United States Foreign Policy, 1776 - 1850. United States Foreign Policy in the Early Republic and 1800s. George Washington’s Farewell Address .
In this famous printed message from George Washington to the people of America, he encourage high moral character, expansive trade, and caution with regards to foreign entanglements. Many historians have explained that this address promoted a foreign policy of isolationism. If so, it was a very limited version of isolationism. Washington was opposed to American involvement in Europe – and particularly European politics and military maneuverings. He promoted trade, though, and he had absolutely no aversion to American expansion in the Western Hemisphere.
The most important foreign policy statement of the early 19th Century is almost certainly this pronouncement issued by James Monroe in 1823, establishing a “sphere of influence” of sorts for the United States in the Western Hemisphere. The statement was largely a bluff – the United States had virtually no power to coerce any European powers at this moment in World History. But it was a bluff that went uncalled. The United States ceded the right to intervene in European affairs, and insisted that European powers must offer the new nation reciprocity for the policy.
In response to a series of attacks on American shipping in the Mediterranean, President Thomas Jefferson raised an expeditionary force to wage war against this enemy. It didn’t work out. Jefferson would end up paying ransoms in order to free American sailors – with rare exceptions. Stephen Decatur, for example, took matters into his own hands when the Philadelphia was captured near Tripoli. Fighting in order maintain trade options in Europe became increasingly important to American prosperity over the years, and it would continue well into the 20th Century.
After the Mexican-American War of 1846 – 1848, the United States coerced the government of Mexico into ceding the land which forms New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, today. It also confirmed the American understanding of the borders in Texas. While the United States seems to have forgotten the circumstances of the acquisition of this territory, you may rest assured that the people of Mexico have not. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853, tacked on to secure a railroad right of way for the Southern Pacific Railroad, finished the deal.
During the Presidency of John Adams, French diplomats enraged Americans in the XYZ affair, by demanding a bribe to negotiate with the French government. When the Congress raised an army of 30,000 and authorized the creation of the Department of the Navy, war seemed eminent. From 1798 until 1800, battles at sea between American and French ships on the open seas continued. Only through the diplomatic efforts of John Adams and anti-war independent Americans did the war come to a conclusion.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an expedition of over three dozen men known as the Corps of Discovery from St. Louis, MO to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The men claimed all of the territory along the way, and informed Native Americans that they were now the subjects of the government in Washington. Generally, the mission is viewed as an innocuous voyage and trek of exploration – which it was. But it was also a mission to survey and stake claims. Not all of the land was American territory when the expedition began. All of it was American land, however, by 1846.
Forced out of New York, Missouri, and Illinois due to religious intolerance and laws which forbid polygamy, members of this American born religion were forced to travel west along this trail under the leadership of Brigham Young; the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, had been murdered by a mob in Nauvoo, Illinois. On more that one occasion in American history, groups who appeared to be expatriates ended up repatriating themselves into American society. The Mormons are but one example of this phenomena: it happened in Texas, Oregon, California, and Hawaii, as well.
During this war against England, the United States inaugural military mission was to attack Canada. Expecting to be welcomed as liberators, the American army was instead repulsed by well-prepared Canadians. Mr. Madison’s War, as the War of 1812 was called, was not a rousing success by any standard. American efforts in Canada were undermined, and later in the war, the English military would storm down the Potomac River to set fire to the White House and the Congress. The political cartoon to the right is propaganda. And not very even close to real outcome of the war. Were it not for war debt, the English might have exacted a punishing revenge against the United States in 1814.
On two occasions, the United States Army invaded Florida in an effort to dispossess the Seminole Tribe of their land. The tribe never surrendered their land to the United States military. A young Andrew Jackson led the first series of wars against the Seminole tribe, even before the United States had claimed the land from the Spanish. As the tribe retreated farther and farther into the swamplands of the south central portion of the state, the US military became less inclined to pursue. The Seminoles were known for their acceptance of runaway slaves into their tribe in later years.
During the 1820s, the sovereign nation of Mexico invited Americans to settle in their northernmost province, Tejas. The settlers, led by Stephen F. Austin, agreed to two conditions: they would convert to Catholicism and they would not bring slaves into the new territory. By the end of the 1830s, Texas was an independent nation. They were not Catholic. They held slaves. And, they wanted to annexed by the United States of America.
In 1819, the United States received all of Florida as a result of this agreement with the Spanish. The Treaty also attempted to recast the boundaries of the United States and Spain in the Southwest. A series of events would put these boundaries into serious doubt. The French would take land from the Spanish, Mexican nationalists would win independence from the Spanish and later from the French as well. Texas would fight a war for independence from Mexico in the 1830s. By the time the United States fell into a boundary dispute with Mexico, there was little certainty as to the rightful claims to the territories.
In the 1840s, Americans began moving across the Great Plains and through the Rocky Mountains on the way west towards a fertile territory which was claimed by the British, the Spanish, the Russians, and now, the United States as well.
So many Americans went west along the Oregon trail that their Conestoga wagons actually carved deep wagon wheel ruts into the sandstone. This picture shows a portion of the trail still visible in present day Wyoming, taken in 2013.
Upon receiving independence, the United States negotiated a claim to all of the land to the east of the Mississippi River. The claim to the land east of the Mississippi indicates the omnipresent desire of the United States to expand to the west. Within twenty five years, the United States of America would go from a nation which look to Europe for guidance and national identity to a nation which looked to the West to envision the future. The abundance of land to the west was America’s future. It would become the primary point of emphasis in determining America’s path forward.