There are several factors to consider when looking at American foreign policy from 1776-1801. I will break this down by time period and the time when each president was in office.
From 1776-1783, we were fighting Great Britain. Our main focus was becoming independent. We received help from France and Spain who were Britain's rivals. We were successful in getting our independence from Great Britain after the war ended.
From 1783-1788, we had the government set up by the Articles of Confederation. We were struggling to survive as a new country. We faced many issues at home, including, at times, maintaining order. There was no organized foreign policy at this time as we had plenty of issues to resolve at home.
While George Washington was president, he did have some guiding ideas regarding foreign policy. He believed it was in our best interest to avoid making alliances with other countries. Washington also believed other countries should not push us around. When the Native Americans, supported by Spain and Britain attacked us, we fought these groups. In the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Anthony Wayne defeated the Native Americans. In the Treaty of Greenville, the Native Americans gave up some land and moved west. When Spain, Great Britain, and France tried to intimidate us or interfere with our trade, Washington refused to back down. John Jay went to England to negotiate Jay’s treaty and Thomas Pinckney negotiated Pinckney’s Treaty with Spain. Washington stood up to Edmond Genet when he tried to rally support for the French government.
When John Adams was president, he also tried to keep us out of wars with the Europeans. Many Americans felt we should go to war against France because of the XYZ Affair. Adams knew we weren’t prepared for war and instead used diplomacy to reduce tensions. Even though this hurt Adams politically, he believed it was the right course of action for the country.
In the early years of Jefferson’s presidency, he had to deal with the loss of the use of the port of New Orleans. Spain cut off our right to use this port. When we learned Spain had secretly transferred the land to France, Jefferson offered to buy New Orleans from the French. This eventually turned into the Louisiana Purchase.
Each president had his own ideas regarding foreign policy. There was a more organized direction to the foreign policy of our country after the Constitution was adopted and we had a president in office.