America won its independence from Britain when representatives of the two countries signed a peace treaty in France in 1783. During the war American foreign policy was almost entirely occupied with keeping European powers from allying with England while seeking allies to help win independence. For the next 40 years, American foreign relations changed from wartime diplomacy and struggle to efforts to demonstrate to European skeptics that democracy was a viable form of government. Foreign policy focused both on keeping what America had won and beginning its expansion across the continent.
The first few years after the war seemed to confirm European criticisms of the very concept of democracy. The original Articles of Confederation, the first governing document in America, were so weak that the nation could not even honor simple debts to other nations when various states refused to comply. In 1787, Americans convened the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to devise a system of government that maintained individual state sovereignty but could also act with unity and effectiveness on matters of national concern and foreign policy. While seemingly a domestic issue, success was vital to establishing America as a viable partner in forming treaties with other nations.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution began in 1789 and presented the fledgling American nation with its first major post-war foreign policy challenge. France had been America's most important ally during the war years. Many Americans hoped the revolution would lead to even closer ties between the two countries as France established democratic institutions. The dark violence and instability underscoring the revolution eventually divided American officials between pro and anti-French sentiment. Eventually President John Adams broke ties with the French and came close to war. The tensions resulted in the election of the pro-French Thomas Jefferson, who re-established a firm peace while remaining neutral in strife between France and England.
The Louisiana Purchase
In 1803 under President Thomas Jefferson, America purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. This established a precedent that America would generally expand by negotiation with foreign powers rather than war. The territory ran east from the Mississippi River all the way west to the Rocky Mountains, comprising all or part of 15 modern states. America had already become dependent on navigation along the Mississippi River and the use of New Orleans as a port city. The purchase came at a bargain of 15 million dollars. It gave France badly needed cash while relieving it of fears of having to wage a war to defend the territory. It also sparked the vast westward expansion of the United States, which would not stop until the country spread from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean to that of the Pacific.
The War of 1812
In 1812 the war between England and France spread to American shores, as England hoped to stop America from trading with the French. At bottom, England hoped to win back what it had lost some 30 years earlier. It was the last serious effort by a European power to conquer the United States. Victory gave America confidence in its status among world powers, which would lead to it taking leadership in the Western Hemisphere. General Andrew Jackson, a young frontiersman from Tennessee, won a stunning victory over the British at New Orleans, which helped end the war and ultimately propelled him to the presidency. In the course of the war, America developed its first systematic drill and training regimen for troops. The professionalism and success led foreign powers to view America as a serious power to be reckoned with, at least in its hemisphere.
The Monroe Doctrine
In late 1823, President James Monroe warned European powers not to meddle in affairs in the Western Hemisphere. It came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine and was the first time America exerted its power to cover countries and events beyond its own territory. It effectively declared the entire Western Hemisphere to be a sphere of American influence upon which Europe must not tread. The Monroe Doctrine was an act of mature confidence by a nation no longer concerned with proving its own viability.
- William Patterson University: The Great Divide: The Enlightenment and its Critics; Stephen Eric Bronner
- University of Missouri at Kansas City: The Constitutional Convention of 1787
- Monticello.org: The Louisiana Purchase
- History.com: Louisiana Purchase
- History.com: War of 1812
- Our Documents.gov: Monroe Doctrine (1823)
- Library of Congress: Treaty of Alliance With France
- United States Department of State: Office of the Historian: The United States and the French Revolution
- Democracy in America; Alexis de Tocqueville
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images