-slave trade consensus. By 1829 U.S. diplomacy, and the U.S. itself, had matured. From 1830 U.S. diplomats bargained from a position of strength in a world that recognized both the nation's right to exist and its growing status as a world power.

See alsoBritish Empire and the Atlantic World; Election of 1800; Embargo; European Responses to America; Federalist Party; French; French and Indian War, Battles and Diplomacy; Hamilton, Alexander; Jay's Treaty; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; Monroe Doctrine; Monroe, James; Revolution: Diplomacy; Shipping Industry; Slavery: Overview; Slavery: Slave Trade, Slavery: African; Slavery: Slave Trade, Domestic; Spanish Empire; Townshend Act; Treaty of Paris; War Hawks; War of 1812; Washington, George; XYZ Affair .


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Andrew Shankman

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