Historians have frequently argued that America's antipathy to political involvement with Europe originated with the colonial experiences, when European wars spread to the Western Hemisphere. Yet even a cursory glance at colonial newspapers indicates that the English settlers in America viewed the wars with France and Spain as their own. Historians agree that the colonials considered themselves Englishmen right up until the American Revolution began, and there is no evidence to show that this feeling did not extend to England's wars as well. Reluctance to pay war taxes proves nothing; taxes are generally unpopular at any time. The peace settlements negotiated by the English may have angered the colonists, but only because the treaties seemed to give more benefits to the French or Spanish than the American colonists thought necessary. Even after the revolutionary war had begun in earnest, many American leaders could not bring themselves to negotiate any sort of alliance with their traditional enemy—France.
What American leaders sought was not isolation but rather situations that clearly benefited national interests. Born into a world of traditional alliances and coalitions, the new American nation chose to avoid such associations not out of any moral or philosophical judgments, although such rhetoric abounded, but because, at least temporarily, an independent policy seemed to promise greater rewards. Thomas Paine, often misinterpreted as recommending isolation, made his point clear in the pamphlet Common Sense (1776):
Any submission to, or dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions, which she can never do, while, by her dependence on Britain, she is made the make-weight in the scale of British politics.
Paine, who soon became impatient with the Revolution's conservatism, argued not for isolation but for a policy of impartiality designed to open all of Europe's markets to American trade. That policy, which soon stimulated America's strong support of neutral rights, hardly represented a new departure in foreign policy. The smaller nations of the world have always attempted to avoid choosing sides in struggles between the greater powers, although sheer geographic gravity made that rarely possible in Europe's history.
The debates among the revolutionary leaders over broad guidelines for American diplomats, discussions that culminated in the Model Treaty of 1776, illustrate the distinctions made by Paine. Despite the precarious military situation, some argued for only a commercial connection with France. Led by John Adams, these men obviously feared that the presence of French troops in America would mean merely swapping one imperial master for another. Although Adams's statements were couched in the broad, sweeping terms so popular with Enlightenment thinkers, his objections stemmed from two factors: his practical appraisal of America's political weakness and economic needs and his intense distrust of French motives—a distrust he held in common with his fellow New Englanders. Despite Americans' claims that they stood for a new approach to world politics—a novus ordo seculorum —they had adopted policies that were merely variations of the realistic power politics of the Europe they professed to scorn. When military necessity forced the Continental Congress to seek a military alliance with France in 1778, the terms of that treaty were not fundamentally different from alliances negotiated by European nations. The French intended the United States to become a permanent client-state of His Christian Majesty, a sentiment embodied in a clause stating that the alliance would last "from the present time and forever." A plea from the United States to Spain for a similar treaty of alliance was ignored.
Nor did the United States go about alliance diplomacy any differently than its European predecessors. The peace negotiations aimed at ending the revolutionary war found the Americans as deceptive as France. Interpreting the alliance with France as selectively binding, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay negotiated an effective and separate treaty of peace with the British—a violation of their agreement with France. Although they justified their actions by pointing out that France had intended to betray the United States, their argument contrasts sharply with the self-righteous claims that America would practice a new diplomacy in which, to quote Adams, "the dignity of North America … consists solely in reason, justice, truth, the rights of mankind, and the interests of the nations of Europe." Ironically, Franklin—a man with long experience in the world of eighteenth-century diplomacy— opposed such a violation of treaty obligations, while Adams demanded that they open negotiations with the British.
Although the treaties of alliance and commerce with France represented no breakthrough into some sort of new diplomacy, American leaders, particularly the New Englanders, viewed the new nation's diplomacy as somehow flowing from values and purposes different from those of Europe. Distracted by the social implications that went with their repudiation of an aristocratic class, many Americans confused diplomatic forms with substance. Refusal to dress like European diplomats became equated with a refusal to indulge in European-style power politics.
That image proved to be longer lasting than the alliance with France. The rhetoric of America's uniqueness and exceptionalism, something common among young, intensely nationalistic nations, meshed neatly with the notion that the United States practiced a new form of diplomacy. In reality, the only thing new about America's diplomacy was that geography permitted it to remain aloof from the constantly shifting balance of power in Europe. Hence, the decision not to join the League of Armed Neutrality was made because it was thought that the league offered no benefits to America, not because of any ideological opposition to taking sides.
By the mid-1790s, the French Alliance had become a detriment to the young republic. With the outbreak of the wars of the French Revolution, soon to merge into the Napoleonic wars, Presidents George Washington and John Adams feared that the United States would be drawn into a conflict in which it had no interest. Again myth overtook reality. French restrictions on American naval freedom appeared to be a direct retaliation for the refusal of the United States to live up to its treaty obligations, whereas the reality was that the French Directory believed that the recently negotiated commercial treaty between Britain and America (Jay's Treaty) contained secret clauses that amounted to a political alliance. The treaty contained no such political commitments, but the French argument struck home. When great powers go to war, neutrals can maintain their trade only at the risk of losing any claim to impartial economic policies. Although the United States did not sign Jay's Treaty as part of an anti-French policy, the French quite logically believed the opposite. Historians have argued that Washington's famous Farewell Address sprang primarily from domestic political considerations, but it was the awkward confrontation with France—including attempts by the French directly to influence American elections—that clearly stimulated his warning against alliances. Washington included a caveat that Americans soon forgot; he warned only against "artificial" connections with Europe, not ones that were natural and in the national interest. Since the Quasi-War with France followed soon after Washington's warning, Americans tended to view the address as an accurate prediction of the outcome of U.S. involvement in European alliances. The economic consequences that might have followed any American attempt to maintain real impartiality—something that would have required economic isolation—were forgotten.