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What was the controversy surrounding the Neutrality Act of 1794?

June 4th

USSConstellationVsInsurgenteJune 4, 1794 —  The Neutrality Act of 1794 was passed today, making it illegal for an American to wage war against any country at peace with the United States. The Act also forbid foreign war vessels to outfit in American waters and sets a three mile territorial limit at sea.

It was a controversial, and highly debated step, explains Ron Chernow, author of the 2004 book, “Alexander Hamilton.”

Chernow explains: “The Proclamation of Neutrality was issued in May 1793 by George Washington, declaring the nation neutral in the conflict between France and Great Britain. It threatened legal proceedings against any American providing assistance to any country at war. His cabinet members agreed that neutrality was essential; the nation was too young and its military was too small to risk any sort of engagement with either France or Britain. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, in particular, saw in this question, as well as in the other twelve, the influence of the Federalists — his political rivals; yet he too agreed a proclamation was in order, though perhaps not an official one.”

Words of Wisdom

If any person shall within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States begin or set on foot or provide or prepare the means for any military expedition or enterprise...against the territory or dominions of any foreign prince or state of whom the United States was at peace that person would be guilty of a misdemeanor.

— The Neutrality Act of 1794

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