Forney on Moats, 'Navigating Neutrality: Early American Governance in the Turbulent Atlantic'

Sandra Moats
Andy Forney

Sandra Moats. Navigating Neutrality: Early American Governance in the Turbulent Atlantic. The Revolutionary Age Series. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2021. Illustrations. 232 pp. $29.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8139-4756-3; $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-4644-3. 

Reviewed by Andy Forney (Texas Christian University / US Army) Published on H-War (November, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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One would be hard pressed to find someone who gets really excited about bureaucracy. Most point out its ponderous nature, its almost unseeing self-perpetuating momentum, or its unique ability to employ flunkies and “yes men.” The typical adjective we associate with it is “bloated.”

Short-sighted or not, this view, we must admit, has come to dominate the current discourse of American governance for close to half a century. Such thinking papers over the demands generated by complex systems and pressing needs, particularly as one considers the role played by expansive organizations—and governments—with growing scale and scope. For people to see their government as legitimate, it must govern and display activities that comport with its stated remit. Without mechanisms to enact governance, a government, and by extension a nation, does not exist at all. “Failed states” fail because they cannot take actions that the governed believe a state should execute.

As Sandra Moats outlines in her book, Navigating Neutrality, the young United States was long on ideas but short on governance. In charting the US effort to uphold its (contested) neutrality in the Atlantic World of the 1790s, Moats argues that the process of enforcing neutrality had a longer legacy than proclaiming neutrality. “For America to achieve its goals of a wartime neutrality,” she writes, “the federal government needed to develop the capacity to enforce this policy among its citizens and across diplomatic channels or risk sinking into irrelevance at home and abroad” (p. 2). For the United States to exist, both as an agreed upon source of domestic governance and a global nation, it required the mechanisms, dare we say the bureaucracy, to govern.

Moats opens her work with a discussion of two seemingly incongruent ideas: privateering and neutrality. The experience of the American Revolution shaped both of these initially European concepts, crafting them into uniquely American ideas. Privateering, particularly during the turbulent last two decades of the eighteenth century, offered economic promise and steady employment for would-be captains and sailors in America’s ports. At the same time, the United States left the American Revolution committed to the idea of economic independence from Britain and a marked desire to expand its commercial trade across Europe. Thus, the advent of the French Revolution, and the manner it consumed the remainder of Europe, brought these ideas into conflict. The United States wanted to avoid any European entanglements as a means to continue to grow its commercial trade but realized the risk that foreign, and domestic, recruitment of privateers in American ports generated.

The year 1793 brought this new reality into stark detail for the administration of George Washington. Britain’s declaration of war against revolutionary France, ostensibly still the United States’ ally, created consternation in Philadelphia, a consternation exacerbated by the now-booming privateering market in American ports. Trying to navigate the nation through these tricky circumstances, the president and his cabinet drafted the Neutrality Proclamation (which, interestingly enough, never used the term “neutrality” in it) to establish a new policy on how to proceed in the revolutionary Atlantic. The document stated that the United States would not involve itself in Europe’s war and, more importantly, American citizens would not be protected by the United States if they chose to participate in the struggle (i.e., through privateering). Washington forwarded the proclamation to the European belligerents and, most interestingly, to the nation’s governors, thus creating a dual enforcement challenge to the administration: international recognition and domestic compliance.

Unfortunately, the new nation lacked the mechanisms to guarantee either. Once issued, the proclamation faced almost immediate challenges from France, but also Britain and American citizens. As Moats writes, “Beyond a general desire to avoid European hostilities, the national government had no mechanisms in place to block French privateering, to prohibit U.S. citizens from serving on these vessels, or to respond to British complaints about ship seizure and losses” (p. 78). The last half of Navigating Neutrality examines the variegated methods the United States used to address each of these issues. In the process, the nation worked through bureaucratic infighting, legal trepidation, and nascent political division to hammer out a policy that, unforeseen to most at the time, would go on to have a multigenerational impact. Starting with the little discussed Neutrality Act of 1794, Moats claims, the three branches of government began to align all of their activities toward enacting legislation, enforcing laws, and working diplomatic channels in a manner never before seen in the United States. To support this new policy, the United States developed and empowered a bureaucratic force of marshals, magistrates, attachés, and duties collectors that enforced the law in American ports and communicated it abroad.

Navigating Neutrality’s narrative generally stops at the passage of the 1794 Neutrality Act, although Moats draws a thread from that legislation to the signing of the Jay and Pinckney Treaties with Great Britain and Spain, respectively, then adds a paragraph that charts significant diplomatic issues relating to neutrality and free trade through the War of 1812. Herein lies one of the faults of this slim book: at 146 pages of text, it is hard to see the full outline of Moats’s argument. In a way, it feels as if she is composing more of a proposal than a fully outlined argument. Her work, frankly, only considers two years of debate and legislation—1793 and 1794. Her claim that “enforcing neutrality contributed to America’s transformation from a paper republic into an autonomous nation fully embracing its constitutional responsibilities” is exciting and well argued, for the two years she outlines in the book (p. 1). Another chapter or two that plumbed the depths of her ideas through the remainder of the Washington administration, or maybe to the turn of the century, would have gone further to reinforce her case.

Concurrently, Navigating Neutrality may make one or two arguments too many, particularly given its short length. The narrative clearly wants to argue that the mechanisms needed to enforce neutrality made the United States “real” in that it defined the role of American governance, providing a practical sense, at home and aboard, of what the new United States could accomplish and enforce. Moats weaves in the idea that this contributed directly to American domestic legitimacy and international sovereignty, but, much as stated before, another chapter exploring this theme beyond 1793-94 would have helped. Moats also wants to argue that the process of developing the system of American governance reflects Washington’s political genius. “This policy [neutrality],” she states, “stands as a testament to Washington’s skill as a political leader in forging and implementing this policy and his enduring presidential legacy as a visionary statesman who kept the United States at peace” (p. 8). The generations of scholarship addressing Washington’s political effectiveness and legacy are, much as the revolutionary Atlantic, deep, and at times turbulent, historiographical waters. If Moats wants to introduce this argument as well, spending a little more time on it may prove worthwhile.

Books do not need to be long, just as bureaucracy does not need to be bloated. Over the course of a small number of pages, Navigating Neutrality proposes some interesting and exciting ideas about viewing politics and legitimacy through the bureaucratic mechanisms of passing and enforcing laws, collecting duties, and negotiating with other nations. This methodology should be expanded and explored more fully, potentially as a means to understand the role of governmental development and the United States’ search for legitimacy during the era of the early republic (it could also inform postcolonial historiographies). “Bureaucratic History” includes the potential to further shape our understandings of governments, nationalism, and legitimacy, and the failures of all three. Looking ahead, one anticipates Moats expanding on the argument and methodology she uses in Navigating Neutrality, and should expect very intriguing results.

Citation: Andy Forney. Review of Moats, Sandra, Navigating Neutrality: Early American Governance in the Turbulent Atlantic. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL:

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