The final years of Washington’s presidency were not happy ones for him. Despite substantial achievements in launching the republican government, including the successful implementation of the neutrality policy, Washington found himself exhausted from the demands of the job and frustrated with the increasingly personal attacks made by partisan newspapers. The politically diverse cabinet that had carefully crafted and methodically enforced neutrality through a series of delicate compromises no longer existed. In addition, the president confronted the missteps of two Democratic-Republicans in his administration, Edmund Randolph and James Monroe, whose partisan biases undercut his policies. Despite Washington’s sense of disappointment and even failure, American neutrality helped launch the United States as an independent, sovereign nation, both at home and abroad, and served as an enduring cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy well into the nineteenth century. In crafting the proclamation and then implementing it through the federal government’s three branches and across the globe, Washington demonstrated his mastery as a political negotiator and established his enduring presidential legacy as a statesman who kept the young nation at peace.
Several weeks after announcing America’s foreign-policy triumphs to Congress, Washington sounded a very different note in a letter to Gouverneur Morris, the former minister to France.1 Written on December 22, 1795, he reiterated his neutrality policy: “It is well know that peace has been the order of the day for me, since the disturbances in Europe first commenced.” Yet, the president lamented, “by a firm adherence to these principles, and to the neutral policy which has been adopted, I have brought on myself a torrent of abuse in the factious papers in this country.” In particular, Washington focused on the Democratic-Republican opposition to Jay’s Treaty. Although conceding that “a more favorable one were to have been wished,” he argued that the final document had its merits and was not as unpopular or as terrible as its opponents contended. 2
As Washington bemoaned rising partisanship, he only needed to look at his administration to see its corrosive effects. By early 1795, his cabinet had completely turned over. Lacking the range of views that had forged the neutrality policy, with Jefferson and Randolph on one philosophical side and Hamilton and Knox on the other, it now consisted of four new members, all Federalists.3 Randolph’s forced resignation in August 1795 transformed Washington’s cabinet into a partisan entity and made explicit the deep political divisions among its original members that had been previously held in check. Randolph enjoyed the distinction of being Washington’s longest-serving cabinet member, having held the posts of attorney general and then secretary of state. After Jefferson’s departure, he was also the only Democratic-Republican remaining. His continued service to Washington in two critical positions made him a reliable, hardworking, and trusted advisor, even if he lacked the political and philosophical brilliance of Jefferson or Hamilton. News of Randolph’s later political missteps hit Washington hard, particularly his desire to elevate governing above partisanship.4
Randolph’s dramatic departure from the administration occurred for two reasons: first, because he committed misdeeds, and second, because his Federalists colleagues in the cabinet, notably Timothy Pickering and Oliver Wolcott, made sure Washington knew about them. In March 1795, a British ship had captured the Jean Bart, a vessel carrying French minister to the United States Fauchet’s diplomatic dispatches to France. These papers were eventually handed over to the British minister to the United States, George Hammond, who then shared them with Secretary of the Treasury Wolcott. Three of the dispatches, the third, sixth, and tenth, contained incriminating partisan information about Randolph and the Whiskey Rebellion. In Dispatch 10, dated October 31, 1794, Randolph discussed the rebellion with Fauchet and its implications for Democratic-Republican politics. In Dispatch 3, written on June 3, Randolph reported to Fauchet that Washington’s administration had “hastened the local eruption, to make an advantageous diversion, and to lay the more general storm which it saw was gathering.” Perhaps most damaging to Randolph was Dispatch 6, written on September 5, in which the secretary of state attempted to raise money from Fauchet in order to promote pro-French policies within the administration.5
After Washington reviewed translations of these dispatches (helpfully provided by Secretary of War Pickering), the president summoned Randolph to explain his betrayal of administration policy. This meeting occurred on August 19, with Pickering and Wolcott also present. Randolph, unable to challenge the veracity of these documents, submitted his resignation to Washington later that day.6 While continuing to deny any wrongdoing, he was unable to successfully dispute the contents of Fauchet’s dispatches.7
Another partisan disappointment confronted Washington, this one coming from France. In 1794, the president had reached across the widening partisan aisle and nominated Monroe to be the new minister to France. He saw this appointment as an opportunity to soothe partisan discord and to also send an envoy more favorable to the French. Monroe, of course, was the friend and neighbor of the two leading Democratic-Republicans, Jefferson and Madison. He was also a strong supporter of the French Revolution, in contrast to his predecessor, Morris, whose disdain for it had led Paris to ask for his recall.8 Washington nominated Monroe on May 27, and the new minister sailed a month later.9
While Monroe’s mistakes marred his brief tenure as minister to France, he also entered a chaotic political situation. The Committee on Public Safety, which had presided over the Reign of Terror, still controlled foreign affairs, although the National Convention also claimed governing authority. Amid this political confusion, Monroe hastily presented his credentials to the National Convention. Immediately afterward, he delivered a speech stressing the bonds between the two republics, their similar governments, their commitment to rights, and their shared military struggle for independence, which France was still fighting.10 These remarks, particularly the linking of the American Revolution with France’s current upheaval, undercut U.S. policy to remain aloof from the European conflict.
The excesses of this speech could be attributed to the excitement and confusion of the moment. But Monroe committed a more serious mistake when he placed his partisan preferences above U.S. policy. Concerned about the effects of Jay’s Treaty on Franco-American relations, he shared a summary of its contents with the French government.11 Washington was understandably livid when he received the news. In response, he urged Monroe not “to sow the seeds of distrust in the French nation, and to excite their belief of an influence, possessed by Great Britain”; most importantly, he urged his minister to “maintain” America’s “strict neutrality.”12 Despite this admonition, Washington had already decided to recall Monroe. With Randolph no longer in the cabinet to defend the Virginian, Washington informed the new secretary of state, Pickering, that he sought a minister “who will promote, not thwart the neutral policy of the government.”13 With the arrival in Paris of Monroe’s successor, Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, in December 1796, the Washington administration no longer had a bipartisan cast.14
Although the political missteps of Randolph and Monroe added color to Washington’s second term, they should not be allowed to obscure the greater achievements associated with the formulation and implementation of neutrality at home and abroad. First among these accomplishments was the administration’s decision to avoid participating in the European conflict, despite pressure from France and Britain. This approach ensured that U.S. autonomy and sovereignty would be upheld. It also set the precedent that U.S. foreign policy should put American needs first and avoid cumbersome alliances.
With assaults on American shipping testing the strength of this policy, Washington and his administration made a series of powerful decisions to enforce neutrality. The United States banned privateering in its ports and instructed customs officers to report privateering violations, authorized U.S. district attorneys to prosecute them, and empowered state governors to use the militias, if needed, to enforce such measures. The U.S. government also defined its oceanic boundaries and agreed to indemnify foreign ships captured in these waters. Lastly, the administration took the bold step of requesting the recall of Citizen Genet, whose activities had done so much to undercut the country’s neutral stance. All of these decisions were the product of consensus among Washington and his cabinet. As the policy’s chief architect, the president approved every document, letter, and policy statement that emanated from his administration dealing with neutrality. As he steered the United States onto this course, Washington demonstrated his skills as a political negotiator as well as his commitment to peace.
With the convening of Congress in December 1793, Washington and his administration found a valuable constitutional partner that passed laws to expand the domestic enforcement of neutrality. His 1795 letter to Pickering summarized these legislative achievements: “the fortifications and defenses of several harbors,” the building of six naval frigates, and “the erecting and repairing of arsenals and magazines.”15 Additionally, Congress passed several embargoes to protect American shipping from the British navy’s assaults. Lastly, it codified the two neutrality proclamations into the Neutrality Act of 1794, which legally banned privateering in American waters and prohibited U.S. citizens from participating in foreign conflicts. The third branch of the government, the judiciary, was slower to define its constitutional role in the enforcement of neutrality, but under the leadership of Chief Justice Jay, the Supreme Court ultimately asserted its authority over admiralty cases.
As the assault on neutrality occurred on a global scale as well as in American waters, Washington launched diplomatic offensives intended to resolve these encroachments. By 1794, envoys could be found in London, Madrid, Lisbon, Algiers, and the Caribbean promoting American neutrality and coming to the aid of U.S. ship captains and sailors whose vessels had been captured and condemned. Early in the Anglo-French war, some maritime citizens, such as Gideon Henfield, sought to profit from French privateering. While the U.S. government prohibited Americans from serving on foreign privateers, the administration successfully negotiated financial compensation for lost ships and cargoes, sending vessels to rescue stranded American sailors. Through these diplomatic agreements, the seafaring community came to see the value of the government’s involvement in the protection of American shipping.
In September 1796 Washington issued a farewell address to “Friends, and Fellow Citizens” in which he summarized the major accomplishments of his presidency as well as his concerns for the future. This lengthy message, possessing a bipartisan tinge, was not a speech.16 Instead, it appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper, the American Daily Advertiser, on September 19, 1796, as an “open letter” to the American people from “an old and affectionate friend.”17 In this valedictory, Washington highlighted the themes that had guided his presidency: promoting national unity, strengthening republican government, upholding the Constitution’s principles, avoiding partisanship, and pursuing American neutrality. Washington explained that his 1793 Neutrality Proclamation served as the “index to the plan,” then listed the various reasons the United States should “steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world.” First, these overseas conflicts stemmed from complex alliances and rivalries that had nothing to do with the United States. Instead, “such an attachment of a small or weak, towards a great and powerful Nation, dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.” Second, foreign entanglements were “one of the baneful foes of republican government.” While he urged that the United States “observe good faith and justice towards all nations,” he also stressed the importance “in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.”18 As Washington said farewell to the nation, he declared neutrality to be the signature issue of his presidency, thus securing his presidential legacy as a skilled diplomat and prescient statesman.19
Washington’s accomplishments in promoting and implementing neutrality can be seen in the foreign-policy decisions of his successors. Although the neutrality policy sent a strong message to the world that the young United States intended to be an autonomous and sovereign nation, international challenges persisted. John Adams confronted French assaults on U.S. ships during the Quasi-War of 1798, while Thomas Jefferson and James Madison dealt with Britain’s continued attacks on American vessels, including the practice of impressment. The Convention of Mortefontaine in 1800 finally disentangled the United States from its treaty obligations with France, while a war with Britain in 1812 would be needed to resolve the longstanding trading problems with that nation.20 And despite the large financial commitments, tensions continued with the Algerian pirates until a peace treaty was reached in 1815.21 Amid these challenges, each president followed the path established by Washington: defend U.S. interests and avoid entanglements in foreign conflicts. The continued pursuit of American neutrality beyond Washington’s administration demonstrated the wisdom and vision of this policy. Its longevity also showed that the partisan divide in foreign policy was never as great as it was in domestic affairs.
In hindsight, the neutrality policy seems like a “no-brainer.” Of course the young nation should remain aloof from European warfare and not become entangled in conflicts that did not concern the United States. Pursuing friendly commercial relationships with all nations, regardless of their political associations, also made sense. The significance of the Neutrality Proclamation lies in its explicitness. Through a written document, the United States announced to its citizens and the rest of the world its intention to remain neutral in the current European war. This policy gained added strength from Washington’s steadfast commitment to its implementation, both at home and abroad. Working with a divided cabinet, the president pursued policy compromises designed to ensure the successful enforcement of neutrality. With the executive branch leading the way in foreign affairs, this policy eventually gained the support of the Constitution’s other branches, Congress and the judiciary. American neutrality endured through the nineteenth century because this approach provided the best path for the young nation to participate, grow, and even thrive in the world.
At George Washington’s funeral, Henry Lee, Virginia’s governor and a Revolutionary War veteran, famously and succinctly eulogized the late president as “first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of the nation.”22 From the battlefield, Washington had witnessed deadly European rivalries firsthand. These experiences resulted in his deep commitment to American neutrality as president, when he pursued peace and established his enduring legacy as a statesman. Thanks to Washington’s unique experiences with war and peace, the United States built a neutral government capable of ensuring this policy’s success and the nation’s longevity.