Crafting a Neutral Proclamation
On July 7, 1793, Secretary of State Jefferson urged Congressman James Madison “to take up his pen” and respond to Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton’s published essays in support of the Neutrality Proclamation.1 With Hamilton’s opinions appearing in partisan newspapers, Jefferson hoped to continue the debates that had begun in Washington’s cabinet.2 A few months earlier, the president had solicited detailed opinions on neutrality from his cabinet members, fully aware of the strong philosophical and personal differences that divided them. In both the formulation and the implementation of the Neutrality Proclamation, Washington shrewdly encouraged the full expression of these diverse views in order to produce a program that had the support of the entire cabinet. While Hamilton and Jefferson submitted lengthy treatises in the hopes of gaining the partisan advantage, the president had a different goal in mind.3 During the busy spring of 1793, he labored to reconcile the divergent philosophical, ideological, and historical viewpoints within his cabinet to formulate a single, unified response to the nation’s first international challenge. The resulting proclamation, issued on April 22, 1793, became the first step in Washington’s consensus-based efforts to shield the United States from European warfare.
In late March 1793, word reached the United States that its principal trading partners, Britain and France, had been at war for two months. Washington realized that the country needed to quickly distance itself from this latest European conflict. On April 19, he convened his cabinet to begin work on a statement that announced America’s intention to remain friendly with both France and Britain but to avoid taking sides in a war that did not concern the young nation.4 Over the next month, Washington’s deeply divided advisors engaged in vigorous and detailed debates on the best way to announce U.S. intentions, including whether to issue a proclamation of neutrality. Although Washington and the cabinet ironed out their differences in order to produce a final document, Hamilton and Jefferson still continued to spar. During the summer of 1793, the debate over neutrality moved into the nation’s highly partisan newspapers. Hamilton wrote what became known as the “Pacificus” essays in support of the proclamation, while Jefferson sought to undercut a policy he had once supported through Madison’s “Helvidius” series. As the United States sought to be neutral, partisanship did not threaten the success of this policy. Instead, the greatest challenges to American neutrality came from French privateering, British cargo seizures, Americans eager to profit from this war, and a national government unable to keep pace with these violations.
American neutrality was not a new idea for Washington. Thanks to the correspondence with his former French generals and other reports from Europe, the president was well aware of the volatility of the political situation in Paris. He had long held the belief that America should be allowed to grow and prosper without outside interferences. As he had explained to Minister to France Morris: “And unwise should we be in the extreme to involve ourselves in the contests of European Nations, where our weight could be but small—though the loss to ourselves would be certain.”5 In April 1793, Washington masterfully guided his politically divided cabinet toward a united policy of promoting U.S. interests and protecting the nation from European warfare.
Prior to that spring, U.S. foreign policy focused on two major concerns: the institutional expansions needed to support the new Constitution and the outstanding issues from the Revolutionary War and the subsequent peace treaty. Under the Constitution, all three branches of government have some stake in foreign affairs, with the executive assuming the largest role because of its ability to negotiate treaties and appoint ambassadors. Congress as a whole possesses the power to declare war, while the Senate has the exclusive responsibility to offer its advice and consent on treaties and ministerial appointments. Lastly, the courts can weigh in on international disputes. Making clear that foreign policy belongs exclusively to the national government, Article I, Section 10 prohibits states from entering into treaties and alliances with foreign governments.6 Congress further codified the executive branch’s leadership in diplomatic matters when it passed the Foreign Affairs Act in 1789. This law established the Department of Foreign Affairs (later renamed the Department of State) and created a cabinet-level secretary to handle diplomatic affairs and appointments.7 During its busy first session, Congress also created the Departments of War and the Treasury, while the attorney general was considered a legal advisor to the president and Congress (and so did not require a supporting department).8
On the policy front, the federal government continued to confront a laundry list of outstanding diplomatic issues from the Revolutionary War, particularly in the West, despite a peace treaty that had acknowledged U.S. sovereignty and independence. Britain refused to cede its military posts in the Old Northwest, and Spain blocked American commerce on the Mississippi River. In addition, both nations encouraged hostilities with Native American nations and with settlers in the Kentucky and Vermont territories.9 The U.S. Army’s war against Native Americans in the Ohio River valley in 1791 resulted in a disastrous defeat for Arthur St. Clair and his troops.10 On the Atlantic, the U.S. government still hoped for trading agreements, particularly with Britain and Spain, but these remained elusive. While the Treaty of Amity and Commerce had established a commercial relationship with France, this agreement did not produce a surge in demand for American trade goods. Instead, a financially strapped France preferred that America repay its outstanding wartime loans.11 As a young nation, America’s diplomatic ambitions consistently exceeded its power and influence to achieve these goals.
Amid these unresolved issues, reports from Europe in 1793 helped train U.S. diplomatic attention on a single matter. On March 27, an American ship traveling from Portugal to Philadelphia carried word that France and Britain had been at war for almost two months. While George Washington learned of this dramatic development from Philadelphia’s General Advertiser, his two sparring cabinet members also shared the news with the president.12 On April 1, Secretary of State Jefferson wrote, “France had declared war against several nations, involved in that declaration almost every power of Europe,” and on the fifth Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton announced that “war had been declared by France against England, Russia, and Holland.”13 Despite the importance of the two European powers to the United States, neither nation had bothered to communicate this development through diplomatic channels. Nonetheless, with its principal allies at war, it seemed to be only a matter of time before this conflict would wash up on American shores. Regardless of how the news arrived, the American government needed to issue a quick and preemptive response if the United States hoped to avoid participating in a European war.
The wars of 1793 coincided with the start of Washington’s second term as president. He had reluctantly sought reelection in 1792, worn down by the partisan disagreements and infighting occurring within his cabinet, in Congress, and in the public realm through newspapers and nascent party organizations. These differences had originated during the 1790 debate over Hamilton’s “Report on the Credit,” which envisioned a strong economic role for the federal government, including paying off the states’ Revolutionary War debts. By 1793, these opposing viewpoints had coalesced into Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson and Madison’s Democratic-Republicans. In addition to offering competing understandings of what responsibilities the federal government should have and how strictly the Constitution should be interpreted, these coalitions also disagreed on the value of France’s revolution and the importance of Britain as a principal trading partner.14 Despite the Federalists’ early enthusiasm for the French revolution, the transatlantic news of 1792–93 had soured them on its violent excesses.15 In the spring of 1793, Washington’s cabinet still consisted of its original members, with Hamilton serving as secretary of the Treasury; Knox as secretary of war; Jefferson as secretary of state; and Randolph as attorney general. Hamilton and Knox, both Revolutionary War veterans, tended to ally together, while the Virginia lawyers, Jefferson and Randolph, generally agreed on policy matters.16
As Washington contemplated America’s response to the European conflict, he realized he would first need to calm the ideological and increasingly personal disputes that divided Hamilton and Jefferson. Soon after learning about the current Anglo-French hostilities, the president wrote similar letters to each man urging the development of a policy of “strict neutrality between the powers at war” that would discourage American citizens from entangling themselves (and the United States) in these conflicts. Washington was particularly concerned about reports “that many vessels in different parts of the Union are designated for privateers and are preparing accordingly.”17 In anticipation of the cabinet’s first meeting to craft a policy, he urged them “to give the subject mature consideration” so that “measures . . . deemed most likely to effect this desirable purpose may be adopted without delay.”18 As Washington steered the nation toward a neutral stance, he also needed to tame the partisan divisions within his cabinet in order to speak with a single voice on the world stage.
Even before receiving the April 12 letter, Hamilton had started to draft questions related to neutrality with the help of John Jay.19 In an April 9 letter to Jay, he referred to a conversation the two men had had in which they had agreed “that the Minister expected from France should be received.” Given the turmoil surrounding Louis XVI’s execution, though, Hamilton asked Jay “whether he [the minister] should be received absolutely or with qualifications?” He further posited whether France’s political changes drew into question the “applicability of the  treaties.”20 In a second letter, also written on the ninth, Hamilton solicited his opinion on the propriety of “a proclamation prohibiting our citizens from taking commissions on either side” and whether such a statement “should include a declaration of neutrality.” Lastly, Hamilton asked Jay “if he could draft such a thing.”21 To Jefferson’s great irritation, these questions formed the basis of the upcoming cabinet discussion on the war in Europe.
On April 18 Washington began the long process of forging a compromise on neutrality when he distributed a thirteen-point query to solicit his cabinet’s opinions.22 Although these questions borrowed heavily from Hamilton and Jay’s discussions, the president penned the final document himself in an effort to camouflage its content’s origins. But Jefferson remained suspicious, concluding “that the language was Hamilton’s.”23 At other times in his administration, Washington had utilized questionnaires to reach a consensus on contested issues.24 The war between Britain and France posed significant challenges to America’s independence and autonomy, so producing a unified statement that protected and promoted U.S. interests possessed an urgency that surpassed earlier controversies.
In the introduction to his query, Washington defined the predicament the United States faced: “The posture of affairs in Europe, particularly between France and Great Britain, places the United States in a delicate situation; and requires much consideration of the measures which will be proper for them to observe in the war between those powers.”25 The first question addressed the fundamental issue: Should the United States issue a proclamation to discourage American citizens from interfering with this war, and should the United States proclaim its neutrality as well? Questions two, three, and twelve asked whether the United States should maintain diplomatic relations with France, including sending and receiving ministers, or should America wait until it establishes a new government? Questions four through nine tackled the complex issues of America’s obligations to France under the 1778 treaties.26 Pursuant to the Treaty of Alliance, what military support did the United States owe to France in its current war, particularly in its “guarantee” to protect French territories in the West Indies? As outlined in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, would France be allowed to bring prizes into U.S. ports, while its British opponent would still be banned from outfitting privateers in these harbors?27 The query concluded with question thirteen: was it necessary to call together the two houses of Congress to discuss the situation in Europe? Washington then directed his cabinet to meet at his house the following morning to discuss their “reflections” on these questions.28
At the April 19 meeting, then, the cabinet reached agreement on the first two issues: a proclamation to forbid citizens from participating in the European war, including carrying contraband, and unanimous support for welcoming the recently arrived minister from the newly constituted French republic (although disagreements remained whether any exceptions should apply, per question three).29
When Washington and his cabinet met again three days later, they recognized that the priority was announcing America’s neutral stance at home and abroad rather than wasting valuable time attempting to reach a consensus on the remaining eleven issues. Although Hamilton took the initial role in composing the query and collaborated with Jay on a draft proclamation, the job of writing the final statement went to Jefferson’s ally, Attorney General Randolph.30 Despite their equal participation in cabinet deliberations and decisions, Randolph and Knox have not received the scholarly attention of their two colleagues.31
Amid the partisan posturing in Washington’s cabinet, no one wanted to become involved in a European war, including Jefferson. Where he and Hamilton differed was how strongly to convey this message to the European powers: Hamilton preferred an explicit declaration that favored Britain, while Jefferson hoped to pursue neutrality without issuing a proclamation that would alienate France. Given neutrality’s long history in European diplomacy and Enlightenment philosophy, Jefferson’s insistence that the final proclamation not contain the word “neutrality” (using “impartial” instead) was a calculated move on his part to soften its effect on Franco-American relations.32 He believed that America’s noninvolvement in this war, as well as the availability of its free trade, would give the United States leverage with warring countries, particularly France.33 The exclusion of the word “neutrality” also had diplomatic ramifications. It suggested a “strict” neutrality that favored Britain while also suggesting a higher implementation threshold than “impartial” did.34 In the end, a carefully crafted statement emerged that accommodated the cabinet’s differing viewpoints, with Washington achieving his ultimate goal: a unanimous declaration of America’s noninvolvement in European hostilities.
The proclamation issued on April 22, 1793, epitomized compromise—no one in the cabinet was completely happy with the finished product, but it contained enough provisions to satisfy the competing viewpoints.35 The document acknowledged the “David and Goliath” struggle that existed between France, on the one hand, and Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain, and the United Netherlands, on the other, then declared that the United States intended “with sincerity and good faith” to “adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers.”36 This statement formalized a frequent theme in Washington’s recent correspondence: his desire to shield the young nation from a European war.37 Having established the broad outlines of U.S. noninvolvement, the remainder of the proclamation “exhorted and warned” American citizens not to involve themselves in foreign matters and cautioned that, if they insisted on doing so, they would “not receive the protection of the United States, against such punishment or forfeiture” triggered by their participation. (Enforcing this provision would produce an enormous set of governing challenges for the Washington administration.) With this statement disseminated to the nation’s governors and to diplomats in the United States and Europe, as well as appearing in the nation’s newspapers, Washington’s cabinet members returned to the unresolved issues from the query, particularly those dealing with America’s treaty obligations to France.38
In the weeks that followed, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Randolph tackled these outstanding questions with great gusto.39 With both men generally in agreement, Knox happily deferred to Hamilton to present their joint opinions. On the opposing side were Jefferson and Randolph, who crafted individual replies to the remaining issues.40 Their lengthy responses offered these men a chance to demonstrate their superior command of European history, earlier treaties, and Enlightenment writings on international law such as Hugo Grotius’s De Jure Belli ac Pacis (“The Law of War and Peace”) and Mare Liberum and Vattel’s Law of Nations. The Enlightenment ideas Hamilton, Jefferson, and Randolph had studied in college proved particularly valuable because they offered a vision of free trade as a positive good rather than merely a tool of warfare.41 More importantly, each cabinet member saw a golden opportunity to set the future direction of American foreign policy toward Europe. Although Jefferson submitted his written responses first, Hamilton had already presented his detailed opinions on these questions at the inconclusive April 19 cabinet meeting. As Jefferson and Randolph drafted their answers, their responses addressed the eleven outstanding issues as well as Hamilton’s views on them.42
With France now a republic rather than a monarchy and at war with much of Europe, Hamilton saw an opportunity to shift America’s European alliances away from France and toward Britain.43 As the author of the thirteen-point query, he knew exactly where to launch his assault: question three, using the arrival of the new French minister as the occasion to suspend or even renounce America’s treaty obligations to that nation. In his lengthy rationale, cosigned by Knox, Hamilton systematically argued that the political turmoil and regime change in France justified America’s withdrawal from earlier agreements, most notably the Treaties of Alliance and of Amity and Commerce. Since these had been made with the monarch, not with a republican government, he believed that France’s shifting political institutions might force the United States into situations that were now undesirable and even dangerous. Invoking Vattel’s argument of national self-protection, Hamilton concluded: “If then a Nation thinks fit to make changes in its Government, which render treaties that before subsisted between it and another nation useless or dangerous or hurtful to that other nation, it is a plain dictate of reason, that the latter will have a right to renounce those treaties; because it also has a right to take care of its own happiness.”44 Since he had used question three to vitiate America’s treaty obligations to France, the other outstanding issues dealing with the 1778 alliance were rendered moot. Hamilton nonetheless offered a response to these questions, but his reply was shorter and did not warrant the cosignature of Knox.45
Not surprisingly, Jefferson and Randolph’s responses offered Washington a very different understanding of America’s diplomatic relationship to France, particularly its responsibilities under the 1778 treaties.46 For starters, Jefferson dismissed the heart of Hamilton’s argument that America’s treaties with France were no longer valid simply because a republic had replaced a monarchy. Instead, Jefferson (and Randolph in his separate response) contended that these agreements had been with “the people who constitute a society or nation as the source of all authority in that nation” and that “the treaties between the United States and France were not treaties between the United States and Louis Capet, but between the two nations of America and France.”47
Jefferson also took issue with Hamilton’s interpretation of Vattel’s Law of Nations as providing an “escape” clause from undesirable treaties. He argued that the treaty had to be more than “dangerous, useless or disagreeable,” that instead Vattel believed that the “danger which absolves us must be great, inevitable and imminent.”48 With Jefferson (and Randolph) contending that the 1778 treaties were still in effect, they addressed U.S. commercial and military obligations under these agreements now that France was engaged in a new war. Neither man saw an immediate threat to either the United States or to American neutrality from the “guarantee” clause of the Treaty of Alliance, requiring America’s military to defend French territories in the West Indies. Nor did they believe the Treaty of Amity and Commerce offered France special trading privileges in U.S. ports that had not been already guaranteed in other European agreements.49 Both Jefferson and Randolph concluded that breaking these treaties posed greater dangers than maintaining them because France would interpret such action as an act of war, drawing America into the very conflict it was trying to avoid.50
One issue that did not generate lengthy dissertations from these men was question thirteen: whether it was necessary to call Congress into session to apprise them of the European situation. While Jefferson had originally favored involving the legislative branch, he now joined the other cabinet members in concluding that such a step was unnecessary.51 Congress’s lack of participation in the proclamation’s formulation also explained Vice President John Adams’s absence in the cabinet’s discussions. Despite Adams’s earlier role in drafting the template for neutrality, the Model Treaty of 1776, the vice presidency found its initial constitutional home in Congress (as president of the Senate) rather than in the executive branch.52 The decision of Washington and his cabinet to issue the proclamation without congressional consent resulted in the executive branch’s further assertion of its dominance over foreign affairs. Eschewing Congress also provided a win for the politically savvy Washington, who, like other Federalists, believed in emboldening the presidency.53
The first round of the cabinet’s consensus on neutrality came to a conclusion on May 6, with the submission of Randolph’s comments. Although he had allowed these men to offer lengthy exegesis on the treaties specifically and on international law generally, Washington had told Jefferson that “he had never had a doubt about the validity of the treaty, but that since a question had been suggested he thought it ought to be considered.”54 The president had recognized that a foreign-policy statement needed the support of his entire cabinet to be successful. During the formulation and subsequent implementation of U.S. neutrality, Washington shrewdly encouraged each cabinet member to offer his detailed opinions on each aspect of this policy to permit a sharing and then a resolution of the political disagreements that divided them. While they might not win every debate, the men could walk away from the discussion knowing their views had been heard and even incorporated. Even Jefferson conceded that the president’s involvement in the discussions had prevented the final document from being “a mere English neutrality.”55 In honoring the treaties with France, at least for the time being, Washington chose the option least disruptive to the diplomatic status quo and more compatible with neutrality. Amid the intellectual fireworks that produced this consensus, Hamilton, Jefferson, and even Randolph each shared the naive belief that their words and ideas could influence European affairs, a premise that would be sorely tested as the United States worked to enforce the proclamation.
Despite the compromises that had produced the April proclamation, Hamilton and Jefferson remained committed to their philosophical positions and thus, during the summer of 1793, sought to curry political support in the nation’s highly partisan newspapers. Liberated from the consensus building of Washington’s cabinet, Hamilton wrote under the peaceful pseudonym “Pacificus,” while Jefferson employed a surrogate to express his opposition.56 Hamilton structured his seven-essay defense of the president’s Neutrality Proclamation around the criticisms lodged by an earlier essayist, “Veritas.”57
The Veritas essays originated as three letters to President Washington, subsequently published in Philip Freneau’s pro-Democratic-Republican National Gazette, based in Philadelphia.58 All three epistolary essays focused on the unconstitutionality of the proclamation. The May 30 letter, published on June 1, accused the president of being surrounded by “double dealing,” “monarchical mystery,” and “court intrigue” in unilaterally issuing this proclamation without concern for the will of the people. Additionally, it attacked Washington’s disregard for America’s “duty” and “interest” to France under the 1778 treaties.59 The June 3 letter, published on the fifth, challenged the constitutionality of the proclamation, arguing that it had “caused uneasiness” and reminding Washington that “popular opinion is the basis of our government.”60 The third and final essay, written on June 6 and published on the eighth, challenged the “legality of the proclamation,” particularly the president’s authority “to annul solemn treaties by proclamation.” Veritas also took issue with what he saw as the administration’s “shamefully pusillanimous” approach to Britain despite their numerous violations of American sovereignty. He also questioned the timing of the proclamation. Lastly, Veritas called on Washington to convene the “representatives of the people, who can alone express the national will,” in order to produce a policy that “all branches of the government” support.61 With the president under attack for the proclamation, and that criticism being amplified in a Democratic-Republican newspaper, Hamilton launched a counteroffensive on June 27 in John Fenno’s pro-Federalist Gazette of the United States, also based in Philadelphia.62
Hamilton began the Pacificus series with a refutation of Veritas’s criticism that the executive branch lacked the authority to issue the proclamation. He cited the president’s explicit role as commander in chief of the army and navy as well as the executive’s responsibilities for making treaties and appointing and receiving ministers. While the legislature participated in foreign affairs through advice and consent on treaties and ministers as well as its authority to declare war, these responsibilities were specific and not constant. Instead, it was the executive who served “as the organ of intercourse between the Nation and foreign Nations,” as well as the preserver of the peace and the interpreter of treaties, until war is declared.63
Hamilton’s response to Veritas’s criticism regarding U.S. treaty obligations to France composed the bulk of the Pacificus essays, just as these issues had preoccupied the cabinet’s discussions. In “Pacificus no. 2,” Hamilton emphasized the defensive nature of America’s 1778 alliance, explaining that “assistance” would be given to France “upon attack.” With that country acting as the aggressor in the current war, America had no “offensive” obligations.64
In “Pacificus no. 3” Hamilton explored America’s responsibilities under the “guarantee” clause of the Treaty of Alliance.65 Once again, he emphasized the defensive nature of this provision: “it relates merely to defence [sic] and preservation of her American colonies.” Secondly, Hamilton noted that the “disproportion” between the actions demanded by the guarantee clause and the lack of American naval resources to perform these tasks excused the United States from any defensive obligations to France in its current war. He then cited Vattel to support this point, quoting from Law of Nations, “’If a state which has promised succors finds itself unable to furnish them, its very inability is its exemption.’”66 Hamilton concluded this essay with the contention that the revolutionary and offensive nature of France’s current war, including the toppling of its monarchy, extended far beyond “the ordinary case of foreign war” envisioned in the 1778 treaties and further excused America from involvement.67
Hamilton used Pacificus essays four, five, and six to refute Veritas’s notion that America owed France “gratitude” for its revolutionary assistance. In “Pacificus no. 4,” he emphasized that the Neutrality Proclamation’s promise of “friendly and impartial conduct to all nations” continued current treaty obligations to France without requiring the United States to become involved in its war.68 In his conclusion to this essay, Hamilton explored the one-sided nature of “gratitude.” In his view, this referred to “a benefit received or intended, which there was no right to claim.” But if the person offering assistance receives immediate benefits, “there seems scarcely in such a case to be an adequate basis for a sentiment like that of gratitude.” He argued that France gained immediate and tangible advantages in its alliance with the United States so the concept of gratitude did not apply.69 In “Pacificus no. 5,” Hamilton summarized France’s motivation for entering into the American alliance: “embracing a promising opportunity to repress the pride and diminish the dangerous power of its [British] rival . . . by lopping off a valuable portion of its dominions.” He also noted that France was not America’s only revolutionary ally and that the “cause had also numerous friends in other countries.”70 In the penultimate Pacificus essay, Hamilton concluded that France’s war “with all of Europe” did not concern the United States and that Americans ultimately “will support the government they established and will take care of their own peace,” despite efforts to detach them from each.71
In his conclusion to the Pacificus series, Hamilton strongly defended U.S. interests and ideas as he responded to Veritas’s concerns about the timing and necessity of the Neutrality Proclamation.72 He explained that the proclamation became necessary when France declared war against the “commercial maritime nations” of Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands. France’s war against nonmaritime adversaries like Prussia and Austria did not concern the United States because these nations did not participate in transatlantic trade. A war involving America’s principal trading partners, however, required an immediate statement of neutrality to silence international expectations of military support, to protect American shipping and agriculture, and to discourage U.S. citizens from enlisting or taking sides in the conflict.73 In its protection of U.S. interests, Hamilton emphasized the Neutrality Proclamation’s adherence to republican and constitutional principles. He reiterated the president’s constitutional authority over foreign affairs but added that the executive spoke “in the name and on behalf of the United States,” unlike European kings and princes who “speak of their own dispositions.”74 While America pledged to be “friendly and impartial” to all nations, the young republic also intended to put its interests first.75
Even before the appearance of the Pacificus essays, Jefferson had begun to distance himself from the proclamation and the consensus that had produced it. Relying on Madison as his confidential sounding board, the secretary shared his criticisms of the policy and offered an alternative approach.76 On May 13, he complained that the proclamation failed to promote “a manly neutrality” that recognized the “liberal rights” of the warring nations. Jefferson’s “bold” approach clearly referred to France’s revolutionary principles of “liberté, egalité, and fraternité.”77 A month later he offered Madison another vision of how American neutrality should have been addressed: “it would be better to hold back the declaration of neutrality, as a thing worth something to the powers at war, that they would bid for it, & we might reasonably ask as a price, the broadest privileges of neutral nations.”78 Believing he had lost the battle of neutrality in the cabinet, the secretary of state sought victory on a different front—the arena of popular opinion.
Jefferson also bristled at the compromises that had produced what he considered to be an ideologically weak statement. In particular, he directed his ire at his putative Virginia ally in the cabinet for his eagerness to side with the Federalist bloc. To Jefferson’s great frustration, Randolph’s more moderate and less partisan views made him the cabinet’s swing vote, while the secretary had hoped he would be a reliable supporter like Knox was to Hamilton. Writing to Madison, he offered a withering critique of Randolph’s approach: “E.R found out a hair to split, which, as always happens, became the decision.” Jefferson, who saw such equivocation as a weakness rather than a virtue, added, “he always contrives to agree in principle with one, but in conclusion with the other.” His concluding assessment of Randolph underscored his frustration with the neutrality policy and the process that had produced it: “Everything my dear Sir, now hangs on the opinion of a single person, and that the most indecisive one I ever had to do business with.”79
A summer of Pacificus essays proved too much for Jefferson, and he now looked for a way to move his private criticisms into the public arena.80 Unable to write the responses himself for fear of disloyalty to Washington and public exposure as a partisan, he once more turned to the next best thing: his Virginia neighbor and ally, James Madison, who also served in a different branch of government. On July 7, the secretary of state implored the congressman “to take up his pen” and respond to the secretary of the Treasury’s published essays in support of the Neutrality Proclamation. Unleashing his frustrations, he added, “Nobody answers him, & his doctrine will therefore be taken for confessed.”81 Over the next few weeks, as he lobbied a reluctant Madison to write the response, Jefferson also completed his separation from a proclamation he had once endorsed.
As Madison contemplated whether to respond to Pacificus, he confronted both the geographical and political distances that separated him from the debate. The representative spent the summer of 1793 at Montpelier, his home in Orange, Virginia, far removed from the political business of Philadelphia. As a member of Congress, Madison had not participated in the cabinet’s discussions nor been officially notified about the proclamation. Amid all these challenges, he concluded that “the task would be in bad hands” but promised Jefferson, “I will feel my own pulse” before any decision on the request.82
As Madison immersed himself in the issues surrounding the proclamation, his principal objection focused on its constitutionality. In a letter to Jefferson, he questioned if the executive branch had the authority to offer a “declaration of the Disposition of the U.S. on the subject of war and peace.” While he believed the president could offer “an injunction of a suitable conduct on the citizens” during wartime, the question of war or peace seemed “to be essentially and exclusively involved in the right vested in the legislature.” Madison then added more pointedly, “Did no such view of the subject present itself in the cabinet?”83 Of course it had, with Jefferson agreeing with the majority that the executive had the authority to issue the proclamation and that Congress did not need to be consulted. Nonetheless, in late June Jefferson distanced himself from the proclamation (and Hamilton’s defense of it) when he embraced Madison’s views on Congress’s constitutional role. Jefferson wrote, “Upon the whole, my objections to the competence of the Executive to declare neutrality . . . were supposed to be got over by avoiding the use of that term,” a position he had successfully promoted. He then continued his delicate balancing act by adding, “the declaration of the disposition of the U.S can hardly be called illegal, though it was certainly officious and improper.”84
On July 22 Madison moved closer to drafting a response to Pacificus when he posed specific questions to Jefferson about the cabinet’s deliberations. He asked, first, “how far concessions have been made on particular points behind the curtain”; second, how committed was the president to “some doctrines”; third, what insights “from the law of nations” informed the “construction of the treaties”; and fourth, “whether any call was made by Great Britain or any other belligerent power . . . prior to the proclamation.” In concluding this letter, Madison explained the importance of this information: “If an answer to the publication be undertaken, it ought to be both a solid and prudent one,” particularly since its audience will be “none but intelligent readers.”85 As a newcomer to the neutrality debates, Madison’s broadly based questions permitted Jefferson to redefine the role he had played in the cabinet’s April discussions.
As Jefferson answered Madison’s questions, he continued to divorce himself from the administration’s policy. In terms of the concessions “made on particular points behind the curtain,” he told Madison, “I think it is better you should not know them.” In other words, he did not intend to share the compromises, including his own, that had resulted in the proclamation. On Washington’s commitment to certain doctrines, Jefferson wrote, the president “is certainly uneasy at those grasped at by Pacificus,” although he did not specify which ones. His vague response simultaneously undercut the integrity of Hamilton’s Pacificus essays while also raising questions about Washington’s command of the complex issues involved. Jefferson’s answers to the final two questions adhered more closely to the facts: Vattel’s writings had served as the cabinet’s principal guide on international law, and “no call was made by any power previous to the proclamation.”86
At the end of July, Jefferson finally received good news from Montpelier. Madison wrote, “I have forced myself into a task of a reply,” adding that it was “the most grating one I ever experienced” in large part due to a “want of counsel on some points of delicacy, as well as of information as to sundry matters of fact.”87 As Madison began work on his essays, an elated Jefferson played an active role behind the scenes advising him on their content, reviewing the drafts, and even submitting them to Philadelphia’s Gazette of the United States, in which Pacificus had also appeared, for publication.88
With Madison willing to offer a public response to Pacificus, Jefferson could turn his full attention to completing his transition from pragmatic cabinet member to partisan leader. He and Hamilton had been at loggerheads over the Constitution’s interpretation since 1790, when his rival had published his “Report on the Public Credit.” Jefferson now used his opposition to the neutrality policy as an excuse to leave Washington’s philosophically diverse cabinet. Soon after learning of Madison’s willingness to counter Pacificus, an emboldened Jefferson submitted his resignation letter to the president on July 31, effective September 30, “to retire to scenes of greater tranquility.”89
Anticipating his liberation from Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson used his response to Madison’s July 30 letter to complete his separation from the proclamation. First, he described his early opposition to the executive branch issuing any neutrality proclamation, recounting a conversation with Washington: “I had, at the time, opposed its being made a declaration of neutrality on the ground that the Executive was not the competent authority for that.” Later in the letter, Jefferson described a hastily drafted document that he believed placed Washington in an awkward position: “The instrument was badly drawn, and made the president go out of his line to declare things which, though true, it was not exactly his province to declare.” In a final blow to the compromises that had produced the proclamation, Jefferson discounted his role in the document’s creation: “The instrument was communicated to me after it was drawn, but I was busy, and only run [sic] an eye over it to see that it was not made a declaration of neutrality.”90 Conveniently absent in his recounting was the April 18 query, the April 19 cabinet meeting, and his own lengthy submission from April 28 on the outstanding issues surrounding the neutrality policy.
Meanwhile, Madison found that responding to Pacificus’s comprehensive defense of America’s right to remain neutral in this European war left him with little room to maneuver. Jefferson, with his finger firmly on the political pulse, advised him to avoid “caviling about small points of propriety.”91 A summer of neutrality violations in U.S. ports had affirmed the wisdom of this proclamation. Instead of confronting all four of the major issues Hamilton had addressed, Madison trained his focus on a single issue: questioning the constitutionality of the proclamation. In his five “Helvidius” essays, Madison revisited the concern he had originally shared with Jefferson: that Congress possessed authority over issues of war and peace, not the president.92 In “Helvidius no. 2,” he succinctly presented the argument that informed all five essays: “The power to judge of the causes of war, as involved in the power to declare war, is expressly vested where all other legislative powers are vested, that is, in the Congress of the United States.”93 In emphasizing the constitutional responsibilities of Congress, Madison’s views appeared patriotic and consistent with the Democratic-Republicans’ support of the legislative branch over the executive, even if this issue had not been controversial during the cabinet’s debates.94
Unfortunately for Jefferson, the Helvidius essays did not inflict the fatal blow to the neutrality policy that he had sought. One reason is that the opinions Pacificus expressed hewed closer to Washington’s (and Jefferson and Randolph’s) more measured approach to international affairs than the pro-British recommendations Hamilton had previously advocated. Despite the writer’s pro-Federalist vision of government, Pacificus also promoted America’s vision in international affairs rather than the foreign-policy preferences of two bickering political coalitions. Lastly, and most importantly, a series of neutrality violations committed by the French, the British, and even U.S. citizens like Gideon Henfield and John Singleterry during the spring and summer of 1793 affirmed the wisdom of the administration’s policy.95 The urgent need to prosecute these threats to U.S. sovereignty and autonomy quickly superseded this partisan and ideological debate. Ironically, the word “neutrality,” which Jefferson had strenuously tried to downplay, became popularized during the Pacificus-Helvidius debates, even appearing in Jefferson’s own correspondence.96 Additionally, with the numerous summertime violations occurring in the nation’s ports and reported in American newspapers, neutrality became the operative term to describe this policy.
Despite his frustration with neutrality’s partisan overtones, Jefferson nonetheless recognized the importance of the United States avoiding European warfare. Several days after the proclamation’s issuance, he had written to Madison: “I fear that a fair neutrality will prove a disagreeable pill to our friends, though necessary to keep us out of the calamities of a war.”97 Madison reached the same conclusion in May, writing to Jefferson: “Peace is no doubt to be preserved at any price that honor and good faith will permit.”98 Keeping America at peace trumped partisan preferences, even for them. Under Washington’s leadership, the formulation of the Neutrality Proclamation established two enduring precedents for American diplomacy: first, that the executive branch led the way in setting U.S. international priorities, and second, that Americans spoke in a single voice in foreign affairs.
While the Helvidius essays did little to weaken the Neutrality Proclamation, their existence has exaggerated the role that partisanship and the disagreements between Jefferson and Hamilton played in its formulation. Further obscured in this binary configuration was Washington, who advocated for a neutral stance toward the European war and insisted on consensus support for this policy. Although both Madison and Jefferson carefully avoided alienating or disagreeing with Washington in public, they nonetheless engaged in a “whispering campaign” that questioned the president’s ability to counter Hamilton’s poor advice and to recognize the Treasury secretary’s political machinations. Jefferson, in justifying a rebuttal to Pacificus, repeatedly portrayed a president who had agreed to a policy that he did not fully understand. Madison advanced this impression as well, writing, “I regret extremely the position into which the P. [president] has been thrown,” adding, “it is mortifying to the real friends of the P. that his fame and influence should have been unnecessarily made to depend in any degree on political events in a foreign quarter of the Globe.”99 These rumors, although untrue, undercut the president’s role in crafting a consensus on neutrality and fueled the partisan aura surrounding the proclamation.
Washington’s refusal to let Jefferson resign in September 1793 offers a competing portrait of a president fully aware of the policy debates and the partisan intrigues surrounding him. In considering the request, Washington approached the subject with great care and respect. First, he honored Jefferson with a visit to his home, and during their conversation, he laid out a variety of reasons why his resignation should be delayed. Washington appealed to Jefferson’s sense of duty, expressing “his repentance at not having resigned himself.” He also flattered Jefferson and his diplomatic experience in Europe when he explained the difficulty in finding a replacement: “mere talents did not suffice for the department of state, but it required a person conversant in foreign affairs, perhaps acquainted with foreign courts.”100
Washington, recognizing the need to maintain a geographical and ideological balance in his cabinet, shrewdly mentioned that “Mr. Madison would be his first choice” as Jefferson’s replacement, although he acknowledged the congressman would probably not take the job.101 If he could not retain Jefferson, Madison’s appointment offered the president the next best hope for taming political tensions within his administration. Lastly, Washington told Jefferson that his chief antagonist, Hamilton, had also expressed a desire to leave the administration, a departure that might make staying in the cabinet more palatable. In the end, Washington struck a compromise that satisfied both of their needs: Jefferson agreed to remain in the administration until December to “get us through the difficulties of this year,” because “he was satisfied that the affairs of Europe would be settled” and “Congress will have manifested its character and its views.”102 By extending Jefferson’s tenure until the end of 1793, Washington hoped to limit his ability to undercut the neutrality policy as a partisan leader, at least for a little while longer.103
In 1797 Washington complained to William Heath that, “instead of being Frenchmen or Englishmen in politics, they would be Americans—indignant at every attempt of either of these—or any other Power to establish an influence in our Councils, or that should presume to sow the Seeds of distrust, or disunion among ourselves.”104 Even in retirement, he would remain committed to a foreign policy that put U.S. interests first and avoid the dangerous entanglements of European affairs.
During his second term as president, Washington sought a policy that not only shielded the young nation from the perils of European warfare but also possessed the support of the divergent philosophical and partisan voices that composed his cabinet. He wisely let these four men submit lengthy abstract treatises and then consolidated their ideas into a statement that epitomized compromise. While partisan opinions found expression in the Pacificus and Helvidius essays, these debates did not fundamentally change the substance or the effect of the neutrality policy. Instead, Washington’s proclamation established the primacy of the executive branch in foreign affairs and affirmed the importance of the nation speaking in a single voice internationally. The building of the neutrality policy occurred brick by brick, with each cabinet member contributing materials to its construction, but it was its chief architect, George Washington, who deserves credit for the enduring edifice. His steadfast commitment to consensus would face even greater obstacles as he and his cabinet, including Jefferson, built a government capable of enforcing its far-reaching provisions. These enforcement concerns were not hypothetical. In early April 1793, the newly arrived French minister brazenly encouraged Americans to enlist as privateers for his nation’s cause—and in direct violation of American neutrality.