Woodrow Wilson’s Neutrality, the Freedom of the Seas, and the Myth of the “Civil War Precedents”

Jan Martin Lemnitzer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


This analysis shows the importance of a problem of maritime law in an on-going debate between two interpretations of Wilsonian neutrality that have competed in various guises since the end of the First World War: can British blockade actions in that war be justified by American Civil War precedents? It proves that reliance on the “Civil War precedents” to justify Britain’s blockade measures was disingenuous from the beginning. British diplomats first used it in October 1914, and Woodrow Wilson embraced it to defend his mild response to British violations of neutral rights to incensed American citizens despite continuous protests from the State Department. Whilst all politicians involved knew the comparison was wrong, historians have embraced it as a justification of Britain’s illegal blockade ever since Arthur S. Link claimed it as the key to understanding Wilson’s neutrality policy.

Original languageEnglish
JournalDiplomacy and Statecraft
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)615-638
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

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