France’s revolutionary war against Britain could not have occurred at a worse time for President George Washington. In late March 1793, when the news reached Philadelphia, Washington had begun his second term in a job he was not sure he wanted anymore.1 The growing partisanship among voters and within his cabinet, along with the increasingly personal attacks appearing in the nation’s newspapers, had soured Washington on his presidential duties.2 Nonetheless, he recognized the dangers a European war posed for the young nation, particularly one involving America’s principal allies. Amid these international and partisan challenges, Washington achieved the near impossible when he forged a consensus neutrality policy in his deeply divided cabinet and then utilized the authorities contained in the Constitution to implement American neutrality at home and abroad to keep the nation at peace.
The United States’ commitment to neutrality began on April 22, 1793, when Washington and his cabinet issued the Neutrality Proclamation to shield the young nation from the latest round of warfare between France and Great Britain. Recognizing the significant risks that this conflict posed for the recently independent United States, the proclamation announced America’s desire to pursue friendly commercial and diplomatic relations with all nations, including its two principal trading partners, while avoiding hostilities. Amid a century of fighting on the high seas in which ship seizures and privateering were the norm, this proclamation boldly declared America’s right of free trade even during wartime. Proclaiming neutrality, however, proved easier than maintaining it, and enforcing neutrality contributed to America’s transformation from a paper republic into an autonomous nation fully embracing its constitutional responsibilities.
Neutrality stands as a familiar theme in American foreign policy, influencing diplomatic decisions well into the nineteenth century.3 The term “neutrality” also enjoyed a revival in the twentieth century during the debates over American involvement in the two world wars, although this had more to do with isolationism than free trade.4 Historical treatments of the 1793 proclamation have either focused on the diplomatic crises associated with this policy or have exaggerated the partisan disagreements surrounding it.5 While diplomatic challenges did arise in the 1790s, these studies would be stronger if they situated the resulting agreements, such as Jay’s Treaty and Pinckney’s Treaty (both 1795), within the nation’s overriding ambition to remain neutral.6 Two older works dealing with the policy’s formulation in Washington’s cabinet emphasize the partisan fireworks and policy disagreements between Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson while overlooking the compromises they and others reached that resulted in a successful proclamation.7 Despite the concept’s ubiquity in American politics and diplomacy, in other words, no book has looked at the systematic implementation of neutrality across the government or overseas. Through a comprehensive examination of its origins, formulation, and implementation, Navigating Neutrality demonstrates this policy’s far-reaching effects in building an economically independent, institutionally strong, and politically sovereign nation.
The concept of neutrality did not originate on American shores, nor was the United States the first nation to adopt this policy, of course.8 This idea emerged from Enlightenment philosophers, who saw neutral trade as a rational practice that could foster harmony among nations.9 Additionally, many smaller European nations pursued neutrality to protect their maritime economies from the incessant continental warfare of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands had declared themselves neutral in treaties and alliances in the hope of pursuing free trade without interference from warring powers.10 Even the American Revolution provoked a neutrality agreement, with Russia organizing its European neighbors into the League of Armed Neutrality in 1780 to avoid taking sides in this increasingly global conflict.11 Most of these neutrality agreements inevitably fell victim to wartime realities. With the Atlantic Ocean serving as a watery battleground during European hostilities, most nations relied on state-sponsored “privateers” to harass enemy merchant ships and to capture their cargoes. Privateering provided a cost-effective way for nations to undercut their opponents while enriching themselves and the authorized ship captains. Merchantmen claiming to be neutral frequently fell victim to wartime privateering since nations at war viewed all vessels as potential carriers of supplies for their enemies.12
For America to achieve its goal of wartime neutrality, the federal government needed to develop the capacity to enforce this policy among its citizens and across diplomatic channels or risk sinking into irrelevance at home and abroad.13 Proclaiming and enforcing neutrality forced the U.S. government to leave its safe constitutional moorings and exercise its responsibilities in the Atlantic’s tumultuous waters. Navigating Neutrality tells this story through an examination of the historical circumstances and precedents, the political decisions, and the governing authorities that defined and ultimately led to the enforcement of American neutrality.
The 1793 proclamation announced the international and economic role the United States sought in its founding decades. Yet violations of this policy quickly washed up on U.S. shores as France’s new minister, Citizen Genet, commissioned American ships and sailors as privateers, with many eagerly accepting these lucrative opportunities. Remaining neutral during the 1790s required the constant vigilance of all three federal branches as the national government crafted policies and exercised its authorities to prevent these infringements. In its quest to avoid entanglements in European warfare, the enforcement of this bold and far-reaching statement helped build the national government.
Neutrality’s international and commercial components, as well as its enforcement requirements, explain its outsized role in the federal government’s development. Since diplomacy is the exclusive responsibility of the national government, the neutrality policy energized federal institutions, authorities, and constitutional responsibilities.14 Additionally, its implementation required the expansion of the government’s diplomatic and commercial presence across all three federal branches.15 The executive branch, possessing authority over foreign affairs, formulated this policy and then implemented it in U.S. ports and among foreign diplomats.16 The other two branches also assumed their institutional responsibilities, with Congress regulating commerce and the courts adjudicating violations.
Other policies of the 1790s also built the federal government’s authority, of course. The national government in its founding decade tackled such challenges as the Revolutionary War debt, Indian warfare, westward expansion, the Whiskey Rebellion (1794), and the codification of chattel slavery. Yet none of these issues built the government as extensively as neutrality did. The latter cut an unusually wide swath across all three branches and also required a permanent institutional presence to be successful: diplomatic envoys, custom officers, district attorneys, federal judges, naval officers and sailors, and state militias. In contrast, the Indian wars of the 1790s, for example, required a military presence in the West but did not lead to a permanent standing army.17
The one program that equaled the scale and reach of the neutrality proclamation was Hamilton’s landmark “Report on the Public Credit.” Issued in 1790, this ambitious economic proposal included a sweeping plan to pay off the war debt, including those of the states; establish a Bank of the United States; and institute tariffs to protect nascent American manufacturing. In building federal institutions and establishing the scope of the government’s role and authority, Hamilton’s report (and resulting initiatives) matched the influence of the neutrality proclamation, but in the domestic realm.18
With its emphasis on the United States’ international role, Navigating Neutrality joins a growing collection of histories that recognize the importance of state building in implementing the Constitution and in establishing the new government in the 1790s and beyond.19 As the popular biographies of John Adams and Hamilton (and a resulting television show and Broadway musical, respectively) have demonstrated, the reading public is fascinated by the lives and careers of the founding generation.20 But personalities alone did not build the U.S. government or energize the Constitution. With the renewed focus on political, diplomatic, and even military histories, scholars have turned their attention to the national institutions that supported these endeavors in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including the relationship of war and money, the work of the custom houses in regulating American commerce, and the president’s cabinet as a governing entity.21 Navigating Neutrality expands this field by focusing on the practical ramifications of enforcing a key policy across the entire government, not just in one agency or department. This interdisciplinary study also engages the fields of politics, diplomacy, law, philosophy, and the Atlantic world and beyond as well as the role of American citizens in negotiating commerce and warfare.
Washington’s leadership in guiding the formulation and implementation of this proclamation demonstrates his underappreciated skills as a savvy political negotiator and his enduring presidential legacy as a statesman. This book joins others that have increasingly recognized Washington as more than a symbol of republican government but as an active and engaged champion of its successful launching. Additionally, his presidential accomplishments have emerged from the long ideological and partisan shadows cast by his sparring cabinet members Hamilton and Jefferson.22
As Washington and his cabinet discussed neutrality, no one, including Hamilton and Jefferson, wanted to become involved in a European war. Where they disagreed was how to translate this stance into a viable policy.23 The president held the strong belief that the United States needed to explicitly distance itself from a European conflict that would only harm the young nation. Unlike Hamilton and Jefferson, who viewed Britain and France through ideological and philosophical prisms, Washington understood the activities of these two nations more pragmatically. As a military officer in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) and later the American Revolution, Washington had encountered the British and the French as both enemies and allies. For him, the Anglo-French war of 1793 was just another chapter in a longstanding imperial rivalry that had nothing to do with the United States. This battlefield perspective explains Washington’s steadfast commitment to American neutrality throughout his presidency, concluding with the advice contained in his Farewell Address to avoid “the mischiefs of foreign intrigue” and “to steer clear of permanent alliances.”24
To produce a successful statement on neutrality, Washington recognized the need to gain the support of Jefferson and Hamilton as well as their cabinet allies, Attorney General Edmund Randolph and Secretary of War Henry Knox, respectively. The president did not bully or cajole his cabinet, nor did he force his views on them. Instead, he solicited the opinions of all four cabinet members, sought common ground among their ideas, and then crafted their suggestions into a final proclamation that epitomized compromise and consensus. Each cabinet member could point to crucial provisions that reflected their concerns and suggestions, even if the statement contained elements they did not favor. (For example, Jefferson successfully pushed for the omission of the word “neutrality,” preferring “impartial” instead.)25 In the 1793 proclamation, Washington and his cabinet spoke in a single voice to announce America’s intention to remain at peace and to prohibit its citizens from becoming involved in European warfare.
Threats to U.S. neutrality were not limited to the Atlantic. In 1794, Washington’s administration issued a second neutrality proclamation to ban the nation’s citizens from participating in a French-led invasion of Spanish Louisiana. This western proclamation underscored the volatility of the nation’s trans-Mississippi boundary as Indigenous peoples, Americans, and other Europeans fought for land and navigation rights.26 Rather than seeing the porous boundaries of the Atlantic, the South, and the West as mutually exclusive, this book acknowledges that some neutrality violations also occurred along the nation’s territorial border with Spanish Louisiana. Just as the original proclamation and the cotton gin came into existence the same year, the cotton crops this machine processed required unfettered passage in transatlantic ships headed to textile mills in Liverpool and Manchester.27 Many studies have emphasized the turmoil along the nation’s western and southern boundaries in explaining early American history. This book argues for the continued relevance of America’s disputed Atlantic coastline as well.28
If the formulation of neutrality demonstrated Washington’s skills as a political leader, its implementation, both at home and abroad, revealed his equally underappreciated role as a statesman. With violations of this policy occurring with impunity, Washington led his administration, including Hamilton and Jefferson, through a series of enforcement decisions intended to prevent Americans from privateering or otherwise aiding the European war.29 The president and his cabinet directed the Treasury Department’s collectors of the customs, located in port cities, to serve as the first line of defense in reporting neutrality violations. The U.S. attorneys, under the secretary of state’s supervision, were instructed to prosecute these transgressions in the newly established federal court system.
While the neutrality proclamation established the executive branch as the leading voice of foreign policy, rampant privateering made Washington realize he needed the assistance of the entire government to enforce this policy.30 The district courts and the Supreme Court struggled the most to define their legal and constitutional duties but eventually embraced their responsibilities.31 Congress, which possessed the constitutional mandate for regulating commerce, codified the two neutrality proclamations into law and sought ways to protect American trade and port cities. Without a standing army or navy, state militias, under the command of the governors, policed U.S. waters for illegal privateering activities. During a long summer of privateering violations in 1793, Washington came to realize a bold proclamation did not necessarily mean an effective one. In response, he employed his considerable political skills to encourage all three branches of government to embrace their constitutional duties in order to successfully enforce federal policy.
On the diplomatic front, Washington and his cabinet dealt with a litany of violations caused by Genet and a growing list of complaints from the British minister about assaults on his nation’s vessels. With these transgressions occurring on an almost daily basis, Secretary of State Jefferson assumed primary responsibility for diplomatic communications and negotiations with foreign nations, particularly France and Britain. At the same time, Washington sought a more permanent solution to resolve these assaults on U.S. sovereignty. With America’s transatlantic commerce increasingly under siege, the president posted envoys (in addition to U.S. ministers) to Britain, Spain, the West Indies, and the Barbary Coast to secure free-trade agreements and to recover captured American ships from foreign ports. In keeping the nation at peace during the international turmoil of the 1790s, Washington achieved his most enduring legacy as president as a pragmatic diplomat and prescient statesman.
In recognizing Washington’s substantial achievements as president in attaining peace over war, this book also engages the new diplomatic history. This previously moribund field has enjoyed a revival thanks to the globalization of U.S. history and the expansion of “diplomacy” to include not just the official government functions of treaties and ambassadors, but also the activities of ordinary citizens living and working throughout the world. This revival has also sought to broaden the chronological reach of this field beyond the twentieth century and into the neglected foreign affairs of the early republic, a period dating from 1789 to 1861.32 The ship captains and seamen discussed in this book found themselves immersed in international politics and commerce in the Caribbean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes at their own peril.33 But they were not the only ones. Along with official diplomats, unofficial American consuls, and the maritime community, Americans permeated global affairs as merchants, missionaries, and even scientists.34 Mixing the old with the new, this book shows that during the 1790s, the Washington administration’s official stance of neutrality not only benefited the new nation internationally but also aided U.S. citizens who ran into difficulties overseas.
As Washington led his cabinet through the issues surrounding the formulation and implementation of neutrality, all five men brought a professionalism to these discussions as well as a strong awareness of their institutional and constitutional duties, despite their personal and partisan differences. While the president employed meetings to resolve the major issues surrounding neutrality, he also encouraged the cabinet to submit their ideas in writing in order to elicit their insights and forge a consensus.35 Thanks to Washington’s desire to build a common ground on neutrality, written documents, particularly letters, emerged as an essential tool of early American governance.36 Additionally, with an eye to posterity, Hamilton, Jefferson, Randolph, and even Knox eagerly provided detailed responses to the president’s queries about the best ways to formulate and implement U.S. neutrality. Jefferson, who increasingly found himself in the minority, kept detailed notes on the debates and decisions from the numerous cabinet meetings. These summaries provided a venue for him to record what was said in order to highlight his own disagreements for future partisan purposes. As the enforcement of neutrality spread across the government, each cabinet member contributed drafts for Washington’s annual addresses to Congress announcing this policy and also submitted suggestions for the letter to France that would lead to Citizen Genet’s recall. Early in his presidency, Washington famously said that he “walked on untrodden ground.”37 As he and his cabinet formulated and enacted the nation’s first major statement on foreign policy, with its domestic and institutional ramifications, they followed in his footsteps and established precedents for the new government on an almost daily basis.
America’s declaration of neutrality in 1793 represented a desire to avoid European warfare; it also served as a manifesto of the young nation’s quest to abandon its colonial status and to be recognized as an independent country. Neither Britain nor France respected U.S. neutrality, with Britain still regarding American ports and ships as colonial holdings and France possessing unrealistic expectations about America’s support for its own revolutionary war against monarchy. As both an Enlightenment idea and a policy goal, neutrality defined America’s stance in the transatlantic disputes that roiled the 1790s. Through an exploration of this concept’s legal origins, its political formulation, and its domestic and international enforcement, this book explains neutrality’s profound and enduring consequences in the 1790s and beyond. Beginning in 1789, the government found multiple arenas in which to assert its authority: in fiscal matters, in the West, among Indigenous peoples, and with U.S. citizens. Neutrality provided an additional area for the government to exercise its constitutional responsibilities. This policy also stands as a testament to Washington’s skills as a political leader in forging and implementing this policy and his enduring presidential legacy as a visionary statesman who kept the United States at peace. Because of the far-reaching scope of this policy domestically and internationally, its longevity into the nineteenth century, and its engagement with all three branches, neutrality played an unexpectedly large and underappreciated role in launching the U.S. government. Becoming neutral represented one of America’s earliest domestic and international aspirations. Creating a government capable of supporting these ambitions resulted in neutrality contributing to the building of the American nation.