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Foreign Policy Under George Washington

Setting the Precedents

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Foreign Policy Under George Washington

Portrait of George Washington

Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

George Washington, America's first president, practiced a pragmatically cautious yet successful foreign policy.

Years in Office: first term, 1789-1793; second term, 1793-1797.

Foreign Policy Rating: first term, good; second term, good.

Neutrality

As well as being the "father of the country," Washington was also the father of early US neutrality. He understood that the United States was too young, had too little money, had too many domestic issues, and had too small a military to actively engage in a strident foreign policy.

Still, Washington was no isolationist. He wanted the United States to be an integral part of the western world, but that could only happen with time, solid domestic growth, and a stable reputation abroad.

Washington avoided political and military alliances, even though the US had already been the recipient of military and financial foreign aid. In 1778, during the American Revolution, the United States and France signed the Franco-American Alliance. As part of the agreement, France sent money, troops, and naval ships to North America to fight the British. Washington himself commanded a coalition force of American and French troops at the climactic siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.

Nevertheless, Washington declined aid to France during warfare in the 1790s. A revolution -- inspired, in part, by the American Revolution -- began in 1789. As France sought to export its anti-monarchical sentiments throughout Europe, it found itself at war with other nations, chiefly Great Britain. France, expecting the US would respond favorably to France, asked Washington for aid in the war. Even though France only wanted the US to engage British troops who were still garrisoned in Canada, and take on British naval ships sailing near US waters, Washington refused.

Washington's foreign policy also contributed to a rift in his own administration. The president eschewed political parties, but a party system began in his cabinet nonetheless. Federalists, the core of whom had established the federal government with the Constitution, wanted to normalize relations with Great Britain. Alexander Hamilton, Washington's secretary of the treasury and defacto Federalist leader, championed that idea. However, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, led another faction -- the Democrat-Republicans. (They called themselves simply Republicans, although that is confusing to us today.) The Democrat-Republicans championed France -- since France had helped the US and was continuing its revolutionary tradition -- and wanted widespread trade with that country.

Jay's Treaty

France -- and the Democrat-Republicans -- grew angrier with Washington in 1794 when he appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay as a special emissary to negotiate normalized trade relations with Great Britain. The resulting Jay's Treaty secured "most-favored-nation" trade status for the US in the British trade network, settlement of some pre-war debts, and a pull-back of British troops in the Great Lakes area.

Farewell Address

Perhaps Washington's greatest contribution to US foreign policy came in his farewell address in 1796. Washington was not seeking a third term (although the Constitution did not then prevent it), and his comments were to herald his exit from public life.

Washington warned against two things. The first, although it was really too late, was the destructive nature of party politics. The second was the danger of foreign alliances. He warned neither to favor one nation too highly over another, and to not ally with others in foreign wars.

For the next century, while the United States did not steer perfectly clear from foreign alliances and issues, it did adhere to neutrality as the major part of its foreign policy.

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