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In 1789 France adopted a constitution. Provoked at this, the friends of absolute monarchy withdrew from France, and incited the other powers of Europe to interpose in effort to restore to Louis XVI. his lost power. The result was that Louis lost his head as well as his power, and that France became a republic. War with all Europe followed, which elevated that matchless military genius, Napoleon Bonaparte, first to the head of France's armies, then to her throne, to be toppled thence in 1814, partly by his own indiscretions, partly by the forces combined against him.

From the beginning to the end of this revolutionary period abroad, European politics determined American politics, home as well as foreign, causing dangerous embarrassment and complications. War having in February, 1793, been declared by England and France against each other, what attitude the United States should assume toward each became a pressing question. Washington's proclamation of neutrality, April 22, 1793, in effect, though not so meant, annulled our treaty of 1778 with France, which bound us to certain armed services to that monarchy in case of a rupture between her and England. Washington's paper alleged that "the duty and interests of the United States" required impartiality, and assumed "to declare the disposition of the United States to observe" this.

"The proclamation," wrote Jefferson, "was in truth a most unfortunate error. It wounds the popular feelings by a seeming indifference to the cause of liberty. And it seems to violate the form and spirit of the Constitution by making the executive magistrate the organ of the 'disposition' 'the duty' and 'the interest' of the nation in relation to war and peace--subjects appropriated to other departments of  the Government."

"On one side," says Mr. Rives, in his "Life of Madison," "the people saw a power which had but lately carried war and desolation, fire and sword, through their own country, and, since the peace, had not ceased to act toward them in the old spirit of unkindness, jealousy, arrogance, and injustice; on the other an ally who had rendered them the most generous assistance in war, had evinced the most cordial dispositions for a liberal and mutually beneficial intercourse in peace, and was now set upon by an unholy league of the monarchical powers of Europe, to overwhelm and destroy her, for her desire to establish institutions congenial to those of America."

The more sagacious opponents of the administration believed true policy as well as true honesty to demand rigid and pronounced adherence to the letter of the French treaty. They were convinced from the outset that France would vanquish her enemies, and that close alliance with her was the sure and the only sure way to coerce either Great Britain to justice or Spain to a reasonable attitude touching the navigation of the Mississippi; while by offending France, they argued, we should be forced to wrestle single-handed with England first, then with victorious France, meantime securing no concession whatever from Spain.

This was a shrewd forecast of the actual event. The Federalists, destitute of idealism, proved to have been overawed by the prestige of England and to have underestimated the might which freedom would impart to the French people. After Napoleon's great campaign of 1796-97, Pitt seeks peace, which the French Directory feels able to decline. In 1802 the Peace of Amiens is actually concluded, upon terms dictated by France. Had we been still in France's friendship, the two republics might have compelled England's abandonment of that course which evoked the war of 1812. As it was, ignored by England, to whom, as detailed below, we cringed in consenting to Jay's treaty, we were left to encounter the French navy alone, escaping open and serious war with France only by a readiness to negotiate which all but compromised our dignity. The Mississippi we had at last to open with money.

The federalist leaning toward Great Britain probably did not, to so great an extent as was then alleged and widely believed, spring from monarchical feeling. It was due rather to old memories, as pleasant as they were tenacious, that would not be dissociated from England; to the individualistic tendencies of republicanism, alarming to many; and to conservative habits of political thinking, the dread of innovation and of theory. The returned Tories had indeed all become Federalists, which fact, with many others, lent to this attitude the appearance of deficient patriotism, of sycophancy toward our old foe and persecutor.

Great Britain had refused to surrender the western posts according to the peace treaty of 1783, unjustly pleading in excuse the treatment of loyalists by our States. Not only the presence but the active influence of the garrisons at these posts encouraged Indian hostilities. England had also seized French goods in American (neutral) vessels, though in passage to the United States, and treated as belligerent all American ships plying between France and her West Indian colonies, on the ground that this commerce had been opened to them only by the pressure of war. The English naval officers were instructed to regard bread-stuffs as contraband if bound for France, even though owned by neutrals and in neutral ships; such cargoes, however, to be paid for by England, or released on bonds being given to land them elsewhere than in France. In this practice England followed France's example, except that she actually paid for the cargoes, while France only promised.


John Jay. By Billy Hathorn (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Worst of all, Britain claimed and acted upon the right to press into her naval service British-born seamen found anywhere outside the territory of a foreign State, halting our ships on the high seas for this purpose, often leaving them half-manned, and sometimes recklessly and cruelly impressing native-born Americans--an outrageous policy which ended in the war of 1812. The ignorance and injustice of the English admiralty courts aggravated most of these abuses.

Genet's proceedings, spoken of in the next chapter, which partly public sentiment, partly lack of army and navy, made it impossible for our Government to prevent, enraged Great Britain to the verge of war. After the British orders in council of November 6, 1793, intended to destroy all neutral commerce with the French colonies, and Congress's counter-stroke of an embargo the following March, war was positively imminent. The President resolved to send Jay to England as envoy extraordinary, to make one more effort for an understanding.

The treaty negotiated by this gentleman, and ratified June 24,  1795 (excepting Article XII., on the French West India trade), was doubtless the most favorable that could have been secured under the circumstances; yet it satisfied no one and was humiliating in the extreme. The western posts were indeed to be vacated by June 1, 1796, though without indemnity for the past, but a British right of search and impressment was implicitly recognized, the French West Indian trade not rendered secure, and arbitrary liberty accorded to Great Britain in defining contraband. Opposition to ratification was bitter and nearly universal. The friends of France were jubilant. Jay was burned in effigy, Washington himself attacked. The utmost that Hamilton in his powerful "Letters of Camillus" could show was that the treaty seemed preferable to war. Plainly we had then little to hope and much to fear from war with Great Britain, yet even vast numbers of Federalists denounced the pact as a base surrender to the nation's ancient tyrant, and wished an appeal to arms.

Fisher Ames's eloquence decided the House for the treaty. An invalid, with but a span of life before him, he spoke as from the tomb. "There is, I believe," so ran his peroration, "no member who will not think his chance to be a witness of the consequences (should the treaty fail of ratification) greater than mine. If, however, the vote should pass to reject, and a spirit should rise, as it will, with the public disorders, to make confusion worse confounded, even I, slender and almost broken as my hold on life is, may outlive the Government and Constitution of my country!"

It was the most delicate crisis of  Washington's presidency, and no other American then alive, being in his place, could have passed through it successfully. After the fury gradually subsided, men for a long time acquiesced rather than believed in the step which had been taken. In the end the treaty proved solidly advantageous, rather through circumstances, however, than by its intrinsic excellence.