In April 1793, the United States was confronted with its most serious foreign policy crisis since the end of the American Revolution, when the Washington administration learned that the recently-constituted French Republic had declared war on England and the Dutch Republic. France, with which the United States had a political-military alliance dating from the Revolution, was locked in an apparent death struggle with a broad coalition, which included those two states along with Austria, Prussia, Spain, Portugal, and a number of Italian and German principalities. Popular support for revolutionary France surged in America. But there were complications. What had previously been a continental war had now become a worldwide maritime conflict. The United States, with its extensive commerce across the Atlantic and in the Caribbean, could no longer remain purely a spectator, trading unencumbered with all parties. American merchant ships were tempting prizes for both sides, particularly the British. A new French minister, Charles Edward Genet, was known to be en route to the United States. Americans wondered what he might ask, or demand, of them. Perhaps he would invoke the French alliance and try to force the United States into the war; an event which most American leaders thought would be disastrous to the fledgling republic.
President Washington summoned his Cabinet to Philadelphia to decide upon the proper course of American policy under these critical circumstances. The Cabinet members agreed that the United States should stay out of the military conflict, keeping with the Revolutionary-era objective of maintaining commercial relations with Europe but remaining aloof from purely European controversies and wars. They disagreed strongly over the means and ends of implementing that policy, however, as the line between commerce and politics, and European and American interests, was not easily established. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, a critic of the French Revolution and a supporter of Anglo-American rapprochement, argued that America’s treaty obligations, particularly the U.S. guarantee of the French West Indies, had been rendered non-binding by the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy and by the fact that France was engaged in an offensive war. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, a supporter of the French Revolution and an opponent of Hamilton’s British-oriented economic system, argued that this approach represented nothing more than legal hair-splitting and bad faith. At the level of principle, Jefferson argued, the change in regime did not excuse the United States from its obligations to the French nation. At the practical level, the French government was unlikely to invoke the treaty guarantees because it was in France’s interest for the United States to remain a neutral carrier of vital supplies, especially foodstuffs. Jefferson insisted that the best course for the United States was to delay any formal action and use its economic leverage to force the belligerent powers (read: Britain) to “bid for [American] neutrality” on American terms.
In the end, on April 22, 1793, Washington decided to issue what became known as the Neutrality Proclamation (although the word neutrality, at Jefferson’s behest, did not appear in the document).
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 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.
The President, however, accepted Jefferson’s argument about the legitimacy of the French Republic, the validity of the Franco-American treaties, and the need to accept its new Minister without reservations.
Washington’s decision caused immediate controversy among American supporters of France. The Proclamation had been issued by the Executive during a Congressional recess, without legislative review or approval, and it raised grave political and constitutional questions. Had the President usurped Congress’s power to declare war by issuing a preemptive declaration of peace? Few Americans wanted to enter the conflict openly but those grateful for past French support, and sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause and the rights of mankind, demanded something better than a cold, legalistic approach. “Although America is not a party in the existing war,” a group of prominent Philadelphia citizens proclaimed, “she may still be able in a state of peace to demonstrate the sincerity of her friendship by affording every useful assistance to the citizens of her sister republic.” Honor demanded that the United States maintain fully its stipulated duties to France, something that the Proclamation did not address.
The political controversy increased over the next few months, as Hamilton and Jefferson, with Attorney General Edmund Randolph acting as something of an intermediary, battled to define the precise terms of American neutrality and to meet America’s treaty commitments with France without justifying British retaliation. Minister Genet’s provocative approach to relations between the two republics complicated matters further. In June, Federalist newspapers began to publish a series of essays by Pacificus—easily identified as Secretary Hamilton—which not only defended American neutrality, but did so by treating Hamilton’s private arguments about the nullity of the Franco-American treaties and the questionable standing of the French Republic as if they were the authoritative position of the U.S. government. Hamilton argued that mutual interest and reciprocal advantage were much sounder bases for relations among nations than gratitude. He asserted that the executive had broad constitutional authority over matters of foreign policy.
Jefferson was outraged. He called on his political ally, Congressman James Madison, to respond to Hamilton publicly. “Nobody answers him, & his doctrine will therefore be taken for confessed. For God’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public. There is nobody else who can & will enter the lists with him.” Madison reluctantly agreed, writing as Helvidius. The most striking heresy, in Madison’s mind, had to do with the broad construction of executive power, which Madison understood to be part of Hamilton’s larger plan to transform the United States into an English-style regime. Madison wrote with the implicit authority of having been a member of the Constitutional Convention as well as one of the principal co-authors of the Publius Papers (Hamilton, of course, being the other).
The Pacificus-Helvidius debate, as the late Morton J. Frisch discusses here, in many ways defined the parameters of the seemingly permanent constitutional controversy between the executive and legislature over primary control of American national security policy.