Foreign Policy Challenges

In matters of foreign policy, the new nation faced a combination of unresolved issues and new political problems. Despite Great Britain's promises to evacuate frontier outposts, British soldiers had remained there for more than ten years. Native Americans looked for alliances with Great Britain and Spain to curtail American westward expansion. Across the Atlantic, the French Revolution sparked wars against Great Britain and Spain and tested U.S. neutrality policies.

Conflicts on the frontier. When Washington took office, the ongoing conflict between the tribes in the Ohio Valley and white settlers demanded a solution. American military expeditions against the Miami Confederacy (an alliance of eight western tribes) in 1790 and 1791 both failed. Washington called for a third expedition, led by General Anthony Wayne, a veteran of the American Revolution who knew how to temper bravery with caution. Great Britain, which incited the tribes in hopes of maintaining a British presence in the Northwest Territory, did not provide any direct aid. Wayne's well‐trained and well‐supplied force of more than two thousand men won a major victory in the Battle of Fallen Timbers (August 1794). Through the Treaty of Greenville, twelve of the western tribes yielded almost all of present‐day Ohio, part of Indiana, and sites for sixteen trading posts. Native‐American resistance in the region came to an end for almost twenty years.

U.S. relations with the southeastern tribes were different. Washington successfully negotiated with the Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw without recourse to war, even though Indian leaders in the region, most notably Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray, played the Spaniards against the Americans, and President Washington knew it. The Creek especially were hostile toward settlers in Georgia, who were encroaching on their tribal lands. Washington concluded the Treaty of New York in 1790, promising that the Creek's territorial rights would be respected and that Georgia would restore lands to their allies, the Chickasaw and Choctaw.

Problems with France. The French Revolution had initially been greeted with enthusiasm by the United States, but by 1793 many Americans were upset by the direction the revolution had taken. The French not only executed their king and queen but also declared war against Great Britain and Spain. Southerners became alarmed when the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue broke out in revolt, the slaves aided by the British. Northern merchants feared for their prosperity because it rested on good relations with Great Britain, where the United States sent most of its exports.

While the alliance between France and the United States (created in 1778) remained in effect, Washington knew his country was not prepared, militarily or politically, to take sides in a European war. He issued a proclamation of neutrality on April 22, 1793. At that time, the French government had sent Edmond Genet as minister to the United States. Citizen Genet, as he was known, behaved in a decidedly undiplomatic manner. Landing in Charleston, he began recruiting volunteers to fight for France against Britain and Spain. He appointed Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark a general, and Clark advertised for troops and support for a campaign against the Spanish at New Orleans. The effort failed for lack of money, but Genet was successful in recruiting privateers. Nearly a thousand men responded, and American ships flying the French flag captured more than eighty British ships.

Problems with Great Britain. Washington was appalled by the French violations of American neutrality. The British reacted by seizing American merchant ships in the West Indies and abducting American sailors, forcibly enlisting them in the British navy. This practice, known as impressment, angered most Americans. The British claim that it was just apprehending its own deserters rang hollow amid reports of U.S. sailors suffering violations of their rights.

Great Britain rescinded its Orders in Council, which justified the seizure of American ships, and Washington used this opportunity to seek a diplomatic solution. John Jay was sent to London to negotiate a treaty to resolve the outstanding issues between the two countries: the British forts in the Northwest Territory, reparations for the American ships taken under the Orders, compensation for slaves taken during the American Revolution, and an end to trade restrictions in the West Indies. Because the British knew from Alexander Hamilton that Washington was determined not to go to war, Jay had little leverage in the negotiations. Nevertheless, through the Jay Treaty (1795), the British finally agreed to withdraw from the Northwest and open the West Indies to American trade, although with limitations on certain goods. The question of reparations for slaves was not addressed. U.S. opposition was strong, but the treaty was probably the best that could be achieved under the circumstances. The Senate ultimately ratified the agreement by one vote.

Successful negotiations with Spain. The United States fared better in solving important issues with Spain. With Spain's war against France going badly and rumors of French‐recruited Americans planning to attack New Orleans, the Spanish diplomats became amenable to negotiations. Washington sent Thomas Pinckney, then serving as U.S. minister to Great Britain, to Spain. Pinckney arrived in late June 1795 to find Spanish officials even more receptive than he had anticipated. Spain recognized the thirty‐first parallel as the southern boundary of the United States, and removed its troops from all territory north of the line. Americans were granted free use of the Mississippi River to its mouth and the privilege of deposit (temporary storage) at New Orleans for three years, with an option to renew. The privilege enabled Americans to avoid customs duties. Commercial privileges in Spain were also granted to the United States. All these terms were formalized with the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo, also called Pinckney's Treaty, on October 27, 1795.