The Uneforceable Logan Act of 1799

In 1798, U.S./French relations were in disarray. The U.S. was late, as in delinquent, in paying its debts from the American Revolution. In retaliation, the French ordered the French Navy and issued letters of marque to privateers authorizing them to seize U.S. ships. Add in that the French were more than annoyed that the U.S. didn’t take its side in the French Revolutionary Wars that started in 1792.

Our contention was that we borrowed the money from Louis XVI and his government which had been overthrown, and therefore, the debts were invalid. Neither President Adams nor President Washington wanted the U.S. involved in a European war.

The Founding Fathers knew that during the 18th Century, European powers spent far more time at war than at peace, something they had witnessed before and after the American Revolution. Washington’s April 1793 Neutrality Proclamation clearly stated the U.S. position. (See link – )

Adams had sent a three-man delegation to France to negotiate a settlement with the French, but they failed. Dr. George Logan, a pacifist and a member of the Democratic-Republican Party decided that he, as a private citizen, would travel to France and negotiate an end to the Quasi-War and bring home the U.S. citizens being held captive by the French.

The newly ratified Constitution gave the Federal government the sole power to conduct foreign relations. The Federalist majority in both the House and the Senate looked at Logan’s effort as usurping the power of the newly formed Federal government.

The French leaders of the new French Republic listened politely but understood the American Constitution well. Jefferson had used it as a basis of the documents he helped the Marquis de Lafayette propose first to King Louis XVI and then later to the leaders of the French Revolution. Logan’s effort came to naught.

Back in the U.S., the Federalists passed what is known as the Logan Act of 1799 which states: “Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply himself, or his agent, to any foreign government, or the agents thereof, for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.”

Adam’s government couldn’t prosecute Dr. Logan because his actions took place before the passage of the Logan Act. Logan was elected to the House and served six years as a representative from Pennsylvania. In each term, he tried to get the act bearing his name repealed but failed.

The Logan Act of 1799 is still part of the U.S. Code – Title 18 Section 953. The law was modified in 1994 to remove the amount of the fine set in 1799 at $5,000/violation. However, in its history, despite a long list of violations, only twice has the U.S. Government attempted to prosecute citizens for violating the Logan Act. Both efforts failed.

Despite clear violations, the U.S. Government has been reluctant to prosecute individuals for violating the logan act. For example, H. Ross Perot’s attempt in December 1969 to bring humanitarian aid to North Vietnam in exchange for POWs failed. Jesse Jackson’s trip to Syria in December 1983 which brought Navy LT Robert Goodman back was a private venture by several religious leaders.

In 2018, former Secretary of State and now private citizen, John Kerry visited Iran during the Trump administration to urge them to comply with the agreement he had negotiated. At the time, the Department of Justice encouraged its Southern District of New York to prosecute Kerry. The office also declined, as did the District of Maryland.

Image is an Associated Press photo of Dr. Jesse Jackson and LT Robert Goodman shortly after the Syrian’s released Goodman.

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