During the administrations of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, Europe was nearly constantly at war and it grew increasingly difficult for the new United States to stay out of it. Explain the situation, problems and ways these early presidents sought to stay out of war and why they ultimately failed and what the result was.

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Each of the first four Presidents faced circumstances that could have led to United States involvement in a war. For Washington, the French Revolution pressed on the U.S. for involvment. The French had formally recognized and provided aid to the fledgling United States in the War for Independence with Great...

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Each of the first four Presidents faced circumstances that could have led to United States involvement in a war. For Washington, the French Revolution pressed on the U.S. for involvment. The French had formally recognized and provided aid to the fledgling United States in the War for Independence with Great Britain, and Washington had two cabinet members campaigning for U.S. involvement, Jefferson to support the French and Adams to support Great Britain, but Washington felt the only way for the United States to be sure of survival as a nation would be to maintain neutrality and so he steered a careful course of neutrality. Washington believed that maintaining neutrality was essential and made this point of view well known through his famous Farewell Address.

John Adams inherited the problems with the French Revolution, and it became worse for him with the XYZ affair, an intercepted message which declared that the French would only talk to American diplomats with a bribe. But although Adams raised funds for war, he also sent a delegation for peace and managed to avoid war through diplomacy. While Adams could have pushed for War because of the XYZ Affair, he also recognized as President that war would be dangerous for the United States and his careful actions to avoid war were one of the successes of his Presidency.

Thomas Jefferson had the challenge of trying to keep out of the Napoleonic Wars raging in Europe. His answer was the Embargo Act of 1807 which basically closed off exports from the U.S. to either France or Britain. The Act was very unpopular as it hurt American businesses, but it did keep the United States out of war.

President Monroe was not able to avoid war. The Embargo of 1807 was so unpopular that it could not be kept and pressure to go to war increased in Congress. Britain continued to flagrantly reject recognition of U.S. sovereignty by seizing American ships, confiscating their cargo and impressing their sailors, forcing them to serve in the British Navy. In 1812 the United States declared War on Great Britain. The U.S. was not prepared for war so it was a good thing that Britain did not really want this war either. Even though the U.S. forces were defeated several times, the War was settled by negotation.

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Washington's position of neutrality was clearly the correct one, and Adams walked a very fine line in dealing with France after the XYZ Affair. The political pressures were intense, both from the Hamiltonians within his own party, and the Republicans who advocated a concilatory position toward France. The "quasi-war" with France during this period was a far cry from a real war, and though Adams ultimately lost the election of 1800, he managed to keep the US out of war even though he did bow to Hamilton's demands to create a federal army and strengthen the navy. Jefferson weakened the navy, and as post #3 observes, attempted to institute an Embargo to avoid attacks on US shipping by French ships on the one hand, and British impressment of American sailors on the other. Madison inherited this situation, in addition to the problem of the British presence in the West, and, unlike Adams, was unable to avoid the war fever that broke out in this country, which resulted in the War of 1812.

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It was impossible for the US to stay out of the wars because it depended so much on trade with the belligerent countries.  When the US tried to stop trading (Jefferson's Embargo Act) its economy was badly damaged.  This made it clear that the US had to keep trading, which exposed its ships to being captured by one side or the other.  This is the sort of thing that ended up dragging the US into war.

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Sometimes war is unavoidable.  Madison in particular did not want to go to war, especially since Jefferson had avoided it as long as he could and basically dumped it in Madison's lap.  Madison then got the brunt of the criticism.

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