Neutrality Act of 1794
The Neutrality Act of 1794 makes it illegal for an American citizen to wage war against any country at peace with the United States. The Act declares in part:
If any person shall within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States begin or set on foot or provide or prepare the means for any military expedition or enterprise ... against the territory or dominions of any foreign prince or state of whom the United States was at peace that person would be guilty of a misdemeanour.
The act also forbids foreign war vessels to outfit in American waters and sets 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, which reserves to the United States Congress the power to decide to go to war.
The Continental Congress previously had an alliance with France in 1778 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 and other Americans were engaging in filibuster military operations against British Canada and Spanish possessions in Florida and South America.
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.
The Act of 1794 was superseded by the Neutrality Act of 1817 that included States that had recently become independent from Spain that were not mentioned in the original act.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" are given the same recognition as "states and princes" in the last clause of section 5. Henry Clay called it "an Act for the benefit of Spain against the republics of America."
The Neutrality Act of 1817 also prescribes maximum penalties 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.
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. The United States Government has since dropped all charges against these defendants.
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