The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence
America may be accomplished in the arts and sciences of mankind, but peace-making has never been her forte. After both World Wars opportunities were lost and complexities created that could easily have been avoided; suspicion and naiveté both contributed their quota of mistakes, yet by Yalta the American government had over a century of diplomatic experience, time enough one might have thought to build up a formidable and confident diplomatic machine. The Founding Fathers, lacking all experience of the diplomatic complexities of Europe, did far better; but then they were guided by principle rather than the pursuit of principle and power, often a poisonous and dangerous mixture that needs a professional sense of historical processes to exploit with any hope of success. Wilson, Roosevelt, and their State Departments lacked historical nous. Fortunately the Founding Fathers did not require an historical sense, for their purpose was both limited and, as political situations go, pure. America wanted to be free, to decide its own fate, to rule itself by institutions of its own devising. For this Americans had fought and died in the fields, woods, and creeks against the most formidable military power the world then knew, a power which had only recently broken france and wrested from her a commercial empire that stretched across the world. To contemporaries it seemed absurd that the Americans might one day win; sooner or later British might must prevail. And America’s allies, France and Spain, cared little whether America remained free or not, once they had achieved their own aims to weaken Britain.
So the cards were stacked against Adams, Franklin, and Jay. To the French or Spaniards they were insignificant pawns in an elaborate diplomatic game that had been adroitly played for centuries; of use perhaps to check Britain or to wring concessions from her. Indeed, neither Spanish nor French ministers hid their contempt for the American representatives. Jay was kept waiting at Cadiz, and when he reached Madrid he was given no recognition at all, while Aranda and Floridablanca explored every hypothetical peace feeler put forward by spies, double agents, or diplomatic pirates out for a quick guinea: underworld types which abounded in Europe.
INDEED one of the most baffling aspects of the world into which Jay was plunged must have been the weird assortment of agents, official and unofficial, that flitted like bats across the diplomatic scene, from the devious Roman Catholic priest Thomas Hussey to the mysterious Montague Fox, whose extravagant forgeries laid the French and Spanish Chancelleries by the ears for months. What his purpose was is as mysterious as his name and Professor Morris has probably got as near to the truth about this strange efflorescence of the diplomatic underworld as one can ever get. Montague Fox, however, is typical of the slimy web of chicanery that entangled the diplomatic relationships of the great powers. A cog in the British government’s espionage system, Montague Fox’s purpose, Professor Morris thinks, was partly to sow suspicion between France and Spain,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.