Cabinet Paper to the President

Alexander Hamilton

excerpts

May 02, 1793

Answers to remaining questions proposed by the President of the United States on the 18th of April last

 

QUESTION 4.—Are the United States obliged by good faith to consider the treaties heretofore made with France as applying to the present situation of the parties? May they either renounce them or hold them suspended till the government of France shall be established?

 

ANSWER.—The war is plainly an offensive war on the part of France….

France, it is certain, was the first to declare war against every one of the Powers with which she is at war. Whether she had good cause or not, therefore, in each instance, the war is completely offensive on her part.

The forms which she has employed in some of her declarations (when, after reciting the aggressions she alleges to have been committed against her by a particular Power, she proceeds to pronounce that war exists between her and such Power) cannot alter the substance of the thing. The aggressions complained of, if ever so well founded, and however they may have been of a nature to kindle the war, were not the war itself. The war began, in each case, by the declaration and by the commencement of hostilities on the part of France. It was, therefore, clearly offensive on her part.

With regard to the causes that led to the war in each case, it requires more exact information than I have to pronounce upon them with confidence. As regards Austria and Prussia, the suggestion on one hand is, that a combination was formed to overthrow the new constitution of France, and that the declaration on the part of the latter country was only an anticipation of what would soon have proceeded from the confederated Powers. On the other hand, it is affirmed that the preparations and arrangements on their part were merely provisional and eventual, and that the republican party in France precipitated a war under the idea that it would furnish opportunities for accusing and criminating the king’s administration, and finally overthrow the royalty. Waiving all definitive opinion on this point, better guides will enable us to pronounce with more certainty in the other cases.

In respect to Holland, there seems to be no doubt that the aggression began with France.

France, in different treaties, had recognized a right in the Dutch to the exclusive navigation of the river Scheldt…

Nevertheless, the provisionary Executive Council, by a decree of the 16th of November, 1792, break through all these formal and express engagements, on the pretext of their being contrary to natural right, and declare the navigation of the Scheldt and Meuse free.

Such an infraction of treaties, on such a ground, cannot be justified without subverting all the foundations of positive and pactitious right among nations. It is equally agreeable to the doctrine of theorists, and to the practice of nations, that rights to the common use of waters of the description in question, may be relinquished and qualified by treaty. To resume them, therefore, on the ground of the imprescriptibility, as it is called, of natural rights, is to set up a new rule of conduct, contrary to the common sense and common practice of mankind, amounting, in the party which attempts the resumption, to an unequivocal injury to the party against which it is attempted.

In respect to Great Britain the case is not equally clear; but there is sufficient ground to pronounce, that she had cause of complaint, prior to any given on her part….

The [French] Convention, on the 19th of November, passed a decree in these words:

“The National Convention declare, in the name of the French nation, that they will grant FRATERNITY and ASSISTANCE TO EVERY PEOPLE who wish to recover their liberty; and they charge the executive power to send the necessary orders to the generals to give assistance to such people, and to defend those citizens who may have been or who may be vexed for the cause of liberty.” Which decree was ordered to be printed IN ALL LANGUAGES.

This decree ought justly to be regarded in an exceptionable light by the government of every country. For though it be lawful and meritorious to assist a people in a virtuous and rational struggle for liberty, when the particular case happens, yet it is not justifiable in any government or nation to hold out to the world a general invitation and encouragement to revolution and insurrection, under a promise of fraternity and assistance.

Such a step is of a nature to disturb the repose of mankind, to excite fermentation in every country, to endanger government everywhere. Nor can there be a doubt that wheresoever a spirit of this kind appears, it is lawful to repress and repel it…

Besides the declarations which have been mentioned to the different English societies, and which apply particularly to Great Britain, there are other acts of France which were just causes of umbrage and alarm to all the governments of Europe.

Her decree of the 15th of December is one of them. This decree, extraordinary in every respect, which contemplates the total subversion of all the ancient establishments of every country into which the arms of France should be carried, has the following article:

“The French nation declare—That it will treat as enemies the people who, refusing or renouncing liberty and equality, are desirous of preserving their prince and privileged casts, or of entering into an accommodation with them. The nation promises and engages not to lay down its arms until the sovereignty and liberty of the people, on whose territories the French armies shall have entered, shall be established, and not to consent to any arrangement or treaty with the prince and privileged persons so dispossessed, with whom the republic is at war.”

This decree cannot but be regarded as an outrage little short of a declaration of war against every government of Europe, and as a violent attack upon the freedom of opinion of all mankind.

The incorporation of the territories conquered by the arms of France with France herself, is another of the acts alluded to, as giving just cause of umbrage and alarm to neutral nations in general…

That incorporation, therefore, changed entirely the principle of the war on the part of France. It ceased to be a war for the defence of her rights, for the preservation of her liberty. It became a war of acquisition, of extension of territory and dominion, and in a manner altogether subversive of the laws and usages of nations, and tending to the aggrandizement of France, to a degree dangerous to the independence and safety of every country in the world.

There is no principle better supported by the doctrines of writers, the practice of nations, and the dictates of right reason, than this—that whenever a nation adopts maxims of conduct tending to the disturbance of the tranquillity and established order of its neighbors, or manifesting a spirit of self-aggrandizement, it is lawful for other nations to combine against it, and by force to control the effects of those maxims and that spirit. The conduct of France in the instances which have been stated, calmly and impartially viewed, was an offence against nations, which naturally made it a common cause among them to check her career.

The pretext of propagating liberty can make no difference. Every nation has a right to carve out its own happiness in its own way, and it is the height of presumption in another to attempt to fashion its political creed…

The result from what has been said is, that the war in which France is engaged is in fact an offensive war on her part against all the Powers with which she is engaged…

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