The Rise and Fall of European Neutrality from the United States

In the first days of the republic, Congress and the President sought to rebuild the country and look to ways of expanding throughout America while not engaging with the European powers. Ramsey noted that Washington had faced great difficulties in his encounters with Spain [1]. In particular, he found it very difficult to find amicable solutions to the problems of sovereignty in surrounding territories. One of the most significant issues involved the free navigation of the Mississippi. Having concluded the war with Great Britain, the newly founded federal states of America also had negotiations with the Canadian provinces. The British appointed a Mr Hammond as their first Minister to the United States. At the same time, Mr Thomas Pinckney was appointed ‘minister plenipotentiary’ to Great Britain from the United States [2]. By April 1793, war had been declared between Great Britain and France.

George Washington declared neutrality at this point. The popular opinion within the United States remained against Britain and in favour of France [3]. It was a difficult time for those who supported the French cause, seeking a more active engagement, while others were dreading a war with Great Britain, having only recently ended the war of independence. In April 1794, Washington appointed John Jay as ‘envoy extraordinary’ to the court of London [4]. The result was the signing of a treaty with Great Britain. The appointment and his actions resulted in a great deal of debate back in the United States, with many people seeking to remain neutral. Yet, over time, their position came to change.

Olivier documented the early travels of the United States Navy in the region of the Ottoman Empire and the Mediterranean [5]. The author started recording the early interactions between the pirates of Delos and the surrounding islands [6]. At this point, the United States remained relatively neutral, which would change over the coming decades. The ongoing engagements with pirates on the shores of Tripoli that involved the US Navy and Marines would form part of American folklore and a significant aspect of American culture [7]. Hanna documented how not only African pirates had been causing Americans problems, but North America-born pirates had been acting out of Madagascar [8].

In a treatise on the rise and eventual end of the neutrality act, Lobel noted how neutrality had played a prominent role in shaping US foreign policy [9]. The policy of the United States was to remain neutral towards European struggles. Yet, the policy of neutrality to the United States, as can be seen from the engagements in Tripoli and the actions to stop piracy on the African continent, differed greatly.

Waldo noted that by the time of James Munro, the policy of neutrality towards European powers would not apply when it came to the American continent [10]. Negotiations with Spain had started to fall apart, and as was noted, the contest between Spain and “the colonies would become highly interesting to the United States” [11]. The development of the militia had continued to expand within the country, forming a standing army used to patrol the borders and expand west. Cherokee lands and other tribal areas were slowly built into the expanding United States [12]. The policy of defence with respect to national boundaries expanded, destroying the perceived neutrality of the United States over time [13].

Ray documented how the early American colonists had been unable to expand and started to cause some of the problems that would lead to the war of independence to develop and expand into new areas held by indigenous populations [14]. At the time, the British government did not want such an expansion, and did not seek jurisdictional control over the region [15]. Expansions into French and Spanish territories and those held by native groups led to the change from policies that initially saw indigenous groups as tribal nations to policies that excluded external parties such as France, Great Britain, and Spain from negotiations [16]. Early views of how the divisions between the early United States and Indian tribes developed can be seen in documents such as the American Gazetteer [17].

In a review of the notes taken by Tomes, we can see that by the middle of the nineteenth century, the American Navy had taken an active role in Asia [18]. By 1810, the United States Navy and Marine had started developing ways to directly increase the commercial trade with Asia [19]. In voyages from 1806 to 1812, the United States Navy had started exploring areas as far away as Japan and China [20]. So, whilst it is true that the United States sought neutrality in European engagement, the United States did not shy away from action when it came to the Ottoman Empire, Africa, or Asian nations—even as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. Consequently, the neutrality act of the United States must be seen in the light of the supremacy of the European nations and the growth of the Western European empire. Whilst the United States avoided action involving Europe outside the American continent, it engaged in several activities with France, Great Britain, and Spain as it sought to control more of the continental landmass.


1. Ramsay, David. The life of George Washington: commander in chief of the armies of the United States, in the war which established their independence; and first president of the United States. Printed by L. Hanfard & Sons, for T. Cadell and W. Davies, in the Strand: And Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, Paternoster-Row., 1807, p. 328.

2. Ibid. p. 330.

3. Ibid. p. 331.

4. Ibid. p 332.

5. Olivier, Guillaume-Antoine. Travels in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Persia: Undertaken by Order of the Government of France, During the First Six Years of the Republic. Vol. 2. TN Longman & O. Rees, Paternoster-Row; and T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, in the Strand, 1801.

6. Ibid. p. 106; 193.

7. Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Wars of the Barbary Pirates: To the shores of Tripoli: the rise of the US Navy and Marines. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.

8. Hanna, Mark G. Piracy in Colonial North America. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. 2020.

9. Lobel, Jules. Rise and Decline of the Neutrality Act: Sovereignty and Congressional War Powers in United States Foreign Policy, The. Harv. Int’l. LJ 24 (1983): 1.

10. Waldo, Samuel Putnam. The Tour of James Monroe, President of the United States, in the Year 1817. FD Bolles & Company, 1818.

11. Ibid. p. 275.

12. Ibid. p. 279 – 281.

13. Whitney, Thomas R. A Defence of the American Policy as Opposed to the Encroachments of Foreign Influence and Especially to the Interference of the Papacy, Etc. De Witt & Davenport, 1856.

14. Ray, Kristofer. The Indigenous Roots of the American Revolution. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. 2020.

15. Ibid.

16. Maldonado, Julie K. Seeking justice in an energy sacrifice zone: Standing on vanishing land in coastal Louisiana. Routledge, 2018.

17. The American Gazetteer: Exhibiting a Full Account of the Civil Divisions, Rivers, Harbors, Indian Tribes, &c. of the American Continent: Also of the West-India, and Other Appendant Islands: with a Particular Description of Louisiana. Thomas & Andrews, 1810.

18. Tomes, Robert. The Americans in Japan: an abridgment of the Government narrative of the US expedition to Japan, under Commodore Perry. Appletn, 1857.

19. Milburn, William. Oriental Commerce: Containing a Geographical Description of the Principal Places in the East Indies, China, and Japan, with Their Produce, Manufactures, and Trade, Including the Coasting Or Country Trade from Port to Port: also the Rise and Progress of the Trade of the Various European Nations with the Eastern World, Particularly that of the English East India Company from the Discovery of the Passage Round the Cape of Good Hope to the Present Period: with an Account of the Company’s Establishments. Vol. 1, 1813.

20. Davies, Benjamin. A New System of Modern Geography: Or, A General Description of the Most Remarkable Countries Throughout the Known World. Compiled from the Latest Voyages and Travels, and Containing Many Important Additions to the Geography of the United States. Johnson and Warner, 1813.

[Image: Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons]

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