The failure of the Irish population to rise in response to foreign overtures, and the rapid British success in recapturing the invaded areas of Canada, forced American leaders to rethink their tactics for securing independence. Men like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson continued to believe that their cause was international in scope. They also understood that revolutionary ends called for pragmatic means. This required revolutionary realism: a willingness to make compromises and exhibit patience without corrupting ideals.
In February 1778, American leaders concluded a treaty of amity and commerce with the kingdom of France. This alliance brought the revolutionary colonists together with the conservative ancien régime of Louis XVI for the purpose of defeating British power. The French monarchy surely had no interest in seeing the cause of revolution spread beyond the British dominions. Nonetheless, most historians agree that without French aid the American Revolution might not have reached a successful conclusion. Paris supported American independence to promote its self-interest in the larger European balance of power.
Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson recognized the necessity of maintaining friendly but distant relations with unsavory regimes like that of France. Americans traded and procured aid from monarchical states. They generally avoided close political collaboration with these governments for fear of corrupting America's revolutionary principles. This explains, in part, the tradition of U.S. diplomatic aloofness, often termed "neutrality," that carried from the late eighteenth century up to World War II. While Americans sought to conduct profitable commerce with societies of all varieties—including France and Britain in the late eighteenth century—they attempted to remain separate from the politics of the conservative Old World.
President George Washington articulated this point of view in his Farewell Address, published on 19 September 1796. He called upon citizens to spread the virtues of commerce while avoiding "permanent alliances" that might threaten the new nation's security. American leaders like Washington were realistic enough to understand that they could never afford to isolate themselves from the international system. Through commerce and calculated political detachment from the powerful European monarchies, they hoped to protect their revolution, patiently spreading their principles abroad as opportunities opened.
The outbreak of revolution in France during the summer of 1789 offered Americans one of their first and most extraordinary opportunities. Louis XVI's attempt to increase his international power by supporting the American revolutionaries had the paradoxical effect of bankrupting his monarchy and opening the door to upheaval in his society. Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson came to symbolize for many French thinkers the enlightened possibilities of liberty and enterprise, unfettered from the chains of despotism. As violence spread and the monarchy crumbled, revolutionary leaders and propagandists in France looked to the American government for support.
Jefferson, then serving as America's minister to France, encouraged the initial spread of unrest against the ancien régime. Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense (1776) had inspired many Americans to join their independence struggle, also traveled (in an unofficial capacity) to Paris to support the cause of revolution. Jefferson and Paine were the most eloquent American exponents of the ideals embodied in popular French attacks on monarchy, aristocracy, and political tradition. The two advocates of revolution were not, however, unique in their sympathies. French revolutionary figures—particularly Edmond Charles Genêt, a diplomat from the new regime—received the adulation of American crowds throughout the United States. Even early skeptics of the events in France, notably John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, sympathized with those who wished to throw off the repression of the Bourbon regime and replace it with a society of liberty and enterprise.
Adams, Hamilton, and other members of the Federalist Party in America differed from Jefferson and Paine in their fear that the French Revolution would careen out of control. They perceived the violence in Paris and other cities as a threat to the very ideals the revolution wished to serve. They also understood that revolutionary chaos during the Jacobin period after the execution of the king would open the door for dictatorship, which is what occurred, first in the hands of the Directory and later under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Jefferson, Paine, and the early Republicans were slower than their Federalist counterparts to see these dangers. When they did, in the mid-1790s, they also separated themselves from the extremism of the French Revolution. Both the Federalists and the Republicans supported a revolution against the ancien régime, but the two parties came to despair the violence, anarchy, and seeming irrationality of events in comparison to America's less disruptive experience.
Federalists and Republicans exaggerated their differences over the French Revolution to gain support from different domestic groups. Northern merchants generally felt threatened by French revolutionary attacks on their commerce. Southern planters, in contrast, expected new opportunities for export to France under a revolutionary regime that denounced mercantilism. These sectional differences contributed to partisan acrimony in the late eighteenth century.
The breakdown in the American political consensus during this period reflected little change in attitudes toward revolution. Americans supported the overthrow of monarchy in France. They applauded appeals to liberty. They exhibited suspicion of excessive violence and social disruption. Most importantly, they denounced revolutions that appeared more radical than their own.