League of Armed Neutrality
LEAGUE OF ARMED NEUTRALITY
Already annoyed by American privateer interference with Anglo-Russian maritime trade in the 1770s, Catherine the Great was even more frustrated by British countermeasures that intercepted and confiscated neutral shipping suspected of aiding the rebellious American colonies. In March 1780 she issued a Declaration of Armed Neutrality that became the basic doctrine of maritime law regarding neutral rights at sea during war. It defined, simply and clearly, the rights of neutral vessels, contraband (goods directly supportive of a military program), and the conditions and restrictions of an embargo, and overall defended the rights of neutrals (the flag covers the cargo) against seizure and condemnation of nonmilitary goods. Having already established herself in the forefront of enlightened rulers, Catherine invited the other nations of Europe to join Russia in arming merchant vessels against American or British transgression of these rights. Because of the crippling of American commerce, most of the infractions were by the British.
Coming at this stage in the War for Independence, the Russian declaration boosted American morale and inspired the Continental Congress to dispatch Francis Dana to St. Petersburg to secure more formal recognition and support. Although Russia had little in the way of naval power to back up the declaration, it encouraged France and other countries to aid the American cause. Britain reluctantly stood by while a few French and Dutch ships under the Russian flag entered American ports, bringing valuable supplies to the hard-pressed colonies. Even more supplies entered the United States via the West Indies with the help of a Russian adventurer, Fyodor Karzhavin. The military effect was minimal, however, because the neutral European states hesitated about making commitments because of fear of British retaliation. By 1781, however, the United Provinces (the Netherlands), Denmark, Sweden, Austria, and Prussia had all joined the league.
The league was remembered in the United States, somewhat erroneously, as a mark of Russian friendship and sympathy, and bolstered Anglophobia in the two countries. More generally, it affirmed a cardinal principle of maritime law that continues in effect in the early twenty-first century. Indirectly, it also led to a considerable expansion of Russian-American trade from the 1780s through the first half of the nineteenth century.
See also: catherine ii; enlightenment, impact of
Bolkhovitinov, Nikolai N. (1975). The Beginnings of Russian-American Relations, 1775–1815. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Madariaga, Isabel de. (1963). Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780. London: Macmillan.
Saul, Norman E. (1991). Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763–1867. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Norman E. Saul
League of Armed Neutrality
J. A. Cannon