In February 1780, the Russian Empress Catherine II issued a proclamation of armed neutrality that became the basis of the 1780-83 League of Armed Neutrality. The declaration was received enthusiastically all around Europe, as well as in the United States. The Scandinavian neutrals, Sweden and Denmark, adhered to it, and later Prussia, Austria, Portugal and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies joined them. The Empress’ statement was primarily understood as a declaration for the liberty of shipping and trade, and directed against British rule of the seas. In a broader sense, the neutrality principles were perceived as a basis of a future international order in which treaties and international law, and not use of domination and violence, were supposed to rule relations between states. In the United States it was assumed the declaration would lead to prompt recognition of American independence. John Adams believed that a congress of neutral states would meet in St. Petersburg and recognize American independence as one of its first acts.1 This unrealistic view of the Empress’ declaration was also the reason for the first American diplomatic mission to St. Petersburg, that of Francis Dana between 1781 and 1783. The actual significance of the First League of Armed Neutrality proved much more limited, not least in regard to American interests. But the experience of the First League of Armed Neutrality has since played an important role in the practical understanding of neutrality. And, because neutrality was a predominant line of American foreign policy until World War I, the history of the first armed neutrality is especially relevant for American history.2 Specifically, armed neutrality from 1780-83 concerned the neutrals’ right to conduct trade and shipping under wartime conditions, without being ill-treated by belligerents, the British in particular. Due to the fact that blockades, privateering and the use of naval power against enemy commerce were considered legitimate ways of warfare, the belligerents, or more specifically Britain’s enemies, used neutral shipping as the safest way to continue their commerce. French and Spanish maritime trade was conducted under cover of neutral flags, and the neutral powers profitably exploited the situation. Profitable exploitation of neutrality by the Scandinavian neutrals, Sweden and Denmark, was an important, if not the only, hallmark of this agreement. But to put the League in a proper context it is important to look in detail at the diplomatic and political develop-
ments in northern Europe between 1776 and 1783, and the early modern concept of neutrality.