Colonial Government and Politics

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Explain how the attitudes toward Great Britain and France shaped American politics in the late eighteenth century.

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Attitudes toward Great Britain and France served to polarize the already bitter and fractious world of American politics in the late eighteenth century. Democratic-Republicans such as Thomas Jefferson were generally sympathetic to France, seeing it as the home of republican liberty.

The French had wholeheartedly supported the Americans in their revolution against the British, leading to the development of close ties between the two countries. Even when the French Revolution took a violent turn, Jefferson and his fellow Democratic-Republicans were reluctant to give up their emotional and intellectual attachment to Republican France.

Jefferson's opponents in the Federalist Party were more sympathetic toward the British. They believed that the British political system, for all its faults, provided a fair measure of stability as well as protection for private property. This led to their being accused by Democratic-Republicans of supporting a restoration of the monarchy.

There was no truth to such accusations, but the Federalists were unashamed elitists with a profound, abiding distrust of democracy. This made it all too easy for their opponents to label them as crypto-monarchists, and their leader, President Adams, as wanting to make himself king.

In due course, these substantial differences between the two parties would define the contours of American politics for generations to come. In the ensuing decades, it would be the intellectual heirs of Republican France, the Democratic-Republicans, and after them, the Democrats, who would dominate the national political scene.

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American policies toward Great Britain and France were impacted by differing beliefs toward these countries and by the actions of these countries. Under the leadership of President Washington, the United States remained neutral in foreign affairs. Even though Great Britain and France were fighting against each other, President Washington knew the United States was in no position to make enemies by taking sides in a conflict that the United States couldn’t afford to fight.

Toward the end of Washington’s presidency, two political parties were forming in the country. The Federalist Party believed the United States should be friendly with Great Britain and support them while the Democratic-Republican Party felt the United States should work closely with France and support them. President Adams continued the American policy of neutrality, even though it cost him politically. When France refused to meet with American negotiators regarding the seizing of ships and the impressment of sailors and instead demanded a bribe and a loan in order to meet, many Americans felt the United States should go to war against France. However, President Adams felt going to war was not in the best interests of the United States, and he worked out a negotiated settlement with France.

Both political parties were upset with the actions of France and Great Britain. The United States continuously demanded that American ships not be seized and that the impressment of American sailors come to an end. This was an ongoing concern the United States had with both countries as the 1800s approached.

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By the late eighteenth century, Britain and France were fighting a war that would soon engulf Europe and ultimately the world.  The United States, following the presidency of George Washington, was beginning to form political parties.  These two parties were the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists.  

The Democratic-Republicans, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, favored France in the war between Britain and France.  They saw the French Revolution as an extension of the American Revolution and a demonstration of the principle that everyone desires freedom.  Even as the French Revolution grew bloody and anti-clerical, many in the party still had warm feelings toward France.  They also wanted to give France aid in the war, as France was the colonists' primary ally during the American Revolution.  

On the other hand, the Federalists favored Britain in their war with France.  The Federalists saw chaos in the Reign of Terror and thought that all of the killings would be the undoing of civilization.  They were also repulsed by the confiscation of church property in France and the killings of the clergy, even though many in the Federalist party were Protestant.  They saw in Britain a source of political stability and also the United States' main trading partner.  John Adams, president during this time period, even signed off on the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were an attempt to keep anti-British radicals out of the country and curtail anti-government sentiment.  

Both parties did not approve of the ship seizures by Britain and France after United States sailors tried to run the blockade and trade in Europe.  John Adams waged the "Quasi-War" with the French navy during this time period—it would continue until Napoleon came to power and agreed to stop seizing American shipping.  Britain would continue to do so and also pressed American sailors into its own merchant marine.  This would ultimately lead to the war of 1812.

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