Armed Neutralities

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Armed Neutralities

Ian Mugridge

One of the more difficult problems attached to all wars is that of relations between belligerents and neutrals. In land wars the question is not of such magnitude, although Switzerland is probably the only nation to have arrived at a satisfactory solution. In naval wars, however, in situations where maritime commerce and other activities are involved, the question of the relationship between belligerents and neutrals, that is, of neutral rights, has long been debated, almost always with inconclusive results.

The question of neutral rights in wartime is almost always discussed, especially by neutrals, within the context of international law. It is usually claimed that such international law is supported by principles established either by earlier treaties or by practice or both, that it is an expression of some accepted view of maritime conduct in wartime, which should therefore govern relations between belligerents and neutrals.

The problem is that international law has no validity beyond that accorded it in particular situations by particular nations. It only exists either when nations agree that it does or when they can uphold their interpretation of it by whatever means are appropriate. In a narrower context, the problem with stating and attempting to uphold neutral rights at sea is that, in the end, neutrals have no rights except those that they can maintain by their own actions, in which case they often cease to be neutrals, as the Dutch discovered in the American Revolution. Again, the example of the Swiss is instructive. They have preserved their neutrality inviolate for hundreds of years by the simple but effective expedient of placing themselves in such a position that challenging their neutrality would not be worth the cost.

The introduction of principles to regulate relations between belligerents and neutrals has never been motivated by anything other than self-interest. Since at least the seventeenth century, declarations, opinions, judgments, and conventions on neutral rights in seaborne commerce have been common. But if one strips away the philosophical disguises, legal circumlocutions, and endless casuistry, what remains is really very simple: neutrals have constantly been trying to trade with some or all of the belligerents in a given war while some or all of the same belligerents have been trying to stop neutral trade with their enemies. For example, the cause of most of the problems concerning the West Indies, particularly the French islands, during the American Revolution was the clear and avowed intent of the French to assist the Americans and the equally firm intent of the British to stop this. What mattered in this situation was not declarations of neutral rights or expressions of principle but the possession of the force required to carry out national policy.

There has, nevertheless, developed during the last three hundred years a great body of pronouncements on neutral rights as both neutrals and belligerents have sought to regulate their relations and to justify their self-interested conduct by appeals to principle and to precedent. No nation has been absolutely consistent in the principles and doctrines to which it has appealed and on which it has acted, and this has been as true of the United States as of any other nation.

In The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (1935), still a valuable work on the topic, Samuel Flagg Bemis noted that, in espousing unequivocally the principles of the Armed Neutrality of 1780 and in embodying some of these principles in the Treaty of Paris, the United States established what he called "the American doctrine of freedom of the seas." This doctrine, which he recognized as being rooted in practice, was by no means American nor has it been one to which the United States has consistently adhered. During the Civil War, the British in particular tried, unusually for them, to uphold the principle of free ships, free goods; but the government of Abraham Lincoln refused to do anything but cling to maritime doctrines more usually espoused by the British. In the two major wars of the twentieth century, the neutral rights of American shipping were one of the causes of contention between the United States and Germany, but in neither case was the real neutrality of the nation clearly established. In the 1960s, it might be maintained that one of the ingredients of the Cuban missile crisis was the unwillingness of the United States to uphold the principle of freedom of the seas when such an action would seriously have threatened its security. This is not to criticize particularly the actions of the United States in successive crises, merely to point out that its governments, like those of other major and minor powers over the years, have been motivated by self-interest rather than by continuous adherence to principle.

An examination of the conduct of the maritime powers in time of war, however, indicates that the body of international maritime law, ephemeral and even illusory as it may be, has yet had considerable influence on their actions.


In his Colonial Blockade and Neutral Rights, 17391763 (1938), Richard Pares noted that the classic age in the struggle between land power and sea power occurred in the middle years of the eighteenth century and that one of the results of this was that the same period became the classic age in the development of international maritime law. During the two great colonial wars, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, important doctrines on contraband, blockade, and colonial trade, advanced by theorists like the Dane Martin Hupner, were defined by English and Continental jurists in a long series of opinions in prize cases and the like. These definitions were in turn embodied in government pronouncements and treaties to build up reference points for the future. As Pares noted at the close of his work, "for Admirals, for Foreign Ministers, and for judges, [these wars] were the dress rehearsals for greater struggles to come." By implication at least, this view was taken up much later by Max Savelle in his The Origins of American Diplomacy (1967), in which he examined the international history of the European and particularly the British colonies in America from 1492 to the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763.

At the beginning of this war, as both Pares and Savelle noted, the neutral powers assumed that free ships made free goods and that they would be able to continue their lucrative trade with the belligerents as if nothing had happened. This was not, however, the British view. In response to the neutral position, the British developed what came to be known as the Rule of the War of 1756, which drew a distinction between trading with the enemy and trading for the enemy. The former was to be regarded as permissible so that trade that would have been carried on in peacetime remained free and uninterrupted during war. The latter, however, was not permissible and the British reserved the right to interfere with any trade in war matériel that would not have been carried on in peacetime. During 1757 and 1758, however, it became obvious to the British that even this rather strict rule was being continuously evaded by transferring contraband from one ship to another. The response to this problem was to promulgate a supplementary order that became known as the doctrine of continuous voyage. This rule laid down the principle that for a confiscatable cargo to begin a voyage in one ship and then to continue "in the ship of a friend" made no difference, for the British government would regard such a voyage as a continuous one. In other words, it was the cargo and not the ship that mattered.

These principles governed the actions of the British government and their navy throughout the Seven Years' War. From their point of view, it was a simple problem: in Pares's words, "English trade had nothing to gain from the vindication of neutral rights." In addition, the British war effort might be placed in considerable jeopardy by adherence to the principles being espoused by the French foreign minister, Etienne François, duc de Choiseul, in his attempts to win over the neutral powers. These powers did not take the same view of the problem as the British. Although Choiseul and his agents discovered that the neutral position was by no means a united one, there was yet sufficient feeling of grievance against Great Britain among all the neutral powers in Europe to make the construction of a maritime league of neutrals a serious proposition. The British desired to establish overwhelming power at sea and were not altogether unsuccessful in their attempts to do so.

It was to the creation of such a league that the French government, posing as the champion of the neutrals, bent its energies in the early years of the war. It was a difficult and ultimately fruitless task, but in many ways it provided the model for the League of the Armed Neutrality of 1780.

There were precedents for a league of neutrals, especially in northern Europe where, as early as 1690, Denmark and Sweden had combined to try to enforce their concept of neutral rights in the Baltic, the area where a league of neutrals stood the greatest chance of success. It could easily be closed to the shipping of nations refusing to respect neutral rights, much to the disadvantage of, in particular, the British, who at this time were beginning to rely increasingly on Baltic naval stores. The Danes, however, also relied heavily on the income they gained from dues collected on the Sound, and the Baltic trading nations as a group were growing more dependent on their naval stores industries. Nevertheless, the French concentrated on this area, especially in view of the agreement on neutral rights signed by Denmark and Sweden shortly before hostilities began.

William Pitt the Elder, the British prime minister, was forced to make some concessions to neutral protests lest these powers respond favorably to French efforts to form a maritime league. But the French were to fail through the weakness of the neutral position, the unwillingness of the British to recognize claims not already granted by treaty, and the resultant reluctance of the neutrals to make a firm commitment to a maritime league. Not only was the Baltic project doomed almost from the beginningthe Danes, for example, would never actually say that free ships made free goodsbut attempts to put together a wider league met with equal reluctance to participate. Whatever their long-term interests might have appeared to dictate, whatever blandishments the French used on them, the neutrals, and particularly the Danes and the Dutch, always lacked sufficient confidence in their own ability or that of the French to uphold the principles with which they were flirting. They were always too reliant on British friendship, or at least noninterference, in maintaining their overseas trade to give unequivocal assent and support to a league that might oblige them to sacrifice concrete gain for abstract principles. By the spring of 1759, Choiseul had essentially given up the attempt, despite a rather half-hearted effort a few months later.

In many ways, as Pares noted, the events of the Seven Years' War were a rehearsal for later wars. In the War of American Independence and later struggles, both neutrals and belligerents appealed to the body of maritime law developed in the years up to 1763. As in the past, efforts to set up a maritime league of neutrals, a concept that became a reality in only a limited sense, foundered, like later attempts, on the rock of national self-interest. In one important respect, however, the league of 1780 differed from attempts made by Choiseul and the French to bring together a group of neutral powers in the 1750s. It may be this difference that goes a long way toward explaining its success, if not in limiting the belligerents' interference with neutral shipping then at least in providing mediation aimed at bringing the American war to a close.


Formed in the spring and summer of 1780, the League of the Armed Neutrality was the first genuine league of neutrals formed because of complaints of the neutral powers against the major belligerentswith the possible exception of the United States. Although, in this respect as in others, the United States was of rather limited importance to anyone except Great Britain, France, and Spain, there is some evidence that the activities of American privateers were partly responsible for the movement to form a league of neutrals.

From the beginning of the war, Great Britain, still supremely, though as it turned out misguidedly, confident in the ability of its navy to hold the world at bay, had reverted to the maritime doctrines it had espoused in the past; and its actions had provided a constant source of complaint for the Danes and the Swedes as well as the Dutch and, later, the Russians. After the entry of France and Spain into the war in 1778, France made attempts to conciliate the neutrals as it had done in the Seven Years' War. Spanish policy hovered somewhere between the two. Whatever the avowed policies of the belligerent powers, however, they all, in varying degrees, offended the neutrals and produced a growing sense among them that some kind of joint expression of disapproval and firm resolve to take action was necessary to protect their interests.

Ultimately, leadership in this project was provided by Catherine II of Russia, who, under pressure from Great Britain on the one hand to enter an alliance and from the northern powers on the other to help protect their neutrality, found her own shipping becoming more subject to interference from the belligerents. The result was the declaration of 1780, identifying the principles by which Catherine proposed to act and the meanscommissioning a substantial portion of her fleet to go "wherever honour, interest, and necessity compelled"by which she proposed to enforce those principles. Broadly, these principles were that neutral shipping might navigate freely from port to port and on the coasts of nations at war; that the property of subjects of belligerent states on neutral ships should be free except when it was classed as contraband within the meaning of the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1766; and that a port was assumed to be blockaded only when the attacking power had rendered its ships stationary and made entry a clear danger.

Through the summer of 1780, other neutral powers issued similar declarations, and the belligerents protested that they had always treated and always intended to treat Russian shipping according to these principles. By August, Denmark and Sweden, by almost identical agreements, had joined Russia in conventions establishing an armed neutrality, and, beginning with the Dutch United Provinces in January of the following year, most of the major neutrals of Europe acceded to the league before the end of the war. Of these powers, only the Dutch were obliged, at least partly because of their joining the league, to go to war with Great Britain. In this case, Catherine and her allies agreed to regard the Dutch as neutrals in their dealings with France and Spain to mitigate the effects on them of war with the British. Even so, the Dutch suffered severely from the war which, despite repeated attempts at mediation by Catherine and other members of the league, dragged on into the early summer of 1784 before Great Britain and the United Provinces finally signed a treaty of peace.

What, in the end, did the league achieve? Its existence made little, if any, difference in the attitude of the British navy in dealing with neutral shipping. Indeed, in the case of the United Provinces, adherence to the league was at least partly responsible for a far more serious situation than that nation might otherwise have faced. Any slackening in British depredations on the neutrals in general was perhaps due more to the declining effectiveness of the British navy, to the ineptitude of those running the war effort, and to the appearance of France and Spain on the rebel side than to the unity and effectiveness of the league. Nevertheless, resentment against the Rule of the War of 1756 was still strong among the Continental powers, and when, after 1778, the British escalated their actions against neutral commerce, they reacted in a way that, strengthened by Catherine's firm support, resulted increasingly in British isolation. As Paul Kennedy notes, in 1783 even Portugal and the Two Sicilies joined Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, and Denmark in the league, leaving Britain completely isolated, a situation that led the scholar G. S. Graham to comment that it was the principal factor in the British defeat. It is at least clear that the mediation of Catherine and Joseph II of Austria was partly responsible for the treaties that ended the war in the fall of 1783.

This was probably the limit of the achievements of the first armed neutrality. It had little or no influence on American affairs and diplomacy in general, beyond the threat it imposed on the British. For the United States, as for other nations, it provided a set of principles of maritime law that were useful when they became convenient or necessary but that were to be discarded when neither of these conditions existed. At the end of the war, Charles James Fox, the British foreign secretary, proposed drawing up a treaty embodying the principles of armed neutrality, but his plan came to nothing. Ten years later, with Europe once again at war, Sweden and Denmark signed a convention renewing the provisions of the Armed Neutrality; but Catherine had already concluded an alliance with Great Britain, which, by virtue of the fact that one of its objects was to destroy French commerce, deliberately ignored the principles of the league.


In the words of Isabel de Madariaga, the idea of a league of neutrals "flickered into brief life again in 1800" before it was finally abandoned. At that point, Napoleon Bonaparte, first consul of the French Republic, was anxious to construct a continental alliance against Great Britain, whose opposition to his designs was proving intransigent. He was attempting to use against the British a league of neutral powers, particularly those of northern Europe, who were angered by British refusal to recognize the rights of neutral commerce.

Paul I of Russia had withdrawn from the Second Coalition against Napoleon early in 1800, believing that his interests lay more in the Baltic than in Italy and Germany and vexed by British refusal to surrender Malta to him as the new Grand Master of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. As a result of his diplomacy, the 1780 Declaration of Armed Neutrality was renewed. Beginning with the Prussians and Danes, Paul recreated the league, and by mid-December 1800, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia had also signed separate conventions with France to further their "disinterested desire to maintain the inalienable rights of neutral nations." Napoleon had earlier declared that he would not make peace with the British while they refused to respect the neutral rights not only of these powers, but also of the United States. He hoped to attach the Americans to the league, particularly after Thomas Jefferson's accession to the presidency early in 1801.

Late in 1800, John Adams, on the advice of his son, John Quincy Adams, minister to Prussia, sent an embassy to Paris that signed a convention reaffirming the principles of the 1780 declaration. This was ratified by the Senate early in 1801, but both Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, were cautious about entering into a firm attachment with a league in which, in the words of one of the American envoys in Europe, "the silly powers of the north" had responded to "this interested and politic cry of France against Great Britain." They recognized too that the situation could be turned to their advantage if the Baltic trade were denied to the British, and they were suspicious of Napoleon's designs in the Western Hemisphere and fearful of the seriousness with which the British government clearly took the league.

So they hung back, and while they did the league collapsed. In the spring of 1801, two events destroyed it. Late in March, Paul I, the main prop of the league, was assassinated. Up to and past this point, the league worked: no British ships passed through the Denmark Strait in the first four months of 1801. But now decisive and ruthless action in the form of Horatio Nelson's destruction of the Danish fleet in Copenhagen Harbor hit the league at its weakest point. The league was finished, because the new czar, Alexander I, refused to maintain the policies of his father. The League of the Armed Neutrality of 1780 had, because of the temporary concurrence of a number of factors, some effect on the course of the American Revolution and, more particularly, on the European policies that surrounded it. A weakened Great Britain, faced with rebellious colonies and declarations of war by the major European powers, was in no position to resist effectively a league that eventually contained all the other major European powers. For once, an unusual show of neutral strength and unity had an effect on European politics, although even this did not extend fully to all the members and particularly to the Dutch.

The effectiveness of the league, however, had nothing to do with the principles it had espoused, with their justice or their strength. It had to do with the strength of the league's members and the comparative weakness of the major object of its existence. In 1800, when such a situation did not exist, this fact was illustrated graphically by the collapse of the second League of the Armed Neutrality. On this occasion, helped by a fortunate accident of Russian politics, the British, strong and confident, led by a resolute and able prime minister and served by a brilliant and fearless admiral, struck hard at the league's weakest link and destroyed it. Unable to maintain the rights they claimed, the neutrals returned to conciliation of Great Britain. They had learned a severe lessonand so, watching them, had the government of the United States.


Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York, 1989.

Bolkhovitinov, Nikolai N. The Beginnings of Russian-American Relations, 17751815. Translated by Elena Levin. Cambridge, Mass., 1975. Discusses American influence on the first Armed Neutrality.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Extracts from American and Foreign Works on International Law Concerning the Armed Neutrality of 1780 and 1800. Washington, D.C., 1917.

. Official Documents Bearing on the Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800. Washington, D.C., 1917.

. The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800. Washington, D.C., 1918.

DeConde, Alexander. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 17971801. New York, 1966. Gives the U.S. perspective of the second League of Armed Neutrality.

De Madariaga, Isabel. Britain, Russia, and the Armed Neutrality of 1780: Sir James Harris' Mission to St. Petersburg During the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn., 1962. The most comprehensive treatment of the establishment and working of the first League of Armed Neutrality.

. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. New Haven, Conn., 1981. Supplements her Britain, Russia, and the Armed Neutrality of 1780.

Feldbaek, Ole. Denmark and the Armed Neutrality, 18001801: Small Power Policy in a World War. Copenhagen, 1980. The second League of Armed Neutrality from the viewpoint of a small power.

Griffiths, David M. "An American Contribution to the Armed Neutrality of 1780." Russian Review 30, no. 2 (April 1971).

Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. London, 1976. A good though brief account of the first League of Armed Neutrality.

LeDonne, John P. The Russian Empire and the World, 17001917: The Geopolitics of Expansion and Containment. New York, 1997.

Pares, Richard. Colonial Blockade and Neutral Rights, 17391763. Oxford, 1938. Best treatment of neutral rights in the eighteenth century.

Piggott, Sir Francis, and G. W. T. Ormond, eds. Documentary History of the Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800. London, 1919. Contains a useful introduction and chronological account of the events surrounding the Armed Neutralities.

Saul, Norman E. Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 17631867. Lawrence, Kans., 1991. Contains a brief discussion of the United States and the first Armed Neutrality as well as a short section on the second league.

Savelle, Max. The Origins of American Diplomacy: The International History of Anglo-America, 14921763. New York, 1967. Contains a good account of international issues affecting the colonies in the prerevolutionary period.

Tucker, Robert W., and David C. Hendrickson. Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson. New York, 1990. An interesting discussion of the United States and neutrality.

See also Blockades; Freedom of the Seas; International Law; Naval Diplomacy; Neutralism; Neutrality.

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