Monday, November 17, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part II

This is the second installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

Chapter 2 covers the 1789-1801 period. This of course was a period fraught with dangers for a young nation. Caught between the British and French, both of which wanted to use the U.S. for its own advantage during the wars of the French Revolution, America could easily have collapsed. It faced not only hostile foreign threats but deep internal divisions based largely on loyalty to those foreign powers.

Why did the United States survive? Like in the Revolution, despite having an unreasonable opinion of its own importance which constantly led the U.S. into trouble, the nation's leaders were consistently able to play Britain and France off of each other. As soon as it looked like we were going to war with Britain, they would realize it wasn't worth their time to deal with a side war. Same with the French.

What's ridiculous about the Americans in these early years is that despite the fact that the U.S. policy makers consistently got the nation into terribly tough jams by acting tough with nations it had no business negotiating with on an equal level, and despite the fact that U.S. negotiators had almost no leverage when making these deals, is that the American public was almost always shocked that the British and French didn't give us everything we wanted. Rob discusses this mentality in his piece, exploring the incredible naviete of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison in writing in an early version of the Farewell Address that the US "shall possess the strength of a giant, and there will be none who could make us afraid." While one might think this would represent the foreign policy of every nation, the early United States actually thought this should happen now. When reality intervened, Americans became upset.

The worst example of this is the Jay Treaty. In 1794, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton sent John Jay to Britain to avoid war with the British over the seizing of American ships in the Caribbean and the impressment of our sailors. Jay got little from the British but they did evacuate some posts in the Northwest and referred many of the major issues to arbitration. Most importantly, we received some concessions in the West Indies, a major concession for the British within their mercantile system.

But people in the U.S. excoriated Jay, mostly because he agreed to British definitions of neutral rights. Jay was even burned in effigy throughout the nation. Finally, Congress agreed to the treaty because Hamilton and Jay fought for it and because Anthony Wayne's success in defeating the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers helped undermine the British threat in the northwest. Historians since 1794 have also generally seen the Jay Treaty in a negative light, essentially following the lead of critics at the time.

This was ridiculous. Herring states that Jay probably gave up more than he had to on these issues. Maybe. But this was the United States. And England was England. To think that we could simply state terms to Europe, as we did over and over again in these years, was totally absurd but typical of the arrogance in which the United States carried itself, even from the nation's infancy. Herring defends Jay as well saying "The most likely alternative to the treaty was a continued state of crisis and conflict that could have led to war" and "Rarely has a treaty so bad on the face of it produced such positive results."

The other big issue of the period was the disastrous relations with France during the Adams administration. This included the XYZ Affair, when Talleyrand demanded a bribe from American negotiators, and the naval quasi-war of 1798. Like with the Jay Treaty, the Convention of 1800, settling these problems, led to great criticism at home, this time from the pro-British Federalists. Again, the negotiators were seen as giving up too much for peace. And yet again, this was totally absurd. Not only did the Convention of 1800 keep the U.S. from going to with France but it led to significant concessions from the French, including freeing the nation from the 1778 alliance.

The biggest omission of this chapter is any in depth discussion of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Although domestic in nature, they were driven by foreign policy, in particular the Federalist fear of French revolutionaries and their supporters. This great black mark on Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and the Federalists surely deserves greater interrogation. I believe that such would help define the Federalists as too closely aligned to England and willing to sacrifice the spirit of their young republic to stay in power.

Herring's most interesting point in this chapter is debunking the myth that Washington's Farewell Address was isolationist. Rather, Washington stressed aggressive trade combined with staying on an independent track, keeping the nation neither too closely aligned with Britain or France. Rather, future Americans used the document to claim isolationism, even though they mostly never believed in the idea. The importance of this point is less relevant to this chapter than it will be later. We will pick it up then.

Herring continues to focus a good bit of his time on Native American issues. The 1790s were a tough time for American-indigenous relations. When the British wanted to back the Indians, they could easily defeat American forces. The most notorious loss for the Americans happened in 1791 when forces under Arthur St. Clair were annihilated by Indians north of the Ohio River. This was unacceptable to the Washington government; the United States never intended to deal with Indians with any respect and wanted to crush them at the first opportunity. When the British refused to intervene, the Indians had great difficulty surviving. In response to St. Clair's defeat, Washington sent out a new army under Anthony Wayne which massacred the Indians in 1794 and the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Lake Erie. The British incited the Indians to battle but then refused to support them at all when Wayne crushed their forces, even to the point of refusing to let the fleeing Indians into their forts. From that point forward, the Americans dominated Indian affairs in the Ohio area.