From its beginnings in 1792, the French revolution grew into the Napoleonic wars, and France declared war against several European enemies. American Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, assured the French Minister that the U.S. would “render all those good offices which shall be consistent with the duties of a neutral nation.”
By early 1793, multiple European countries were involved, and American neutrality had become a much stickier matter. In April, the POTUS (yes, George Washington himself) issued a cabinet approved proclamation pledging “a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers.” It was the first American proclamation of neutrality, which read:
“Whereas it appears that a state of war exists between Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain, and the United Netherlands, of the one part, and France on the other, and the duty and interest of the United States require, that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers:
I have therefore thought fit by these presents to declare the disposition of the United States to observe the conduct aforesaid towards those powers respectively; and to exhort and warn the citizens of the United States to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsoever, which may n any manner tend to contravene such disposition.
“And I do hereby also make known that whosoever of the citizens of the United States shall render himself liable to punishment or forfeiture under the law of nations, by committing, aiding or abetting hostilities against any of the said powers, or or by carrying to any of them those articles, which are deemed contraband by the modern usage of nations, will not receive the protection of the United States, against such punishment or forfeiture: and further, that I have given instructions to those officers, to whom it belongs, to cause prosecutions to be instituted against all persons, who shall, within the cognizance of the courts of the United States, violate the Law of Nations, with respect to the powers at war, or any of them.”
Jefferson’s influence prevailed, keeping the actual term “neutrality” out of the proclamation. He reasoned that since the POTUS could not legally declare a war, and since war and neutrality are equals under the law, the same limitation would apply to neutrality. Terminology notwithstanding, Jefferson had committed the nation to neutrality before the proclamation was even drafted, and Washington proclaimed it in deed if not in word. The duties, obligations and responsibilities of neutrals were concisely published.
Public opinion favored the proclamation, support shown by way of resolutions in state legislatures, town meetings, mercantile associations, etc., and publicized in newspaper accounts of these across the budding United States.
Jefferson later wrote to the American minister at Paris,
“….we have produced proofs from the most enlightened and approved writers on the subject, that a neutral nation must, in all things relating to the war, observe an exact impartiality toward the parties; that favors to the one to the prejudice of the other, would import a fraudulent neutrality, of which no nation would be the dupe.”
“…within a few months after the issuance of the proclamation it was regularly asserted without contradiction that the law of nations imposed on all non-belligerent nations an obligation to be impartial in their relations with the parties at war.”
Source: The First American Neutrality, A Study of the American Understanding of Neutral Obligations During the years 1792-1815, Charles S. Hyneman (1974)
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