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Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation

This eLesson was written by Elizabeth Schley, a member of BRI’s teacher council. Introduction: In 1793, war broke out between the new revolutionary government of France and Great Britain. The American public was divided over who to support: the French who had supported and were perhaps inspired by the American Revolution, or Great Britain. The Washington administration decided the best course was to remain neutral and issued a neutrality proclamation in April 1793. A debate quickly arose. The Constitution grants Congress the explicit power to declare war, but does it give the president the power to declare neutrality? This lesson will explore Washington’s declaration and the constitutional question it posed.


  • Students will analyze the U.S. Constitution to understand the role of the president and Congress in conducting foreign affairs
  • Students will study Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation to form their own opinions on its constitutionality


Warm-up Activity (15 minutes) Directions: Have students read Article I Section 8 and Article II Section 2 of Handout A and answer the following questions.

  1. What branch has the power to declare war?
  2. What branch has the power of commander-in-chief?
  3. Why do you think the Constitution divided the power to make treaties between the executive and legislature?
  4. In your opinion, which branch of government does the Constitution give the power to declare neutrality? Should the power be divided between branches like it is with treaties? Why or why not?

Lesson/Activity plan Directions: Have students read Handout B and lead a class discussion on the constitutionality of Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation. Use the following questions as guides.

  1. Summarize the message of the document in your own words. What does the document say?
  2. Who is the audience? Why does that matter?
  3. What power is Washington using in declaring neutrality?
  4. What is the purpose of declaring neutrality in a conflict?

Extension Activity:

Are you looking for a platform where students can engage in civil discourse over controversial, thought-provoking issues? Be sure to show them this week’s question on Think the Vote: Should the U.S. Become Involved in Foreign Disputes? We are giving away Amazon gift cards and BRI swag to students with the best answers and their referring teachers. For further exploration of this topic, have students investigate the Pacificus and Helvidius Letters