By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
“The Great Rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations,” wrote George Washington, “is to have as little political connection as possible.” Given the aggravations involved in creating the new government described in the Constitution, and managing the fractious personalities who composed the new republic’s leadership, Washington did not welcome foreign distractions. But international troubles involving the British in the 1790s did not give him the peace and detachment in foreign affairs that he craved.
International and Internal Crises
International crises, like the one between Britain and Spain over the Nootka Sound in 1790, threatened to drag the United States into other peoples’ conflicts with demands that foreign armies be allowed free transit over American territory to attack their enemies. The French Revolution posed an even greater threat of disruption, and the uproar over Citizen Genet had underscored how difficult it would be to tell the tide of world affairs to stop.
There were, for one thing, too many Americans, like Thomas Jefferson, who were convinced that the French Revolution was simply Act Two of the American Revolution, and deserved American sympathy and cooperation.
When, nevertheless, the new tricolor flag of the French republic was formally presented to Congress on January 4, 1796, the Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg, had to warn the members and the citizens in the galleries of “the propriety of not suffering the fervor of enthusiasm to infringe on the dignity of the Representative Councils of the United States”.
Learn more about John Jay’s eponymous treaty with Great Britain.
There were, to be sure, no shortages of Americans who saw little in common between the two revolutions, starting with Alexander Hamilton. Patrick Henry, whom Washington had approached as a successor to Jefferson as Secretary of State, feared that the French Revolution was “destroying the great pillars of all government and of social life”.
But what was of more immediate concern to Washington was the reaction of the British, who were now entangled in what would prove to be a two-decades-long war against the French Republic. The British had proven sulky and uncooperative in observing the terms of the Treaty of Paris; they remained an ominous imperial presence on the United States’ northern border, where the colonial leadership was composed of exiled American Tories who longed for restoration and where they could easily stir up troubles with the Indian tribes in the Northwest Territory.
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Also, the British placed trade barriers in the path of American shipping to the sugar islands of the British West Indies, which had once been Americans’ most lucrative trading zone. To the Francophiles who had made up the Democratic-Republican societies, these were all reasons to put American bets on France; to Washington, these were all reasons not to antagonize the British still further with ill-conceived outbursts of enthusiasm for the French Republic.
The British, of course, had their own view of this situation, which was that anyone who wanted to be the friend of the French was ipso facto the enemy of Great Britain. And to Washington’s dismay, the British proceeded to inflame American fury, first, by arming and supplying black slave rebellions in the French West Indian islands. That stoked the fears of American slaveholders.
Second, by routinely stopping American merchant ships on the high seas and involuntarily pressing American sailors into the service of the Royal Navy on the grounds that the sailors were really fugitive British subjects. And finally, on June 8, 1793, with an Order in Council, which permitted the Royal Navy to seize any neutral ships and cargoes bound to or from France, and another Order in Council on November 6, confiscating shipping engaged in trade with the French West Indies.
These insults provoked Washington, in December, to warn Congress that “there is a rank due to the United States, among nations, which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness.” And that meant making it clear “that we are at all times ready for war.”
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Trade War Threat
James Madison thought he was taking a cue from Washington, and on January 3, 1794, he introduced a series of resolutions which amounted to a declaration of trade war on Great Britain.
This would, in turn, have the desirable political result of freeing America from “the influence that may be conveyed into the public councils by a nation directing the course of our trade by her capital” and aligning the United States with France, “the only considerable Power on the face of the earth sincerely friendly to the Republican form of Government established in this country”.
Mission to London
But Washington was only rattling his sword, not unsheathing it. The United States had sold the British $8.5 million of goods in 1790–1792, twice what had been sold to France; the United States imported $15.28 million worth of goods from Britain and only $2.06 million worth of goods from France. Moreover, an Order in Council rescinded most of the British restrictions on neutral trade, and the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, insisted that any seizures made under the previous orders were “contrary to instructions given and that the most ample compensation to the sufferers would be given.”
Seizing that moment, Washington appointed a special mission to London, headed by John Jay, and sent the mission off to negotiate a commercial agreement with Great Britain.
Common Questions about Washington and International Political Troubles with the British
Given the aggravations involved in creating the new government described in the Constitution, and managing the fractious personalities who composed the new republic’s leadership, Washington did not welcome foreign distractions.
The British had proven sulky and uncooperative in observing the terms of the Treaty of Paris; they remained an ominous imperial presence on the United States’ northern border. In addition, they put up trade barriers in the path of American shipping to the sugar islands of the British West Indies.
Washington did not follow through on his threats of war against the British, because of the favorable trade with the British, compared to the French. The United States had sold the British $8.5 million of goods in 1790–1792, twice what had been sold to France; the United States imported $15.28 million worth of goods from Britain and only $2.06 million worth of goods from France.