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Great Seal

1784-1800: Diplomacy of the New Republic

(This page currently under development)

Bullet Founding of the Department of State
Bullet Thomas Jefferson, First Secretary of State, 1790-1793
Bullet John Jay's Treaty
Bullet Washington's Farewell Address
Bullet Quasi-war With France

Founding of the Department of State, 1789

Under the Article II of the Constitution of the United States ratified in 1789, the President has the power to make treaties--as long two-thirds of the Senate concurs--and to nominate ambassadors, public ministers, and consuls with the advice and consent of the Senate. These provisions placed the conduct of foreign affairs principally in the hands of the executive branch, but certain powers conferred upon the legislative branch--to declare war, appropriate funds, and advise and consent on treaties and appointments--gives the Congress significant ability to influence foreign policy. On May 19, 1789, then Representative James Madison of New York introduce a bill to create an executive Department of Foreign Affairs headed by a Secretary of Foreign Affairs. On July 27, 1789, President Washington signed legislation to that effect. Congress passed another law giving certain additional domestic responsibilities to the new Department and changing its name to the Department of State and the name of head of the department to the Secretary of State, and Washington approved this act on September 15, 1789.  The domestic duties assigned to the Department of State were receipt, publication, distribution, and preservation of laws of the United States, custody of the Great Seal of the United States, authentication of copies and preparation of commissions of executive branch appointments, and finally custody of the books, papers, and records of the Continental Congress including the Constitution itself and the Declaration of Independence.

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Thomas Jefferson, First Secretary of State, 1790-1793

On September 29, 1789, President Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, then Minister to France, to be the first Secretary of State under the new Constitution. The author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was one of the leading statesmen of his day, the mosThomas Jefferson Portraitt famous American political philosopher, and had five years experience as American Minister in Paris, the epicenter of Europe’s diplomacy. Jefferson returned to the United States and assumed his duties on March 22, 1790. At that time the United States had only two diplomatic posts and ten consular posts. Jefferson drew the distinction between the politically oriented diplomatic service and commercially directed consular service, and he initiated the practice of requiring periodic reports from American diplomats and consuls abroad. During his three years as Secretary of State both services grew only marginally. The Department of State itself was equally small, consisting in 1790 of a chief clerk, three other clerks, and a messenger. The title "clerk" refers to officer charged with composition of messages to overseas posts and other correspondence. The total domestic and foreign expenditures of Jefferson’s Department in 1791 was only $56,600. Although his sympathies belonged to France, Secretary of State Jefferson favored the policy of neutrality in European conflicts. Although he failed to resolve any of the outstanding issues facing American foreign policy - protection of American territorial integrity from Great Britain and Spain, the right to navigate the Mississippi River, or treaties of commerce with Madrid and London - he did lay the groundwork for eventual resolution of these problems.

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John Jay's Treaty

Chief Justice of the United States John Jay, who had helped negotiate an end to the War for Independence and had been Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, was selected to undertake a mission to London in 1794 to resolve outstanding issues between the United States and its old adversary. The most iJohn Jay Portraitmportant problem was British retention of a string of small military posts in northwestern U.S. territory that London had explicitly agreed to vacate as part of the treaty of 1783. In addition, British hindrance of American trade and shipping was causing serious tensions between the two countries. Because Jay was a Federalist and considered pro-British, Jefferson's followers only reluctantly agreed to his mission. They were not amused when the U.S. envoy kissed the hand of the Queen as he was presented at court. In reality, Jay had little bargaining power in London. The British were at war with revolutionary France and little prone to compromise. Once they learned that the United States would not join a league of smaller European nations prepared to defend their neutrality by force of arms, the British realized they held all the cards. The only concessions Jay obtained was a surrender of the northwestern posts--already agreed to in 1783--and a commercial treaty with Great Britain that granted the United States "most favored nation" status, but seriously restricted U.S. commercial access to the British West Indies. All other outstanding issues--the Canadian-Maine boundary, compensation for pre-revolutionary debts, and British seizures of American ships--were to be resolved by arbitration. Jay even conceded that the British could seize U.S. goods bound for France if they paid for them and could confiscate without payment French goods on American ships. The treaty was immensely unpopular; "Sir John Jay" became one of the most hated Americans, "damned and double damned" for caving in to the British. The treaty squeaked through the Senate on a 20 to 10 vote on June 24, 1795. President Washington courageously implemented the treaty in the face of popular disapproval, realizing that it was the price of peace with Great Britain and that it gave the United States valuable time to consolidate and rearm in the event of future conflict.

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Washington's Farewell Address

To announce his decision not to seek a third term as President, George Washington presented his Farewell Address in a newspaper article September 17, 1796. Frustrated by French meddling in U.S. politics, Washington warned the nation to avoid permanent Washington Portraitalliances with foreign nations and to rely instead on temporary alliances for emergencies. Washington's efforts to protect the fragile young republic by steering a neutral course between England and France during the French Revolutionary Wars was made extremely difficult by the intense rhetoric flowing from the pro-English Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the pro-French, personified by Thomas Jefferson.  In his farewell address, Washington exhorted Americans to set aside their violent likes and dislikes of foreign nations, lest they be controlled by their passions: "The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave."  Washington’s remarks have served as an inspiration for American isolationism, and his advice against joining a permanent alliance was heeded for more than a century and a half.

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