Neutrality Act of 1794
The Neutrality Act of 1794 made it illegal for an American to wage war against any country at peace with the United States.

The Act declared in part:
The act also forbade foreign war vessels to outfit in American waters and set a three mile territorial limit at sea.

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
Article One of the United States Constitution
Article One of the United States Constitution describes the powers of Congress, the legislative branch of the federal government. The Article establishes the powers of and limitations on the Congress, consisting of a House of Representatives composed of Representatives, with each state gaining or...

, which reserves to the United States Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 the power to decide to go to war.

The Continental Congress
Continental Congress
The Continental Congress was a convention of delegates called together from the Thirteen Colonies that became the governing body of the United States during the American Revolution....

 previously had an alliance with France in 1778 that France accused the United States of violating with the 1794 American Jay Treaty
Jay Treaty
Jay's Treaty, , also known as Jay's Treaty, The British Treaty, and the Treaty of London of 1794, was a treaty between the United States and Great Britain that is credited with averting war,, resolving issues remaining since the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the American Revolution,, and...

 with Great Britain. The French Ambassador to the United States, Edmond-Charles Genêt
Edmond-Charles Genêt
Edmond-Charles Genêt , also known as Citizen Genêt, was a French ambassador to the United States during the French Revolution.-Early life:Genêt was born in Versailles in 1763...

, had been actively recruiting American privateer
A privateer is a private person or ship authorized by a government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping during wartime. Privateering was a way of mobilizing armed ships and sailors without having to spend public money or commit naval officers...

s for attacks on Spain and Great Britain, with whom the French Republican Government
French First Republic
The French First Republic was founded on 22 September 1792, by the newly established National Convention. The First Republic lasted until the declaration of the First French Empire in 1804 under Napoleon I...

 was at war.

Some individuals in America were supporting the French Republican Government by engaging in privateering and other Americans were engaging in filibuster
Filibuster (military)
A filibuster, or freebooter, is someone who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution...

 military operations against British Canada and Spanish possessions in Florida and South America.

This led to George Washington
George Washington
George Washington was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, and presided over the writing of...

's Proclamation of Neutrality
Proclamation of Neutrality
The Proclamation of Neutrality was a formal announcement issued by United States President George Washington on April 22, 1793, 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...

 in 1793 and the act of 1794.

The Act was used in the trials of Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr, Jr. was an important political figure in the early history of the United States of America. After serving as a Continental Army officer in the Revolutionary War, Burr became a successful lawyer and politician...

, 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
French Revolutionary Wars
The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of major conflicts, from 1792 until 1802, fought between the French Revolutionary government and several European states...


The Act of 1794 was superseded by the Neutrality Act of 1817 that included States that had recently become independent from Spain that were not mentioned in the original act. Unrecognised governments such as "colonies, districts, or people" were given the same recognition as "states and princes" in the last clause of section 5. Henry Clay
Henry Clay
Henry Clay, Sr. , was a lawyer, politician and skilled orator who represented Kentucky separately in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives...

 had called it "an Act for the benefit of Spain against the republics of America."

The Neutrality Act of 1817 also proscribed maximum penalites of three years imprisonment and up to a three thousand dollar fine.

The Act was updated again in 1838 during the 1837 Rebellions in Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...


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

Recent applications

In 1981, nine men involved in Operation Red Dog
Operation Red Dog
Operation Red Dog was the code name of plan by Canadian and American mercenaries, largely affiliated with white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan groups, to overthrow the government of Dominica, where they planned to restore former Prime Minister Patrick John to power...

 were sentenced to three years in prison under the Neutrality Act; they had planned to overthrow the government of Dominica
Dominica , officially the Commonwealth of Dominica, is an island nation in the Lesser Antilles region of the Caribbean Sea, south-southeast of Guadeloupe and northwest of Martinique. Its size is and the highest point in the country is Morne Diablotins, which has an elevation of . The Commonwealth...


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
Laos Lao: ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west...

. The United States Government has since dropped all charges against these defendants.
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