Neutrality Act of 1794

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The Neutrality Act of 1794 makes it illegal for an American to wage war against any country at peace with the United States. The Act declares in part:[1]

The act also forbids foreign war vessels to outfit in American waters and sets a three-mile territorial limit at sea.[2]

The act was amended several times and remains in force.

Origins and evolution

One reason for the act was to create a liability for violation of Section 8 of Article One of the United States Constitution, which reserves to the United States Congress the power to decide to go to war.[3]

The Continental Congress previously had an alliance with France in 1778[4] that France accused the United States of violating with the 1794 American Jay Treaty with Great Britain. The French Ambassador to the United States, Edmond-Charles Genêt, had been actively recruiting American privateers for attacks on Spain and Great Britain, with whom the French Republican Government was at war.

Some individuals in America were supporting the French Republican Government by engaging in privateering[5] and other Americans were engaging in filibuster military operations against British Canada and Spanish possessions in Florida and South America.

This led to George Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 and the act of 1794.

The Act was used in the trials of Aaron Burr, William S. Smith and Etienne Guinet, who, with Frenchman Jean Baptist LeMaitre, were convicted of outfitting an armed ship to take part in France's war against Great Britain.[6]

The Act of 1794 was superseded by the Neutrality Act of 1817[7] that included States that had recently become independent from Spain that were not mentioned in the original act.[8] Unrecognised governments such as "colonies, districts, or people" are given the same recognition as "states and princes" in the last clause of section 5.[9] Henry Clay called it "an Act for the benefit of Spain against the republics of America."[9]

The Neutrality Act of 1817 also prescribes maximum penalites of three years imprisonment and up to a three thousand dollar fine.[10]

The Act was updated again in 1838 during the 1837 Rebellions in Canada.

The Neutrality Act was reenacted and amended several times since, and remains in force as 18 U.S.C. 960 (1976).[11][12]

Recent applications

In 1981, nine men involved in Operation Red Dog were sentenced to three years in prison under the Neutrality Act; they had planned to overthrow the government of Dominica.[13][14]

In the 2007 Laotian coup d'état conspiracy allegation, the US government alleged after a sting operation that a group of conspirators planned to violate the Neutrality Act by overthrowing the government of Communist Laos.[15] The United States Government has since dropped all charges against these defendants.

In January 2015 two US residents were charged with violating the Neutrality Act for their role in the 2014 Gambian coup d'état attempt [16]


  1. Kwakwa, Edward K. (1992). The International Law of Armed Conflict: Personal and Material Fields of Application. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 116. ISBN 0-7923-1558-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Kim, Sun Pyo (2004). Maritime Delimitation and Interim Arrangements in North East Asia. Martinus Nijhoff. p. 225. ISBN 90-04-13669-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Boyle, Francis A. (2007). Protesting Power: War, Resistance, and Law. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 78. ISBN 0-7425-3892-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Cunliffe, Marcus; Kenneth W. Leish (1968). The American Heritage History of the Presidency. American Heritage Pub. Co.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Benton, Thomas Hart (1857). Abridgment of the Debates of Congress, from 1789 to 1856: Dec. 5. 1796-March 3, 1803. D. Appleton. p. 126.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. U S v. GUINET, 2 U.S. 321 (U.S. Supreme Court 1795).
  7. Evans, Lawrence Boyd (1922). Leading Cases on International Law. Callaghan and Co.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Wheaton, Henry; Richard Henry (1866). Elements of International Law. Little, Brown & Company. p. 439.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Beamis, George (1864). Precedents of American Neutrality. The University of Michigan. p. 38.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. May, Robert E. (2002). Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. University of North Carolina Press. pp. Chapter 1. ISBN 0-8078-2703-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Jules Lobel (1983), "The Rise and Decline of the Neutrality Act: Sovereignty and Congressional War Powers in United States Foreign Policy", Harvard International Law Journal, 24<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 18 U.S.C. 960
  13. "2 Guilty in New Orleans for Plot on Dominica Invasion", The New York Times, June 21, 1981<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Klansmen Get 3-year Terms", Boston Globe, July 23, 1981<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Weiner, Tim (2008-05-11). "Gen. Vang Pao's Last War". The New York Times Magazine.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>