The Pacificus/Helvidius Letters were a series of newspaper articles published in the Gazette of the United States in response to President George Washington’s “Neutrality Proclamation.” The letters reflected opposite positions on the role of the executive and legislature in American foreign policy. Writing under the pseudonym Pacificus, Alexander Hamilton penned seven letters defending the Proclamation that were published between June 29 and July 27, 1793. At Thomas Jefferson’s urging, James Madison replied under the pseudonym Helvidius in a series of five letters published between August 24, 1793 and September 18, 1793.[1]

In response to France’s war with Great Britain, Washington issued the Neutrality Proclamation on April 22, 1793, declaring that the United States would “pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers.”[2] The question of neutrality pertained to whether the United States’ 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France still held after the French monarchy had been abolished. Hoping to avoid war, Hamilton and the Federalists supported the Proclamation, whereas Madison, Jefferson, and the Democratic-Republicans wanted to support France.  

In the “Pacificus” letters, Hamilton methodically defended the president’s authority to proclaim neutrality and narrowly defined the United States’ responsibilities to France under the 1778 treaties. Referring to the Constitution’s grant of executive power, Hamilton claimed that the Senate’s participation in making treaties and Congress’ power to declare war were “exceptions” and should be “construed strictly.”[3] According to Hamilton, Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation neither declared war nor made a treaty, and since the Constitution did not limit the president from declaring neutrality, the proclamation was constitutional.  Moreover, Hamilton argued that the United States was under no obligation to enter into the war on France’s side. Hamilton claimed that because the Treaty created a “[d]efensive alliance” and the current war was an offensive war, the United States had no obligation to enter into it.[4] Affirming that “[s]elf preservation is the first duty of a Nation,” Hamilton warned that the United States, being surrounded by British and Spanish possessions and lacking sufficient fortifications and a navy, was in no position to enter the war.[5]

Upon reading Hamilton’s “Pacificus” letters, Jefferson wrote to Madison,“For god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public.”[6] Madison reluctantly took up the task, describing it as “the most grating one I ever experienced.”[7] In his rebuttal, Madison outlined the Constitution’s limits on executive power in both foreign and domestic affairs. Using a strict construction of executive power, Madison asserted that the power to declare war and make treaties was not executive in nature, but was in fact constitutionally delegated to the legislature.[8] Moreover, Madison asserted that the Proclamation infringed upon the legislature’s power, since it prevented Congress from deciding whether or not to declare war.[9]  He also argued that the United States’ treaty with France was still applicable as France’s “change of government” did not alter the United States’ obligations and that the executive had no power to “suspend or prevent the operation” of a treaty.[10]

 

Emily Yankowitz

Yale University

 

Notes

[1] These documents can also be found in Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates of 1793-1794: Toward the Completion of the American Founding, ed. Morton J. Frish (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007).

[2] “Neutrality Proclamation, April 22, 1793," in The Papers of George Washington, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick and John C. Pinheiro, vol. 12, 16 January 1793?–?31 May 1793, Presidential Series, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 472–474.

[3] “Pacificus I.”

[4] “Pacificus II.”

[5] “Pacificus III.”

[6]  Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, July 7, 1793 in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. John Catanzariti, vol. 26, 11 May–31 August 1793 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 443–444.

[7] James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, July 30, 1793, ibid., 585-587.

[8] “Helvidius I.”

[9] “Helvidius V.”

[10] “Helvidius II.”

 

Bibliography

Elkins, Stanley M., and Eric L. McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hamilton, Alexander, and James Madison. The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates of 1793-1794:Toward the Completion of the American Founding. Edited by Morton J. Frish. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007.

“Helvidius I-V.” Gazette of the United States, August 24, 1793-September 18, 1793.

“Pacificus I-VII.” Gazette of the United States, June 29, 1793-July 27, 1793.

 

 

 

 

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