Europe was rife with conflict following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Until 1815, when the French emperor Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, France, Great Britain and their respective allies were engaged in a fierce struggle over dominance of the European continent. Fighting between these European powers also occurred throughout the world, including in the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. Historians estimate that over two million people were killed or wounded in these conflicts.
In 1789, revolutionaries in France challenged the authority of King Louis XVI and issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which, among other things, challenged monarchy by adopting republican principles associated with natural equality and liberty. In 1791, a constitutional monarchy replaced King Louis XVI’s monarchy and, one year later, France was declared a republic after a revolutionary army defeated an invading Prussian-Austrian force that was allied to the remnants of the French aristocracy. From the perspective of the United States, the first years of the French Revolution made it appear that republicanism — the political and social philosophy that was the creed of American revolutionaries — was spreading throughout the world, as other revolutionary groups were struggling against monarchy.
Events in 1793 and 1794 challenged this simple interpretation of the French Revolution, however. In January 1793, the French people beheaded King Louis XVI by using a gruesome device known as the guillotine. The following years became known as the Terror, or a period of extreme violence against any perceived enemies of the revolutionary government. French revolutionaries advocated direct representative democracy while also remaining quick to criticize or threaten anyone who spoke out against them.
Despite the shared experiences of the War for Independence, and the important role that the French played in that conflict, American opinions regarding France diverged sharply during the 1790s as France descended into the chaos of its own revolution. Although they expressed concern toward the violent turn in the French Revolution, Thomas Jefferson and Democratic-Republicans seized upon the French revolutionaries’ struggle against monarchy as a welcome harbinger for a broader republican movement around the world. Some sympathizers even went so far as to suggest that the violence of the French Revolution was necessary for the elimination of the monarchy and an aristocratic culture that supported a hereditary class of rulers over the common people.
To the Federalists, however, the French Revolution epitomized the dangers of direct democracy, or “mobocracy.” This was especially the case after the execution of the French king in 1793. Federalists viewed the execution with alarm, and expressed concern that the radicalism of the French Revolution would encourage the American masses to challenge Federalist rule at home.
Such divisions over the French Revolution intensified further when France declared war on Great Britain and Holland in February 1793. After the declaration, France requested that the United States make a large repayment of the money it had borrowed from France during the War for Independence.
Knowing that Great Britain would judge any aid given to France as a hostile act, President George Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality in April 1793. Washington believed that the United States was too young of a nation and its institutions were too fragile to sustain any conflict with a European power. Moreover, by declaring American neutrality, Washington hoped that the United States would be able to preserve commercial relations with both powers.
Democratic-Republican societies denounced Washington’s actions and publicly declared their support for the French. Although the majority of Democratic-Republicans did not believe that the United States should enter the conflict on France’s behalf, they remained sympathetic toward the French Revolution and believed that American neutrality would inadvertently help Great Britain.
Meanwhile, Federalists, particularly Alexander Hamilton, compared the activities of the Democratic-Republican societies to the radicalism of the French Revolution. The Federalists argued that Democratic-Republicans in general, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, would steer the United States toward anarchy. For these reasons, Hamilton and other Federalists believed that the United States should foster closer ties with Great Britain and remain aloof of the chaos in France.
In these ways, the French Revolution, along with the American response to war on the European continent, contributed to the growing partisan divide in the United States.
The American response to two events — one on behalf of revolutionary France and the other connected to Great Britain — highlighted how partisanship could filter into foreign affairs.
In the spring of 1793 — despite Washington’s neutrality proclamation — the revolutionary French government sent Edmond-Charles Genêt to the United States to negotiate an alliance with the American government. He landed in Charleston, South Carolina, and during his journey northward, he was greeted by crowds who sympathized with the French cause. As if this was not enough to concern Federalists, France empowered Genêt to issue letters of marque — documents authorizing ships and their crews to engage in piracy — to allow him to commission American ships to capture British ships while flying the French flag. Genêt also encouraged the organization of volunteer American militia units to attack British and Spanish colonial possessions in North America.
In what became known as the Citizen Genêt affair, President Washington demanded that France recall the minister. Moreover, Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton used Genêt’s actions to defend Washington’s neutrality proclamation and to discredit Democratic-Republicans who sympathized with France. Deeming his return to France as too dangerous, Genêt chose to resign and remain in the United States, where he later married the daughter of the governor of New York.
Most importantly, the affair spurred Great Britain to instruct its naval commanders in the West Indies to seize all ships trading with the French. Under such orders, the British captured hundreds of American ships and their cargoes in the West Indies. The British navy also instituted the practice of impressment, much to the consternation of Americans.
In this tense situation, the United States sent John Jay, then a Supreme Court Justice, to Great Britain to negotiate. The following agreement, known as Jay’s Treaty, was among the most controversial instances of Washington’s administration and furthered the partisan divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
Jay went to Great Britain under instructions to secure compensation for captured American ships; to ensure that the British relinquished forts they still occupied in the Ohio River Valley (despite the fact that the 1783 Treaty of Paris already required the British to do so); and to gain an agreement for American trade in the West Indies.
Jay’s Treaty achieved most of these goals. The British agreed to turn over its frontier forts to the United States. The United States also gained the opportunity to trade freely in the West Indies, in exchange for guaranteeing favorable treatment to goods imported from Great Britain. However, the treaty did nothing to address the British Navy’s kidnapping of American sailors (also known as impressment). This concession, along with those pertaining to trade, signaled that the United States accepted British supremacy on the high seas and sought to continue close trade relations.
While Federalists touted the economic benefits of commerce with Great Britain, Democratic-Republicans denounced Jay’s Treaty as a betrayal to France and they expressed their frustrations in the streets. In some cities, John Jay was burned in effigy. In others, copies of the treaty were burned publicly. There was even one occasion where an audience in New York threw stones at Alexander Hamilton when he was speaking in favor of the treaty.
In the summer of 1795, the Senate ratified Jay’s Treaty by the slimmest of margins. The partisan divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans could not have been wider.
While the ongoing war between France and Britain represented the primary foreign relations challenge for the new nation, the United States also sought to defend its sovereignty in the Mediterranean.
By the early 19th century, the Barbary States of North Africa, which included Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, were not significant threats to nations such as Great Britain and France, who simply intimidated them with their powerful navies or bought them off with annual tributes. However, less powerful nations that lacked the necessary naval and financial resources were more susceptible to attacks from the Barbary States. Having only recently gained independence, the United States was one of these nations.
EXAMPLEBetween 1785 and 1796, pirates from the Barbary States captured 13 American ships and enslaved over 100 sailors. In response, the American government agreed to issue hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom payments and pay annual tributes.
Shortly after taking office in the spring of 1801, President Thomas Jefferson refused Tripoli’s demand for an increased tribute, and Tripoli declared war on the United States. What followed was the first war fought by the United States, one that Jefferson prosecuted without receiving an official declaration of war from Congress.
The climax of the conflict came in February 1804, when Stephen Decatur led a daring raid into Tripoli’s harbor and besieged the city. The next year, William Eaton, a former American diplomat to Tunis, along with a group of American marines and a combined force of 500 Greek, Albanian, and Arab mercenaries, seized the port city of Derne. In June 1805, the United States signed a peace treaty with Tripoli, which ended the war.
Conflict with the Barbary States, collectively known as the Barbary Wars, offered a significant test for naval and marine forces of the United States. They also provided the nation’s first encounter with the Islamic world. Indeed, during a previous attempt to establish peaceful relations, an American peace treaty insisted that the United States was not founded on Christianity. Regardless, in the wake of the war with Tripoli, a number of Americans celebrated the conflict as a victory of liberty over tyranny. In Europe, Americans associated tyranny with monarchy and aristocracy. In Africa and the Middle East, meanwhile, many Americans associated tyranny with Islam, and they viewed the peoples and states who practiced this religion as exotic and incompatible with American freedom and liberty.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Some material adapted from Foner, E. (2014). Give me liberty!: an American history (4th ed., Vol. 1). New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Some material adapted from Wood, G. S. (2009). Empire of liberty: a history of the early Republic, 1789-1815. Oxford: Oxford University Press., Derived from Openstax tutorial 8.2, “The New American Republic,” http://bit.ly/2iKI0vM . Some sections edited or removed for brevity., Derived from Openstax tutorial 8.3, “Partisan Politics,” http://bit.ly/2iTYsoJ . Some sections edited or removed for brevity.