Are we to think of the United States of America as a republic or an empire? In particular, are we to think of the struggling young United States that Michael Taylor and I discuss in our new book, An Independent Empire: Diplomacy and War in the Making of the United States, as a republic or an empire?
Are we to think the principal goal of the early republic was to become, as the historian Eliga Gould has said, a “treaty-worthy nation,” a respected member of an international community of states that governed its relations according to the law of nations? Or was it an aspiring regional hegemon whose lodestar in foreign policy was the desire to dominate North America beyond all fear of challenge, become the arbiter of affairs in both North and South America, and thereby avoid the entanglements of balance of power politics and separate its future from the futures of European empires and the European state system?
The Anglo-American crisis of 1794 displays the United States both as a rising empire and as a revolutionary and subversive power. From the revolutionary diplomacy of Edmond Genêt, Girondist French minister to the United States and apostle of world revolution, George Washington needed no instruction about American interests. Yet Washington also needed no instruction in revolutionary diplomacy or the subversive revolutionary substitutes for diplomacy.
Origins of the Jay Treaty Gambit
To tamper with the loyalty of a foreign people to their prince or to their duly constituted government was a violation of the law of nations, in war as well as in peace.
Edmund Burke, in an appendix to his December 1793 memorandum for George III, “Remarks on the Policy of the Allies with Respect to France,” quoted Emer de Vattel saying “it is a violation of the law of nations to persuade those subjects to revolt who actually obey their sovereign, though they complain of his government.” Burke claimed that no decent state would attempt to weaken a rival by aiming to subvert the loyalty of the rival’s people to its government, where that government has managed until now to secure the obedience of its people. A state that has constant recourse to such indecency had no place, Burke argued, in the international order of a civilized world.
Consider, then, Washington’s secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, on May 6, 1794, instructing Chief Justice John Jay, envoy extraordinary of the United States to Great Britain: “A full persuasion is entertained that, throughout the whole negotiation, you will make the following its general objects . . . to prevent the British ministry, should they be resolved on war, from carrying with them the British nation.”
Plan A in Randolph’s instructions to John Jay was to make a treaty with Britain to resolve a host of issues left over from the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Most pressing for Americans was British occupation of posts in territory they had ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris, the “Northwest,” between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, west of the Appalachians, and their consequent interference with the Indians there. As Jay’s mission was getting underway, word had come to Philadelphia that the British in April 1794 had occupied a new post within that territory, Fort Miamis, about 70 miles south of Detroit.
Washington also hoped that Jay would negotiate a resolution to differences raised by Britain’s war against France, conflicts arising out of British seizures of American vessels, and the British definition of blockade and contraband that justified these seizures in Britain’s admiralty courts. More broadly, Washington hoped that Jay would succeed in resolving the modes under which Americans would trade with Britain and her empire. The Washington Administration and its supporters were especially concerned with American trade in the Caribbean, which in the 1790s was in the last flush of her fiscal and therefore political centrality in global politics.
Yet Washington had Randolph instruct Jay in a Plan B: if negotiations should fail, and the British should seek to block American expansion in the Northwest and American trade even by resort to war, Randolph should tell Jay to do his best to divide the British people from their government in the hope that these divisions would hamper the war effort against the United States.
The Indians in the Northwest Territory
Keep in mind that tensions coming out of the war of the First Coalition on the Atlantic, and Lord Dorchester’s meddling with the Indians, were such that the alternative really was negotiation or war. Though the 1783 Treaty of Paris had stipulated that the British should evacuate their military posts in the region, the redcoats, clinging to the excuse that the United States would not honor prewar debts or protect loyalists, had not budged.
There was also a strategic rationale behind this British obstinacy; for by maintaining their posts they not only could keep watch on a rival (if embryonic) empire but they could also sustain Native American alliances that could be reactivated in the event of another war with the United States. Some British commanders even felt a duty to care for indigenous allies who had been betrayed by the diplomats at Paris.
The Earl of Carlisle, who had led that ill-fated peace commission of 1778, regarded the Treaty of Paris as nothing better than the betrayal of Britain’s Native American allies. “Twenty-five nations of Indians,” he told the House of Lords, had been “made over to the United States.” This had happened without “the smallest apparent advantage resulting to Great Britain” and, worse, without “that solitary stipulation which our honor should have made us insist upon, and have demanded with unshaken firmness: a place of refuge for those miserable persons before alluded to, some port, some haven, for those shattered barks to have been laid up in quiet.”
Other Britons conceived of a “special relationship” with the Indians and therefore resented direct American communication with their former allies. The British commander at Fort Ottawa, Allan Maclean, conceded the Americans’ right to cultivate diplomatic relations around the globe: “The Americans being now Independent States,” he wrote to Detroit, “will say they have a right to send Ambassadors or Emissaries to whom they please, without our consent—no doubt they may to all nations that we know of.” Yet in the case of the Indians, Maclean was “of a different opinion, it being clearly an exception to the Rule.”
The Indians, he believed, were natural British allies, bound to the Crown. They got “from the King’s Stores the bread they are to eat tomorrow, and from his magazines the clothing that covers their nakedness.” The Indians were, in short, “not only our allies, but they are a part of our Family; and the Americans might as well . . . attempt to seduce our children & servants from their duty and allegiance, as to convene and assemble all the Indian Nations.”
By keeping their Northwest posts, by smuggling arms to the Native Americans, and by the operation of Canada’s Indian Department, the British deliberately hindered the expansion of the United States. In what amounted to a serious insult, they also offered to mediate negotiations between the United States and the Indians on U.S. land. The redcoats then refused to allow American commissioners to meet with the Indian Council at Detroit on what was, according to the Treaty of Paris, sovereign American soil.
When Gouverneur Morris was sent to London in 1790 to persuade the British to honor the peace terms, he encountered nothing but obfuscation. Unwilling to uphold the terms of 1783, the British instead offered to negotiate anew. Morris spat back at William Pitt the Younger, “You wish to make a new treaty instead of complying with the old one,” and the prime minister conceded that such was “in some sort” his plan. By May 1792, Alexander Hamilton was so riled by British obstruction that, despite having stoutly resisted commercial warfare, he was ready for “actual” war.
London was told that continued possession of the military posts would be intolerable to the Americans: “Any plan, which comprehended anything like a cession of territory or right or the allowance of any other power to interfere in the disputes with the Indians, would be considered by this government as absolutely impracticable and inadmissible.” British officials, though, were committed to their Northwest conspiracy.
One such official was the Crown superintendent of Indian affairs, Sir John Johnson, the son of Sir William. Sir John was an ex-loyalist who was the subject of a bill of attainder in New York. Another was Guy Carleton, Baron Dorchester, the last British commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary War and the governor-general of Canada. In the latter role, Dorchester had inflamed tension between Britain and the United States by ordering the construction of a new British fort on the banks of the Miami River in present-day Ohio, and by denouncing the expansionary politics of the American empire.
In what Dorchester thought was a confidential letter to the Western Confederacy, but which was intercepted and leaked to the Americans, he declared that “From the manner in which the people of the States push on, and act and talk on this side, and from what I learn of their conduct towards the sea, I shall not be surprised if we are at war with them in the course of the present year: and if we are, a line must then be drawn by the warriors.” Eleven years after the Treaty of Paris, the British in North America had no intention of honoring its terms.
By the end of 1793, the British government seemed to think war with the United States was inevitable, so they had no qualms about wholesale depredations on American commerce. Americans were all agreed that even if war was inevitable, it was better to defer it as far as possible, until our might was more certain. As Hamilton wrote in July 1795: “if we can avoid war for ten or twelve years more, we shall then have acquired a maturity, which will make it no more than a common calamity.”
Catalyst of the Conflict with Britain
War between Britain and the United States may have seemed inevitable to many at the beginning of 1794, but it was deferred for not 10 or 12 but 18 years. To understand how and why, let us return to the principal issue of 1794, the Northwest Posts and the triangle of Anglo-American-Indian relations. The Americans and the Indians, had been fighting since 1785.
The first major campaign was launched in autumn 1790 when Washington and his secretary of war Henry Knox ordered General Josiah Harmar to journey into the lands of the Miami and the Shawnee. Harmar was to exact retribution for Indian assaults on American settlers and to raze the principal Miami settlement of Kekionga. He did not succeed—the Harmar Campaign resulted in crushing defeat for the United States.
First, at the Battle of Heller’s Corner, a reconnaissance mission led by John Hardin and James Fontaine was deceived, led into swampland, and routed by Native Americans commanded by the Miami chief Little Turtle. The next day, October 20, Philip Hartshorn was ambushed by an Indian force some eight miles outside Kekionga. With morale diminishing rapidly, Hardin advanced on Kekionga with 350 men. Outnumbered almost three-to-one, he sent an urgent request to Harmar for reinforcements, but General Harmar, who allegedly was drunk, refused and arranged his troops into a defensive formation around his own camp. This left Hardin in an impossible position. When the Indians attacked, all he could do was resist and after three hours he fell back after the loss of 150 men.
The steam that rose from the American scalps is said to have reminded the Indians of hot squash in the cool autumnal air, so the encounter is known as the Battle of the Pumpkin Fields. With winter approaching, Harmar concluded he could no longer attack and he retreated in disgrace.
On receiving the dispatches from the field, Washington was crestfallen. “My mind,” he wrote, “is prepared for the worst; that is, expense without honor and profit.” Harmar’s Defeat also acted as a catalyst for further Indian aggression. In January 1791, the Big Bottom Massacre saw 11 American settlers killed by Menape and Wyandot Indians in the southeast of present-day Ohio; the next week, the Siege of Dunlap’s Station saw 30 Americans attacked by 500 warriors of the Western Confederacy.
Washington reacted to Harmar’s calamities and the Indian insurgency by ordering Major General Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, to assemble another force for another campaign. It did not begin auspiciously. It took months for St. Clair to recruit the necessary troops, and before the campaign had even started about a quarter of his force had deserted. By the autumn of 1791, St. Clair was ready at last. Once more, the American objective was to destroy the Miami village of Kekionga.
By early November, however, several hundred more soldiers had deserted and St. Clair, hobbled by gout and incapable of imposing discipline, had only 920 troops—and two hundred ancillary followers—at his disposal. On the night of November 3, his bedraggled party made camp at the present-day location of Fort Recovery, Ohio. At dawn, as St. Clair’s troops ate breakfast, Little Turtle and Blue Jacket led a thousand Native Americans from the surrounding woods. Over the next few hours and during the flight from battle, the United States Army suffered one of the worst defeats in its history and the worst United States defeat in the course of two centuries of Indian wars. Of the 920 soldiers, 632 were killed and 264 were wounded. Only 24 were unharmed. Nearly all the 200 camp followers were killed too.
On his return to Philadelphia, St. Clair requested a court-martial that he might be exonerated; the courtesy was refused and he was forced to resign. The House of Representatives then took St. Clair’s defeat as the subject of its first special committee investigation. The fallout was such that Washington summoned for conference the secretaries of all governmental departments: St. Clair’s humiliation thus “inspired” the first meeting of the United States cabinet. When the same news was received in London, the British were elated. Still ensconced in their posts, still furnishing arms to the Indians, Pitt the Younger’s government began to contemplate an Indian “buffer state” between the United States and Canada.
Yet St. Clair’s defeat was also a turning point in the Northwest Indian War and the history of the United States Army. In March 1792, Congress voted for the establishment of more regiments, for longer enlistments, and for better pay for soldiers. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, a Revolutionary War general from Pennsylvania and a former congressman unseated over claims of electoral fraud, was made senior officer of the Army and ordered by Washington to create a regular military force that could at last pacify the Northwest. Recruited and trained in Pittsburgh, and combining infantry, cavalry, and artillery, Wayne’s force was named the Legion of the United States.
“The Americans must certainly be a restless People,” observed one Detroit trader, “for no sooner is one army destroyed than another springs up in its place.”
The Choice at Fort Miamis
Wayne’s Legion soon reversed the course of the Indian War. Establishing Fort Recovery at the precise location of St. Clair’s defeat and building fortifications throughout the Northwest Territory, the Legion’s campaigns culminated in August 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Here, a force of 2,000 United States soldiers conclusively defeated the Native Americans and a company of Canadian militiamen.
In the prelude to the battle, Wayne’s Legion marched northward; Blue Jacket’s Indians took a defensive position along the Maumee River, where scores of trees had been uprooted by recent storms, hence “Fallen Timbers.” The battle itself was anticlimactic. Wayne’s infantry launched a bayonet charge and his cavalry outflanked the Native Americans, who were routed. The defeated Indians fled to Fort Miamis, which by April 1794 had been rebuilt and reoccupied by the redcoats.
This was significant, even momentous, because in June of that year, Henry Knox—still secretary of war —had authorized an American military assault on the fort.
“If . . . in the course of your operations,” Knox had written to Wayne, “it should become necessary to dislodge the party at the rapids of Miami, you are hereby authorized in the name of the President of the United States to do it.” These orders represent a remarkable volte-face. As late as March 31, Knox had ordered Wayne to abstain “from every step or measure which could be . . . construed into any aggression on your part against England or Spain.” Yet in his orders of June 7, explicitly countermanding the previous orders, Washington, through Knox, had authorized a military assault on this new British fort.
Washington and Knox knew the potential cost of the mission, so Wayne was told that “no attempt ought to be made unless it shall promise complete success.” The “pernicious consequences” of the assault, whether successful or not, would likely have been open and declared war between the United States and Great Britain for, as Wayne had advanced, Upper Canada’s Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe had written to London, begging permission to unleash his troops and Indian allies to attempt reconquest of the United States.
After the Battle of Fallen Timbers, when Wayne followed the defeated Native Americans to Fort Miamis, he was presented with a dilemma. If he chose to attack the British fort, could he guarantee success? Fort Miamis was commanded by Major William Campbell, who opened the gates to the Canadian militiamen only: he too feared war, so he would not defy Wayne by sheltering Blue Jacket’s Indians. Lieutenant William Clark, who later joined Meriwether Lewis in the Corps of Discovery, recorded that Wayne’s soldiers were “all full with expectation & anxiety, of storming of the British Garrison,” but Wayne himself remained unsure of what to do.
Sorely lacking in artillery, Wayne first tried other means of compelling a British withdrawal. He wrote to Campbell, demanding that he “immediately desist from any further act of hostility. . ., by forbearing to fortify, and by withdrawing the troops, artillery, and stores under your orders and direction, forthwith.” Campbell’s reply was terse: “I certainly will not abandon this post.”
Wayne then tried to lure the British and Canadians from their position by destroying their property outside the fort’s walls and by parading within range of the palisade. When this “showdown at Fort Miamis” failed to provoke a reaction, Wayne decided against an assault. Yet at no time between 1781 and 1812 were the United States and Great Britain closer to the resumption of open warfare.
Content to declare his own victory, Wayne marched back along the Maumee River to await the peace missions of the beaten Indians. The envoys came soon enough, and by August 1795 they had agreed to the Treaty of Greenville. Signed by the Wyandots, the Delawares, the Shawnees, the Ottawas, the Chippewas, the Potawatomis, the Miamis, the Eel River Tribe, the Weas, the Kickapoos, and the Kaskaskias, the treaty substantially diminished the danger of the Western Confederacy to the northwestern United States. Trade was opened with the tribes, who were permitted “to hunt . . . without hindrance or molestation, so long as they demean themselves peaceably, and offer no injury to the people of the United States.”
The federal government meanwhile disavowed any American citizen who presumed to settle upon Indian lands, the extent of which— and therefore of American territory—was defined at length. But most important, in return for $20,000 and an annual stipend of $9,500 (paid in kind with “useful goods”), the tribes relinquished to the United States the title to all the land beyond a line that ran, in present-day terms, south from Cleveland to the Portage Lakes, along the Tuscarawas River to Bolivar, and then southwest to Fort Loramie. The line then ran gently northwest to Fort Recovery before turning abruptly southwest toward Carrollton, Kentucky.
The Greenville Treaty Line, as it became known, became the effective border between the United States and the Western Confederacy. This would not be the end of hostilities in the American Northwest—far from it—but the treaty brought an unprecedented degree of security to the region and, most significant of all, it undercut British plans for future intrigue and subversion.
Many Americans interpreted the treaty as a form of genuflection to the British, a betrayal of fellow republicans in France, and a repudiation of the principle of “free ships, free goods.”
Stopping British Subversion and Securing the Peace
The defeat of the Native Americans at Fallen Timbers meant that the Western Confederacy had failed despite British support, while the escalation of the war in Europe meant that Britain was desperate to prevent the Americans from honoring their still-extant alliance with France.
The Pitt Administration, as Gouverneur Morris told John Quincy Adams, was now “well disposed” to the United States: “They have made their arrangements upon a plan that comprehends the neutrality of the United States, and are anxious that it should be preserved.”
Reconciliatory sentiment prevailed in Philadelphia, too. The Federalists, who controlled the cabinet and the Senate, were anxious to strike a deal not with France but with Britain, a deal that might foster the commerce needed by the Hamiltonian system.
Jay’s position was compromised from the start. To gain concessions from Great Britain, he could have threatened American participation in the League of Armed Neutrality, the Russian-led alliance of northern European states that strove to uphold the immunity of neutral shipping. Yet British spies had learned that American flirtation with the League was far from serious; the British also knew from their diplomatic network in Europe that the League did not even want American membership. Jay’s only leverage came from Wayne’s recent victory in the Northwest and British anxiety to maintain American neutrality. He could not, therefore, press the British on several key issues, such as the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy.
Even so, a treaty was signed on November 19, 1794, by Jay and Lord Grenville, the British foreign minister, and its terms resolved several issues festering between the nations. Most significantly, Britain engaged to withdraw all “Troops and Garrisons from all Posts and Places within the Boundary Lines assigned by the Treaty of Paris to the United States.” Commissions would be established to settle the northwestern and northeastern borders with British Canada, while the entire border would be renegotiated if the Mississippi was found not to extend into British territory. Further commissions would resolve claims for unpaid British debts and plunder on the high seas.
Finally, American rights in British trade and vice versa were fixed, abolishing defunct “colonial” privileges and opening British ports in Europe and the East Indies to American vessels. Even the British West Indies was opened to American commerce, but only so narrowly that the Senate struck out the provision during ratification.
Upon its receipt in the United States, the treaty became a source of violent partisan controversy, not least because it failed to outlaw the impressment of American sailors. Moreover, Jay had accepted significant limits to American participation in the West Indian trade. The British were also allowed to seize French goods from American ships, and there was nothing about compensation for slaves who had been freed by the British during the Revolutionary War: possessed of antislavery sympathies, Jay was never likely to press that point.
For these reasons, many Americans interpreted the treaty as a form of genuflection to the British, a betrayal of fellow republicans in France, and a repudiation of the principle of “free ships, free goods.” Public meetings in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah voted to condemn the treaty. Jefferson’s Republican Party, which opposed the treaty, swelled its numbers accordingly.
The Jay Treaty thus became a decisive factor in the development of American partisan politics. “Pro-British” Federalists demanded its ratification, with Alexander Hamilton and Rufus King apologizing for the treaty under the pseudonym of “Camillus.” In the first of their essays, “The Defense,” they argued that Jay had covered “in a reasonable manner the points in controversy between the United States and Great Britain.” No “improper concessions” had been made, nor were any “restrictions which are incompatible with their honor” laid upon the Americans.
Compared to the “other commercial treaties” of the United States, Jay’s effort was “entitled to a preference”; in fact, the Americans had obtained “concessions of advantages . . . which no other nation has obtained from the same power.” Most pointedly, Hamilton suggested that “the too probable result of a refusal to ratify [the Jay Treaty] is war” and so “violations of our rights” would go “unredressed and unadjusted.”
Conversely, the Republicans derided Jay’s work, which they labeled the “Grenville” Treaty (as opposed to the Treaty of Greenville that Wayne had extorted from the Indians). Republicans explained Jay’s treaty as the product of addled Anglomania. Writing to the Italian physician and gunrunner Philip Mazzei, Jefferson balked at the symbiotic relationship between Federalism and pro-British policy.
“The aspect of our politics,” he wrote, “has wonderfully changed since you left us. In place of that noble love of liberty and republican government which carried us through the war, an Anglican, monarchical, and aristocratical party has sprung up.”
Their “avowed object,” wrote Jefferson, “was to draw over us the substance as they have already done the forms of the British government.” Within this “Anglican” party Jefferson identified most of American political society. “Against us,” he listed “the Executive, the Judiciary, two out of three branches of the legislature, all of the officers of the government, all who want to be officers, all timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty, British merchants and Americans trading on British capital, speculators and holders in the banks and public funds.” These merchants and speculators had conspired “for the purposes of corruption and fear” to involve the American people in “the rotten as well as the sound parts of the British model.” Jefferson warned Mazzei that he would suffer “a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.”
Such was the partisan rancor that the Treaty was ratified by the Senate without a vote to spare: the necessary two-thirds majority, 20 to 10, reflected the parties’ share of seats precisely. Even after the Jay Treaty became law it remained the subject of dispute. The prescribed commissions on borders and debts had to be financed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, so House Republicans held up proceedings while they tried to undermine public confidence in the Treaty, the defining symbol of Federalist foreign policy.
Washington and Federalists such as the Massachusetts Congressman Fisher Ames, though, built support assiduously. In one memorable speech in the House, Ames rose despite serious illness to plead that rejection of the treaty—that is, rejection of Britain’s offer to surrender its military posts—meant war against the Indians without the means of peace.
“Until the posts are restored” to American possession, Ames declared, “the treasury and the frontiers must bleed . . . By rejecting the posts, we light the savage fires—we bind the victims . . . The voice of humanity issues from the shade of their wilderness. It exclaims that, while one hand is held up to reject this treaty, the other grasps a tomahawk.” In the end, Ames succeeded and the necessary grants were made by April 1796.
Peace With Britain and Rancor at Home
The Jay Treaty fomented American partisan division more than any other event of the 1790s. As “Camillus” reflected, “There was no measure in which the government could engage so little likely to be viewed according to its intrinsic merits.”
Support and opposition to the Hamiltonian system of federal finance had been the first polarizing factor; reaction to the French Revolution and Citizen Genet might well have been the second; but the Jay Treaty and the associated debates about American foreign policy had much vaster effect in mobilizing the wider political public around the elite partisan factions. Thus was the division between Republicanism and Federalism simplified as the division between support for the French Republic and support for Great Britain.
Now to come back, finally, to the comparison of Burke’s strictures to King George III and Randolph’s instructions to John Jay.
If in the Age of Federalism there was limited American mucking about in British North America, Ireland, or Britain herself, this was not just because American capacities for troublemaking were limited, but because after Jay’s treaty, the principal threats to American interests came from France and Spain. Federalists aided revolutionary forces in the nominal French colony of Ste. Dominique, and considered aiding them throughout Spanish America—Jefferson did his bit to help stir unrest in Spanish-ruled Louisiana. The United Irishmen in America organized for their revolution against King George, and many Irish returned from America to fight and die in Ireland. It was James Monroe who aided Theobald Wolf Tone, but it was Hamilton who talked of raising an American party in England, and Washington who through Randolph instructed Jay to prepare the revolution card in England in the face of British intransigence. Because Jay secured a treaty that Americans could live with, there was no need to embark on plan B in Britain.
In short, no American public man felt the qualms Burke expressed about the prospect of fostering revolutions in other people’s countries. Such is the verdict of Palmer’s comparative study of the world revolution in the Age of Federalism: “John Adams was not much like Edmund Burke, even after [Adams] became alarmed by the French Revolution; and Alexander Hamilton never hoped to perpetuate an existing state of society, or change it by gradual, cautious, and piously respectful methods.”
American statesmen certainly disagreed about which foreign revolutions, if any, were worthy of American support. Jefferson and Pickering disagreed about the wisdom of supporting, say, the revolt of the slaves against their masters in Saint Domingue. Party strife about foreign affairs spread in large part because all of America’s political elite were committed to the revolutionary idea that foreign policy should be a matter for public deliberation, that the public should be the subjects of diplomatic action.
As Washington wrote to Marshall, “the mass of our citizens require no more than to understand a question than to decide it properly.” It was to enlighten Americans as to how to manage their country’s foreign affairs that Washington transmitted his political testament, the Farewell Address, not to his would-be heirs among the elite, but to the public at large through the newspapers.