The Citizen Genet Affair: Foreign Influence in the Early American Republic
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Although one of the first tasks of the new government was to strengthen the domestic economy and make the nation financially secure, the United States could not ignore foreign affairs. The cornerstones of Washington’s foreign policy were to preserve peace, give the country time to recover from its wounds, and allow the slow work of national integration to continue. Events in Europe threatened these goals. The “Genet Affair”, also known as the French Neutrality Crisis, was a diplomatic incident that occurred during George Washington’s second term as President of the United States. The debate centered around whether the United States should intervene in the French Republic’s war with Great Britain and what constituted “neutrality” under young American laws.
Unable to overcome a series of domestic issues, the Kingdom of France found itself facing a political revolution starting in the summer of 1789. Over the next few years, Louis XVI tried to adjust to life under a constitutional monarchy. In 1791, the National Guard captured the King during an attempt to escape France. The National Assembly declared France a republic in 1792 and, having found the King guilty of conspiracy with foreign powers they executed him in January 1793. The major powers of Europe feared this anti-monarchical sentiment might spread beyond French borders and attempted a series of invasions, but were repeatedly turned back by generals like Lafayette and Rochambeau, generals who had played important roles in the United States’ own fight against monarchy. Many of the American public, enthralled with the French Revolution, desired to come to France’s aid against the European monarchs. It was against this background that, in April 1793, news came that France had declared war on Great Britain and Spain, and that a new French envoy, Edmond Charles Genet — Citizen Genet — was coming to the United States
Edmond Charles Genet was born in Versailles in 1762. Genet’s family home was the meeting place for learned and artistic types in Versailles. Using his father’s diplomatic connections, Genet attended the University of Göttingen in Germany, spent time at the embassy in Berlin and later at the embassy in Vienna. He returned to Paris in September 1781, just in time for his father’s funeral. He was at once appointed to succeed his father at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he supervised a staff of eight interpreters (he was still only nineteen). In 1783, he went with a diplomatic mission to London, where he became interested in manufacturing and scientific enterprises.
When he returned to France, he made the first of a series of hotheaded mistakes, authoring a report condemning a proposed stamp tax and angering a powerful nobleman. Before he knew it, the Ministry shut down his bureau, with its duties absorbed by other departments. There happened to be a vacancy at the Embassy at St. Petersburg, so in 1787, Genet set off on the long journey to Russia. On the way, he managed to offend the King of Poland by singing an indiscreet comic song.
He got along better with Catherine the Great, who felt that he filled out a dragoon’s uniform nicely and gave him a pair of diamond knee buckles. After promotion to captain, he received an appointment as Charge d’Affaires. Meanwhile, the French Revolution began to gather steam. In 1790, King Louis XVI swore to live within the limits placed on him by the constitution. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs instructed his representatives to adhere to the Constitution, while privately telling them to do no such thing. Genet, however, became an avowed and rabid constitutionalist. Catherine the Great soon began to think of him as an insane demagogue, while the representatives of the exiled French princes called him a “crazy little fool”. Catherine eventually declared him “persona non grata” and banned him from the Russian court. Given a one-way ticket back to France in July 1792, He arrived back in Paris in October to find the royal family in prison and the Genet family fortune wiped out.
The Girondist faction, who held power in the Revolutionary government, welcomed Genet because of his unstinting ardor for the constitution and appointed him Minister Plenipotentiary to America. On January 23, 1793, Genet started for Brest, to embark on the frigate Embuscade. At the gates of Paris, they stopped him and searched his trunks, having heard a rumor that he was smuggling the Dauphin inside. Contrary winds detained him at Brest for a month and then, he left France, unaware that he was never to see his homeland again.
Edmond-Charles Genet arrived in Charleston, South Carolina on 8 April 1793, the first minister (ambassador) to the United States from the Republic of France. Genet’s instructions were clear:
• He was to negotiate a new treaty of amity and commerce;
• He was to prevent the arming of privateers and harboring of prizes other than French ones, in American ports;
• He was to recruit American ship owners to raid against English ships and France’s other enemies; and
• He was to recruit disgruntled frontiersman into armed bands for the purpose of inciting revolution against the Spanish colonies of Florida and Louisiana.
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs had warned Genet about the coldness of the American temperament, the French undoubtedly thinking of George Washington, and advised to employ indirect methods of approach, while exerting all possible influence on American public opinion.
Rather than travel at once to Philadelphia and present himself to Washington as diplomatic protocol required, Genet lingered in Charleston. Within ten days of his arrival in Charleston, he had two privateers crewed, sent the French ship Embuscade toward Philadelphia on a raid against British ships, and started his anti-Spanish ventures in motion. Genet believed that his actions were acceptable under the Treaty of Alliance signed between the United States and France in 1778. He did not however, bother to check with President Washington before involving American citizens in a war.
All the way to Philadelphia he received a hero’s welcome, a continuous ovation of bells, guns, public addresses, civic feasts, and Fraternal Hugs. However, upon arrival in the Capitol, Genet reception by President Washington was less than warm. Washington was hesitant to support the French Republic in 1793. The Revolution was growing increasingly violent and the United States was in no position to fight a war with Great Britain. The U.S. had almost no navy and lacked the troops to attack the only British possession along her border, Canada. At the same time, the Royal Navy would be able to strike with impunity along the U.S. coast, and Britain could funnel massive amounts of money and supplies to disaffected Native Americans along the United States’ border. Washington wanted to pursue a policy of neutrality, at least until Congress could meet and offer its opinion. On 22 April 1793, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality ordering “the citizens of the United States … to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsoever which may in any manner tend to contravene … a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers” (Note 1).
Heedless of American neutrality and full of open disrespect for Washington, Genet was about as diplomatic as a bull in a china shop. Since the American populace was so divided on whether to support France against England, pro and anti-intervention factions soon sprang up across the United States, deepening the already growing partisan divide in the young country; a divide that Genet, working in the best interest of his own country, was happy to exploit. Genet continued to make public appearances in favor of France and encouraged U.S. citizens to violate Washington’s proclamation.
While Americans debated the course their government should take, Genet continued to encourage non-neutrality, despite an 8,000-word formal complaint from Washington. He continued to outfit French raiders in American ports, asked for an advance on the United States’ two million-dollar debt to France, and set about inciting French Canadians against England and Kentuckians against Spain. Additionally, he encouraged the formation of republican societies that began to clamor for war with England and attack the administration.
Genet met with Secretary of State Jefferson, with whom he talked openly and intimately. He told Jefferson all about his Spanish enterprises, and Jefferson expressed support, though he did say that participants from Kentucky might face the hangman if captured. At the same time, Jefferson proved elusive when it came to the details of possible specific agreements between the U.S. and France. Privately, he assured the British minister of America’s commitment to neutrality.
In June 1793, George Washington finally ran out of patience. He ordered the seizure of all privateers in American waters. Genet had just armed the brig "Petit Democrate" in Philadelphia, and she was ready for sea. Washington’s government requested the Pennsylvania governor to call out the militia and prevent the vessel from leaving. Washington was out of town at Mount Vernon, so Genet confronted Jefferson and had a screaming meltdown. After some discussion, Jefferson persuaded Genet not to let the vessel leave until Washington got back. Ten days later, she sailed anyway.
Washington returned to Philadelphia in July, totally incensed by the actions of the French Minister. Genet asked for an interview but learned that going forward, all communication had to go through the Secretary of State. He then had the audacity to call at the president’s house, where he suggested they discuss a new treaty. Washington politely but firmly showed him the door.
Eventually, even the pro-French Jefferson realized that Genet had become impossible to deal with. Jefferson realized that he could not stand such open condescension of U.S. laws, and worked with Washington and Hamilton to get Genet recalled. On August 1, the cabinet agreed to request Genet’s recall as French ambassador, fewer than three months after he had arrived in the capital.
Meanwhile, in France, the Girondist government had fallen, the Jacobins were in power, and Robespierre was looking into the complaints about Genet. Genet received a blistering rebuke from home. In January 1794, Genet’s successor, Citizen Fauchet, arrived. The new faction which had taken charge in France would have executed Genet if he had returned. In perhaps the ultimate irony of the “Genet Affair”, it was the ardently anti-interventionist Hamilton that lobbied for Genet to receive political asylum in the United States, perhaps as proof of his point that the French Revolution had gotten out of hand and did not represent the intentions of the earlier American Revolution. The sale of his furniture, carriage and horses brought in just enough money to buy a small farm on Long Island. Citizen Genet became a citizen farmer and married Miss Cornelia Clinton, daughter of the governor of New York. He became a naturalized American citizen and never saw France again.
1. George Washington, “Proclamation 4—Neutrality of the United States in the War Involving Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain, and the United Netherlands Against France”, 22 April 1793.
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