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Our relations with foreign nations to-day fill but a slight place in American politics, and excite generally only a languid interest. We have separated ourselves so completely from the affairs of other people that it is difficult to realize how large a place they occupied when the government was founded. We were then a new nation, and our attitude toward the rest of the world was wholly undefined. There was, therefore, among the American people much anxiety to discover what that attitude would be, for the unknown is always full of interest. Moreover, Europe was still our neighbor, for England, France, and Spain were all upon our borders, and had large territorial interests in the northern half of the new world. Within fifteen years we had been colonies, and all our politics, except those which were purely local and provincial, had been the politics of Europe ; for during the eighteenth century we had been drawn into and had played a part in every European complication, -and every European war in which England had the slightest share. Thus the American people came to consider themselves a part of the European system, and looked to Europe for their politics, which was a habit of thought that was both natural and congenial to colonists. We ceased to be colonists when the Treaty of Paris was signed; but treaties, although they settle boundaries and divide nations, do not change customs and habits of thought by a few strokes of the pen. The free and independent people of the United States, as there has already been occasion to point out, when they set out to govern themselves under their new Constitution, were still dominated by colonial ideas and prejudices. They felt, no doubt, that the new system would put them in a more respectable attitude toward the other nations of the earth. But this was probably the only definite popular notion on the subject. What our actual relations with other nations should be, was something wholly vague, and very varying ideas were entertained about it by communities and by individuals, according to their various prejudices, opinions, and interests.
The one idea, however, that the American people did not have on this subject was, that they should hold themselves entirely aloof from the old world, and have with other nations no relations except those born of commerce. It had not occurred to them that they should march steadily forward on a course which would drive out European governments, and would sever their connection with the North American continent. After a century's familiarity, this policy looks so simple and obvious that it is difficult to believe that our forefathers could even have con> sidered any other seriously; but in 1789 it was so strange that no one dreamed of it, except perhaps a few thinkers speculating on the future of the infant nation. It was something so novel that when it was propounded it struck the people like a sudden shock of electricity. It was so broad, so national, so thoroughly American, that men still struggling in the fetters of colonial thought could not comprehend it. But there was one man to whom it was neither strange nor speculative. To Washington it was not a vague idea, but a well-defined system, which he had been long maturing in his mind.
Before he had been chosen President, he wrote to Sir Edward Newenham: "I hope the United States of America will be able to keep disengaged from the labyrinth of European politics and wars; and that before long they will, by the adoption of a good national government, have become respectable in the eyes of the world, so that none of the maritime powers, especially none of those who hold possessions in the New World or the West Indies, shall presume to treat them with insult or contempt. It should be the policy of the United States to administer to their wants without being engaged in their quarrels. And it is not in the power of the proudest and most polite people on earth to prevent us from becoming a great, a respectable, and a commercial nation if we shall continue united and faithful to ourselves." This plain statement shows his fixed belief that in an absolute breaking with the political affairs of other peoples lay the most important part of the work which was to make us a nation in spirit and in truth. He carried this belief with him when he took up the Presidency, and it was the chief burden of the last words of counsel that he gave to his countrymen when he retired to private life. To have begun and carried on to a firm establishment this policy of a separation from Europe would have required time, skill, and patience even under the calmest and most favorable conditions. But it was the fate of the new government to be born just on the eve of the French Revolution. The United States were at once caught and tossed by the waves of that terrific storm, and it was in the midst of that awful hurly-burly, when the misdeeds of centuries of wrong-doing were brought to an account, that Washington opened and developed his foreign policy. It was a great task, and the manner of its performance' deserves much and serious consideration.
His first act in foreign affairs, on entering the Presidency, was to make the minister of France understand that the government of the United States was to be treated with due formality and respect. His second was to examine the whole mass of foreign correspondence collected in the State Department of the confederation, and he did this, as has been said, pencil in hand, making notes and abstracts as he went. It was well worth doing, for he learned much, and from this laborious study and thorough knowledge certain facts became apparent, for the most part of a hard and unpleasant nature. First, he saw that England, taking advantage of our failure to fulfil completely our obligations under the treaty, had openly violated hers, and continued to hold the fortified posts along the northwestern and western borders. Here was a dangerous thorn which pricked sharply, for the posts in British hands offered constant temptations to Indian risings, and threatened war both with the savages and with Great Britain. Further west still, Spain held the Mississippi, closed navigation, and intrigued to separate our western settlers from the Union. No immediate danger lay here, but still peril and need of close watching, for the Mississippi was never to slip out of our power. The mighty river and the great region through which it flows were important features in that empire which Washington foresaw. His plan was that we should get them by binding the settlers beyond the Alleghanies to the old States with roads, canals, and trade, and then trust to those hardy pioneers to keep the river and its valley for themselves and their country. All that was needed for this were time, and vigilant firmness with Spain.
Beyond the sea were the West India Islands, the home of a commerce long carried on by the colonies and of much profit to them, especially to those of New England. This trade was now hampered by England, and was soon to be still further blocked, and thereby become the cause of much bickering and ill-will.
Across the ocean we maintained with the Barbary