Thomas Jefferson Papers

Cabinet Opinion on Washington’s Questions on Neutrality and the Alliance with France, [19 April 1793]

Cabinet Opinion on Washington’s Questions on Neutrality and the Alliance with France

[19 Apr. 1793]

At a meeting of the heads of departments and the Attorney general at the President’s Apr. 19. 1793. by special summons1 to consider2 of several questions previously communicated to them in writing by the President.

Qu. I. Shall a Proclamation issue &c.? [see the questions]3

agreed by all4 that a Proclamation shall issue, forbidding our citizens to take part in any hostilities on the seas with or against any of the belligerant powers, and warning them against carrying to any such powers any of those articles deemed contraband according to the modern usage of nations, and enjoining them from all acts and proceedings inconsistent with the duties of a friendly nation towards those at war.

Qu. II. Shall a Minister from the Republic of France be recieved?

agreed unanimously that he shall be received.

Qu. III If received, shall it be absolutely &c.5

<The Attorney general and Secretary of state are of opinion he should be received absolutely and without qualifications.

The Secretaries of the Treasury and War>

This and the subsequent questions are postponed to another day.6

MS (DLC: Washington Papers); entirely in TJ’s hand, with canceled passage restored; undated; square brackets in original. Tr (Lb in DNA: RG 59, SDC); varies significantly (see textual notes below) and represents final form of opinion. In the absence of a PrC, it is impossible to determine whether TJ, acting on his own initiative or someone else’s—Washington, a secretary or clerk acting under the President’s direction, or another member of the Cabinet—was responsible for making the cancellation before or after the document was submitted to the President.

TJ’s notes barely hint at the deep differences that emerged when the Cabinet met this date to consider the thirteen questions on neutrality posed by the President the day before (see Washington to the Cabinet, 18 Apr. 1793, and enclosure). In regard to the first question, which was whether to issue a proclamation declaring American neutrality in view of the outbreak of war between France and Great Britain, TJ differed with his colleagues in the Cabinet. Though he wished to follow a policy of strict neutrality, TJ opposed the issuance of a presidential proclamation to this effect on constitutional and diplomatic grounds. He contended that since the Constitution had authorized Congress to declare war, the executive was incompetent to proclaim a state of peace. He also argued that delaying a formal proclamation of the nation’s neutral status would force Great Britain and France to make significant concessions to the United States on the issue of neutral rights. To these arguments Alexander Hamilton, with the support of Henry Knox and Edmund Randolph, replied by upholding the constitutional authority of the President to declare neutrality and by asserting that in the absence of such a declaration the well known wish of many Americans to take an active part in support of the French cause would lead to grave diplomatic complications with the British. Not wishing to weaken his position on the question of the mode of receiving the new French minister, TJ yielded to these arguments and acquiesced in the issuance of a proclamation on condition that it omit the word neutrality. In deference to TJ’s wishes, the resultant proclamation, which Randolph drafted at Washington’s behest and showed to TJ before the President approved it on 22 Apr. 1793, virtually declared the United States to be in a state of neutrality without using the word itself. Despite this concession to TJ, the President from the beginning regarded this document as a proclamation of neutrality (Notes on Washington’s Questions on Neutrality and the Alliance with France, [6 May 1793]; Notes on the Sinking Fund and the Proclamation of Neutrality, 7 May 1793; TJ to James Madison, 23, 29 June 1793; TJ to James Monroe, 14 July 1793; Fitzpatrick, Writings description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, D.C., 1931–44, 39 vols. description ends , xxxii, 430–1; Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , xv, 33–43; Washington, Journal description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends , 117, 118, 120).

After unanimously agreeing to receive the new French minister to the United States, Edmond Charles Genet, the Cabinet divided evenly over the President’s third question—whether his reception should be absolute or qualified. For the ensuing debate over this issue, see Editorial Note on Jefferson’s opinion on the treaties with France, at 28 Apr. 1793. See also Notes on the Reception of Edmond Charles Genet, 30 Mch. 1793.

1Preceding three words not in Tr.

2Remainder of sentence in Tr: “the foregoing questions proposed by the President.”

3This line not in Tr.

4 Tr to this point: “It was agreed by all on Question I (to wit, ‘shall a proclamation issue’ &ca.).”

5This line and the canceled passage below it not in Tr.

6 Sentence in Tr: “The remaining questions were postponed for further consideration.”

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