Understandably and characteristically, George Washington began his presidency by following the letter of the Constitution as closely as he could. Not only had he presided over the debates in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but he was keenly aware that his every act as the first president of the United States would tend to set a precedent.
The first potential foreign crisis of Washington's administration arose in 1790, when war between Great Britain and Spain appeared to be imminent over remote Nootka Sound on the northwest coast of America. Anticipating a British request to move troops through American territory to attack Spanish Louisiana, Washington requested written opinions on a possible answer from the three heads of departments—Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state; Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the Treasury; and Henry Knox, secretary of war—and of Attorney General Edmund Randolph and Vice President John Adams. Although the matter related most directly to the duties of the secretary of state, it obviously had implications much broader than simply diplomatic, and Washington evidently wanted to widen his range of advice as much as was constitutionally possible. On later questions of significant national or constitutional import, he adhered to much the same procedure.
On matters of direct personal concern, however, Washington turned to old and trusted friends for advice. He had decided by the spring of 1792 that he would retire from public life. As he had so often done, he wrote to a fellow Virginian, James Madison, for help: "namely, to think of the proper time, and the best mode of announcing the intention; and that you would prepare the latter." Despite his long collaboration with Madison, his affectionate regard for Randolph, and his esteem for Jefferson, Washington's foreign policy was nevertheless increasingly directed by Hamilton. Looking upon himself as a kind of prime minister in addition to being finance minister, after the British tradition that frequently combined the two roles, Hamilton secretly conducted his own foreign policy and consistently opposed the secretary of state in meetings of Washington's official advisers. When Washington made his firm decision to retire at the end of his second term as president, he turned to Hamilton for advice on both the method and the substance of his farewell to public service.
Washington was, according to James David Barber's model, a "passive-negative" type, a president who sought stability as the precondition to establishing the legitimacy of the American experiment in self-government, so it was natural that he should resist innovation and generally choose the path of least resistance. In a period of intense foreign and domestic turmoil, such a president would naturally be drawn to the adviser whose counsel seemed most likely to promise tranquillity at home and safety abroad. That meant validating the power of the central government over its citizens while bowing to superior force in the conduct of foreign relations. Specifically, it meant a succession of centralizing fiscal and economic measures and a persistent tilting toward Britain in its war against revolutionary France. Hamilton's pro-British foreign policy, culminating in Jay's Treaty of 1794, could easily have been fashioned in London. In fact, Hamilton has been described as the effective minister of the British government to the American, although Washington never knew how intimate and cooperative were Hamilton's relations with the nominal representatives of George III.
By the end of Washington's second term, all dissenters to Hamiltonian policy had been purged and Hamilton himself had left office. But President John Adams, to his later undoing, kept the department heads he had inherited from Washington, most of them unswervingly loyal to Hamilton. The latter, who once wrote that he had not "lost my taste for a little politics," continued to run the government from his New York law office. Adams only later, in the midst of an undeclared war with France, realized that the advice he received from his subordinate officers originated with his arch rival. Perhaps Hamilton had this extension of his influence over the Adams administration in mind when, after Washington's death, he described their relationship: "he was an Aegis very essential to me " (Hamilton's emphasis).
After he had removed the Hamiltonian influence over his administration, Adams was able to end the Quasi-War with France. His son John Quincy Adams had recently been sent as minister to Berlin and, with the treachery of Secretary of State Timothy Pickering in mind, the president told his son to "write freely" to him but "cautiously to the office of State." It was the advice of John Quincy Adams that convinced the president that France sincerely wanted peace and led him to extricate the United States from a war only the Hamiltonian extremists wanted.
John Adams yielded to no one when it came to knowledge of foreign affairs, although until his break with the war faction in his Federalist Party, he had allowed himself to be influenced by the Hamiltonians in his cabinet and in the Senate. Jefferson, however, after the "revolution of 1800," was able to make a fresh start, with a cabinet of his own choosing and Democratic-Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. No American, save perhaps Benjamin Franklin, had had a richer diplomatic experience than the new president, and probably no president ever had a secretary of state who was closer, both personally and intellectually, than James Madison was to Jefferson. The advice of his brilliant secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, was valuable to Jefferson, but the efficiency and subtlety with which Jefferson and Madison synchronized their efforts in pursuit of American foreign policy objectives probably have never been matched.