Quarrels over the national interest commenced with America's birth as an independent nation. Nearly everyone in the Continental Congress, and everyone not a Loyalist, agreed on the advisability of an alliance with France and cheered when that alliance was obtained in 1778. But no sooner had the French held up their end of the bargain—by cornering Cornwallis at Yorktown—than Americans began to squabble about how far beyond victory attachment to France ought to extend. Benjamin Franklin, the senior American commissioner in Paris, counseled continued closeness, both from gratitude for services already rendered and in expectation of additional French aid. Franklin doubtless was influenced by the adulation he received in Paris (a staged meeting between Franklin and Voltaire set the philosophes swooning), but, personal popularity aside, he believed the infant United States would need French help to avoid being sucked back into Britain's orbit. Franklin's fellow commissioners, John Adams and John Jay, were more inclined to doubt French bona fides and less inclined to fear the attraction of America's late colonial master. (Adams in addition suffered from excruciating envy of Franklin, and his Puritan mores were scandalized by Franklin's liaisons with the ladies of Paris.) As it happened, the tension between the two conceptions of the infant national interest produced a peace treaty that preserved the alliance with France while extracting important concessions from Britain.
Unfortunately, the concessions proved to be more impressive on paper than on the ground— particularly the ground of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes. The British refused to evacuate forts in the region and defied the Americans to do anything to oust them. (The rationale for their continued occupation was the failure of the American government to honor pledges regarding debts and Loyalists, but their reason was simply that they could, and that influential groups in Britain defined Britain's national interest as holding what Britain had.) Thomas Jefferson, who had inherited Franklin's Francophilia along with Franklin's diplomatic post in Paris, and who carried this attitude to his position as President George Washington's secretary of state, found the British intransigence insufferable. The group that grew up around Jefferson—the nascent Republican Party—agitated to punish perfidious Albion.
Their cause was complicated by the outbreak of the French Revolution, and the onset of the wars provoked by that pregnant event. For most of a century, the American colonies had been caught in the crossfire between Britain and France; the most recent installment of this modern Hundred Years' War had sprung the colonies free from Britain's grasp. But freedom did not preserve them when the crossfire resumed in 1792. The question that then faced Americans was: With which side did the American national interest lie?
Jefferson and the Republicans answered the question one way—France's way. The Jeffersonians did not necessarily forgive French violations of American neutrality (centering on seizure of American ships), but they felt more threatened by Britain's infractions, which now also included seizure of ships. The more fervent among them would have repaid French help in the war of the American Revolution with American help in this war of the French Revolution; yet even those who stopped short of wanting to honor the alliance to the letter conceived a kinship with the new republic on the Atlantic's eastern shore. In this view (and in a pattern that would persist for two centuries in American politics), the national interest at home and the national interest abroad were intimately entwined. Domestic republicanism dictated support for foreign republicanism.
Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists demonstrated a similarly married definition of the national interests at home and abroad. Hamilton was no great fan of American republicanism, having argued at the Constitutional Convention for a monarchy; not surprisingly, he held no candle for French republicanism. On the contrary, he admired the energetic executive of the British government (which he did his best to imitate as Washington's Treasury secretary and most trusted adviser), and he judged that America's future lay in close ties to Britain's governing and merchandising classes.
The national interest was whipsawed between the Republican and Federalist views for two decades. The Federalists (under Washington) negotiated and ratified the easy-on-Britain Jay's Treaty and (under John Adams) fought an undeclared naval war against France. During this conflict, the Federalists succeeded in outlawing—by the Sedition Act—their opponents' definition of the national interest. The Republicans (under James Madison) fought a formal war against Britain. The Republicans' war—of 1812—was a fiasco for the United States, with the burning of Washington City being but the most egregious example of America's inability to defend itself.
Yet the conflict had the salutary effect of ending the first phase of the debate over the national interest. Americans had learned something from their long ordeal. The Bonapartist turn of events in France cured the Jeffersonians of their revolutionary romanticism, while the Hamiltonians (who lost their champion in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr) were disabused of their Anglophilia by British impressment of American seamen. Both sides settled on the wisdom of staying out of other countries' wars. George Washington had urged eschewing "permanent alliances"; Thomas Jefferson denounced "entangling alliances." Permanent or entangling, alliances seemed unwise, and a strong majority of Americans concurred in keeping clear of them. No definition of the national interest would persist longer or sustain more general acceptance than this idea that other people's quarrels were for other people to settle. God in his wisdom had put an ocean between Europe and America; Americans in their wisdom had crossed it. Most saw no reason to cross back.