University of Wisconsin–Madison

European Assessments of the Constitution

Europeans in America were some of the keenest analysts of the debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Writing to inform rather than persuade, their letters are succinct and free of the overwrought rhetoric that characterized much of the contemporary American debate. Their analysis was valuable because European newspapers printed little concerning American affairs, except in Great Britain, where the press regularly denigrated America as anarchic and lawless in an attempt to dissuade emigration.

While more objective than Americans, Europeans were hardly disinterested. Britain, France, and Spain each had their particular reasons to closely watch the ratification debate.

The British government wanted to assure that American debtors would pay their prewar debts with accrued interest to their British creditors. Still smarting from the loss of its lucrative colonies, the British government refused to send diplomats to America and established a restrictive commercial policy, believing that American consumers would return to their prewar trading patterns without any British incentives.

The French government wanted the Confederation Congress to repay wartime loans made by King Louis XVI and Dutch bankers.  The French government had backed the Dutch loans, making it responsible to repay them if Congress defaulted. The French also wanted to improve commercial relations with the United States while diminishing the commercial connection between the United States and Britain. Of paramount importance, however, the French wanted to prevent a rapprochement— or worse, an alliance—between America and its former mother country.

The Spanish government wanted the Confederation Congress to repay wartime loans made by the Spanish king and to negotiate a commercial treaty. Most importantly, Spain wanted to protect its colonial North American boundaries from the avaricious land-hungry Americans. To maintain its borders, the Spanish government prohibited Americans from navigating the Mississippi River and argued that America’s southern border should be much further north than specified in the 1783 Treaty of Peace with Great Britain.

The following documents containing European assessments of the Constitution have been taken from The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Several of these documents reference John Jay, who had become the Confederation’s secretary for foreign affairs in 1785. Jay not only conducted all diplomatic matters, but much of the confederation’s domestic agenda as well. At the time, Jay was considered by all as America’s de facto prime minister. No foreign diplomat could approach Congress without first dealing with Secretary Jay. For more European assessments of the United States in the early days of the republic see Mary Giunta’s The Emerging Nation, which is freely available online via hathitrust.org.

FRENCH ASSESSMENTS

The French had the largest and most insightful diplomatic corps in America. (Britain and Spain sent few diplomats and none at the rank of minister plenipotentiary.) Two themes run through the French analysis of the ratification debate. First, they were uncertain whether the Constitution could provide a stable government even if it were ratified. “The closer they approach the goal,” wrote Antoine de la Forest “the more it is feared we will see their cause fail.” Forest, the secretary of the French Legation, and others believed the debate had been so rancorous and the margins of victory so small that, even in defeat, Antifederalists would find ways to sabotage the new government. They also noted that sectional tensions between Northern and Southern states had the potential to tear the country apart.

Second, the French believed Americans to be pretentious and naïve about their prospects as a nation. Chargé Louis-Guillaume Otto felt Americans needed to be reproached “for the impatience of anticipating their future grandeur.” “They have yet to recover from many delusions about their importance in the political balance of Europe,” wrote Minister Comte de Moustier. “It is irritating to see that they are very sensitive to the pretensions of others, but they are oblivious to their own.” Furthermore, the French doubted whether Americans were suited for democratic government. “Power is rarely procured by unanimous consent,” wrote Moustier. “It is more often due to fortunate circumstances, to genius, to an appropriately struck blow.” Annoyed by boastful talk of the superiority of American liberty, Attaché Victor Marie DuPont reported telling a group of American politicians that he hoped their “aristocratic constitution” would last as long and produce as good results as the French “despotic monarchy.”

Official Correspondence

Private Correspondence

BRITISH AND SPANISH ASSESSMENTS