The Washington Administration – Foreign Affairs

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George Washington

Foreign affairs reached a critical point almost immediately after Washington took office. The British and the French were in conflict all around the world, and both sides expected the new United States government to take its side in the conflict.

The British, still angered over the recent revolution by its former colonies, refused to leave the western forts according to the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The British also denied trading rights to the United States in many of its colonies, especially the British West Indies. At the same time, the United States was Great Britain’s main trading partner, but Britain was trying to force the United States to trade directly with England much as they had in colonial days.

The British also wanted to stop all trade between the United States and France, their enemy. The British stopped and often seized American ships heading for France. They also took American seamen from their ships, claiming they were deserters from British ships. This practice, called impressment, was authorized by the Order in Council, passed by the British cabinet. The Orders in Council authorized British ship captains to stop and search American vessels and seize any deserters found. British captains often seized the number of men they needed, with little regard for the origins of the men seized. It proved a great source of fully trained seamen.

The new American government was also having trouble with the French. The French wanted to stop American trade with Great Britain, and also seized shipments and ships heading to Great Britain. The new French government, which had taken power after the overthrow of the monarchy, expected the United States to stand by the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 under which the French had helped the Americans in the Revolution. But the French government had beheaded the king who made the alliance, which brought up an interesting point of international law.

Under international law, a new government is a new entity. It is not bound to continue previous treaties or meet previous obligations (such as debts, which Hamilton chose to honor even though he didn’t have to do so, as discussed in the last article). President Washington chose to remain neutral, and not honor the 1778 treaty, since France was a new government, in essence a brand new country. This did not please the French.

During Washington’s first term, political parties formed. The framers of the Constitution did not plan for the development of parties or their effect on our government. The two parties were called the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists were those who favored a strong central government, a centralized economy, and an industrial base to the economy. They favored Great Britain over France.

The Democratic-Republicans favored a limited central government with the states having the main political power, a decentralized economy based on agriculture rather than industry, and they favored France over Great Britain. The new French government claimed to favor the common man, which was also part of the Democratic-Republican philosophy.

Naturally, the Federalists wanted Washington to join Great Britain against France, and the Democratic-Republicans wanted Washington to join the French against Great Britain. Washington decided to remain neutral, and issued the Neutrality Proclamation. His view was that in a war between European powers, the United States had nothing to gain and very much to lose. He recommended only temporary alliances for trade, and nothing long-term. This set the precedent for our foreign policy for the next 150 years, and was changed only by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The trouble with Great Britain was more pressing, since their navy was the largest and therefore had the most contact with American ships. To prevent a war with Great Britain, for which Washington rightly felt we were completely unprepared, he sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to negotiate a treaty. The resulting Jay Treaty came up for ratification by the Senate in 1795.

Federalists favored the treaty because it promised continued trade with Great Britain. Democratic-Republicans opposed the treaty because it hurt France by helping Great Britain. Opponents pointed out that in the treaty the British promised only to leave our western forts, which they had already promised in a previous treaty. They gave us almost no trading rights in the West Indies, and made no mention at all about American rights or impressment. Since the Federalists controlled the Senate, the treaty was passed. Washington signed the treaty, which at the very least prevented a war with Great Britain.

Shortly after that, Thomas Pinckney went to Spain to try to secure the Right of Deposit for Americans in New Orleans. The Right of Deposit would allow Americans to move goods through Spanish New Orleans without paying the customary duties and fees. This was vital, as the western United States moved its goods down the Mississippi River rather than the more costly and time-consuming route over the Appalachian Mountains to the east coast.

The Spanish proved to be very agreeable to almost anything the Americans asked. The Spanish figured that the Americans were not foolish enough to sign the Jay Treaty as it appeared, and that there must have been a secret agreement attached to it. The way the Spanish figured, the Americans gave up everything and got almost nothing in return in the Jay Treaty, and that to make it worthwhile, the secret agreement must have been something important such as British support for an American war against the Spanish. This would allow the United States to take all the Spanish colonies in North America.

The Spanish thought Pinckney was sent to ask for something the Spanish would refuse, and that would be the American excuse for war. Therefore, the Spanish quickly agreed to Pinckney’s requests and granted the United States the Right of Deposit, as well as settling the Florida boundary according to American demands. So, although initially the United States gained virtually nothing from the Jay Treaty, it resulted in a treaty with Spain as lopsidedly favorable to the United States as the Jay Treaty had been unfavorable.

War with Britain had been avoided, and the western United States had been granted the Right of Deposit in New Orleans. Although impressment was still a problem, the United States was at peace, and had avoided being drawn into the European conflict between Great Britain and France. In his Farewell Address, Washington warned against “entangling alliances” in which the United States had little or nothing to gain, and recommended neutrality in foreign affairs. We followed that advice until World War II, when we helped form the United Nations and became increasingly involved in world affairs.

In the last article of this series, we will examine other events of Washington’s administration and his influence on our government, especially the precedents he established.