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Building the State (1781-1797)

Expansion and Conflict

Increasing Tensions and The Whiskey Rebellion

Division into Parties and George Washington's Farewell Address


On June 1, 1792, the State of Kentucky was admitted to the Union, and four years later, on the same day, Tennessee also joined. During the 1790s, the US attempted to expand its territory into the west (which constituted the land just west of the Appalachian Mountains), where opposition lay in the foreign powers of Spain and Britain, both of which desired control of parts of North America. Also, Native Americans populated most of this coveted land. Each of the three nations, as well as the Natives, struggled against the others for control of the western territory.

The US tried to strike a balance between trying to form an alliance with the Indians and attempting to forcibly remove them. The US tried to force peace through military action in 1790 and 1791. These military efforts yielded little success, and the campaign ended with the November 4, 1791 defeat of the US troops, when the Miami Indians killed 900 men out of a force of 1400. Having failed militarily, President Washington authorized Secretary of War Henry Knox to proclaim that the Indian title to land would be formally recognized by the US and would not be revoked without "free consent." Laws punishing trespassers on Indian land accompanied this policy, as did the beginning of an initiative to "civilize the natives. However, as in the past, Indians resisted this initiative and clung to their cultures. The attempt to alter relations with the Indians ended in continued stalemate.

Meanwhile, the French went to war with Britain and Spain in 1793. Northern merchants pressed for an anti-French foreign policy, and southern planters encouraged the government to ally itself with France. The nation was torn between two options. French diplomat Edmond Genet traveled to the United States to argue the French case to the US government, but he was unsuccessful in evoking government action. On April 22, 1793, Washington issued the Proclamation of American Neutrality, refusing to be drawn into the war. Despite this proclamation, Genet was able to persuade southwestern settlers to offer limited military support to the French against the Spanish in Florida and the Mississippi Valley. Additionally, Genet enlisted nearly 1,000 Americans to function as privateers at sea, terrorizing the British navy.

Washington exhorted his people to cease their attacks on British vessels, but it was too late. British ministers decided that only a massive show of force would rectify the situation. Accordingly, the British navy seized over 250 American vessels during the winter of 1794. At the same time, British naval officers began the practice of inspecting American vessels for British subjects, who, if they were found, were impressed into service in the royal navy. American sailors were often seized as well. Britain further challenged US neutrality in February 1794. Canada's royal governor denied US claims to the land north of the Ohio River and encouraged the Indians there to resist expansion. British troops built Fort Miami on US territory, and the Spanish, following suit, built Fort San Fernando on US lands in the southwest.

On the brink of war, Washington dispatched negotiators to attempt to win peace with the encroaching forces. The first to experience success was General Anthony Wayne, who led troops into the Northwest Territory and routed a large contingent of Indian warriors at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794. The next August, twelve Indian tribes signed the Treaty of Greenville, which ended hostilities and opened the area now known as Ohio to settlement. Shortly after, Jay's Treaty was signed in Britain. John Jay negotiated a settlement which removed British troops from American land and reopened trade with the West Indies. Finally, Thomas Pinckney negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain, which granted the US unrestricted access to the Mississippi River and removed Spanish troops from American land.


US relations with the Native Americans had grown increasingly dire by the early 1790s. Washington's military efforts in the north proved to be a complete failure, the southern tribes had resumed hostilities with the inhabitants of the frontier, and the Indians were unresponsive to attempts at "civilization." Convinced that the only way to avoid the continued exile from their land at the hands of the US government, Indian tribes allied themselves with America's enemies. US citizens, especially those along the frontier, saw the coalitions being built between the natives and the foreign armies. Many believed that the only way to contest the forces of Britain and Spain, both supported by Natives, was through an alliance with France. Many southern and western inhabitants pressed for pro-French foreign policy, hoping that France, supported by the US, could achieve victory in Europe, distracting the British and Spanish governments from their preoccupation with the American West.

American feelings toward France were generally strong, in one direction or the other. The conservative North generally disapproved of the recent French Revolution, while more liberal southerners generally supported it. Northern merchants realized that trade with Britain was, more than anything else, the force sustaining their economy. The largest portion of US trade went through British ports. New England businessmen thought an alliance with France might force British retaliation in the form of constriction of trade and/or all out war, while a pro-British stance might invite an expansion of trade. Southerners, on the other hand, saw reliance on British trade as a weakness of the national economy, and favored the expansion of trade with France. Additionally, southern plantation owners feared the intentions of the British toward the institution of slavery. Many based their opinions on this subject on rumors that claimed the British had begun a bloody slave uprising on the French-controlled island of Saint Domingue. They feared the British would attempt to abolish slavery in the American South, and thus advocated a pro-French foreign policy. The conflict over foreign policy in the early to mid 1790s was yet another struggle emblematic of the division of the nation into quarreling factions, largely based on the division between North and South.

Jay's Treaty, perhaps the most important diplomatic achievement of the Washington administration, was received poorly in the US, where critics saw it as a weak attempt at negotiation, allowing the British to continue to impress sailors and to restrict US trade with French ports in the Caribbean. Jay himself was criticized heavily by the public and denounced as a diplomatic failure. However, in retrospect, the treaty accomplished quite a lot, considering the circumstances. Most importantly, it halted the advance toward war with Britain before the outbreak of serious violence. Second, it ended the occupation of American land by British forts, which had lasted for twelve years. Finally, the treaty made crucial headway in resolving squabbles between the two nations revolving around the collection of prewar debts, which had gone on for over a decade.

In retrospect, the Washington administration accomplished a great deal in the realm of diplomacy. It defended American territorial rights, avoided war, and opened the crucial port of New Orleans. Though the administration had made great strides in the establishment of the US as an international power, internal divisions over policy showed that foreign policy was simply yet another area that gave rise to political conflict between American citizens.

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