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  • 1793 Detail

    April 22, 1793 - George Washington signs the Proclamation of Neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars, where France has already declared war on England, the Netherlands, Austria, Prussia, and Sardinia.

    French Revolution
    Oh, international affairs. So complicated. So much tug and pull. After the American Revolution and the French role in securing a new sovereign nation in the United States against their colonial power Great Britain, you would assume that relations between France and the USA would be stable, at least until the loans were repaid to the French government. But, before the presidency of George Washington could gain much traction, politics in France were changing. By 1792, after three years of continued conflict in the French Revolution and despite being part of a constitutional monarchy, King Louis XVI was deposed. France was already at war with Austria, Prussia and other European powers. The monarchies of Europe had been outraged at the revolution that caused the demotion of the French King and the establishment of the First French Republic, and feared that the tide of revolution would topple them. When Louis XVI was executed on January 21, 1793, the war expanded, bringing in Great Britan and the Netherlands in opposition the next month. France was also in serious debt, some of which began with their exploits in the Seven Years Wars and American Revolution. And yes, the United States still owed them money.

    The First French Republic responded to the expansion by drafting three hundred thousand men into the army on February 24, 1793. The war was about to expand even further and the new government of George Washington, first President of the United States, had to make a decision. News did not reach the states until April that Great Britain had joined the conflict, causing Washington to race back to Philadelphia from Mount Vernon and address the question of neutrality. France was essentially at war with all of Europe.

    There had been discussion since the start of 1793 about the position of the United States via neutrality. The cabinet was in agreement that the nation could not afford a conflict against either side and that neutrality was in order. However, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson did not think an official proclamation was necessary; in fact, he argued that their neutrality could be negotiated for a price. Alexander Hamilton disagreed, pushing for an official document. When the cabinet convened again on April 19, 1793, all four cabinet members conceded that the proclamation was necessary.


    Full Text - Proclamation of Neutrality


    The Proclamation of Neutrality 1793

    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 belligerant Powers;

    I have therefore thought fit by these presents to declare the disposition of the United States to observe the conduct aforesaid towards those Powers respectfully; 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 whatsoever 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 twenty-second day of April, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the seventeenth.

    George Washington
    April 22, 1793


    After the Proclamation


    Inside the United States, the Declaration of Neutrality continued the hostilities between Jefferson and Hamilton, with disagreement over its constitutionality, the expansion of presidential powers, and whether being neutral in an offensive war was in conflict with its defensive treaties with France. By December 1793, Jefferson would resign his position as Secretary of State. Congress assisted in the debate in 1794, when it passed the Neutrality Act, turning Washington's policy into Congressional law. This helped establish the precedent that the executive branch had broad powers in the area of foreign policy.

    On the external front, the intent of the declaration was better than the outcome. Despite the historic nature of the relationship between the United States and France, which reached back to their aid with defeating the British in the American Revolution, it would take less than two decades for that to erode. French ships began to confiscate United States merchant vessels for payment for debts that the United States owed, but refused to pay to the French First Republic, the new government of France. An XYZ affair would occur. A Quasi War would start. By 1798, all French treaties with the United States would be cancelled, and we would be at war with the French, essentially siding with the British, with a new trade deal in tow, after they had been our enemy during our own revolution. Yes, the vagaries of international diplomacy, cooperation, and changing sides. By 1812, it would change again, with the British back to adversaries, and the French part of other treaties.

    Photo above: Painting of the Battle of Valmy, September 1792, 1826, Horace Vernet. Courtesy U.K. National Gallery via Wikipedia Commons. Photo below: Lithograph of the Surrender of Cornwallis troops at Yorktown to American and French armies, 1846, N. Currier. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents Prepared under the direction of the Joint Committee on printing, of the House and Senate Pursuant to an Act of the Fifty-Second Congress of the United States. New York : Bureau of National Literature, Inc., 1897 via the Avalon Project, Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, Yale University Law School; Mountvernon.org; Wikipedia Commons.

    Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

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