American Foreign Policy Under George Washington’s Administration

Jerald A. Combs, a distinguished scholar of American foreign policy, describes the nature of American foreign policy, by stating that “[most] people expect a history of American foreign policy to be a simple narrative of the truth about the past. They seem unaware that events of the distant past created just as much controversy as those of the present day.”[1] The past, as any historian would suggest, resembles the present.

In its infant state, the American republic witnessed a rift within the government over the issue of foreign policy. This rift was based primarily on the views held by Alexander Hamilton, who served as Secretary of Treasury at the time, against the views of Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, and James Madison, who served as a House Representative. It was the politics of identity that determined the foreign policy of the early republic, because identity consists of all the things that make a certain thing what it is. Many things fall under the umbrella of identity, such as race, gender, ideology, and even region. Domestic politics in America over time would prove to be a politics of identity, which emphasized race and culture. American foreign policy would divide between advocates of the status quo and those of revolution. Hamilton urged Washington to establish close relations with what was the status quo power of the time, namely, Great Britain. Jefferson, on the other hand, urged Washington to have close relations with what was the revolutionary power of the time, namely, France. After the events of the early republic period transpired, it became apparent that Hamilton’s foreign policy view won out.

            Two views – or schools of thought – were relevant during the formulation of foreign policy during George Washington’s administration.  One is “idealism,” or the idealist school of thought, and the other being “realism,” or the realist school of thought. What actually transpired in regards to the development of foreign policy during the period of the Early Republic is a matter of great intrigue. It was difficult to adopt a foreign policy that would please both the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian factions. But the manner in which foreign policy developed under Washington clearly swung towards one faction, and it was the Hamiltonian faction. On one occasion after another, Alexander Hamilton asserted himself as the foreign policy orchestrator under George Washington. He almost never failed in outmaneuvering his rivals – Jefferson and Madison – when it came to directing the Administration’s foreign policy.

Hamilton believed national interests should be protected, but with much caution and restraint. If America’s military and economic power was not sufficient enough to fulfill its goals, then its goals – or ambitions – should be mitigated based on America’s position of power, according to Hamilton. Hamilton urged the Jeffersonian faction to remain patient while America grew from its infant state, and he emphasized the importance of diligent diplomacy. Moreover, Hamilton realized that America’s manufacturing sector was incipient at best, and that America’s economic survival depended on sustaining the status quo in terms of relations with Great Britain, mother country and former colonizer. Both countries benefited from maintaining commercial relations, but it was America who had its survival as a state dependent on this commerce[2].

            Yet the Democratic Republicans of the time, led by Thomas Jefferson from within the Washington Administration, as well as James Madison from the House of Representatives, chose to deny what Hamilton saw as the political reality of the time, for there were differences of opinion on what constituted “national interests.” Jefferson and the populists were simply an anti-British party. They detested almost anything that had to do with the British, and thus their views on foreign policy were reflective of this reality. These men were ardent subscribers of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and they truly felt that France, an ally during the Revolutionary War, should replace Britain as America’s chief political and commercial partner. They were highly distraught by the fact that America depended so greatly on a country they fought a war against in order to break free from the chains of colonialism. Jefferson’s populists worked diligently to neutralize America’s dependence on British commerce, for they perceived commerce as a tool through which Britain would dictate America’s political affairs. As opposed to engaging in such intimate trade, which they saw as a form of appeasement, Jefferson and the populists sought to break the back of the British Empire by attempting to pass discriminatory commercial laws aimed at bringing a halt to British commerce, as well as British influence in America.

            However, Hamilton resisted such sentiments, namely due to his desire to foster American power and glory in the context of European power politics. Hamilton called for amicable relations with Britain, and considered Britain to be the hand that would aid the United States in attaining respect and recognition among those powers situated across the Atlantic. A strong United States could come to being only through a thriving commerce that could fund an army and navy equal in power to those of the European powers and by virtue lead America towards international glory and recognition, according to Hamilton. Through his ability to influence Washington, Hamilton managed to steer America’s foreign policy away from an anti-British trap set up by the Jefferson-Madison camp. Without Hamilton’s efforts during this period, it is uncertain as to whether America would have avoided plunging into economic destruction and quite possibly a war with Britain. Hamilton was keen on sustaining America’s economic development, which meant adhering to the status quo in terms of recognizing Britain’s superior role in international relations.

Hamilton was willing to accept the political circumstances set by Britain at the time, only so that the American economy and credit could develop. But what was fundamental in Hamilton’s approach towards Anglo-American relations was that he wanted to avoid conflict, in addition to cementing commercial ties, with Britain. He envisioned a strong, prosperous, and independent America, but this vision could only be fulfilled by tolerating the circumstances that were at hand. Hamilton needed stable commercial ties with Britain in order to continue his pursuit of American power. Yet the populists led by Jefferson and Madison would not willingly acquiesce to such conditions, and would try to capitalize off any opportunity that would lead towards the diminution of Anglo-American ties. The culmination of Anglo-American policy during Washington’s tenure as president came with the signing and ratification of the “Jay Treaty” of 1795, which was in fact a commercial treaty that granted commercial privileges to the United States on the part of the British Empire. Hamilton criticized Jefferson and the populists for criticizing the administration’s efforts in forging the Jay Treaty, and for their obvious attempts to stoke hostilities with Britain:

“But is it unimportant to the real friends of republican government, that the plan pursued [signing of the treaty], was congenial with that pacific character which was ascribed to it? Would it have been more desirable that the government of our nation… have rushed into reprisals, and consequently into war?”[3]

Through studying the negotiations that had taken place between John Jay and the British side, as well as the first and second drafts of the treaty, one can clearly see that the American approach towards foreign policy reeked of appeasement. They were willing to accept the circumstances put forth by the British, so long as they provided economic concessions that were beneficial to the American economy. As opposed to initiating hostilities with Britain, the United States managed to use the negotiations conducted through the Jay Treaty as an opportunity to cement Anglo-American relations as opposed to estranging them and entering into a war. Moreover, the treaty signaled the diminution of the Jeffersonian view, for it strengthened ties with Great Britain as opposed to weakening them[4].

Sentiments ran strongly on both sides of the political spectrum and as a result the foreign policy issue stirred immense controversy at the time, especially after the French republic had declared war on Britain in February of 1793. In fact, the crystallization of the two major political parties of the time, the Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties, took place because of this particular issue. The government and the administration had essentially split from within, and the two sides aligned either with the pro-British side, or the anti-British side[5]. But as far as the Washington administration was concerned, they were incredibly pragmatic in regards to the issue of Anglo-American relations. While they did not wholeheartedly wish to take the pro-British stance – for Washington had emphasized the need to remain neutral when caught in the midst of foreign conflicts – the political situation at the time called for the sacrifice of the Jeffersonian view and ultimately the adoption of the Hamiltonian stance[6].

Neglecting the reality of Anglo-American relations would have led to the destruction of America’s long-term political aspirations as set out by Hamilton. Hamilton’s role in fending off Jeffersonian influence on foreign policy and establishing friendlier ties with Britain cannot be understated. Much of Hamilton’s ability to shape the policy of rapprochement with Britain came as a result of French shortcomings, with particular emphasis on the Citizen Genet episode, and thus the administration did not find it prudent to jeopardize relations with Britain for the sake of a problematic ally[7]. Hamilton’s outlook won out indefinitely against the anti-British policy advocated by the Jefferson-Madison faction, and because the Jay Treaty was the culmination of Anglo-American relations during Washington’s tenure, it becomes clear that Hamilton was the prime engineer of American foreign policy during the earliest period of the American republic.

By 1789, The United States had officially become a constitutional republic, and in April of that same year George Washington had been inaugurated as the first president of the United States. The infant republic had departed from a governing framework oriented towards the sovereignty of states, which was the Articles of Confederation, towards the creation of a more centralized government. The founders of the American Constitution felt the need to depart from the Articles of Confederation framework in favor of a more viable centralized government. Alexander Hamilton, along with the other Founding Fathers of the Constitution, had been instrumental in bringing America towards such a position at the time. Federalist essay No. 2 indicates that the Founding Fathers had “invariably joined with the people in thinking that the prosperity of America depended on its Union”, thus leading to the creation of a central government based on a constitution[8]. But aside from Hamilton’s activities, there was one issue which made the need for a strong central government urgent, and it was the issue of foreign policy.

When attempting to resolve the disputes relating to the Treaty of Paris as American Minister to Britain in 1785, John Adams was essentially told by his British counterparts that Britain would not deal with the United States until it had a government that could actually represent her foreign policy interests coherently. Thus, the British “insinuated that they would treat with the United States only when it had a national government worthy of its name”[9]. As a young republic, the United States was beginning to find its place within the international community, and they wished to solidify their standing through creating a centralized government that could coherently represent American interests in the face of other nations, especially when dealing with Britain and Europe.[10]

Many of the prevailing issues relating to Anglo-American relations before 1789 had carried over into the Washington presidency, and neither side took serious initiative to have them resolved. The relations between the two countries at this point were contingent upon the Treaty of Paris in 1783; each side blamed the other for not honoring the stipulations of this treaty. Britain refused to relinquish the seven military posts situated in U.S. territory, and thus U.S. territorial integrity was being violated by Britain. On the other hand, Britain accused America of not repaying wartime debts accumulated during the revolution. Many states had passed legislation rescinding such debts, and this gave reason for the British to withhold from abandoning its military posts. Both sides were refusing to honor their end of the Treaty of Paris, and no real attempt to resolve these issues would be made until negotiations began on what was to become the Jay Treaty[11].

What was also characteristic of Anglo-American relations during this period was that both Britain and the United States were intimately engaged in commerce, even though no formal commercial treaty existed between them. Also, the British had imposed stringent prohibitions on American trade with their West Indies colonial possessions, much to the chagrin of the American side. The mercantilist policies of the British, which prevented Americans from engaging freely in commerce with British colonies, had been the subject of criticism by Hamilton in Federalist No. 11:

“They seem to be apprehensive of our too great interference in that carrying trade which is the support of their navigation and the foundation of their naval strength. Those [European powers] which have colonies in America look forward to what this country is capable of becoming, with painful solicitude. They foresee the dangers that may threaten their American dominions from the neighborhood of States, which have all the dispositions, and would possess all the means, requisite to the creation of a powerful marine. Impressions of this kind will naturally the policy of fostering divisions among us, and of depriving us…of an active commerce in our own bottoms.[12]

But despite the obstructive behavior on the part of Britain, relations between Britain and the United States did not spill over into warfare for the sake of maintaining commerce. Both sides benefitted greatly from each other. As a matter of fact, the United States was Britain’s number one international consumer at the time, with 90 percent of all U.S. imports coming from Britain. Conversely, three-fourths of American exports went to Britain and her colonies in the West Indies, and this created an influx of currency which in turn enabled Americans to purchase British goods. Commerce between the two sides remained vibrant due to a familiarity that had been cultivated during the colonial period; American and British merchants shared a relationship uncommon between other nations, and the trust between the two groups of merchants enabled British merchants to allow Americans to sell British goods on consignment.[13] British goods were simply higher in demand than goods from any other nation, and the commercial exchanges linked the two nations inextricably. This demonstrates the importance of British commerce to the American economy, which was hard to deny given the circumstances circa 1789 which put Britain in a position of power over the United States.[14]

Aside from the importance of British trade with the American market, the revenue generated by this trade was incredibly vital to the American government. Almost all of America’s revenue came from this particular trade relationship, and if the influx of revenue would have ceased, it would have devastated the government’s purse. Annually, over six million dollars in revenue came as a result of tariff and tonnage duties on imports coming from Britain between 1791 and 1796; this amount dwarfed the amount of revenue coming in from internal sources during the same period, which never exceeded six hundred thousand dollars.[15] In 1790, the total worth of British exports to the United States amounted to £3,431,778. To give an indication of how significant this amount was, one can compare it to the total value of British exports going to Germany, who was the largest consumer of British goods after the United States in that year. The amount, £902,920, did not come close to the value involving the United States.[16] The British were fully aware of America’s dependence on her commerce, and therefore it is easy to understand why Britain was willing to maintain the status quo as far as the disputes over the Treaty of Paris were concerned. Britain did not push the issue of wartime debts too strongly. Nor did she expect the Americans to initiate hostilities over Britain’s violation of America’s territorial integrity. Thus, both sides were willing to overlook their noncommittal approach towards the Treaty of Paris for the sake of maintaining the status quo with respect to the commercial relations that existed between the two sides.

Despite the complexity of the Anglo-American relationship and the obvious need to sustain it, the Washington Administration was essentially split from within over this issue. Differences of opinion existed as to how the United States should go about dealing with Great Britain, without excluding the economic and commercial factors mentioned before. These opinions were irreconcilable, and in essence Hamilton and Jefferson would figurehead the clash between two distinct parties over determining what course of action was appropriate in terms of establishing a policy towards Anglo-American relations.[17] To understand how foreign policy essentially shaped during this period, it is important to discuss the personal backgrounds of both Hamilton and Jefferson, but with a particular focus on Hamilton.

Born in the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton had grown to become a pronounced anglophile. He was commonly known as the illegitimate child of a Scottish peddler, but was recognized for his exceptional talents and strong personality. A few affluent merchantmen in the West Indies recognized the young Hamilton’s talents, and as a result they sent him off to study at King’s College in New York, having sponsored his education. While in college, Hamilton was overtaken by the revolutionary fervor of the era. After completing college, Hamilton joined the Revolutionary Army and eventually became Washington’s aide-de-camp. Not even Washington could overlook Hamilton’s penchant for politics and warfare, and what made him extraordinary was that he was able to effectively display such talents at a young age. He was only 19 years of age when Hamilton became Washington’s aide-de-camp upon joining Washington’s army, and this demonstrates how early Hamilton’s political career actually developed during the course of his life. Hamilton grew increasingly closer to Washington as time passed, for time and time again he was able to prove his political abilities. Hamilton’s standing with Washington, as it appears, enabled him to influence foreign policy under Washington’s purview.[18]

Also, Hamilton admired the British model of governance. It is widely held that Hamilton even imitated the British political archetype while serving as secretary of the treasury under Washington. According to Jerald Combs:

“When Washington appointed him the first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton saw himself as prime minister and modeled his office on that of the British prime minister, who was usually the chief economic officer in his own cabinet. Hamilton thus took it upon himself to direct much of America’s foreign as well as economic affairs, a task made easier by Jefferson’s late arrival from France to take his position in the first cabinet as secretary of state.[19]

Hamilton wished for the United States to adopt a form of government founded on aristocracy; he distrusted populism, and was steadfast in his belief that a government could only be strong when operated by a strong executive hailing from the affluent class of society. He believed that only a nation backed by the affluent and the aristocratic class could rise to economic and political prominence: “Those who are most commonly creditors of a nation are, generally speaking, enlightened men”[20].

The sign of a strong nation, according to Hamilton, was a flourishing economy based on sound credit and a formidable military that was fully able in conducting war. Hamilton believed that without these two characteristics, the United States could never survive in a world dominated by European realpolitik:

“There can be no time, no state of things, in which credit is not essential to a nation, especially as long as nations in general continue to use it as a resource in war. It is impossible for a country to contend, on equal terms or to be secure against the enterprises of other nations, without being able equally with them to avail itself of this important resource; and to a young country, with moderate pecuniary capital, and not a very various industry, it is still more necessary than to countries more advanced in both.[21]

Another one of Hamilton’s objectives was to create a financial system, upheld by a national bank, and aimed at bolstering American credit. To do this, Hamilton needed the government to have a steady flow of revenue, and he suggested in his First Report on the Public Credit that the government institute a “sound policy to carry the duties…as high as will be consistent with the practicability of a safe collection.”[22] This explains why Hamilton urged his peers to maintain a close relationship with Great Britain, for it was the revenue generated by British commerce that would enable a relatively weak nation like the United States to acquire both military and economic power.

In opposition to Hamilton’s British-friendly stance stood Thomas Jefferson. Simply put, he despised Great Britain’s monarchical system, and wished to do away with any kind of British influence on the United States. Jefferson resented the Hamiltonian model of governance, which was based on aristocracy and a strong executive, and he had essentially made it his duty to “preserve the legislature pure and independent of the executive, to restrain the administration to republican forms and principles, and not permit the constitution to be construed into a monarchy, and to be warped, in practice, into all the principles and pollutions of [the Hamiltonian’s] favorite English model.”[23] After all, Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the principles which he espoused during the revolution never evaded him even after the revolution had come to a close. Jefferson was a devout republican in the sense that he stood for the common man; despite his elite background, Jefferson became the figurehead of a faction based on populism. During the revolution, Jefferson grew deeply attracted to France after it came to the aid of American revolutionaries in their struggle against Britain. Jefferson welcomed the idea of a revolution in France, and once it actually materialized, thought that the French Revolution of 1789 would result in a “government of laws addressed to the reason of the people, and not to their weaknesses.”[24] Jefferson’s inclinations towards France, combined with his hatred for Britain, formed the essence of his foreign policy views.  

While Hamilton sought to cement ties between the United States and Britain due to the United States’ dependence on British commerce, Jefferson wanted to undermine British influence over the United States. Jefferson believed Britain exerted far too much influence on the United States through its commercial preponderance, and felt that Britain had subjected the young nation to “economic slavery.”[25]Time and time again, Jefferson resisted Hamilton’s efforts in establishing formal commercial ties between the United States and Britain. On one occasion, Jefferson had accused Hamilton of farcing a desire to negotiate a commercial treaty with Jeanne Baptiste Ternant, who was France’s Minister to the United States in the early 1790’s, in order to cultivate an atmosphere that was amenable to negotiations for a similar kind of treaty with Britain. Jefferson describes what he calls a “scheme” concocted by Hamilton:

“His scheme evidently was, to get us engaged first with Ternant, merely that he might have a pretext to engage us on the same ground with Hammond [Britain’s Minister], taking care, at the same time, by an extravagant tariff, to render it impossible we should come to any conclusion with Ternant: probably meaning, at the same time, to propose terms so favorable to Great Britain, as would attach us to that country by treaty.[26]

Considering Jefferson’s perception of Hamilton as demonstrated by these words, it becomes clear that the reconciliation of Hamilton and Jefferson’s views would be difficult. While Hamilton sought to establish formal ties with Great Britain, Jefferson – due to his deep resentment towards Britain – diligently sought to undermine Hamilton’s attempts to further “attach” the United States to Great Britain.

Given his ideological differences with Hamilton, Jefferson suggested a course of action towards Britain that was in stark contrast to the one suggested by Hamilton. Along with his Democratic-Republican ally James Madison in the House of Representatives, Jefferson sought to use commerce as a tool to mitigate British engagement with the United States. Jefferson and Madison lambasted Hamilton for suppressing the fears George Beckwith, who acted as an unofficial representative of the British in Philadelphia, began developing after the Jeffersonian campaign against British commercial domination started to gain momentum. Jefferson claimed Hamilton and Beckwith had teamed up against him, describing them as “open mouthed” in reaction to his hostile behavior towards Britain, and was aware that his provocation of Britain was “likely to give offence to the court of London.”[27]Nevertheless, it was Jefferson’s intention to “give offence” to Britain, for he believed he was working to oppose those “enemies of the government” seeking to “wit those who want to change it into a monarchy.”[28] Madison fervently opposed all of Hamilton’s Bank and Credit proposals in Congress, pointing out “speculation and fraud” as motives behind a scheme engineered by Hamilton to “rewards the worst of [the public’s] Citizens.”[29] These statements made by Jefferson and Madison illustrate the deep philosophical divide that existed between them and Hamilton.

As mentioned before, two views in particular are undoubtedly relevant to foreign policy development during Washington’s tenure, namely the “idealist” view or school of thought, and the “realist” view. An individual who holds the “idealist” viewpoint on foreign policy emphasizes the American values of liberty, democracy, and free enterprise. These values are considered as sacred, and should be promoted not only through diplomacy, but also through war if necessary. It was essentially the viewpoint held by the Jeffersonian camp, whose policy orientation towards Britain consisted of promoting a political culture that stood in contrast to monarchy, as well as taking a harsh course of action in response to Britain’s mercantilist intransigence.

On the other hand, the “realist” dismisses the idealist view as naïve and imprudent. The realist view stresses that America should neither be too isolated from the international community, nor too overzealous in her promotion of values and interests.[30] This view is attributed to the Hamiltonian, for it recommends caution in the face of aggression committed by a nation that is economically and militarily superior. Since the United States could not impose its sovereignty through military means, she had to accept the circumstances imposed by Britain until she could dictate the terms of the relationship. Both Hamilton and Jefferson competed for clout under Washington’s Administration, and each suggested a different course of action with respect to Anglo-American relations.

The Jeffersonian versus Hamiltonian battle over policy towards Anglo-American relations would only escalate after the French Republic declared war on Britain on February 1, 1793. This act created a major predicament for the Washington Administration, leaving it to decide whether it should honor its commitment towards a long-time ally that was France, or refrain from political favoritism and remain neutral so that it may not evoke the displeasure of Britain. On April 22, 1793, Washington made a definite decision as to how the United States should go about conducting itself in the midst of hostilities between Britain and France. His decision came in the form of the “Proclamation of Neutrality,” with its purpose being the prevention of U.S. entanglement in the affairs of Britain and Europe. However, the reality of the situation was that proclaiming neutrality was easier than maintaining it. This reality would create a major foreign policy dilemma for the Washington administration. After France declared war, the American response would have to evoke the dismay of one side or the other, and it would prove impossible for the American response to please both sides.[31]

The Treaty of Amity and Commerce signed between the United States and France in 1778 essentially cemented an alliance between the two sides. But what undermined the desire of the Washington Administration to go through with such a commitment was the obligation of the United States to come to the defense of France’s colonial possessions in the West Indies as stipulated by the treaty. Hamilton and Washington were unwilling to do so. By complying with this particular stipulation of the treaty, it would have not only complicated the administration’s neutral stance, but would have also fractured the United States’ relationship with Great Britain.[32] However, Jefferson found it wrong to renege on its commitment to France, and considered Washington’s proclamation unconstitutional. Jefferson and Hamilton’s differences over the matter of the Franco-American Treaty of 1778 touched off a series of debates called “The Pacificus and Helvedius Debates” of 1793-94. Hamilton, under the alias “Pacificus,” defended Washington’s proclamation, and argued that the need to remain neutral was much more important than the need to come to France’s aid. Moreover, Hamilton attributed neutrality to the peace and stability of the United States, and criticized those who objected to the proclamation:

“Those who make this objection disavow at the same time all intention to advocate the position that the United States ought to take part in the War. They profess to be friends to our remaining at Peace. What then do they mean by the objection?[33]

Afraid that Hamilton’s opinions would translate into a consensus in thought, Jefferson urged Madison to spar with Hamilton under the alias “Helvedius”:

“Nobody answers him, & his doctrine will therefore be taken for confessed. For god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public[34]

Aside from questioning the constitutionality of Washington’s proclamation, Madison essentially stuck to the issue of treaties, and stressed that they should be honored even if the sovereign who had signed it at the time, namely, the Confederation, had since been replaced:

“As a change of government then makes no change in the obligations or rights of the party to a treaty, it is clear that the Executive can have no more right to suspend or prevent the operation of a treaty, on account of the change, than to suspend or prevent the operation, where no such change has happened. Nor can it have any more right to suspend the operation of a treaty in force as a law, than to suspend the operation of any other law.[35]

France’s declaration of war against Britain made the Washington administration ponder upon how to handle their obligation towards France, and ultimately the way in which they did so was by proclaiming neutrality, a type of neutrality that prevented compliance with the American-French treaty of 1778. In effect, the debates between Hamilton and Madison essentially showcased the two legitimate policy stances through which the Administration could take given the hostilities between France and Britain, with both obviously being contrary to one another.

But what essentially diverted the course of foreign policy development towards a Hamiltonian culmination during Washington’s tenure was the episode showcasing “Citizen” Edmund Genet. After Washington officially made neutrality his stance with respect to the hostilities between France and Britain, the French would not allow for the Americans to get away that easily with evading their treaty obligation, as indicated by the designation of Edmund Genet as Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States. Genet had arrived in the United States shortly before Washington proclaimed neutrality, in hopes of convincing the American body politic to support their initiative against Britain. However, he was far too audacious in his conduct, even managing to draw the condemnation of his own allies within the American body politic, including Jefferson, after warning Washington he would take to appealing to the American people over the head of the executive. Genet thought it was his inalienable right to conduct operations against Britain on American soil based on the Franco-American alliance of 1778.[36] Disapproving of Genet’s conduct, Jefferson wrote:

“Never in my opinion, was so calamitous an appointment made, as that of the present minister of [France] here. Hotheaded, all imagination, no judgment, passionate, disrespectful & even indecent towards the [President] in his written as well as verbal communications, talking of appeals from him to Congress, from them to the people, urging the most unreasonable & groundless propositions, & in the most dictatorial style…If ever it should be necessary to lay his communications before Congress or the public, they will excite universal indignation.[37]

As soon as Genet arrived in the United States, he began recruiting Americans who were willing to aid the French as privateers. This was exactly what Hamilton and Washington feared most, and it would have damaged the state of neutrality the Washington Administration wished for if they had not resorted to damage control. When Genet and his agents successfully fitted out a British brigantine named Little Sarah off a port in the city of Charleston, Hamilton – in a cabinet opinion – wrote that “it is impossible to interpret such conduct into any thing else than a regular plan to force the United States into the war,” and that the “tendency to produce that effect cannot be misunderstood by the agents of France.”[38] What Hamilton essentially meant was that Genet and his agents had to understand that the United States, under no circumstances, would become a party in the hostilities between France and Great Britain. To allow for incidents such as the Little Sarah capture to occur on American soil would essentially jeopardize the state of neutrality the United States wished to maintain between Britain and France. Washington would have none of it. Eventually, the brigantine returned to Britain, and Genet was dismissed from his minister-ship.

The French proved to be a troublesome ally for the United States, forcing the latter to evade taking part in the hostilities with much difficulty. But by declaring war against Britain, the French also placed Anglo-American relations in an incredible predicament. Immediately after France declared war on Britain, the British responded by imposing the harshest of blockades on the French West Indies, thus obstructing any American commerce that was directed towards her enemy’s colonial possessions. Upon the commencement of hostilities between Great Britain and France, Great Britain adopted a very narrow interpretation of the term “contraband.” Britain’s interpretation of “contraband” was so narrow that this interpretation led to even foodstuffs being considered as contraband, and thus Britain prohibited the United States from shipping to French territories to a significant degree. The British had derived their narrow interpretation of contraband from “The Rule of 1756,” which was created by the British themselves. Moreover, the British issued two consecutive Orders-in-Council between 1793 and 1794, which basically authorized the British navy to capture any commercial ships heading towards enemy territory. The fact that Britain had the power to create such rules on the seas and to impose them on the international community only illustrates the tough circumstances in which the United States tried to impose its sovereignty and maintain its neutrality. These restrictions on American commerce proved problematic for the United States, and could well have served as justification for the United States to joining France in initiating war with Great Britain[39].

After the Genet episode, however, it appears that Hamilton had convinced Washington of the political reality of the situation and had ultimately won the President over to his side. By then, Genet’s antics had done his fair share of damage to the Jeffersonian camp in its attempt to undermine Hamilton’s efforts. On August 6, 1793, Jefferson wrote of his conversation with President Washington, in which he expressed his desire to resign from his position as Secretary of State:

“I expressed to him my excessive repugnance to public life, the particular uneasiness of my situation in this place, where the laws of society oblige me always to move exactly in the circle which I know to bear me peculiar hatred; that is to say, the wealthy aristocrats, the merchants connected closely with England, the new created paper fortunes; that thus surrounded, my words were caught, multiplied, misconstrued, and even fabricated and spread abroad to my injury; that he saw also, that there was such an opposition of views between myself and another part of the administration, as to render it peculiarly unpleasing, and to destroy the necessary harmony.[40]

Jefferson’s comment suggests that Hamilton’s influence in government had advanced too far, and thus he would ultimately have to surrender. After Jefferson resigned, Hamilton led foreign policy development under the Washington Administration to its culmination, without any real opposition. As opposed to responding to British aggression at the seas with further aggression, Hamilton used diplomacy to ease Britain’s hostile stance towards the United States. He warned the British that their behavior towards the United States only kindled the fire underlying Jeffersonian efforts of instituting commercial discrimination against Britain, which would be destructive to the commerce of both nations. Amazingly, Hamilton’s approach towards the British proved effective. Hamilton managed to get Britain to abrogate her harsher Order-in-Council to a milder form, as well as shaming Britain into a mood of negotiating a commercial treaty with the United States. [41]

The negotiations which took place between John Jay and his British counterpart, Lord Grenville, essentially manifested the “realist” foreign policy that was to be characteristic of the Washington Administration. While Jay was the one negotiating with the British in London, the one who actually set the negotiations in motion was Alexander Hamilton, and it is acknowledged by scholars that “Hamilton was pulling the strings from across the Atlantic.”[42] The aim of the negotiations, as set out by Hamilton, was clear: obtain as many commercial concessions as possible, in addition to a British promise of withdrawal from the military posts. Hamilton reminded Jay that he should not expect anything extraordinary out of these negotiations considering the imbalance of bargaining power that existed between the two sides, and suggested that Jay enter the negotiations aware of the fact that he will not be “effected with so great a latitude of advantages.”[43] Nevertheless, Hamilton did make clear to Jay what he should obtain through negotiations with his British counterpart:

“It is my opinion, that if an indemnification for the depredations committed on our trade, and the executions of those points of the treaty of peace which remain unexecuted on the part of Great Britain, can be accomplished on satisfactory terms, and it should appear a necessary means to this end, to combine a treaty of commerce for a short term on the footing of the status quo, the conclusion of such a treaty would be consistent with the interests of the United States.[44]

These were the terms to which Hamilton was willing to acquiesce, and it is exactly what the United States received. Jay transferred the final version of the treaty to the hands of President Washington, and afterwards the president introduced it to the Senate. After much deliberation, the Senate ratified the Jay Treaty by a bare two-thirds required majority – 20 votes to 10 – on June 24, 1795. Britain did dictate the terms of the treaty to an overwhelming extent. However, the fact that the United States even got to the point of signing a treaty with Great Britain speaks volumes in regards to the approach Hamilton took in regards to engineering foreign policy in the early republic. Hamilton diverted the United States away from war and towards solid commercial relations with Great Britain. The prospects of war and its impact on commercial relations, in Hamilton’s view, would have been devastating for a weak nation depending on commerce with the status quo power. Moreover, the United States was too weak to impose her sovereignty, as indicated by her inability to resolve the prevailing issues of the 1783 Treaty of Paris between the United States and Britain through political means, until Britain had actually conceded to negotiations.

Hamilton did what any “realist” would have done in a situation of this kind, which was to work within the political framework imposed by the more powerful entity to achieve the more important political objectives while sacrificing the less important objectives. In this case, the United States had to sacrifice its good standing with France, a long-time ally, in order to sustain neutrality in the midst of hostilities. This equated to a defeat of the “idealist” foreign policy view adopted by the Jeffersonian segment of the body politic. Because foreign policy slanted in favor of good relations with Great Britain as indicated by the advent of the Jay’s Treaty, it is more than clear that Alexander Hamilton was able to orchestrate American foreign policy and relations to his liking while the Washington Administration was in power.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

PRIMARY SOURCES

Catanzariti, John (Editor). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 25, 1 January to 10 May, 1793. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Frisch, Morton J. (Editor). The Pacificus-Helvedius Debates of 1793-1794: Toward the Completion of the American Founding/Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007. 

Hamilton, Alexander. “A Defence of the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Entered into Between The United States of America & Great Britain, As It Appeared In the Papers Under the Signature of Camillus. New York: 1795.

Lodge, Henry Cabot (Editor). The Works of Alexander Hamilton. Vol. V. New York: Haskell House Publishers, Ltd., 1971.

McKee Jr., Samuel (Editor). Alexander Hamilton’s Papers on Public Credit, Commerce, and Finance. New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1957.

Sawvel, Franklin B. (Editor). The Complete ANAS of Thomas Jefferson. New York: The Round Table Press, 1903.

Smith, James Morton (Editor). The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.

The Federalist: A Collection of Essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.  Interpreting the Constitution of the United States as Agreed Upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. New York: The Colonial Press, 1901.

BOOKS

Bemis, Samuel F. Jay’s Treaty: A Study In Commerce and Diplomacy. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1923.

Combs, Jerald A. 1970. The Jay Treaty: Political Battleground of the Founding Fathers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Combs, Jerald A. 2008. The History of American Foreign Policy, Vol. 1, 3rd Edition. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2008.

DeConde, Alexander. Entangling Alliance: Politics and Diplomacy under George Washington. Durham: Duke University Press, 1958.

Estes, Todd. 2006. The Jay Treaty Debate, Public Opinion, and the Evolution of Early American Political Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

Harper, John Lamberton. American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Horsman, Reginald. The New Republic: The United States of America, 1789-1815. New York: Longman, 2000.

Kaplan, Lawrence S. Jefferson and France: An Essay on Politics and Political Ideas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

Lang, Daniel G. Foreign Policy in the Early Republic: The Law of Nations and the Balance of Power. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

Miller, John C.; with a new introduction by A. Owen Aldridge. Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of the New Nation. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004.

Pratt, Julius M. A History of United States Foreign Policy. Edgewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1955.

Rossignol, Marie-Jeanne. The Nationalist Ferment: The Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1792-1812. Lillian A. Parrott, Trans. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2004.

Sharp, James Roger. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

ARTICLES

Bowman, Albert H. “Jefferson, Hamilton and Foreign Policy.” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar. 1956), 18-41.

Bukovansky, Mlada. “American Identity and Neutral Rights from Independence to the War of 1812.” International Organization, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring 1997), 209-243.

Charles, Joseph. “The Jay Treaty: The Origins of the American Party System.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 12, No. 4, (Oct. 1955), 581-630.

Estes, Todd. “Shaping the Politics of Public Opinion: The Federalists and the Jay Treaty Debate.” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Autumn 2000), 393-422.

Washburn, Albert H. “The American View of Neutrality.” Virginia Law Review, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Dec, 1914), 165-177.


[1] Jerald A. Combs. The History of Ameican Foreign Policy, Vol. 1, 3rd Edition. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2008, Preface.

[2] Samuel F. Bemis. Jay’s Treaty: A Study In Commerce and Diplomacy. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1923, 32-33.

[3]Alexander Hamilton. “A Defence of the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Entered into Between The United States of America & Great Britain, As It Appeared In the Papers Under the Signature of Camillus.” New York: 1795. No. II, 10.

[4] James Roger Sharp. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, 113.

[5] Joseph Charles. “The Jay Treaty: The Origins of the American Party System.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 12, No. 4, (Oct. 1955), 581-630.

[6] Julius M. Pratt. A History of United States Foreign Policy. Edgewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1955, 73.

[7] Daniel G. Lang. Foreign Policy in the Early Republic: The Law of Nations and the Balance of Power. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985, 30.

[8]John Jay (Publius). “Federalist No. II: Concerning Dangers From Foreign Force and Influence.” In The Federalist: A Collection of Essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.  Interpreting the Constitution of the United States as Agreed Upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. New York: The Colonial Press, 1901, 10.

[9] Jerald A. Combs. The Jay Treaty: Political Battleground of the Founding Fathers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970, 23.

[10] Reginald Horsman. The New Republic: The United States of America, 1789-1815. New York: Longman, 2000, 20.

[11] Todd Estes. The Jay Treaty Debate, Public Opinion, and the Evolution of Early American Political Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006, 15-17.

[12] Alexander Hamilton. “Federalist No. XI: Utility of the Union In Respect to Commerce and a Navy”. Publius (Alexander Hamilton). The Federalist: A Collection of Essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.  Interpreting the Constitution of the United States as Agreed Upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. New York: The Colonial Press, 1901. Pg. 52.

[13] Lang, Foreign Policy in the Early Republic, 84.

[14]Bemis, Jay’s Treaty: A Study In Commerce and Diplomacy, 33-36.

[15] Adam Seybert, Statistical Annals. Philadelphia, 1818, 750.

[16] “Relation of the American Trade to Total British Commerce, 1788-1794, Inclusive. Found in Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy. Samuel Flagg Bemis, 1923.

[17] Charles, “The Jay Treaty: The Origins of the American Party System.” 581-630.

[18] John C. Miller;with a new introduction by A. Owen Aldridge. Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of the New Nation. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004, 21.

[19] Combs, The History of Ameican Foreign Policy, Vol. 1, 3rd Edition, 27.

[20] First Report on the Public Credit, January 9, 1790. Alexander Hamilton’s Papers on Public Credit, Commerce, and Finance, Ed. Samuel McKee (New York Liberal Arts Press, 1957), 5.

[21] Second Report on the Public Credit, January 16, 1795, Ibid, 170.

[22] First Report on Public Credit, January 9, 1790,  38.

[23] Franklin B. Sawvel, Ed. The Complete ANAS of Thomas Jefferson. Explanation of the three volumes bound in marbled paper, dated February 4, 1818. New York: The Round Table Press, 1903. Pg. 36.

[24] Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. Jan. 7, 1793, In The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Ed. John Catanzariti, Vol. 25, 30.

[25] Lawrence S. Kaplan. Jefferson and France: An Essay on Politics and Political Ideas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967, 38.

[26] Conversations With the President, Dated March 11, 1792”,  In The Complete ANAS of Thomas Jefferson., Ed. Franklin B. Sawvel. New York: The Round Table Press, 1903, 65.

[27] Jefferson to Madison, May 9, 1791, In The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826. Ed. James Morton Smith, Vol. 2, 1790-1804, 685.

[28] Ibid

[29] Madison to Jefferson, May 1, 1791. The Republic of Letters Vol. 2, 1790-1804, 685.

[30] Combs, The History of Ameican Foreign Policy, Vol. 1, 3rd Edition, Preface.

[31] Albert H Bowman. “Jefferson, Hamilton and Foreign Policy.” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar. 1956), 18-41.

[32] Alexander DeConde. Entangling Alliance: Politics and Diplomacy under George Washington. Durham: Duke University Press, 1958, 202-203.

[33] “Pacificus Number IV”; The Pacificus-Helvedius Debates of 1793-1794: Towards the Completion of the American Founding/Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Ed. Morton J. Frisch, 30.

[34] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, July 7, 1793. Ibid, .54.

[35] “Helvedius Number III”; 7 September, 1793. Ibid, 74.

[36] Albert H. Washburn. “The American View of Neutrality.” Virginia Law Review, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Dec, 1914), 165-177.

[37] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, July 7, 1793, Ibid, 54.

[38] “Cabinet Opinion – Hamilton and Knox,” July 8, 1793, In The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge, Volume V, 6.

[39]  Mlada Bukovansky. “American Identity and Neutral Rights from Independence to the War of 1812.” International Organization, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring 1997), 209-243

[40] Franklin B. Sawvel, Ed. The Complete ANAS of Thomas Jefferson. Conversations With the President, dated March 11, 1792. New York: The Round Table Press, 1903, 162.

[41] Combs, The Jay Treaty: Political Battleground of the Founding Fathers, 122-136.

[42] John Lamberton Harper. American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 142.

[43] “Part of Instructions to John Jay, 1794”, In The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge, Volume V. 121.

[44] Ibid, 123.

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