News that France had declared war on Great Britain in February 1793, and with this declaration that France, by her own volition, was now at war with all of Europe, did not reach America until the first half of April of that year. President George Washington was at Mount Vernon attending the funeral of a nephew when he was given the news. He hurried back to Philadelphia and summoned an emergency meeting of his cabinet.
In this initial meeting Washington relayed the news, and gave each member of his cabinet a list of 13 questions. He wanted their answers to these questions, he explained, in time for their meeting the following day. These questions ranged from "Should the United States receive an ambassador from France?" to "Should earlier treaties still apply?" But first and foremost came the question: "Should the United States issue an official proclamation of neutrality?"
Washington's cabinet members agreed that neutrality was a must; the nation was too young and its military 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, their political rivals; yet they too agreed a proclamation was in order, though perhaps not an official one.
In a cabinet meeting of April 19 Jefferson argued that while neutrality was a sine qua non, there was no real need to make a Proclamation of Neutrality either immediately, or even officially; perhaps there might be no need for an official declaration at all. The United States could declare its neutrality for a price, Jefferson intimated, "Why not stall and make countries bid for [American] neutrality? In response, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton declared that American neutrality was not negotiable.
On April 22, 1793 President Washington formally issued the Neutrality Proclamation. Washington appeased Jefferson's insistence by removing the word "neutrality" from the document itself, but that action had no effect on its meaning or intent, nor on its destiny to be known as the Proclamation of Neutrality.
- The decree was, in fact, constitutional; for while Congress has the sole right to declare war, it is "the duty of the executive to preserve peace till war is declared.
- The Neutrality Proclamation did not violate the United States' defensive alliance with France, as the Jeffersonians were claiming. The treaty, Hamilton pointed out, was a defensive alliance and did not apply to offensive wars, "and it was France that had declared war upon other European powers", not the other way around.
- By siding with France the United States would have left itself open to attacks within American borders by the governments of Britain and Spain stirring up "numerous Indian tribes" influenced by these two governments.
Jefferson, having read several of the "Pacificus" essays encouraged James Madison to reply. Madison was initially hesitant. From his Virginia plantation he offered Jefferson excuses as to why he could not write a reply, including that he didn't have the necessary books and papers to refute "Pacificus", that the summer heat was "oppressive", and that he had many houseguests who were wearing out their welcome. Ultimately Madison agreed to Jefferson's request, though afterwards he wrote to him, "I have forced myself in to the task of a reply. I can truly say I find it the most grating one I have ever experienced."
Writing under the name "Helvidius", Madison's five essays showed the animosity that had evolved with the two political factions. He attacked Federalists, and Hamilton in particular, and anyone who supported the Neutrality Proclamation as secret monarchists, declaring: "Several features with the signature of Pacificus were [as of] late published, which have been read with singular pleasure and applause by the foreigners and degenerate citizens among us, who hate our republican government and the French Revolution." Madison brought to light the strict constructionist's view of both the Constitution and the Proclamation, demanding that Congress, not the president, had full authority over all foreign affairs except those areas specified in the Constitution.