Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Foreign Affairs

Upon becoming President of the United States, George Washington almost immediately set two critical foreign policy precedents: He assumed control of treaty negotiations with a hostile power—in this case, the Creek Nation of Native Americans—and then asked for congressional approval once they were finalized. In addition, he sent American emissaries overseas for negotiations without legislative approval.

Taking a Global Position

In 1789, the French Revolution sent shock waves across the Atlantic. Many Americans, mindful of French aid during their own struggle for independence, supported returning the favor. At the same time, the British were once again inciting Native Americans to attack settlers in the West, hoping to destabilize the fledgling Republic. American anger in response to these attacks served to reinforce sentiments for aiding France in any conflict with Great Britain. Washington was leery of any such foreign entanglement, considering his country too weak and unstable to fight another war with a major European power. His insistence on neutrality in foreign quarrels set another key precedent, as did his insistence that the power to make such a determination be lodged in the presidency.

Within days of Washington's second inauguration, France declared war on a host of European nations, England among them. Controversy over American involvement in the dispute redoubled. The Jefferson and Hamilton factions fought endlessly over the matter. The French ambassador to the U.S.—the charismatic, audacious "Citizen" Edmond Genet—had meanwhile been appearing nationwide, drumming up considerable support for the French cause. Washington was deeply irritated by this subversive meddling, and when Genet allowed a French-sponsored warship to sail out of Philadelphia against direct presidential orders, Washington demanded that France recall Genet.

More British Challenges

In mid-1793, Britain announced that it would seize any ships trading with the French, including those flying the American flag. In protest, widespread civil disorder erupted in several American cities. By the following year, tensions with Britain were so high that Washington had to stop all American shipments overseas. Six large warships were commissioned; among them was the USS Constitution, the legendary "Old Ironsides." An envoy was sent to England to attempt reconciliation, but the British were now building a fortress in Ohio while increasing insurgent activities elsewhere in America.

The President's strong inclination in response to British provocations was to seek a diplomatic solution. But the envoy to England, John Jay, negotiated a weak treaty that undermined freedom of trade on the high seas and failed to compensate Americans for slaves taken by the British during the Revolution. Worst of all, the treaty did not address the then-common British practice of impressment. Congress approved the treaty with the proviso that trade barriers imposed by England be lessened. Washington, while dissatisfied with elements of the treaty, signed it nonetheless.

For the first time, members of the government openly criticized Washington. While this no doubt led to some hard feelings, it was also a milestone. The fledgling government chose partisan sides, verbally jousted with their President, everyone was heard, the public hurled angry rhetoric—and the government remained standing. It was the first example of the partisan give-and-take that has been essential to the survival of American democracy for over two centuries.

There was a single dreadful casualty. Washington's advisers presented him with evidence that Edmund Randolph, Jefferson's successor as secretary of state, had allegedly solicited a bribe from a French envoy to oppose the treaty with England. Although Randolph denied the charges, an angry Washington forced his old friend to resign. With this action, another important precedent was set. The Constitution empowers the President to nominate his principal officers with the advice and consent of the Senate; it says nothing, however, about the chief executive's authority to dismiss appointees. With Washington's dismissal of Randolph, the administrative system of the federal government was firmly tied to the President. In total, Washington dismissed three foreign ministers, two consuls, eight collectors, and four surveyors of internal revenue—all without seeking the advice or approval of Congress.

Foreign Policy in the Final Years

A pair of treaties—one with Algiers and another with Spain—dominated the later stages of Washington's foreign policy. Pirates from the Barbary region of North Africa were seizing American ships, kidnapping their crew members, and demanding ransom. These Barbary pirates forced a harsh treaty on the U.S. that demanded annual payments to the ruler of Algiers. It was, in short, a shakedown for protection money, and it hardened Washington's resolve to construct a viable navy. The ships built during his administration would prove to be instrumental in naval actions that ended disputes with Algiers in later administrations.

The agreement with Spain had a much happier outcome for Washington. Spanish-controlled Florida agreed to stop inciting Native American attacks on settlers. More importantly, Spain conceded unrestricted access of the entire Mississippi River to Americans, opening much of the Ohio River Valley for settlement and trade. Agricultural produce could now flow on flatboats down the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers to the Mississippi River and on to New Orleans and Europe.

John Jay's treaty with the British continued to have negative ramifications for the remainder of Washington's administration. France declared it in violation of agreements signed with America during the Revolution and claimed that it comprised an alliance with their enemy, Britain. By 1796, the French were harassing American ships and threatening the U.S. with punitive sanctions. Diplomacy did little to solve the problem, and in later years, American and French warships exchanged gunfire on several occasions.

A final precedent set by America's first President, while unpleasant for Washington, was beneficial to his nation. Newspapers sympathetic to the Jeffersonians, emboldened by the public controversy surrounding the treaty with England, became increasingly critical of Washington during his final two years in office. One called him "Saint Washington," another mockingly offered him a crown. To the President's considerable credit, he bore these attacks with dignity—not even responding to them publicly. Privately, he was deeply wounded by the attacks on his integrity, and toward the end of his life, he ceased to have any contact with Thomas Jefferson.