What was the relative state of U.S. economic and military strength in the 1790s, and what was U.S. foreign policy during that period?
The United States following independence from Britain was militarily and economically weak. Vast swaths of territory having been the scene of fighting, and the newly emerging nation’s treasury depleted by war expenses and the rebuilding that followed, the United States was ill-equipped to assume the role of a major actor on the world stage. To the extent that the nascent army that was formed out of the remains of the colonial militia was composed primarily of poorly trained recruits with poor armaments, the U.S. Army was unprepared for any level of conflict, save for the growing problem of waging war against the Native tribes that stood in the way of expansion.
The Navy was no match for its British or French counterparts. While differences of opinion existed within the new government regarding foreign policy, most -- many in Congress being the exception, some of whom feared a navy’s financial costs as well as the likelihood that a larger navy would mean more military entanglements -- agreed that the nation required greater naval strength. British naval blockades of U.S. ports and harassment of American shipping combined with the continuing problem of the Barbary pirates harassing American shipping off northern Africa could not be ignored.
With the economy still largely based on farming, there were simply no financial resources upon which to act. While Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton made great strides in moving the nation’s from an agrarian society to one boasting an economic system more in line with those of the major European powers, economic strength was negligible. In short, a weak military and a weak but rebuilding economy proved formidable obstacles to a more active foreign policy.
While the U.S. lacked the resources necessary to compete with Britain and France, American leaders were largely opposed to pursuing such a foreign policy anyway. Washington, Hamilton, and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson leaned toward isolationism in terms of refraining from military engagements in Europe. This policy would prove untenable, however, as Britain and France waged war against each other, and the United States struggled to remain apart from that conflict. The French Revolution that had broken out in 1787, and which would continue throughout the 1790s, presented the Americans with serious problems. Desiring of staying out of the conflicts of Europe, President Washington passed the Neutrality Proclamation, which was intended to institutionalize American neutrality. The French pressured the Americans to support them in their war with Britain, but the latter saw little incentive to complying with that request. The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France further disincentived the Americans from aligning themselves with the French.
Despite U.S. refusal to join with France, Americans did begin to fight alongside the French, thereby angering Britain, which still maintained formidable military capabilities in North America. In an attempt at walking the tightrope between the two powers, Washington dispatched Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay to England, where the 1794 Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation was signed with Britain.The remainder of the decade was devoted to staving off war with Britain without alienating the French, who responded to the treaty by severing diplomatic relations with the U.S. The U.S. goal, to remain outside of Europe’s fights, would prove extremely difficult to sustain.