In this excerpt from his letterbook, George Washington asks his cabinet for advice on whether the United States can remain neutral under the terms of their existing treaty with France. Library of Congress MSS 44693: Reel 024, image 19On April 22, 1793 President George Washington issued a Neutrality Proclamation to define the policy of the United States in response to the spreading war in Europe. “The duty and interest of the United States require,” the Proclamation stated, “that they [the United States] should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers.” The Proclamation warned Americans that the federal government would prosecute any violations of this policy by its citizens, and would not protect them should they be tried by a belligerent nation. This statement of policy triggered a fierce reaction from those who considered it a sellout of the nation’s revolutionary soul for the financial gain of the merchant class. “The cause of France is the cause of man, and neutrality is desertion,” one anonymous correspondent wrote the president. Critics believed that the Proclamation marked a dishonorable betrayal of our oldest and dearest ally and to a sacred alliance made in the darkest hours of the American Revolution. The Proclamation was important for the constitutional precedent it established in the exertion of executive authority in the realm of foreign policy, as well as for exciting partisan passions that were formative to the creation of political parties in the first party system.  

Several important recent developments in both American and Europe led to Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation. The French Revolution turned more radical when it beheaded King Louis XVI in January 1793. Ten days later, revolutionary France, already fighting Austria and Prussia, declared war on England, Holland, and Spain, embroiling the entire European continent in conflict. Lastly, on April 8, 1793 the new French minister, Edmond Genet, arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. Genet was an instant hit with the American people who flocked in large numbers to greet the ebullient Frenchmen as he made his way north to the capital in Philadelphia. More ominous, however, was the fact that Genet, armed with commissions and letters of marque from his government, actively recruited Americans to fight for revolutionary France.

Deeply concerned with Genet’s infectious popularity and his direct appeals to the American people to aid France, and unsureHoward Pyle's depiction of Genet meeting Washington appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (Library of Congress AP2.H3) in April 1897. of the boundaries of his own constitutional powers, Washington called his cabinet together on April 19, 1793 to solicit their advice. Despite some disagreement between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton on other related issues, the four members of the cabinet unanimously agreed that the president could and should issue a statement affirming the neutrality of the United States in the European-wide war, and that his government should receive Genet as the French minister, despite his hostility to the authority of the federal government. Attorney General Edmund Randolph wrote the 293-word Proclamation for the president’s signature.

The Proclamation ignited a fire storm of criticism. Much of the American population sympathized with the cause of revolutionary France. In a series of letters written under the pseudonym of Pacificus, Alexander Hamilton took up the task of defending the administration in the press by arguing that neutrality was in the best interest of the United States. Furthermore, Hamilton asserted that the 1778 Treaty of Alliance was a defensive arrangement that was not applicable in 1793 because France had declared war on its enemies, an offensive act. Aggravated by Hamilton’s claims of broad executive power and frustrated by the language of Randolph’s final draft of the Proclamation, Thomas Jefferson organized a response to Pacificus. At the pleading of his friend and secretary of state, Hamilton’s former Federalist Papers collaborator Congressman James Madison took up the cause of the opposition in a series of letters under the pen name of Helivicus that countered the arguments of Pacificus. Madison and Hamilton provided each side of the growing partisan chasm between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans with powerful talking points.  

The controversy moved from the pages of newspapers to the courts when the federal government charged Gideon Henfield, an American citizen who joined a French privateer crew, for violating the Neutrality Proclamation when he sailed a captured British prize vessel into port at Philadelphia.  Minister Genet championed Henfield’s cause and funded a highly talented legal team to defend him. The jury ruled that Henfield was not guilty because the defendant had violated no statute. In other words, the jury considered the Proclamation as a statement of policy that failed to carry the weight of law. Attorney General Randolph wasted no time in voicing the administration position that despite the embarrassing outcome of the trial, the increasingly unpopular policy of neutrality still stood.

The tide of public opinion shifted dramatically in July 1793 when Genet refused to recognize the authority of the federal government by converting a captured British vessel into a French warship in the United States. In a meeting with secretary of state Genet even threatened to appeal directly to the American people to act against Washington. Hamilton leaked this damaging information to political allies in New York who published it. Genet had gone too far. Popular sentiment rallied around in favor of the president.   

Congress remedied the situation of the Proclamation’s legal limbo in 1794 by passing the Neutrality Act, which gave President Washington’s policy the force of law. The Act marked an acknowledgment by the legislative branch that foreign policy resided largely in the constitutional domain of the executive. With the legal and constitutional questions settled, the partisan contentions over the French Revolution and foreign policy channeled into other issues, such as the even more bitter debate over Jay’s Treaty the following year. On July 7, 1798, during the Quasi-War crisis in the presidency of John Adams, Congress formerly annulled the twenty-year-old Treaty of Alliance with France.

 

Gregory J. Dehler

Front Range Community College

 

Sources

Hamilton, Alexander and James Madison. The Letters of Pacificus and Helvidius on the Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793. Washington, D.C.: J & G.S. Gideon, 1845.

McDonald, Forest. The Presidency of George Washington. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1974.

Patrick, Christine S. and John C. Pinheiro, eds. The Papers of George Washington: The Presidential Series. Vol 12. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Young, Christopher J. “Connecting the President and the People: Washington’s Neutrality, Genet’s Challenge, and Hamilton’s Fight for Public Support.” Journal of the Early Republic 31 (Fall 2011): 436-466.

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Buy Tickets Donate Membership Calendar Shop Restaurant
Estate Hours

Open today from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm

iconDirections & Parking
buy tickets online & save