Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico

Conducting Foreign Relations without Authority: The Logan Act *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the United States, Canada and Mexico

Conducting Foreign Relations without Authority: The Logan Act *

Article excerpt


The Logan Act, designed to cover relations between private citizens of the United States and foreign governments, has prompted much controversy as to its scope and effect in its more than 200 years. Described as either a "paper dragon or sleeping giant" by one commentator, proclaimed to be possibly unconstitutional by others, it represents a combination of legal and policy factors in both domestic and international concerns.

As amended, the act 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, 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.1

In 1994 the fine was changed from $5,000 to "under this title."2 Otherwise, there do not appear to have been any substantial changes in the act since its original enactment on January 30, 1799, as 1 Stat. 613.


After the French Revolution, difficulties developed between the Federalist Administration of the United States and the various revolutionary governments of France.3 Because the United States had not assisted the French revolutionaries to their satisfaction and because the United States had ratified the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, the French government authorized plunderings of American merchant ships. In 1797 President Adams sent John Marshall, Charles C. Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry as special envoys to France to negotiate and settle claims and causes of differences which existed between the French Directory and the United States. This mission resulted in the XYZ letters controversy, and its failure led to such strong anti-France feelings in the United States that preparations for war were begun by the Congress.

After the unsuccessful envoys returned from France, Dr. George Logan, a Philadelphia Quaker, a doctor, and a Republican, decided to attempt on his own to settle the controversies. Bearing a private certificate of citizenship from his friend, Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was Vice President, Logan sailed for France on June 12, 1798. In France he was hailed by the newspapers as the envoy of peace and was received by Talleyrand. The French Directory, having concluded that it was politically wise to relax tensions with the United States, issued a decree raising the embargo on American merchant ships and freed American ships and seamen.

Logan, however, received a less friendly response from the United States after he returned. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering told him that the French decree was illusory. General Washington expressed his disapproval of Logan's actions. President Adams recommended that Congress take action to stop the "temerity and impertinence of individuals affecting to interfere in public affairs between France and the United States."4 Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut introduced a resolution in Congress to prevent actions similar to Logan's:

Resolved, That a committee be appointed to inquire into the expediency of amending the act entitled "An act in addition to the act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States," so far as to extend the penalties, if need be, to all persons, citizens of the United States, who shall usurp the Executive authority of this Government, by commencing or carrying on any correspondence with the Governments of any foreign prince or state, relating to controversies or disputes which do or shall exist between such prince or state, and the United States. …

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