Despite their best hopes and intentions, Americans soon encountered difficulties in conducting foreign affairs peacefully and without entanglements. As set out in the treaty plans of 1776 and 1784, their program contained contradictions and weaknesses that would lead to conflict. The three great themes of America's first century of foreign affairs—peace, commerce, and growth or expansion—proved incompatible in practice rather than mutually supportive, as they had seemed in theory. As for weaknesses in design, it was soon clear that those three themes would bring the new United States into contention with the powers of the time rather than solve America's power problem or obviate the difficult politics of force.
The bright hopes of the revolutionary years dimmed almost before the nation had well begun its independent course in world affairs, for the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars revived the American power problem. Although in private and public life Americans vigorously contested the questions of political theory and governmental policy raised by the Revolution and the moribund Franco-American alliance dating from 1778, President Washington's attempt to preserve the first solution to the American problem was clear. The principal of noninvolvement in European affairs during peacetime became the principle of neutrality in war as of 1794.
Greater difficulties attended American attempts to carry on business as usual—that is, to trade in and transport commodities and merchandise with and among belligerents, and yet remain at peace. The warring nations of Europe lost little time in denying the broadening interpretations of neutral rights that Americans propounded, with the result that by the latter 1790s the United States faced the uncomfortable necessity of negotiating with the French for an end to the nowentangling Treaty of Alliance of 1778 and to the French practice of interfering with and seizing American merchant ships trading with France's enemies. The diplomatic mission sent from America in 1797 ended in the infamous XYZ affair, named for three French secret agents, who shocked their American counterparts by proposing that negotiations regarding American aid to the French in its war against Britain be facilitated by a substantial bribe. The American response was summed up in the slogan "millions for defense, not one cent for tribute" and the ensuing undeclared war between French and American naval forces in the Atlantic. Ironically, one may suspect that Americans fought the French at sea not so much over the larger questions of the day—the matter of the alliance and neutral rights at sea—as because of the almost insignificant issues of honor and propriety raised by the venality of the French court.
Later, during the Napoleonic wars, the contradictions between the goals of peace and commerce became more acute. In the years following the turn of the nineteenth century, American ideals and plans for foreign affairs based on economics failed the test. Attempts to maintain neutrality and neutral rights in trade amid the wars of the time led President Jefferson to close access to, or embargo, American trade. The results were catastrophic. Americans themselves were not willing to accept the interruption of foreign trade, for whatever reasons, and smuggled the Jeffersonian embargo of 1807–1809 into uselessness. When the Jefferson and Madison administrations attempted to play off the British and French against each other in the years of the Noninter-course Act, wily European diplomats, especially Napoleon's foreign minister, the duc de Cadore, Jean Baptiste de Champagny, outsmarted the Americans and emphasized the weakness and consequent ineffectiveness of American economic diplomacy.
Finally, American economic coercions and maneuvers led to the almost disastrous War of 1812, an unnecessary conflict, since within weeks of its outbreak the British government rescinded the most offensive orders in council affecting American commerce with the Continent. But the people of the time, caught up in political and sectional quarrels and interests, apparently over-looked the flaws of design in foreign affairs. The War of 1812, which ended in 1814, did not prevent American statesmen from continuing to believe that peace rather than war was mankind's natural condition, and that the surest way to unnatural behavior (to war) was the politics of force.