Treaties And Alliances

The Problem

The Articles of Confederation expressly forbids the formation of treaties by the states in its sixth article. However, agreements and compacts were allowed between the states with the consent of Congress.1 The vague wording used in this article, in addition to the threats of invasion from multiples sources, caused the states to form unofficial treaties with European countries and alliances within the states. This problem highlighted the entirely ineffectual protective and regulative powers of the central government. Without significant authority or support from the states, the national government proceeded to fail at almost every attempt to develop foreign connections and an international presence under the Articles of Confederation.


Great Britain in the Midwest

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed by the United States and Great Britain, in which Great Britain finally recognized the U.S. as an independent country.2 Under the Article VII of the treaty, Great Britain was required to "…withdraw all his Armies, Garrisons & Fleets from the said United States, and from every Post, Place and Harbour within the same; leaving in all Fortifications, the American Artillery that may be therein…"3 It became clear very quickly that Great Britain did not intend to uphold this portion of the treaty. Under the sixth article in the Articles of Confederation, the Congress was tasked with declaring war. However, against all logic, they were not allowed to appoint a national army; the national government was forced to rely solely on local and state militias. Congress was left without the power to defend the sovereignty of the United States.

During the period under the Articles of Confederation, many external threats loomed. The Articles of Confederation were put to a severe foreign policy test by Great Britain. Because the Articles did not give Congress significant enough leverage to force the states to follow a provision allowing British creditors to sue for pre-Revolutionary debts, Britain refused to honor its side of the treaty.4


At the end of the war, British forts in Detroit and elsewhere in the Great Lakes region had been transferred to the U.S., but due to the weakness of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, British troops continued to occupy the forts. The British claimed they would occupy their forts the Great Lakes region until their debts were repaid. They maintained these forts on United States soil in protest. Additionally, the British Government continued to export convicts A common practice during the colonial days to their former colonies.5

Spain in the South and West

Arguably one of the most threatening diplomatic situations under the Articles of Confederation was the threat posed by the Spanish in the South and West. Spain demanded that the United States give up all of its claims to the Mississippi River and land west of the Allegheny MountainsRunning 400 miles from north-central Pennsylvania through southwestern Virginia.6 Spain had been given Florida by Great Britain at7 the end of the Revolutionary War and Spain was intent on maintaining its control of western lands. The question of boundaries was closely tied to the control of commerce that would come with control of the Mississippi.


In 1783, Great Britain began implementing their Navigation acts.Navigation Acts Lasting from 1651-1851, a series of restrictive laws limiting the use of foreign ships for trade between Britain and its colonies. These acts stated that trade between the United States and the British West Indies was only to be conducted on British ships, essentially barring United States citizens from trading in British ports.8 This meant that Americans could no longer trade to their largest market, the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean.9 Because the Articles gave Congress essentially no power to regulate interstate trade, the states began raising their own harsh tariffsTariff noun a tax or duty to be paid on a particular class of imports or exports against Britain in retaliation. In 1785, New York put a tariff on all good brought into the United States by British ships.10 Massachusetts and New Hampshire both passed acts forbidding British ships from carrying goods out of their harbors.11 Soon after, states began to place tariffs on each other and chaos and commercial warfare began. For example, when several New England states closed their ports to all British vessels, Connecticut opened its ports to reap all of the benefits.12 In this letter to Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee discusses the seriousness of the two threats at hand.


Great Britain

John Adams was sent to negotiate a commercial treaty with Great Britain after the implementation of the Navigation Acts. Adams threatened that the United States would impose their own navigation acts on Britain that would greatly hurt England's economy.13 Both Adams and Britain recognized that this threat was entirely empty due to the utter inability of the federal government to force the states to adopt the trade restrictions. Article IX of the Articles of Confederation required nine of the thirteen states to approve a bill before Congress could pass it, allowing a small number of states to keep a national trade policy from going into effect. John Adams very quickly realized the necessity of Congress being able to overcome the differing interests of the states. He contended that the "…means of preserving ourselves…can never be secured until Congress shall be made supreme in foreign commerce."14


In 1784, Diego Maria de Gardoqui, a Spanish-born diplomat and politician, was sent from Spain to speak with John Jay, secretary of foreign affairs.


Gardoqui said that Spain would enter into a commercial treaty if the United States relinquished their claim to the Mississippi River. Gardoqui attempted to convince Jay that trade with Spain was much more lucrative than trade with any other nation.15 The United states were now put in a very tricky situation. They wanted to trade with Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America, but Spain would only allow them to trade with its European ports; moreover, the rapidly expanding western settlesments in what are now Kentucky and Tennessee depended on the Mississippi for exporting the produce of their farms.16

Again, the problem was that Congress and the United States had nothing to offer to another foreign power. There was no reason that Spain needed to concede to any of the United States' demands. Throughout a year of negotiations, Spain would not budge on their position. After a year, Jay and Gardoqui finally reached a tentative agreement that would give Spain control of17the Mississippi for 25 or 30 years in return for commercial reciprocity and a loose alliance against foreign attacks.18 However, the southern states refused to agree on the treaty as they thought it would damage their commercial interests, especially their investments in western lands. Gardoqui and Jay were forced to suspend all further negotiations.

Inability of Congress to Control the States

In the 1780s, nearly all trade was controlled by the European powers and the United States was never taken seriously. The Articles of Confederation gave the federal government no real taxing power, a central government with no teeth, a small military and no realistic way to amend the Articles or pass any acts in Congress. These factors made Congress largely unable to carry out foreign policy. In addition, they were unable to constrain the states from acting on their own, which lead to conflicting policies with regards to foreign threats. In Federalist No. 22, Alexander Hamilton emphasizes the dangerous consequences of clashing state actions. Without a strong central government, the United States was unable to enact any national policies under which the states could unite. Instead, they each developed their own forms of retaliation against foreign powers which often spiraled into debilitating inter-state conflict.


The period under the Articles of Confederation was an extremely turbulent one for the United States. With a central government incapable of dealing with foreign powers and states with drastically different interests, diplomatic negotiations became a startling weakness. This problem led directly to the creation of the United States Constitution.

Discussion Questions

1. Is a strong national government necessary in order to gain diplomatic respect?

2. How were the lack of diplomatic strength and states' competing efforts with regards to foreign powers related to the inability of the federal government to collect taxes?

3. How does this shortcoming depict the faults of the 'League of Friendship' formed under the Articles of Confederation?

4. Can state-originated treaties or alliances be a viable option under a democratic republic?

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