|Born:||January 8, 1763|
|Died:||July 14, 1834|
Edmond-Charles Genet was the French minister to the United States whose actions in 1793 provoked political tensions within the United States. Confronted with a new war between France and Great Britain, President Washington and his administration weighed American treaty commitments versus the good of the nation. The Washington Administration followed a policy of neutrality, but Genet tried to raise French forces in America and threatened to appeal directly to the people to sway national policy. These actions caused a political firestorm that threatened to destroy the new nation’s fragile standing in world affairs.
Genet was born into a family committed to serving France. His father served as an interpreter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially in dealing with Anglo-American issues. Genet inherited his father’s gift with languages. As a youth, he visited the American diplomats in Paris, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. At the same time, Genet possessed the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette—one of his sisters served the queen directly. In addition to a stint working on interpreting documents, Genet held an appointment at the Court of Catherine the Great of Russia from 1788 to 1792.
Genet embraced the coming of the French Revolution and loudly proclaimed his support. Returning to Paris from Russia, Genet allied with the Girondin faction in the Revolution, which favored exporting the Revolution worldwide. This connection led to Genet’s appointment as minister to the United States. His instructions charged him with taking steps to support the French war effort againstGreat Britain . Central to the cause was his duty to procure funds and armed forces. The government directed him to raise $3 million from the American government, as an advance repayment of loans going back to the Revolution. Next, he was to insure American ports would be open to French privateers preying on British merchant ships. Finally, he was charged with working to expand French holdings and French Revolutionary ideas in Spanish America, Canada, and Louisiana, including commissioning Americans into his forces.
Genet landed in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 8, 1793 to a popular outpouring of support. This popularity followed him as he traveled north to Philadelphia. Along the way, he sought to channel these expressions of support for France and her revolution through establishing political clubs, which were reminiscent of the popular organizing that had occurred in the French Revolution. Genet’s reception caused him to believe the U.S. would quickly follow through on what he saw as the just claims France had on the U.S.—an opinion strengthened by the warm interactions he had with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
Genet, however, was in for a shock, as President Washington had no intention of sacrificing American neutrality. In the same month as Genet’s arrival, Washington, with the advice of his Cabinet, had promulgated a Neutrality Proclamation. That Proclamation warned American citizens against siding with foreign combatants. Although the administration officially received Genet, they showed no indication of granting his political requests.
In the face of greater diplomatic difficulties than anticipated, Genet became erratic and emotional. Ignoring the Neutrality Proclamation, he commissioned a French privateer—La Petite Democrate—in Philadelphia, and when it was threatened sent it out to sea. Further, he gave commissions to American citizens to join an expedition to attack Louisiana. Most dramatically, with his plans frustrated, Genet publicly threatened to appeal over President Washington to the American people—an affront to Washington and a potential threat against the government.
Genet’s audacity served to enflame partisan passions. In the Cabinet, the question of Genet furthered a rift between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over how to respond. Genet’s actions helped create a greater divide among political elites, which was echoed in the formation of popular parties. Genet’s revolutionary clubs helped support the growth of the pro-French Democratic-Republicans. At the same time, Hamilton helped to coordinate the consolidation of public expressions of support of the administration against Genet—actions that contributed to the growth of a Federalist party. Opposed views on American foreign policy thus sparked partisan competition in the 1790s.
Hamilton, however, was not done in fighting Genet. He worked with two political allies from New York—Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay and Senator Rufus King—to expose Genet. Jay and King published Genet’s threat against Washington. This political meddling angered Washington, as he deemed it outside the realm of proper political activity, as well as beyond their sphere of authority. Still, Washington and his Cabinet came to realize Genet was a serious detriment to Franco-American relations, and they formally requested his recall.
In the wake of Genet’s activity, the Administration continued to abide by Washington’s earlier Neutrality Proclamation. Congress gave legal force to the policy of the Proclamation when it passed its own Neutrality Act in 1794, titled “An Act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States.” It forbade the outfitting of privateers for other nations in American ports, the creation of filibustering expeditions, and American citizens enlisting in military or naval service of a foreign power.
Genet’s official role came to an end with the arrival of a new French minister, Jean Fauchet. The Jacobin government (which had succeeded the Girondins) had demanded Genet return to France, where he would likely be imprisoned, tried, and executed. He sought for and received—ironically, from President Washington—asylum in the United States. Late in 1794, he married Cornelia Clinton, the daughter of New York Governor George Clinton. Their union produced six children, and it appears to have been a happy marriage, lasting until Cornelia’s death in 1810. In 1814, Genet remarried, wedding Martha Brandon Osgood, the daughter of Washington’s Postmaster General Samuel Osgood. After his forced retirement, Genet lived the rest of his life in America, as a gentleman farmer on lands along the Hudson River, near Albany. Occasionally, he contributed printed polemics on behalf of New York’s Democratic-Republicans. Genet passed away on July 14, 1834.
Genet’s largest contribution to events in the early republic lay in the political controversy his actions stirred up during 1793. Despite his furious activity, President Washington and his administration crafted a policy of neutrality that would guide the country throughout the rest of the 1790s.
Jonathan J. Den Hartog
University of Northwestern-St. Paul, Minnesota
Ammon, Harry. The Genet Mission. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973.
Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Furstenberg, François. When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees who Shaped a Nation. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.
The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series. Vols. 12-15, ed. W.W. Abbot, et al. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987-.