The Foreign Intercourse Bill of 1798 and the Debate over Early American Foreign Relations


Between January and March of 1798 the House of Representatives debated the foreign intercourse bill, which would fund the diplomatic corps for the next two years. This was a generally a routine function, but it soon became a wide-ranging debate over the basis nature of American diplomacy, and of the American republic itself. The debate revealed something important about the politics of the 1790s. Given that republics were inherently fragile, even seemingly small matters might destroy the American republic. Both Republicans and Federalists proceeded from this assumption. The debate fell into three broad categories. First was the question of who should be appointed. The Republicans accused President Adams of using additional diplomatic appointments as a vehicle to create a patronage machine that would corrupt Congress. The Federalists that countered that amount of patronage available was insignificant, and that that the president was justified in excluding Republicans from office. Second was the question of who should control the appointments. This led back to the control of American foreign policy. The Republicans argued for congressional control through the appropriation and war powers. The Federalists contended for presidential control through the treaty and appointment powers. Third was the question of whether diplomats should be appointed at all. The Republicans believed that trade would allow the United States to secure its diplomatic goals without recourse to the normal institutions of diplomacy. The Republicans considered the United States as existing outside the European balance of power. The Federalists saw no choice but to play by the generally established rules, and thus must appoint diplomats.