The Proclamation of Neutrality was a formal announcement issued by U.S. President George Washington on April 22, 1793, that declared the nation neutral in the conflict between France and Great Britain. It threatened legal proceedings against any American providing assistance to any country at war.
News that Revolutionary France had declared war on Great Britain in February 1793, and with this declaration that France, by the country's own volition, was now at war with all of Europe, did not reach America until the first half of April of that year. President Washington was at Mount Vernon attending the funeral of a nephew when he was given the news. He hurried back to Pennsylvania and summoned a cabinet meeting on April 19. It was unanimously agreed to issue a proclamation "forbidding citizens to take part in any hostilities in the seas, on behalf of or against any of the belligerent powers."
Washington's members agreed that neutrality was essential; the nation was too young and its military was too small to risk any sort of engagement with either France or Britain. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, in particular, saw in this question, the influence of the Federalists — his political rivals; yet he too agreed a proclamation was in order, though perhaps not an official one.
In a cabinet meeting of January 14th, Thomas Jefferson argued that while neutrality was a sine qua non, there was no real need to make a Proclamation of Neutrality either immediately or even officially; perhaps there might be no need for an official declaration at all. The United States could declare its neutrality for a price, Jefferson intimated, "Why not stall and make countries bid for [American] neutrality?" In response, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton declared that American neutrality was not negotiable. Jefferson eventually resigned from his duty as Secretary of State in disagreement with the Proclamation of Neutrality.
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 22nd day of April, one thousand, seven hundred and ninety-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the seventeenth.— George Washington
Main article: Pacificus-Helvidius Debates
The proclamation started a war of pamphlets between Alexander Hamilton (writing for the Federalists), and James Madison (writing for the Democratic-Republicans) commonly known as the Pacificus–Helvidius Debates. In his seven essays, written under the nom de plume "Pacificus", Hamilton dealt with objections to the proclamation. Among his arguments were:
Thomas Jefferson (having read several of the "Pacificus" essays) encouraged James Madison to reply. Madison was initially hesitant. From his Virginia plantation, he offered Jefferson excuses as to why he could not write a reply, including that he didn't have the necessary books and papers to refute "Pacificus", that the summer heat was "oppressive", and that he had many house guests who were wearing out their welcome. Ultimately, Madison agreed to Jefferson's request, though afterward, he wrote to him, "I have forced myself in to the task of a reply. I can truly say I find it the most grating one I have ever experienced."
Writing under the name "Helvidius", Madison's five essays showed the animosity that had evolved with the two political factions. He attacked Federalists, and Hamilton in particular, and anyone who supported the Neutrality Proclamation as secret monarchists, declaring: "Several features with the signature of Pacificus were [as of] late published, which have been read with singular pleasure and applause by the foreigners and degenerate citizens among us, who hate our republican government and the French Revolution." Madison brought to light the strict constructionist's view of both the Constitution and the Proclamation, demanding that Congress, not the president, had full authority over all foreign affairs except those areas specified in the Constitution.
The Proclamation of Neutrality (1793). Lillian Goldman Law Library.