Foreign Affairs in the Washington Administration

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Foreign Affairs in the Washington Administration


Conflicting Views. In the early 1790s the United States had a pitifully small army incapable of defending the frontier from Indian attack and no navy to defend American shipping. Economic success depended on foreign trade to provide tariff revenue and markets for American commerce. President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton agreed that it was vital to maintain friendly commercial relations with European nations while remaining neutral in their political disputes. Behind this apparent agreement serious differences between Jefferson and Hamilton had surfaced during debate over Hamiltons financial program. Hamilton believed that a realistic foreign policy recognized that American economic success depended on maintaining good relations with Britain. British trade provided nearly all of the nations tariff revenue, and, as the worlds strongest naval power, Britain could enforce commercial restrictions against the United States. Jefferson, in conjunction with James Madison, developed another view of foreign policy, combining economic interest, an agrarian philosophy, and moral considerations. Jefferson believed that Hamiltons pro-British foreign policy and his support for the economic interests of merchants, manufacturers, and speculators would lead to the economic inequality, social disorder, and political corruption that he had witnessed in France and England during his diplomatic service. Jefferson wanted Americans to remain a nation of small farmers using their agricultural surplus as a bargaining chip to encourage European nations to open their markets to the United States. A commercial alliance with republican France in place of monarchical Britain would unite two republics in a moral crusade to spread liberty around the world while providing economic benefits to the United States.

France. In February 1793, when France declared war on Britain, it forced the U.S. government to reconsider its obligations to France under the Treaty of Alliance of 1778. Both Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton and Secretary of State Jefferson advised neutrality, but their respective pro-British and pro-French points of view affected their definitions of neutrality. Hamilton recommended a suspension of the Treaty of Alliance with France and an immediate declaration of neutrality. Jefferson rejected Hamiltons readiness to offer our breech to every kick which Great Britain may choose to give in favor of a fair neutrality. Jefferson wanted neither to break the treaty with France nor declare an immediate neutrality, hoping to gain commercial concessions from both belligerents. On 22 April 1793 President Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality, committing the United States to a conduct friendly and impartial towards the belligerent powers. Meanwhile Edmond Genet, the new French chargé daffaires to the United States, arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. Citizen Genet disregarded American prohibitions forbidding French vessels from selling their captured prizes or receiving arms in American ports, recruited American citizens to serve in privateering expeditions against British and Spanish possessions, and demanded that President Washington summon a special session of Congress to debate neutrality or he would take his case directly to the American people. Genets actions offended American public opinion and widened the breach between Federalists and Republicans.

Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson resigned as secretary of state on 31 December 1793, but not before delivering a report to Congress recommending discriminatory duties against British shipping. James Madisons proposals for economic retaliation, presented to Congress on 3 January 1794, were in response to Britains order to seize neutral vessels carrying supplies to the French West Indies and a renewed effort to end American dependence on British trade. Britains seizure of more than 250 American ships between November 1793 and March 1794 was one of a series of offenses against the United States. In violation of the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War, the British government maintained one thousand soldiers on military posts in the Northwest Territory and supplied guns, ammunition, and encouragement to the Indian tribes in the area, who successfully fought off American expansion into their lands. Southerners wanted Britain to compensate them for the loss of their slaves during the Revolutionary War. Many Americans also interpreted Britains role in negotiating a truce between Portugal and Algiers in December 1793 as an underhanded method of attacking American shipping. Previously the Portuguese navy had controlled the Mediterranean Sea and prevented Algerian corsairs from attacking American ships, but the truce removed that protection. Madisons anti-British resolutions failed, but public hostility and continued Republican pressure for economic action against Britain led Treasury Secretary Hamilton to advise President Washington to appoint a special envoy to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain.

The Jay Treaty. The Senate approved the appointment of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Britain in April 1794. Hamilton, not the new Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, drafted Jays instructions. Hamiltons contention that war with Britain must be avoided at all costs guided Jays negotiations and shaped the treaty signed on 19 November 1794. Britains only important concession was its agreement to evacuate the northwestern posts by June 1796. Britain also agreed to allow limited American trade with the West Indies but with so many restrictions that the Senate refused to ratify that part of the treaty in June 1795. The treaty said nothing about compensation to southern slaveowners. The British government agreed to a joint arbitration commission to assess damage claims brought by Americans whose vessels had been seized, but Britain would give up neither its right to prohibit neutral trade nor its right to impress American sailors into British service. The United States also surrendered the right to impose discriminatory duties against Britain for ten years. In March 1796 Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to prevent the appropriation of funds to implement Jays Treaty. By a vote of 6237 the House asked the president to submit all papers relating to Jays Treaty to the House. Washington refused to give up his constitutional right to make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate, thus establishing the precedent of executive privilege. A shift in public opinion in favor of Jays Treaty and threats from the Senate to delay ratification of a Spanish treaty guaranteeing American navigation of the Mississippi River induced the House of Representatives to pass appropriations for the treaty on 30 April 1796 by a vote of 5148, with support split along party lines. The Jay Treaty prevented war with Great Britain, but it worsened relations between the United States and France and contributed to sectional and political tensions.

The Pinckney Treaty. An American victory over Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794, the signing of the Treaty of Greenville with the northwestern Indians in August 1795, and British evacuation of its American military posts eliminated obstacles to western expansion, but Spain still stood in the way of expansion on the southwestern frontier. Spanish authorities in Louisiana and Florida provided arms and protection for Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees resisting American advancement into their lands, and for more than ten years Spain had refused to open the Mississippi River to American trade. By 1794, however, Spains attitude toward the United States had changed. Spains decision to ally itself with Britain against France had proved disastrous. The war damaged trade in Spains American colonies, and news of the Jay Treaty fed Spanish fears that an Anglo-American alliance threatened her North American colonies. In the summer of 1794 the Spanish government expressed interest in negotiating with the United States. In October 1795 Thomas Pinckney, the U.S. minister to Great Britain and special envoy to Spain, negotiated a highly favorable treaty. Pinckneys Treaty established the thirty-first parallel as the southern boundary between the United States and Spain and guaranteed American navigation of the Mississippi River with the right of deposit at New Orleans. Spain also agreed not to support Indian raids in the Southwest. Pinckneys Treaty opened up new territory and economic opportunities for settlers in the South and West.


Joseph Charles, The Origins of the American Party System (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961);

Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 17881800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993);

John C. Miller, The Federalist Era, 17891801 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963);

Paul A. Varg, Foreign Policies of the Founding Fathers (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1963).