Impressment of American sailors by the British navy. This practice was one of the sources of contention between the nascent republic and the British empire.
This curriculum unit of three lessons covers the critical problems for United States foreign policy posed by the outbreak of the wars of the French Revolution. Was the U.S. alliance with France still in effect? Did America’s young economy require the maintenance of close ties with Britain? Ultimately, President Washington decided on a position of neutrality. This official position would last until the outbreak of war in 1812. Neutrality proved to be difficult to maintain, however, particularly in light of the fact that both Britain and France consistently interfered with American affairs.
Upon completion of this unit, student should be able to
The outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars posed a critical problem for the United States. Was the U.S. alliance with France, which dated back to 1778, still in effect? Did America’s nascent economy require the maintenance of close ties with Britain? Ultimately, President George Washington decided that the United States was in no condition to engage in military confrontation and decided on a position of neutrality. This official position was the beginning of an effort by the United States to remain neutral in European affairs that would last until the outbreak of war in 1812. Neutrality proved to be difficult to maintain, however, particularly in light of the fact that both Britain and France consistently interfered with American affairs.
The first such interference occurred in April 1793, when Edmond Charles Genet arrived as French minister to the United States. Genet’s mission was to ensure American support for France in the European wars, and he was chagrined to find that President Washington insisted on strict neutrality. Among other things, he commissioned American privateers to harass British shipping and enlisted Americans to move against Spanish interests in New Orleans. The British responded by seizing American vessels loaded with French West Indian cargo and confiscating said cargo as contraband of war. To make matters worse, they also began searching American ships for sailors who had deserted the Royal Navy, and if necessary removed said deserters for re-entrance into British service. Known as impressment, this practice amounted to the kidnapping of American citizens.
News of captures (both vessels and sailors) deeply concerned members of the emerging Democratic-Republican political coalition. Many insisted on the notion that “free ships make free goods,” and that contraband should be defined to include only weapons of war. They wanted to fight the British with trade restrictions, and possibly more. Federalists, who received particularly strong support from New England merchant interests, were less inclined to agree. They understood that American trade depended upon a good relationship with Britain. Hoping to ease tensions, in 1794 Washington sent John Jay as an envoy to London.
Jay eventually negotiated a treaty that had both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, American commerce revived and the government successfully avoided open confrontation with Britain. On the other hand, it seemed to nurture a de facto commercial alliance with the British, despite the government’s stated commitment to neutrality. The Senate ratified it in closed session, albeit with a bare majority. It became public through 1795 and 1796, and as it did so public meetings, memorials, petitions, addresses, resolutions, and demonstrations were held throughout the country.
There were also international ramifications. When France learned of the treaty they grew convinced that the U.S. and Britain had allied, and that the Franco-American alliance of 1778 had been destroyed. Thus in 1796 the French stepped up their own campaign of seizures and recalled their American envoy. In 1797 French officials went a few steps further: they expelled the American minister to Paris, and then made it clear to an American legation that they would treat with the United States only upon the receipt of bribes of $250,000, a loan of $12 million, and apologies for unpleasant remarks made by President John Adams about France. The exchange between the American delegation and their French counterpart subsequently became known as the XYZ Affair. In conjunction with the stepped-up French program of vessel seizure, it became the catalyst for an undeclared naval “Quasi-War” between the two countries.
International tensions (if not domestic unrest) subsided by early 1801, but in 1805 Britain and France once again began to pose significant challenges to the United States. Continual violations of neutral rights, the seizure of vessels, and the sensitive problem of impressment meant that American losses under French and British trade policies were heavy. In late 1807 the Thomas Jefferson administration decided to retaliate with trade sanctions. Republican Party leaders were convinced that America’s greatest weapon was her economic power. They reasoned that if the United States could successfully remove its goods from international markets, the resulting economic downturn would force Britain and France to alter their policies. Thus in December of 1807 Jefferson asked for, and Congress passed, an embargo act, which prohibited American ships from leaving port at all. To enforce it Jefferson received increasingly broad powers, climaxing in the Enforcement Act of 1809, which gave customs officials sweeping power to use the army and navy to suppress smuggling. Enforcement was successful, but many people became disillusioned with the embargo because of its economic effect on the country. Exports, which had peaked at $108,000,000 in 1807, plummeted to $22,000,000 in 1808. The resulting economic crisis hit New England particularly hard and allowed the Federalist Party to re-emerge as a viable political force.
Yet for all this domestic unrest the embargo had very little effect on England or France. The British simply found other sources to provide them with food and raw material, and readily expanded their own exports into South American markets. For his part, Napoleon had already lost much of his maritime trade and hardly noticed any economic impact. He even used the embargo as a pretext for stepping up the seizure of American ships—since they were supposed to be at home, these ships surely were British vessels in disguise. Faced with domestic unrest and foreign indifference, Congress abandoned the embargo shortly before the end of Jefferson’s administration in 1809.
Review the lesson plans in the unit. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDFs. These files contain excerpted versions of the documents used in all each lesson, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
Analyzing primary sources
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.