August 4, 1793 – Alexander Hamilton Sets Out President Washington’s Rules on Neutrality

Louis XVI was the last King of France before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution. Louis XVI was suspended and arrested at the time of the Insurrection of 10 August 1792. One month later, the absolute monarchy was abolished and the First French Republic was proclaimed on September 21, 1792. On Monday, January 21, 1793, Louis XVI, at age 38, was beheaded by guillotine on the Place de la Révolution. His wife Marie Antoinette was guillotined on October 16, 1793.

The other monarchies of Europe looked with concern upon the developments in France. Great Britain and Spain joined Austria and other European nations in the war against Revolutionary France that had already started in 1791.

France sent Edmond Charles Genêt, who called himself “Citizen Genêt” as minister to the United States, for the purpose of enlisting American assistance to the fullest extent possible.

If the Americans refused to enter the war on France’s side, Genêt was instructed to “germinate the spirit of liberty” by instigating a popular uprising in favor of France. He had other assignments as well, all of which were designed to advance the position of France in the U.S. to the detriment of Britain.

Engraving of Edmond-Charles Genêt

Genêt launched an immediate campaign to realize his goals, taking assertive actions that amounted to “an astounding breach of diplomatic protocol and international law” (per Joel Richard Paul in Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times, p. 73).

President George Washington wanted the U.S. to remain neutral in the war between France and Britain, much to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s chagrin. Jefferson, besotted with France as well as its revolution, fiercely opposed neutrality. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, strongly supported it.

Jefferson had already been meeting secretly with Genêt, and was anxious for Genêt’s help to elect a republican majority in Congress in return for support for an alliance with France and a removal of tariffs on French imports. Paul writes:

Jefferson made clear that his enemies – the federalists [which included President George Washington], particularly Adams and Hamilton – were France’s enemies. . . . From these conversations, Genêt formed the misimpression that the president was irrelevant and that an appeal to Congress, or to the people directly, would be more effective.”

Genêt also confided his plans to arm regiments in South Carolina and Kentucky to attack Spanish holdings in Florida and Louisiana, and Jefferson helped put Genet in touch with people who could help him.

Paul adds:

Jefferson’s relationship with the French envoy was ill-advised, probably illegal, and certainly disloyal to Washington.”

One of President Washington’s great fears was foreign entanglements, which he saw as inimical to the success of an American project in its infancy. Thus he resisted the attempt to draw the new United States into a European war, and on April 22, 1793, issued his Proclamation of Neutrality, declaring the U.S. a neutral nation in the conflict and threatening legal proceedings against any American providing assistance to the warring countries.

By this time, even Jefferson had become alienated from Genêt and his flaunting of US Government laws.

Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull 1806

Washington held a series of Cabinet meetings to draw up rules for neutrality. On July 29, 1793, the Cabinet approved five of six general neutrality rules proposed by Edmund Randolph and Alexander Hamilton, and on the following day it agreed in principle to a proposal by Jefferson to include mention of the treaty provisions that formed exceptions to them.

Hamilton then produced a draft of eight rules approved with some amending by the Cabinet on August 3. On this day in history, August 4, 1793, Hamilton wrote a Treasury Department Circular to Collectors of Customs in charge of American ports to announce the neutrality policy with instructions on how to proceed in case of any contravention of neutrality. The letter was not sent out until final approval by Washington on August 9, at which time it was forwarded to Stephen Smith, the Collector of Machias, Maine.

Hamilton stated, inter alia, that privateers may enjoy no other privilege besides purchasing food. No armed vessels from Europe were to be granted asylum in the US. Any US citizen found in the service of either of the parties at war “will be abandoned to the penalties which the laws of war authorise.”

You can read the entire document here.

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