Washington and Europe
Digital History ID 187
On July 14, 1789, 20,000 French men and women stormed the Bastille, a hated royal fortress, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. For three years, France experimented with a constitutional monarchy. But in 1792, Austria and Prussia invaded France and French revolutionaries responded by deposing King Louis XVI, placing him on trial, and executing him. A general war erupted in Europe pitting revolutionary France against a coalition of monarchies, led by Britain. With two brief interruptions, this war lasted 23 years.
Many Americans reacted enthusiastically to the overthrow of the king and the creation of a French republic. France appeared to have joined America in a historical struggle against royal absolutism and aristocratic privilege. More cautious gentlemen, however, expressed horror; they viewed the French Revolution as an assault against property and Christianity.
Washington believed that involvement in the European war would weaken the new nation before it firmly established its own independence. The President, however, faced a problem. During the American Revolution, the United States had signed an alliance with France and had won independence as a rsult of French aid. Washington took the position that while the United States would continue to repay its war debts to France, it would refrain from supporting the French republic. In April 1793 he issued a proclamation of neutrality stating that the "conduct" of the United States would be "friendly and impartial toward the belligerent parties."
If you, who are at the fountain-head of those great and important transactions, which have lately engrossed the attention of Europe and America, cannot pretend to say what will be their event, surely we, in this distant quarter, should be presumptuous indeed in venturing to predict it. And unwise should we be in the extreme to involve ourselves in the contests of European Nations, where our weight could be but small, tho' the loss to ourselves should be certain. I can however with truth aver, that this country is not guided by such a narrow and mistaken policy, as will lead it to wish the destruction of any nation, under the idea that our importance will be increased in proportion as that of others is lessened. We should rejoice to see every nation enjoying all the advantages that nature & its circumstances would admit, consistent with civil liberty and the rights of other nations. Upon this ground the prosperity of this country would enfold itself every day, and every day it would be growing in political importance.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: George Washington to Gouverneur Morris
Copyright 2021 Digital History