Problems in the West plagued Washington during his presidency. Since the end of the French and Indian War, American settlers had pushed farther and farther westward into the Ohio Valley. Although the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787 paid lip service to the notion that Native Americans should receive fair treatment from settlers, little was done to ensure that this was the case. By the end of the eighteenth century, relations between settlers and Native Americans, who were angry that they received no compensation for their lands, were tense.
In 1790, Congress passed the first of the Indian Intercourse Acts to resolve the situation peacefully. These acts stipulated that the United States would regulate all trade with Native Americans and that it would acquire new lands in the West only via official treaties. In reality, the acts had little real weight; most American farmers ignored them, and bloody clashes continued. Ultimately, settlers gained the upper hand after U.S. forces routed many of the most powerful tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
Many whites generally looked down on Native Americans as savages who didn’t use the land properly; as a result, they had few qualms about taking native lands. Meanwhile, Democratic-Republicans and their expansionist Jacksonian successors usually turned a blind eye to the suffering of Native Americans in the hopes of winning the support of more rural supporters.
Washington also felt pressure in the West from Spain, which controlled the Louisiana Territory and Florida and areas from British Canada north of the Ohio Valley. Spain was highly suspicious of the new United States and feared that American settlers’ thirst for new western lands would prompt Congress to annex portions of Spanish territory.
As a result, Spain denied American farmers access to the Mississippi River, which was necessary for shipping grain to the East via the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. They also allied themselves with many Native American tribes in the region.
Britain also feared American expansion. Although the Treaty of Paris that had ended the Revolutionary War stipulated that the Ohio Valley was American territory, British troops remained stationed in the region to protect their old trade interests. They also feared another attempt to invade Canada. Worse, however, was the British navy’s continued seizure of American trade ships and cargos in the Caribbean and Atlantic.
Few other international events had such a profound impact on the United States as the French Revolution, which began in 1789 when the French overthrew King Louis XVI. Thomas Jefferson and many other Americans rejoiced that the French were continuing the revolutionary cause to plant democracy in Europe. Jefferson believed that a firm friendship with republican France would benefit both countries.
However, when the revolution turned bloody, heads (literally) began to roll, and war erupted between France and Britain, American public opinion became split. Though most of Jefferson’s supporters believed the United States should still honor the 1778 Franco-American alliance, more conservative Americans, such as Alexander Hamilton, thought the United States should seek an alliance with London.
After a heated debate over whether the United States should ally itself with France or Britain, Washington finally ended the debate when he issued his Neutrality Proclamation in 1793. The proclamation pledged mutual friendship and the desire to trade with both nations.
The neutrality issue was not closed for the French, however. France’s ambassador to the United States, Edmond Genêt (or Citizen Genêt, as he preferred to be called), violated Washington’s neutrality order by commissioning U.S. privateers to fight for France and trying to make arrangements to use U.S. ports in the war effort against Britain. The Citizen Genêt affair, as it came to be called, caused such outrage that Genêt was recalled as ambassador. He chose to remain in the country, however, and ultimately even became a U.S. citizen. Jefferson, displeased and embarrassed by Genêt, eventually resigned his cabinet post, in part over the affair.
The domestic turbulence and foreign clashes of the late 1780s caused many Americans to grow discontented with their new government—a problem that was only exacerbated by the passage of Hamilton’s excise tax in 1790. Because most farmers converted their grain harvests to alcohol before shipping, the tax placed a heavy burden on their already-empty pocketbooks.
In reaction, a small band of Pennsylvania farmers initiated the Whiskey Rebellion against the government in 1794 to redress grievances and seek change. Rumors of insurrection and another revolution circulated from the West, through the countryside, until they reached lawmakers in Philadelphia. In response, Washington organized an army of 13,000 and marched them to western Pennsylvania. Upon arrival, however, the troops found that the shocked and awed rebels had already disbanded. This first true test of the new federal government did much to demonstrate Washington’s willpower and the government’s authority.
To prevent another war with Britain, Washington dispatched Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay to London in 1794 to negotiate a settlement. Under Jay’s Treaty, Britain agreed to withdraw its troops from the Ohio Valley and pay damages for American ships that the Royal Navy had seized illegally. The United States, meanwhile, agreed to pay outstanding pre-Revolutionary War debts. The treaty greatly displeased the Jeffersonians, who believed that the United States was cozying up to Britain and thought the treaty required horrendous concessions.
A year later, in 1795, Pinckney’s Treaty ended the disputes with Spain. The agreement gave Americans access to the Mississippi River in exchange for promises of nonaggression against Spanish territory in the West. Hamiltonians disapproved of this treaty as much as the Jeffersonians disapproved of Jay’s Treaty. The two sides compromised by ratifying both treaties.
Tired of the demands of the presidency, Washington declined to run for a third term, and in 1796, he read his Farewell Address to the nation. In the speech, he urged Americans not to become embroiled in European affairs. In response to the growing political battles between Jefferson and Hamilton, he also warned against the dangers of factionalism and stated his belief that political parties would ruin the nation.