Historical Context

American Historical Context

The Treaty of Parris in 1783 effectively ended the American Revolutionary War, and resulted in the birth of a new nation and a “New Republic.” With the British defeated, the Founding Fathers were tasked with creating and establishing a new government. This was not an easy task by any means and would in fact take several years to accomplish. One of the key debates surrounding this process was the argument over states-rights versus a centralized government. After intense and tough negotiations, the Continental Congress produced the Articles of Confederation which did little to resolve many of the pressing concerns. For example, the British continued to occupy American territory in the north, the country was essentially bankrupt, and the nation’s only ally was quickly falling into its own revolution. The need for a unifying principal under a central authority with the ability to act in the best interest of all the colonies became urgently clear. The result was the Constitution in 1787 that in effect established the government and the laws the nation would be governed under.

Threats loomed large over the republic as the new Constitution was sent to the states for ratification. Most notably was the British Empire overlooking the colonies from their fortified positions in the northern territory. Citing this issue were the Federalists who argued the need for a strong central government and were in favor of the Constitution. On the other side were the anti-Federalists who were also concerned about the threats to the nation, but were more concerned with the country's return to tyranny. The two sides could hardly agree on most issues, but were able to reach a compromise that amended the Constitution in the form of the Bill of Rights. These amendments guaranteed the individual liberties of every citizen, yet allowed each state to maintain a certain level of autonomy. With a compromise secured, a strong leader was needed to propel the nation forward.

In 1789, George Washington was elected as the nation’s first president with overwhelming support. His first term as President was mildly successful as the economy was on the mend and the nation’s borders relatively secure. Most importantly however, the nation survived internal conflict. The differences between the Federalists and anti-Federalists continued to grow, even within President Washington’s own cabinet. The Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton expressed the need to establish a national bank that could effectively regulate the nation’s currency (Ushistory.org, Hamiltion's Financial Plan). Hamilton’s idea was supported by the President, but drew criticism from the anti-Federalists who argued that the Federal government was exceeding its boundaries (Unger, 95). Protesting the President’s Federalist agenda, the anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson resigned his post as Secretary of State (Ushistory.org, The First Administration). Differences between the Federalists and anti-Federalists would come to a climax a short time later during Washington’s second term in office.

Across the Atlantic, the French Empire was at war with several European countries, and at war with itself. The decapitation of King Louis XVI capitulated the French Revolution into a downward spiral that came to be known as the Reign of Terror, and as a consequence, threatened the rest of Europe with a new world order (Ushistory.org, French Revolution). Soon afterwards, Britain entered the conflict against France in 1793, and brought with them a highly formidable navy. In response, France solicited America for support against the British, but President Washington refused to allow the nation to be dragged into the war.

The President’s decision to remain neutral angered France and caused a rift between the two countries. French authorities began confiscating goods aboard American ships and detaining its crew for long periods of time (Unger, 100). Meanwhile, Britain began employing a similar policy towards American vessels, claiming that it was unfair to profit from warring nations. Angered by Britain’s transgressions, the anti-Federalists pushed for war. But Washington refused and instead sent John Jay to Britain in 1794 to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the escalating tensions. It took nearly two years to come to an agreement which resulted in Jay’s Treaty in 1796. The treaty effectively averted war with Britian and strengthened economic ties between the two countries despite the anti-Federalists sentiment.

Additionally, Washington wished to restore America’s relationship with France. To accomplish this goal, the President decided to send a newly elected Virginia Senator and anti-Federalist to France to act as America’s ambassador. In 1794, James Monroe arrived in France to begin a most ambitious task. Monroe’s mission in France began as he bore witness to his fellow Americans detained at the French ports. Motivated by these transgressions, Monroe declared that his first priority was to get these sailors compensated for their hardships. His mission became more difficult as he learned that the Revolutionary leader, Maximilian Robespierre was executed just before his arrival in France. Not sure who is in charge or who to turn to, Monroe set out on his Congressional mandate with little to go on.

European Historical Context

Monroe arrived in Paris during one of the most momentous transitions of the French Revolution: five days after the execution of revolutionary leader Maximilian Robespierre (Ammon, 117). Even with Robespierre’s death the Committee of Public Safety (which was in charge of Foreign Affairs) remained at the mercy of the Parisian mob. For Monroe, the political transition was chaotic, as within Paris factions shifted constantly, and no one was sure how the Revolution would change now that Robespierre was dead and his Jacobin supporters out of favor. Within a few months, the National Convention, which ran the country, was forced by the mob to dissolve the Terror and the Committee of Public Safety (Censer and Hunt, 103; Popkin, 93-95). The National Convention was divided into two chambers: The Council of Five Hundred with powers to institute legislation, and the Council of the Ancients, which transformed legislation into laws (Rude, 29). These two chambers were led by the Directoire, an executive council of five directors with executive control. The Directoire period lasted until the rise of Napoleon, and was marked with instability, intrigue, and constant allegations of corruption (Popkin, 95). However, the Directoire did institute a new constitution in 1795. However, the between 1794 and 1796 was marked by inflation and poor harvests, leaving the Directoire insecure in their power for the entire two year period (Furet, 172).

Although governmental structures were in place, France was a very unstable country. Throughout the country, counterrevolutions plagued the government. The most severe counterrevolution was in the Vendée in west central France, which lasted on and off from 1793 through 1796. Fueled by foreign interference, the War in the Vendée was disastrous for the region, leading to the destruction of vast amounts of property and the deaths of much of the population. The war mainly ended in December 1795 with the capture and execution of the rebellion’s two primary leaders (Censer and Hunt, 98-100; Furet 123-125). Another indication of the instability of France was the Conspiracy of the Equals in 1795-1796. The Conspiracy of the Equals was a small conspiracy led by communist Gracchus Babeuf. Although the conspiracy of quickly uncovered by the Directoire and Babeuf executed, it marks the first attempt of a communist overthrow of a government (Censer and Hunt, 141; Furet, 172; Rude, 131). Additionally, an open rebellion broke out in Paris in October 1795 when 25,000 Parisians marched armed on the Convention building due to the scarcity of bread (Rude, 130). As a result of the domestic problems, the French government hoped that international success would downplay the domestic issues.

Internationally, while France was in the midst of its revolution, the country was also almost universally at war with European powers. Britain, Prussia, Austria, Spain and Holland were all at war with France in 1794 as an united allied coalition (Rude, 155). Gradually, however, these wars began to end throughout these years as the coalition dissolved over politics and money. In 1794 through 1795, both Spain and Holland changed sides to become friendly with the French government (Rude, 157). Prussia, due to increasingly hostile relations with Austria over the division of Poland, signed a separate peace treaty with France and withdrew from the coalition in 1795 (Emsley, 56; Rude, 157). In addition to the wars with the coalition, France continued to territorially expand. In 1794, France was occupying both Belgium and Holland, and entering both Amsterdam and the Hague. In October 1795, France annexed Belgium as a province and placed the Rhineland under French control (Popkin, 100; Rude, 156, 163-164). Additionally, France supported a revolution in Holland to form the Batavian Republic in 1795 (Censer and Hunt, 141; Popkin, 100). The biggest territorial success was achieved in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Italian Campaign of 1795-1796. The main front with Austria, Napoleon forced Sardinia to accept the secession of Nice and Savoy, expanding French control of Italy through Milan, Tuscany, and the Papal States (Censer and Hunt, 141; Rude, 164). In 1797, Austria ended the campaign by ceding Belgium to France, and obtaining Venice in return (Censer and Hunt, 141; Rude, 164). The wars of the French Revolution continued after the end of Monroe’s tenure through the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Works Consulted

American History: From Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium

Ammon, Harry. James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.

Censer, Jack, and Lynn Hunt. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Emsley, Clive. Britain and the French Revolution. London: Longman Pearson Education, 2000.

Furet, Francois. Revolutionary France 1770-1880. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

McPhee, Peter. The French Revolution 1789-1799. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Popkin, Jeremy. A Short History of the French Revolution. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010.

Rude, George. Revolutionary Europe: 1783-1815. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

The Jay Treaty, 1794: Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation

Unger, Harlow Giles. The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2009.

UShistory.org. "The First Administration." The Online History Textbook. Philadelphia: The Independence Hall Association, 1995.

------------------. "Hamilton's Financial Plan." The Online History Textbook. Philadelphia: The Independence Hall Association, 1995.

------------------. "Trans-Atlantic Crisis: The French Revolution." The Online History Textbook. Philadelphia: The Independence Hall Association, 1995.