When French diplomat Edmond Genet came to America in 1793, he came with an ambitious agenda: to secure American support for France in her war against Britain. Ideally, he would convince President Washington to re-embrace the Franco-American alliance signed during the American Revolution. If unsuccessful at that, Genet at least hoped to rally popular support for the French and commission some privateers—government-sanctioned pirates—to harass British shipping.
In the end, Genet was not very successful; Washington insisted on a policy of strict neutrality. The American president argued that the old treaty, signed with a French government that had since been overthrown by the French Revolution, no longer applied, and the United States could ill afford to antagonize the British at such a vulnerable early stage in its development. But Genet did succeed in stirring up a hornet's nest: he tapped into a growing popular interest in politics that ultimately unsettled Washington's sense of national security almost as much as the prospect of war.
Washington laid out the greatest threats to America in a farewell address to the nation, which he began writing at the end of his first term. Convinced that the country needed his service for another four years, he put the letter away until the conclusion of his second term in 1796. But Washington's sense of the nation's security needs changed little during that time. The primary threat to national security, he felt, lay in entanglements abroad. America needed to take refuge behind its oceans for at least twenty years; by then, it might be better prepared for the dangers of international involvement. Until then, however, he deemed it America's "true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."10
Just as important but less commonly emphasized by historians, Washington stressed the need for Americans to overcome their internal divisions. Political disagreement at home could prove just as harmful as premature engagement abroad. He believed that the "spirit of party" was "inseparable from our nature" and that it reared its ugly head in all forms of government. But in popular governments, this partisan spirit assumed "its greatest rankness" and represented "their worst enemy."11
Washington's vision of American political behavior now appears somewhat naive. We have not only grown accustomed to political controversy; we have come to accept it a necessary part of healthy democratic debate. But Washington, and most of his peers, were introduced into public life with a different political philosophy. They believed that the goal of the political process should be to identify the common interest, and that the goal of the statesman was to steer people toward a recognition and embrace of the common good. The greatest threat to this process lay in the formation of "factions," coalitions of individuals guided not by the common welfare, but rather by their own more narrow interests. Should these factions crystallize into actual political parties—organizations outside of the government set on advancing their own particular interests—the higher purposes of the political process would be subverted.
What Washington failed to recognize was that his concept of politics was already outdated. The American Revolution had encouraged, and in fact depended on, popular participation in public affairs. Revolutionary leaders needed the general public to support the boycotts that preceded the war, and they needed numbers to fill the Continental Army and local militias that did the fighting once the war came. As the war progressed, common people also participated in increasing numbers in the local committees that raised the supplies and enforced the decisions made by the Continental Congress. By the war's end, more people from more common backgrounds had come to see the world of public affairs as their domain—and they had come to see the political arena as a site for the legitimate pursuit of their interests. Shopkeepers and farmers, craftsmen and laborers had come to see politics as a useful vehicle for the advancement of their economic, social, and cultural ambitions.
One expression of the new public activism that swept American life after the Revolution was the proliferation of local improvement organizations—library leagues, agricultural societies, and book clubs—and the rapidly increasing number of newspapers and journals. (In 1775, there had been 42 newspapers in America; by 1800, there were more than 250.) And in 1793, this expanding interest in public life and growing sense of ownership of the public arena manifested itself in the emergence of Democratic Societies. Some of these pursued objectives that were more cultural in nature, such as the development of a local library. But most of these, inspired by the Jacobin Clubs of revolutionary France, were overtly political. They sponsored political debates, they published political articles, and, most distressing to men of Washington's background and outlook, they assumed the role of watchdogs over the activities of the federal government. "The eyes of the republican patriot must ever be watchful," warned one member, "as many characters have crept in among us who are not with us."12
These Democratic Societies should not be confused with the Democratic-Republican Party that would soon form around Thomas Jefferson, but they were generally Jeffersonian in their politics and critical of the Washington Administration. When Edmond Genet arrived in 1793, the societies rallied to his message. Sporting tricolor cockades and addressing one another as "citizen"—the symbols and greeting of the French revolutionary government—they demanded that Washington's administration embrace the old treaty and support their sister republic.
Washington was troubled by this assertion of public pressure and the rapid proliferation of these clubs; within less than a year there were 35, spreading from South Carolina to New Hampshire. But yielding to their pressure was something wholly outside his political philosophy and his experience as a Virginia planter and a military man. He therefore refused to recognize the applicability of America's 1778 treaty with France, and he closed American ports to the privateers Genet commissioned.
In this instance, Washington still had enough personal prestige to preserve American neutrality by fending off popular demands for alliance with France. But two years later, when John Jay returned from England with a controversial treaty that ignited a firestorm of controversy, his personal influence would be even more severely tested.
Washington sent John Jay to England in 1794 in hopes of negotiating more favorable commercial terms with the British and reducing the maritime tension produced by Britain's aggressive stance toward neutral shippers. When war between Britain and France erupted in 1793, American shippers had jumped at the chance to supply goods to both sides. Arguing that "free ships made free goods," they claimed that the cargos they carried for one warring nation should be immune to confiscation by that nation's enemy. The British believed otherwise, and they had the navy to back up their position. Hundreds of American ships were seized in 1794, their cargos auctioned off as prizes by the British navy.
By the time Jay reached London, however, British policy-makers had begun to rethink their position. They feared that an overly hostile approach to American shippers might drive them from the ocean, and with French attacks on Britain's commercial fleet taking a heavy toll, they needed American ships to keep British trade flowing. They were ready to deal, and Jay came away with a better treaty than many had expected.
Britain was not yet ready to concede American claims to neutral shipping rights, but it did make concessions on several other issues. The lucrative markets of the British West Indies, closed to Americans since 1783, were opened to American vessels under 70 tons. A commission was established to consider compensation for American merchants whose cargos had been seized the previous year. And the British agreed to finally abandon forts in America's Northwest Territory, from which, Americans believed, the British had instigated Indian attacks against western settlers.
In return, the Unites States agreed to support British merchants in their attempts to recover debts incurred by Americans prior to the Revolution. Most Americans holding these debts had hoped that American independence had made them permanently unrecoverable. In addition, by omitting any reference to neutral rights, the treaty implicitly restricted American commerce to Great Britain. As most American trade was with England and its colonies, and Britain's navy posed the greater threat on the high sea, America's acceptance of a treaty that omitted any recognition of American neutral rights signaled a de facto commercial alliance with Britain.
Most historians now consider the terms of the Jay Treaty to be as favorable as the Americans could have expected under the circumstances. But when its details were revealed to the American public in 1795, it was met with an overwhelmingly negative reaction. Many Americans objected to the treaty's deferential character and its submission to British policies on neutral shipping. But southern planters had additional complaints. For starters, they were responsible for most of the pre-war debts that British merchants sought to recover—now with the assistance of the federal government. Moreover, the treaty did not mention (nor had Jay even raised) the issue of confiscated property in slaves. At the end of the Revolution, thousands of slaves had been removed by the British when they left America. Some had been classified as confiscated rebel property, while others had been freed according to the terms of British proclamations offering freedom to slaves in return for service to the British army. Southern slave-owners were still bitter about their loss of human property in 1794 and had expected Jay to secure some form of compensation for them, just as he had for northern shippers whose ships had been seized.
The reaction to the Jay Treaty provided Washington with his greatest political challenge yet. In the Senate, his Federalist majority was solid enough to secure the treaty's ratification. But in the press and in the street, the reaction was more volatile and more indifferent to the president's influence. Copies of the treaty were printed and dissected in newspapers throughout the country. Rallies protesting its terms were held in cities and towns from Boston to Charleston. Some of these rallies erupted spontaneously, but others were carefully orchestrated by Republican leaders. John Jay was the target of much of the venom. He could find his way across the country at midnight, it was rumored, by the light cast from his image burned in effigy. But Jay got off comparatively easy. Alexander Hamilton was pelted with rocks in the streets of New York while trying to defend the treaty, and the formerly untouchable Washington had to endure mobs outside his home condemning the treaty and cursing his name.
In the final analysis, Washington was able to leverage his influence, once again, to advance his foreign policy vision. But outside the still manageable halls of Congress, a different political world was unfolding. American citizens were enthusiastically forming extra-governmental political organizations. They had assumed positions hostile to the government and had aggressively pursued a set of political objectives contrary to Washington's perception of the national interest. A new political world was emerging, and Washington must have questioned how long even he, with his enormous personal influence, would be able to keep all this political energy under control.