Proclamation of Neutrality

Nathan Murphy, Erica Cummings
  • Author
    Nathan Murphy

    Nathan Murphy received his B.A. in History at the California State University in Long Beach.

  • Instructor
    Erica Cummings

    Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Read about President George Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality. Learn the purpose of the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793, and discover its significance in America's foreign policy. Updated: 01/14/2022

Table of Contents


What was the Proclamation of Neutrality

The Proclamation of Neutrality was made in 1793 by President George Washington. It declares that the United States would not join any wars and would continue to trade with all involved warring countries, even if two of them are fighting against each other. Many politicians at the time did not agree with this proclamation and doubted Washington had the authority to decide foreign policy in this way.

What was the Purpose of Washington's Neutrality Proclamation?

The Constitution specifically grants the President the ability to sign treaties with other nations, however, there is no provision that specifically allows them to declare neutrality. While Washington sought to limit his power as much as possible, he thought this proclamation was necessary because of the developments in Europe.

In 1793, France and Great Britain were at war, and politicians were calling for the United States to side with one of these European powers. Even though Washington was a general in the American Revolution, he did not think the war was the answer in this instance, and felt taking sides in this conflict, or any European war, would weaken the country and potentially put it in danger. Moreover, France and Great Britain were the the country's two largest trading partners - going to war or siding with either of these countries would negatively impact the domestic economy and access to goods. Additionally, Washington wanted to keep this war as far from the American coast as possible, so he banned British and French warships from entering U.S. ports to prevent as much conflict as possible within the country's borders.

Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 Background

During the American Revolution, the French King Louis XVI agreed to help the continental army in order to weaken his country's enemy, Great Britain. The two countries signed a military alliance and the French King immediately sent thousands of French soldiers to the Thirteen Colonies to provide naval defense, since the United States did not have any warships. The French participation in the war was a major reason the British eventually lost and the colonies gained their independence. However, by the time George Washington began his second term in office, France was undergoing massive change. The French Revolution began when the middle class of France rose up against the King to create their own democratic government. The monarchies of Europe were frightened, because if commoners could destroy the monarchy in France, they may try to do the same in other European nations. This led Great Britain and other European countries to declare war on the new French government in an effort to restore the French monarchy.

French sympathizers, such as Thomas Jefferson, thought the United States had an obligation to help the French as they had helped the colonists. However, others at the time argued that with King Louis XVI no longer in power, the United States had no obligation to France.

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  • 0:05 The Proclamation of Neutrality
  • 1:02 Historical Background
  • 2:29 Debate Over Neutrality
  • 3:50 Historical Significance
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Debate Over Washington's Neutrality Proclamation

Regardless of whether an American citizen wanted the United States to support the new French Republic, there was another issue surrounding this proclamation. The Constitution did not state that the President had the authority to control the country's foreign policy directly, and did not mention the ability to make the United States neutral in conflicts. George Washington was focused on ensuring the young United States remained as stable as possible, and even though he wanted to limit the powers of the President to ensure this, he felt declaring neutrality was a safe expansion of Presidential power. Washington's Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, authored essays circulated around the country to support the idea that a President had the ability to do this. He composed these under the name Pacificus, which means peacemaking in Latin. Hamilton's main argument was that the President had broad authority to do countless acts not listed in the Constitution as long as they were needed to perform their duties as Chief Executive.

This is a depiction of George Washington in the style of Roman statues. Washington wanted the powers of the President to be as limited as possible, but some people at the time did not view his actions this way.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were critical of this point of view because they thought straying from the Constitution, especially this early in the Republic, was dangerous. Regardless whether they wanted the United States to remain neutral, they felt it should be the decision of Congress, not the President. Madison, who wrote the Constitution, decided to write essays in response to 'Pacificus', and he decided to use the name Helvidius. Helvidius was a critic of the Roman Emperor in the Roman Empire and thought Rome's Senate should have been making more decisions, not the leader. In these essays, Madison argued that Washington was overstepping his authority as President and could not solely decide if the U.S. was neutral in a specific conflict or as a general matter of foreign policy.

Impact of the Proclamation of Neutrality

Jefferson and Madison did not agree that Washington should be able to issue a neutrality proclamation, however, since Washington had so much support from the American people his declaration was accepted. Washington knew he was setting the example for all future Presidents, and accordingly very rarely expanded the expressed authorities he was given by the Constitution. The conflict between France and Great Britain was an exception for George Washington because in the 1790s the United States still had few factories. Instead, the vast majority of the finished goods Americans purchased were made in either of these European countries or their colonies. By taking a side, the U.S. would lose the ability to trade with one of the countries and the already fragile economy would be weakened further.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the neutrality Proclamation of 1793 and why was it important?

The Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 was issued by George Washington. It was a declaration that the United States would remain neutral in the conflict between France and Great Britain. This was important because the United States was still very young and likely would not have been able to survive another war so soon after the American Revolution.

How did the proclamation of neutrality affect the US?

The Proclamation of Neutrality enabled the United States to focus on economic development and fortification of its military. However, it also sparked a debate over how much power a President should have and whether they can go beyond the powers granted to them by the Constitution.

Why did Washington issue a proclamation of neutrality in the war between France and Britain?

Washington issued this proclamation because the United States benefitted from trade with both countries. Many in France expected the United States to join their side after the assistance provided to the colonists during the American Revolution. Washington issued this to make it clear to both parties that the United States would refuse to join either side.

What did the proclamation of neutrality do to warships?

This proclamation banned British and French warships from entering American ports. This was a way to prevent the U.S. from becoming entangled in this conflict by keeping the war as far away from the United States as possible.

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