Friday, March 14, 2014

What's Wrong with the Neutrality Acts of 1794, 1817 and 1976?

A neutrality act sounds on its face like a good thing -- an expedient that helps to prevent war. If a neutrality act actually prohibited the government of the United States from waging war without the consent of congress, and by extension, the American people, then it would be an innocent enough thing, and it would not add much to the requirement that the executive branch of the government should not wage war without the consent of the people through their elected representatives in Congress. But like many a mislabeled legislative package, the various neutrality laws that the United States has enacted over the years are not there to limit the government in its subrosa activities in waging clandestine or unauthorized war. Their purpose is to tie the hands of United States citizens. Instead of making the government practice a studied neutrality while Americans abroad can act as they will, the so-called neutrality laws are there to penalize ordinary Americans from acting against governments that the United States government has decided to support. That is not neutrality. That is partisanship on the part of the government! It is granting the United States government a monopoly on the right to defend American interests abroad, and it is tying the hands of citizens in their own business outside the territories of the United States.

The first neutrality act was passed by the United States Congress in 1794 under the administration of  George Washington. The continental congress had had a treaty with France, but in 1794 the Jay Treaty with Great Britain was ratified. France accused the United States of violating its treaty with them, because Great Britain and France were at war. Many Americans at the time were privateers, supporting the French Republican government. The French ambassador to the United States had been actively recruiting American privateers to fight against Spain and Great Britain, the enemies of France. All of a sudden, it was illegal for Americans to ply their trade as privateers in service of a country that had helped support their own revolution and brought about their independence!

Now one might argue that if such a policy brings about peace, the financial interests of the American privateers should be sacrificed in the name of absolute neutrality. But no such thing happened. Instead, during the administration of Washington's successor, the Federalist John Adams, the United States entered into a Quasi-War with France.

USS Constellation vs L'Insurgente -1799

from the Wikipedia

What is a Quasi-War, we may well ask? It means a war that is waged without a declaration, without ratification by Congress and by extension without the consent of the American people.

This undeclared war went on until 1800 when a peace was signed, and it was largely due to this war that Adams did not win reelection. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr won the election under the Democratic-Republican ticket. Unfortunately, their election did not lead to a repeal of the Neutrality Act of 1794, which Jefferson used against Burr in his trial of 1807. Unable to find  the civilian Burr guilty of treason because of his projected private expedition against New Spain, Jefferson did succeed in pinning him with a misdemeanor under the Neutrality Act.

And in order to keep the United States safe from the depredations of Britain, after the end of the Quasi-War with France, Jefferson resorted to the expedient of the Embargo Act. Now, not only were American citizens prohibited from waging war against other countries -- they were not even allowed to engage in international trade, because they could not defend themselves and there was no one else to defend them.

So we went from a constitution that limited the government from waging war without the consent of the people, but allowed citizens to possess any weapon for the purposes of a well-regulated militia so that the people could wage war on their own to a situation where citizens were completely disarmed in defending themselves on the open seas or even venturing forth for purposes of trade.

The constitution limited the government but left unlimited powers and rights to each citizen. But the new laws were used to do the exact opposite. This state of affairs led directly to the War of 1812. Unable to defend themselves, under the administration of James Madison, the people allowed Congress to ratify a declaration of War against Great Britain. Allowing the government to have a monopoly on waging war will always lead inevitably to war.

Who helped  the United States win that war? Privateers and smugglers acting in contravention of both the Neutrality Act and the Embargo Act. Privateers who asserted their second amendment rights to wage war, despite unconstitutional legislation. The arms they bore were not limited to muskets. They had cannons and warships, too.

If we want to understand how Neutrality Acts lead to war, and how a monopoly on waging war violates the rights of citizens under the constitution to defend themselves, then a good place to start might be with Theodosia and the Pirates.

This information is as applicable today, as it was in the 1800s. If there are interests of United States citizens that need defending abroad, hadn't we better let those citizens defend those interests with every means at their disposal, while keeping our government neutral? Let's repeal the Neutrality Act once and for all, so that we can have peace, while those who wish to wage war to defend their own interests can do so at their own expense.


  1. A very interesting history lesson. I remember reading about the neutrality acts back in high school and college, but had not thought much about these since. I will share on Twitter.

    1. Thanks, Julia, for sharing. I heard about the Neutrality Acts, too, when I studied American history, but it is not until recently that I understood their true significance. Neutrality sounds like a good thing, but it's a misnomer.