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Elected and appointed officials in the 1790s faced a number of challenges when the war between Great Britain and France forced the United States into a defensive position. Federalists and Republicans debated loyalties as each faction sought to protect the commercial and political interests of the new nation. The Papers of the War Department offer a number of documents relevant to researchers interested in foreign policy of the early American republic. This post highlights documents that reveal some of this history.
Amidst their own revolutionary transitions, the French government declared war against Great Britain in 1793. President George Washington declared the United States would remain neutral in the conflict, and refused a request from their ambassador to provide military and financial support. Having already established a treaty with France years prior, the United States began negotiating with Great Britain to resolve remaining tensions following the Revolutionary War. The negotiations produced the Jay Treaty in 1795 that maintained peace with Britain. Angered by this new treaty, French ships began to stop, search, and seize American merchant ships for “contraband” supplies heading for British territories. In an effort to end merchant ship seizures, President John Adams sent ambassadors to France in 1797 to re-negotiate the American-French Treaty of Amity and Commerce. However, negotiations failed and resulted in the establishment of the US Navy as well as an undeclared conflict known today as the Quasi War. Assaults on American vessels continued until 1800 with the signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine between the United States and France.
Below is a selection of documents relating to foreign policy, arranged chronologically:
- “Notes Concerning the Conduct of the French Minister”: Letter from Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury) to unknown recipient lists reasons the actions of the French ambassador, Charles Genêt, were deemed unacceptable by the United States.
[Unavailable on PWD, can be found here]
- “Extract of a Letter…Concerning U.S.-British Relations”: Letter from John Jay (Chief Justice) to Edmund Randolph (Secretary of State) discussing negotiations of the treaty Jay negotiated with Great Britain and the United States.
- “On the nation’s resistance to a large military establishment”: Letter draft from James McHenry (Secretary of War) to unknown recipient advocates for expanding the military and acknowledges popular resistance to maintaining a large military.
- “Detailed Response…Regarding Relations with France”: Letter from James McHenry (Secretary of War) to John Adams (President) discussing relations with France and avoiding war. Advice given to avoid appearing to favor Britain.
- “Requests Defence of US Merchant Ships against French”: Letter from William Hindman (Representative from Maryland) to James McHenry (Secretary of War) discussing the Direct House Tax and the need to defend American merchant ships against French attacks.
- “Federalist anger over Adam’s peace commission to France”: Letter from Uriah Tracy (Senator from Connecticut) to James McHenry (Secretary of War) illustrates Federalist opinion of France. Alludes to peace talks leading to the Convention of 1800 and a treaty with France.
The documents referenced in this post are only a handful of examples that reveal opinions and disagreements over foreign policies from the early republic. To read more on what the PWD has to offer relating to this topic, see these two blog posts. To uncover them all, explore our collection.
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