GRAND VISIONS, even ones that prove as prescient as Washington's, must nevertheless negotiate the damnable particularities that history in the short run tosses up before history in the long run arrives to validate the vision. In Washington's case, the most obvious corollary to his view of American national interest was the avoidance of a major war during the gestative phase of national development. It so happened, however, that England and France were engaged in a century-old struggle for dominance of Europe and international supremacy, a struggle in which both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution were merely peripheral sideshows, and which would only end with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Washington's understanding of the proper American response to this global conflict was crystal clear: "I trust that we shall have too just a sense of our own interest to originate any cause that may involve us in it," he wrote in 1794, "and I ardently wish we may not be forced into it by the conduct of other nations. If we are permitted to improve without interruption, the great advantages which nature and circumstances have placed within our reach, many years will not revolve before we may be ranked not only among the most respectable, but among the happiest people on earth."
The linchpin of his foreign policy as president, it followed naturally, was the Proclamation of Neutrality (1793), which declared America an impartial witness to the ongoing European conflict. His constant refrain throughout his presidency emphasized the same point, even offering an estimate of the likely duration of America's self-imposed alienation from global politics: "Every true friend to this Country must see and feel that the policy of it is not to embroil ourselves with any nation whatsoever; but to avoid their disputes and politics; and if they will harass one another, to avail ourselves of the neutral conduct we have adopted. Twenty years peace with such an increase of population and resources as we have a right to expect; added to our remote situation from the jarring powers, will in all probability enable us in a just cause to bid defiance to any power on earth." In a sense, it was a fresh application of the same strategic lesson he had learned as head of the Continental Army—namely, to avoid engagement with a superior force until the passage of time made victory possible, what we might call "the strategy of enlightened procrastination." In retrospect, and with all the advantages of hindsight, Washington's strategic insights as president were every bit as foresighted as his strategic insights as commander in chief during the American Revolution, right down to his timing estimate of "twenty years," which pretty much predicted the outbreak of the War of 1812.
Since Washington's seminal insight was also the core piece of foreign policy wisdom offered in the Farewell Address, and since every major American statesman of the era also embraced the principle of neutrality as an obvious maxim, the meaning of the Farewell Address would seem to be incontrovertible, its message beyond controversy. But that was not at all how the message was heard at the time; in part because there was a deep division within the revolutionary generation that Washington was trying to straddle over just what a policy of American neutrality should look like; and in part because there was an alternative vision of the national interest circulating in the higher reaches of the political leadership, another opinion about where history was headed that could also make potent claims on the legacy of the American Revolution. All this had come to a head in Washington's second term in the debate over Jay's Treaty, creating the greatest crisis of Washington's presidency, the most virulent criticism of his monarchical tendencies, and the immediate context for every word he wrote in the Farewell Address.
Jay's Treaty was a landmark in the shaping of American foreign policy. In 1794, Washington had sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to negotiate a realistic bargain that avoided a war with England at a time when the United States was ill prepared to fight one. Jay returned in 1795 with a treaty that accepted the fact of English naval and commercial supremacy and implicitly endorsed a pro-English version of American neutrality. It recognized England's right to retain tariffs on American exports while granting English imports most-favored status in the United States; it implicitly accepted English impressment of American sailors. It also committed the United StatesVirginia's planters. In return for these concessions, the English agreed to submit claims by American merchants for confiscated cargoes to arbitration and to abide by the promise made in the Treaty of Paris (1783) to evacuate its troops from their posts on the western frontiers. In effect, Jay's Treaty was a repudiation of the Franco-American alliance of 1778, which had been so instrumental in gaining French military assistance for the winning of the American Revolution.31 to compensate English creditors for outstanding pre-revolutionary debts, most of which were owed by
While the specific terms of the treaty were decidedly one-sided in England's favor, the consensus reached by most historians who have studied the subject is that Jay's Treaty was a shrewd bargain for the United States. It bet, in effect, on England rather than France as the hegemonic European power of the future, which proved prophetic. It recognized the massive dependence of the American economy on trade with England. In a sense, it was a precocious preview of the Monroe Doctrine (1823), for it linked American security and economic development to the British fleet, which provided a protective shield of incalculable value throughout the nineteenth century. Mostly, it postponed war with England until America was economically and politically more capable of fighting one.
The long-term advantages of Jay's Treaty, however, were wholly invisible to most Americans in the crucible of the moment. Sensing the unpopularity of the pact, Washington attempted to keep its terms secret until the Senate had voted. But word leaked out in the summer of 1795 and then spread, as Madison put it, "like an electric velocity to every part of the Union." Jay later claimed that the entire eastern seaboard was illuminated each evening by protesters burning him in effigy. In New York Hamilton was struck in the head by a rock while attempting to defend the treaty to a crowd. John Adams recalled that Washington's house in Philadelphia was "surrounded by an innumerable multitude, from day to day buzzing, demanding war against England, cursing Washington, and crying success to the French patriots and virtuous Republicans." Any concession to British economic and military power, no matter how strategically astute, seemed a betrayal of the very independence won in the Revolution. Washington predicted that after a few months of contemplation, "when passion shall have yielded to sober reason, the current may possibly turn," but in the meantime "this government, in relation to France and England, may be compared to a ship between the rocks of Sylla and Charybdis."
To make matters worse, the debate over the treaty prompted a constitutional crisis. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of the singular status that Washington enjoyed was the decision of the Constitutional Convention to deposit the minutes of its secret deliberations with him for safekeeping. He therefore had exclusive access to the official record of the convention and used it to argue that the clear intent of the framers was to vest the treaty-making power with the executive branch, subject to the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate. Madison, however, had kept his own extensive "Notes on the Debates at the Constitutional Convention" and carried them down to share with Jefferson, who was in retirement at Monticello.
Although a careful reading of Madison's "Notes on the Debates" revealed that Washington was correct, and indeed that Madison himself had been one of the staunchest opponents of infringements on executive power over foreign policy at the Convention, Jefferson managed to conclude that the House was intended to be an equal partner in approving all treaties, going so far as to claim that that body was the sovereign branch of the government empowered to veto any treaty it wished, thereby "annihilating the whole treaty making power" of the executive branch. "I trust the popular branch of our legislature will disapprove of it," Jefferson wrote from Monticello, "and thus rid us of this infamous act, which is really nothing more than a treaty of alliance between England and the Anglomen of this country against the legislatures and people of the United States."
The actual debate in the House in the fall and winter of 1795 proceeded under Madison's more cautious leadership and narrower interpretation of the Constitution. (Jefferson's position would have re-created the hapless and hamstrung conditions that he himself had decried while serving as minister to France under the Articles of Confederation, essentially holding American foreign policy hostage to congressional gridlock and the divisive forces of domestic politics.) Madison instead argued that the implementation of Jay's Treaty required the approval of the House for all provisions dependent on funding. This achieved the desired result, blocking the treaty, while avoiding a frontal assault on executive power.
Madison served as the floor leader of the opposition in the House during the debate that raged throughout the winter and spring of 1796. At the start, he enjoyed an overwhelming majority and regarded his position as impregnable. But as the weeks rolled on, he experienced firsthand the cardinal principle of American politics in the 17905: whoever went face-to-face against Washington was destined to lose. The majority started to melt away in March. John Adams observed bemusedly that "Mr. Madison looks worried to death. Pale, withered, haggard." When the decisive vote came in April, Madison attributed his defeat to "the exertions and influence of Aristocracy, Anglicism, and mercantilism" led by "the Banks, the British Merchts., the insurance Comps." Jefferson was more candid. Jay's Treaty had passed, he concluded, because of the gigantic prestige of Washington, "the one man who outweighs them all in influence over the people." Jefferson's sense of frustration had reached its breaking point a few weeks earlier when, writing to Madison, he quoted a famous line from Washington's favorite play, Joseph Addison’s Cato, and applied it to Washington himself: “a curse on his virtues, they've undone his country."