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The First New Nation

Years of Crisis

Period: 1790s

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In 1793 and 1794 a series of crises threatened to destroy the new national government. The crises were all related to hostilities.

  • France tried to entangle America in its war with England;
  • Armed rebellion erupted in western Pennsylvania;
  • Indians in Ohio threatened American expansion; and
  • War with Britain appeared imminent.
In April 1793, a French minister, Edmond Charles Genet, arrived in the United States and tried to persuade American citizens to join in revolutionary France's "war of all peoples against all kings." Genet passed out letters authorizing Americans to attack British commercial vessels. Washington regarded these activities as clear violations of U.S. neutrality, and demanded that France recall its hot headed minister. Fearful that he would be executed if he returned to France, Genet requested and was granted political asylum.

The Genet affair intensified party divisions. From Vermont to South Carolina, supporters of the French Revolution organized Democratic-Republican clubs. Hamilton suspected that these societies really existed to stir up grass-roots opposition to the Washington administration.

Political polarization was further intensified by the outbreak of popular protests in western Pennsylvania against Hamilton's financial program. To help pay off the nation's debt, Congress passed a tax on whiskey. On the frontier, the only practical way to transport and sell surplus corn was to distill it into whiskey. Frontier farmers regarded a tax on whiskey in the same way as American colonists had regarded Britain's stamp tax.

By 1794, western Pennsylvanians had had enough. Some 7000 frontiersmen marched on Pittsburgh to stop collection of the tax. Determined to set a precedent for the federal government's authority, Washington gathered an army of 15,000 militamen to disperse the rebels. In the face of this overwhelming force, the uprising collapsed. The new government had proved that it would enforce laws enacted by Congress.

Thomas Jefferson took a very different view of the "Whiskey Rebellion." He believed that the government had used the army to stifle legitimate opposition to unfair government policies.

The end of the American Revolution unleashed a rush of white settlers into frontier Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and western New York. Hundreds died as Indians resisted the influx of whites onto their lands. To open the Ohio country to white settlement, President Washington dispatched three armies. Twice, a confederacy of eight tribes led by Little Turtle, chief of the Miamis, defeated American forces. But in 1794, a third army defeated the Indian alliance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in northwestern Ohio. Under the Treaty of Greenville (1795), Native Americans ceded much of the present state of Ohio in return for cash and a promise that the federal government would treat the Indian nations fairly in land dealings.

The year 1794 brought a crisis in America's relations with Britain. For a decade, Britain had refused to evacuate forts in the Northwest Territory. Control of those forts allowed the British to monopolize the fur trade. Frontier settlers believed that British officials sold firearms to the Indians and incited uprisings against white settlers. War appeared imminent when British warships stopped 300 American ships carrying food supplies to France and to France's overseas possessions and forced sailors suspected of deserting from British ships into the British navy.

To end the crisis, President Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London negotiate a settlement with the British. Britain agreed to evacuate its forts on American soil and to cease harassing American shipping (provided the ships did not carry supplies to Britain's enemies). Britain also agreed to pay damages for the ships it had seized and to permit the United States to trade with India and carry on restricted trade with the British West Indies. But Jay failed to win compensation for slaves carried off by the British army during the Revolution.

The Jeffersonians denounced the treaty as a give-away to northern shipping interests. Southerner slave owners were especially angry because they received no compensation for the slaves who had fled to the British during the Revolution. In Boston, graffiti appeared on a wall: "Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won't damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won't put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!"

President Washington was now in a position to retire gracefully. He had pushed the British out of the western forts, opened the Ohio country to white settlement, and avoided war with Britain. In a Farewell Address, published in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1796, Washington warned his countrymen against the growth of partisan divisions. He also called on the country to avoid "permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world." It would not be until after World War II that the country would establish peacetime alliances with foreign nations.

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This site was updated on 07-Mar-05.

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