Of all the major events of the 1790s one that holds perhaps the greatest historical significance is the 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality.
When the United States discovered that Great Britain and France were once again at war in April 1793, American leaders faced a difficult decision. Which global superpower would they support, if any?
As a still-new nation navigating within the confines of the new Constitution, President Washington’s cabinet unanimously agreed that war would be disastrous. In order to avoid war and protect the nation George Washington issued the Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793.
The historic announcement had major ramifications throughout the remainder of President Washington’s second term. While avoiding war, the proclamation ultimately proved to be a controversial issue that divided the nation throughout the remainder of the decade.
The Significance of the Neutrality Proclamation
The primary significance of the 1793 Neutrality Proclamation lies in how it maintained American neutrality throughout the European wars of the 1790s, helped lead to the Citizen Genet affair, spurred the resignation of Thomas Jefferson, and led to strained relations with former ally France.
The theme of neutrality featured prominently during Washington’s presidency. He knew the young nation could not thrive and develop if constantly at war.
Neutrality featured as a primary warning in Washington’s Farewell Address as he cautioned the nation to remain wary of European affairs. Without Washington’s leadership at this critical time, the nation may have split apart at the seams.
Maintained American Neutrality in European Wars
The most significant aspect of the Neutrality Proclamation was how it kept the United States out of the European conflict.
When France declared war on Britain in February 1793, neither nation bothered to tell the United States through diplomatic channels. The US learned of the news second-hand nearly two months after the war had began.1
The news brought the US to a frenzy. Pro-French supporters called on the nation to honor its 1778 alliance with France and support the revolutionaries. Others thought the nation should remain neutral and uninvolved in the war, while also maintaining commercial relations with both nations.
President Washington called his cabinet together to meet on April 19, 1793 to decide the best course of action. Whatever their choice, it was of utmost importance that the cabinet provided a unified response to lead the nation.1
Washington’s experience fighting in two European wars provided him a unique perspective on the dangers of becoming involved in the longstanding British-French rivalry. He still maintained close correspondence with many of the French military leaders that aided in the American Revolution.1
Washington firmly believed that the United States of America should be allowed to prosper without foreign interference. He wrote to the Minister to France, Governour 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.”
At the cabinet meeting, Washington distributed a thirteen point questionnaire for debate amongst the four members. Washington listened to each intently, with unanimity the ultimate goal.
Ultimately, the entire cabinet agreed on the first two points: that the United States should remain neutral in the conflict and that they should welcome the new Minister of France, Edmond-Charles Genet.1
Rather than wait for consensus of the other eleven points, the cabinet decided to issue its Proclamation of Neutrality. Debate over the exact wording of the eventual 293 word statement was contentious.
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson eventually won out over Alexander Hamilton in softening the message so as not to give offense to France. Interestingly, the proclamation does not include the word “neutral” at all.1
The issuance of the proclamation was a significant milestone in US history and proved to be a divisive factor throughout Washington’s second term.
Led to Citizen Genet Affair
Coinciding with the Proclamation of Neutrality was the arrival of the new French envoy to the United States, Edmond-Charles Genet. Also known as “Citizen Genet,” his actions sparked discontent throughout the United States during a period known as the scandalous “Citizen Genet Affair.”
When Genet arrived in Charleston, SC in April 1793, American citizens greeted him warmly. Many in the south sympathized with the French Revolution and now supported France in their wars against Great Britain.
Upon arrival Genet immediately asserted his right per the 1778 treaty of alliance to arm French ships in American ports and enlist citizens for the cause. Under this guise, he recruited both American privateers to fight the British in the Caribbean, as well as a militia to fight Spain in Spanish Florida.2
Genet’s actions alarmed the Washington administration, particularly after he continued his efforts following the issuance of the Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22nd. After a cool reception and meeting with Washington, Genet threatened that he would appeal directly to the American people if the president did not change course on neutrality.3
It’s here where Genet erred. While Americans received the French envoy with enthusiasm, Genet mistook those emotions as support for himself and his mission, rather than anti-British sentiment. With his blatant attacks and threats against Washington, Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists seized the opportunity.
Hamilton appealed to the American people via popular newspapers pitting the famed, well-respected former general Washington in a direct popularity contest against Genet. The publication of Genet’s threats soured American public opinion on Genet, who found that he had overplayed his hand.3
Republicans like Jefferson and James Madison quickly distanced themselves from Genet. Southern localities instead crafted resolutions that supported the nation, president, and French Revolution, while also providing distaste over the French envoy’s actions.3
As quickly as it began, the Citizen Genet Affair fizzled out after bringing much trouble to the Washington administration.
Resignation of Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State
In the wake of the Proclamation of Neutrality, Thomas Jefferson’s resignation as Secretary of State also proved to be of great historical significance. Though Jefferson resigned for a myriad of reasons, the Neutrality Proclamation was chief among them.
Jefferson never fully supported the proclamation though he put aside his personal opinions for consensus among the cabinet. He truly did agree that war should be averted, though he disagreed with the method and actions proposed to deliver that message.
While Washington listened to each and every cabinet member’s opinions, Hamilton and Jefferson were the most outspoken and constantly sparred. Jefferson later wrote
“In these discussions, Hamilton & myself were daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks… the pain was for Hamilton & myself, but the public experienced no inconvenience.”4
Even after issuing the Proclamation of Neutrality, the two men continued to spar via the press. Hamilton wrote a series of convincing essays in favor of neutrality and the proclamation under the pseudonym “Pacificus.”1
Jefferson wished to respond but feared the consequences for the administration should he write the counterarguments himself. After much wrangling Jefferson persuaded his close friend James Madison to craft their retort.
By this time Jefferson was at odds with Washington, frustrated with how the president sided more often with Hamilton’s views than his own. Just days after convincing Madison to pen the eventual “Helvidius” essays, Jefferson tendered his resignation on July 31, 1793.1
To his credit, Washington refused to let Jefferson resign and personally visited him at his home to convince him to delay his resignation until the end of the year. Jefferson agreed, but only out of a sense of duty to the nation given the turbulent times.
Relieved of his duties, Jefferson was now free to more directly oppose many of Washington’s policies he disagreed with. Jefferson further emerged as a prominent leader of Republican values, and the Democratic-Republican party eventually formed with him at the center.
Led to Strained Relations with France
A final outcome of the Proclamation of Neutrality was how it ultimately led to strained relations with France. As relations worsened between the two nations throughout the decade, the situation led to further division within the United States and an eventual conflict.
Both Federalists and Republicans initially cheered the beginnings of the French Revolution. The revolution proved that republicanism was spreading and monarchies would crumble.
However, by 1792-1793, the revolution had turned violent with King Louis XVI himself guillotined in January 1793. Washington’s several military friends from the American Revolution became caught up in the violence during the frequent purges of the time.
Federalists soon soured on the revolution believing it to be a failed experiment. They were none too eager to align themselves with the outright violence and disorder in the French government.
Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality and refusal to directly aid France in its wars led to tense, strained relations between the two nations. France believed that the United States was duty-bound to lend support dating back to its 1778 treaty obligations.
However, Hamilton argued that the killing of King Louis and formation of the republic justified the US withdrawal from its prior alliance with France. In addition, the alliance was strictly defensive and since France was the aggressor, America had no obligation to support.1
Jefferson and other republicans vehemently disagreed. They believed that the alliance was between a nation and its people, not just with the King. Republicans worried that by breaking the alliance it could lead France to declare war on the United States and drag them into the conflict they sought to avoid.
The Neutrality Proclamation was just one of many events that led to a deteriorating relationship with France. The Jay Treaty in 1794, French interference in the election of 1796 and the XYZ Affair all contributed to the eventual Quasi-War with France at the end of the 1790s.
To recap, the historical significance of the Proclamation of Neutrality lies in how it:
- Maintained American neutrality in the European wars
- Led to the Citizen Genet Affair
- Contributed to Thomas Jefferson’s resignation as Secretary of State
- Led to strained relations with France
The fallout from the neutrality declaration marred Washington’s second term. Fresh off a productive first term where a spirit of compromise ruled—such as in the Compromise of 1790 and Hamilton’s assumption of state debts financial plan—the second proved far more divisive.
By the time Washington retired and issued his important Farewell Address, the nation was thoroughly divided by the emerging political factions. The Democratic-Republicans and Federalists had drastically different visions for the future of the nation and constantly fought one another.
Although the Proclamation of Neutrality arguably saved the nation by averting war, its true significance resides in how it helped further divide the populace between the two competing factions.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Moats, Sandra. “‘Americans in Politics’: Crafting a Neutral Proclamation.” Navigating Neutrality: Early American Governance in the Turbulent Atlantic, University of Virginia Press, 2021, pp. 59–77. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1n1brtq.9.
2) Washburn, Albert H. “The American View of Neutrality.” Virginia Law Review, vol. 2, no. 3, 1914, pp. 165–77. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1063883.
3) YOUNG, CHRISTOPHER J. “Connecting the President and the People: Washington’s Neutrality, Genet’s Challenge, and Hamilton’s Fight for Public Support.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 31, no. 3, 2011, pp. 435–66. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41261631.
4) “Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 5 March 1810,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-02-02-0223. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 2, 16 November 1809 to 11 August 1810, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 272–274.]