France was in a series of major conflicts in the last years of the 18th century, finally ending in 1802. They declared war on Great Britain as well as the bulk of the rest of Europe. The fledgling nation of the United States of America was put in a position where they had to either pick a side or declare neutrality. Due to the slow transfer of messages at the time, President George Washington did not receive news of the conflict until April 1793, though it began in February. Washington, who had been at his Nephew's funeral at Mount Vernon, immediately called his cabinet together and left for Philadelphia. After much discussion it was decided that neutrality was essential, going against the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France. On April 22, 1793, Washington delivered the Proclamation of Neutrality, threatening legal action against any American who aided either side in the conflict.
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson thought that America should sell their allegiance, while Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, declared that neutrality was not negotiable. Further, there was a serious question of constitutional power: who had the right to declare neutrality, the legislative branch or the executive branch? As we do today, they turned to the Constitution for guidance. But there was a problem. The Constitution wasn't fully completed yet. It had been ratified unfinished.
The debate between the Hamilton and Jefferson was so heated that Jefferson resigned. Jefferson and James Madison took the debate to a series of pamphlets, which tested and shaped the new country's government. These pamphlets were known as the Pacificus-Helvidius debates, and they offer us an invaluable insight into the Founding Fathers' thoughts on constitutional power.
The debate continued but one year later the Neutrality Act of 1794 passed, making it illegal for any American to wage war with a country at peace with the United States, lending some congressional legitimacy to Washington's proclamation.
Today, adherence to the Constitution is at the forefront of public consciousness, but it is important that we look to the past as well. The Founding Fathers encountered problems with interpretation, just as we do today -- and they were the authors! So we must tread carefully before we declare any one interpretation as correct.
- By the President of the United States of America
- A Proclamation
- 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 toward those powers respectively, and to exhort and warn the citizens of the United States carefully to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsoever which may in 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 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.
- In testimony whereof I have caused the seal of the United States of America to be affixed to these presents, and signed the same with my hand. Done at the city of Philadelphia, the 22d day of April, 1793, and of the Independence of the United States of America the seventeenth.
- GO. WASHINGTON.
- By the President:
- TH: JEFFERSON