The League of Armed Neutrality

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, significantly influenced the course of the American Revolution. She had no sympathy whatsoever for the revolution, and her interest in the war had nothing to do with the Americans. Catherine's concern lay with the European balance of power. Early in the century, Peter the Great had set about engaging Russia with the west, and Catherine was intent on continuing this mission. The war that started in America affected Russia's economic interests and gave Catherine an opportunity to decisively assert Russian influence.

The Slumbering Bear

Ironically, it was the British government that first tried to involve Catherine in the American war. Russia had recently concluded a war with the Turks in 1775, and the British turned to Catherine as a potential purveyor of mercenaries, hoping to hire a number of her battle-tested regiments. Catherine refused to sell her soldiers, telling George III that he ought to find a way of subduing his rebellious subjects with his own men.

Catherine refused to trade with the American revolutionaries, but she had no such scruples with the Bourbon powers of France and Spain. When France and Spain went to war with Britain, they became avid consumers of Russian naval stores. This new and thriving trade increased traffic in the Baltic. The British used their naval power to try to halt the flow of these vital resources to their enemies. British warships stopped and searched merchantmen flying the flags of neutral countries, seizing goods they deemed contraband. This British arrogation of maritime authority injured the pride as well as the pocketbooks of the neutral states.

Vergennes had good reason to stoke the resentment felt by the neutrals. He wanted the naval stores, and he also wanted to diplomatically isolate the British. He encouraged the neutral states to assert their rights. Catherine resented British interference with Russian trade, and interest and policy coincided as she seized on an opportunity to extend Russian influence in Europe.

Isolating Great Britain

In February 1780, Catherine announced that the Russian navy would protect neutral shippers. She urged other neutral powers to join Russia in resisting British definitions of contraband and unite in defending their trade, by force if necessary. Catherine's proposed League of Armed Neutrality quickly took shape. Denmark and Sweden were the first states to join. Together with Russia, they demanded that belligerent warships stay out of the Baltic. They declared that interference with their shipping would bring armed resistance. Over the next few years, the League expanded to include the Netherlands, Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire, Portugal, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and the Ottoman Empire.

Catherine the Great gave John Paul Jones his last naval command. In 1788, he took service as an admiral in her fleet. He won the Battle of Liman, fighting the Turks in the Black Sea. The jealous intrigues of Russian courtiers forced Jones to leave Russia.

France, Spain, and the United States endorsed the League's defense of freedom of the seas for neutrals. This suited them well. Britain rejected the League's principles but had to accept the diplomatic reality created by Catherine. Britain was isolated, with most of Europe ranged against it on this issue. The British could not afford to add to their list of enemies by tangling with Russia and the League, and the United States and her allies benefited from Catherine the Great's quest for Russian prestige and power.

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