What problems did the U.S. face staying neutral during the Franco-British war?

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When France and Great Britain went to war in 1793 as part of the so-called War of the First Coalition, they began a more than twenty year on-again off-again war that placed the United States in a very difficult position. On the one hand, despite the recent American Revolutionary War, British trade was important to the American economy. On the other, the United States had a treaty with France, signed in 1778, when the French entered the Revolutionary War on the side of the American colonies. The course George Washington chose in 1793, one of neutrality, was the one the United States would try to pursue throughout the long conflict. But neutrality proved very difficult to maintain. A number of events threatened to drag the United States into the conflict. These included:

  • the so-called Genet affair, when a French diplomat attempted to recruit Americans to join the war effort without presenting his diplomatic credentials to President Washington.
  • Jay's Treaty with Great Britain, which angered the French, who responded by attacking American shipping.
  • the XYZ Affair, in which the French foreign minister demanded a bribe in return for meeting with American diplomats. This, in fact, led to what has become known as a "Quasi-War" between the French and American navies.
  • the persistence of British impressment of American sailors. One incident, an attack on the American ship Chesapeake by the British ship Leopard, in which several sailors were taken and the Chesapeake was fired upon, led to the enactment of an embargo on all trade by President Thomas Jefferson.
  • The War of 1812, which pitted the United States against Great Britain, who simultaneously fought against Napoleon. In the end, then, the United States failed to remain neutral.

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