Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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GENET, Citizen (IN U. S. HISTORY), the name usually given to Edmond Charles Genet, the ambassador of the French republic to the United States in 1793.


—In the early months of 1793 the government of the French republic was still nominally under the control of the Girondins, but the massacre of the royal guards, Aug. 10, 1792, the general massacre, Sept. 2-7, 1792, and the execution of the king, Jan. 21, 1793, showed that the destructive element, of which the Jacobins were the best known faction, had learned the virtues of terror as a political force and was gaining upon the more moderate Girondins. Hitherto the revolution had been confined to France; the fighting of the first campaign of the war declared against Austria and Prussia, April 20, 1792, had been done on French soil; and American interest in the events in France was entirely speculative. The opening of the year changed all this. The execution of the king was given, and taken, as a defiance to every neighboring monarchy; the declaration of war against England and Holland, Feb. 3, 1793, was the first movement of the expansion which was soon to make all Europe the theatre of the revolution; and it was inevitable that this outward movement of the revolution should involve somewhere a call for active sympathy and assistance upon France's only ally, the United States. To obtain this assistance Genet was sent in January in the Ambuscade frigate, and arrived at Charleston, April 8, bringing with him 300 blank commissions for privateers.


—Genet was only in his twenty-eighth year, but a master of that half-purposed and half-delirious declamation, which seems absurd now, but which was then the surest weapon of a French revolutionary envoy: he came to a country whose people were already very strongly disposed to war against Great Britain on their own account, and equally disposed to consider the French revolution as having every claim upon their active support; and, for the moment, he swept the American people off their feet and almost into the war. That he was not entirely successful was altogether due to the overmastering influence which Washington possessed, and which he did not hesitate to use for the maintenance of neutrality. (See EMBARGO, I.; JAY'S TREATY; EXECUTIVE.)


—The whole web of difficulties of which Genet became the centre turned upon the treaties with France of Feb. 6, 1778. There were two treaties of this date, the first of alliance and the second of amity and commerce, and the general meaning of the former and the special applicability of two articles of the latter were the questions at issue in 1793.


—The treaty of alliance (see REVOLUTION) is by its terms a treaty "eventual and defensive"; the "essential and direct end of this defensive alliance" is stated in the second article as the maintenance of the liberty, sovereignty and independence of the liberty, sovereignty and independence of the United States; and to every intent and purpose its provisions are confined to the then existing war between the United States and Great Britain, and the French intervention therein, with the exception, perhaps, of the mutual guaranty of possessions in the last two articles. Genet claimed, and many Americans were inclined to agree with him, that the treaty of alliance was still in existence and binding on both parties, and that it had not been terminated by the peace of 1783. It was not difficult to disprove the claim, in itself considered, but it was re-enforced by another consideration, invulnerable to reason, which weighed still more heavily with the mass of the American people. The selfish reason of the French court for making the treaty, its desire to dismember the British empire, was then a state secret to all but a few, and the sentimental obligations to alliance seemed far more binding upon the United States in 1793 that they had been upon France in 1778. The burden of the argument for maintaining the alliance was therefore the idea that the United States was under obligations to requite the assistance which France had rendered during the revolution.


—The treaty of commerce offered more difficulties. In its terms it was to be permanent, not limited to a single object; by it seventeenth section free entrance was to be allowed to prizes made by either party into the ports of each nation, and enemy cruisers against one party were not to be allowed to remain in the ports of the other; by its twenty-second section privateers of a third power at enmity with either nation were not to be permitted to fit out or sell prizes in the ports of the other; and, by the twenty-ninth section, each nation was allowed to have consuls in the ports of the other. In themselves considered, it is plain that the first two of these provisions, however beneficial to the United States in 1778, were very embarrassing in 1793, but Genet succeeded in rendering them even more embarrassing. He insisted on turning the prohibition of the arming, in this instance, of British privateers into a permission to arm French privateers and enlist men on the soil of the United States; and he also insisted that the powers of French consuls should include that of complete admiralty jurisdiction, in condemning and selling prizes. These were the two main questions as issue in 1793; the other exasperating pretensions and the unbounded insolence of language of Genet were only subsidiary to his main design, the exercise of such powers of sovereignty as would really convert the United States into French soil.


—Five days before Genet's arrival at Charleston, a British packet had brought to New York city the news of the French declaration of war against Great Britain. April 18, Washington sent to his cabinet thirteen questions, probably drawn up by Hamilton. The most important of these were: 1, should a proclamation issue to prevent American interference in the war, and should it contain a declaration or neutrality; 2, should the French minister be received, 3, absolutely or with qualifications; 4, should the United States consider the treaties abrogated or suspended during the present state of government in France; 8, whether the war was offensive, defensive, or mixed and equivocal on the part of France; 11, whether the twenty-second section of the treaty of commerce applied to privateers only, or to ships of war also; and 13, whether congress ought to be called together. By the unanimous advice of the cabinet a proclamation of neutrality was issued, April 22, declaring the neutrality of the United States between the parties to the war, exhorting citizens of the United States to avoid infractions of neutrality, and giving notice that violators of neutrality would not be protected by the United States, but would be prosecuted, whenever possible, by federal officers.—the cabinet was also unanimous in advising in favor of the reception of the French minister, and against an extra session of congress. As to the treaties the cabinet was divided: Hamilton and Knox thought that France, while so acting as to provoke war against her, had no right to hold the United States to treaty stipulations made for entirely different circumstances; Jefferson and Randolph considered the treaties as made with the French nation, not with the king alone, and as unaffected by the change of government and policy. No reasoning, however, can reconcile the treaty of alliance and the declaration of neutrality; in so far, then, the whole cabinet seem to have considered the treaty of alliance really at an end, including its guaranty. Among the conflicting arguments and statements as to the treaty of commerce, it is only clear that Washington decided not yet to hold it abrogated; in plain words, to say nothing about it, but to follow it until forced to abrogate it.


—Genet soon gave Hammond, the British representative, good cause for complaint. Immediately after his landing, he had fitted out two privateers which made captures of British vessels along the coast. His own frigate, the Ambuscade, arrived at Philadelphia May 2, bringing with her a British merchantman, the Grange, which she had captured within the capes of the Delaware. Genet had not yet been recognized or received by the federal government. His progress northward had been marked by expressions of popular enthusiasm as warm as those which had first met him, and misled him, at Charleston. He arrived at Philadelphia May 16; banquets were arranged in his honor, at which Genet himself sang the Marseillaise, and the guests, wearing the red cap of liberty, took turns in plunging a knife into the severed head of a pig, which represented the late king; British and French sailors engaged in armed conflicts in the streets of Philadelphia, the latter being generally supported by the populace; and all the initial steps of the process by which French agents of the time were in the habit of "revolutionizing" other peoples were successfully taken.


—The first damper upon this process in America was the calm and entirely business-like tone of the president's answer to Genet at the latter's official reception, May 18. The next was a refusal of his request, May 23, that the United States should pay $2,300,000 of their French debt. not yet due, though Genet offered, as an inducement, to expend the amount in the United States. These rebuffs were followed by a notification from Jefferson to Genet, June 5, that "the arming and equipping vessels in the ports of the United States, to cruise against nations with whom they are at peace, was incompatible with the territorial sovereignty of the United States," and must be stopped; and this notification was emphasized by the arrest of two of Genet's American recruits, Henfield and Singletary, and their indictment for breach of neutrality, for a crime, Genet wrote, with almost frantic indignation, "which my mind can not conceive, and which my pen almost refuses to state, the serving of France and the defending with her children the common and glorious cause of liberty." This last step, indeed, was the most serious of all to Genet's plans, and, if submitted to, cut the ground from under his feet: and in protesting against it, he first began to show that insolent ill temper, which for the next four months was the most prominent feature of his intercourse with the state department. He was now convinced that the neutrality proclamation of April 22 was no legal fiction, designed to delude Great Britain, but was to be literally fulfilled by the executive.


—Had Genet been fortunate enough to find congress in session, he would certainly have now precipitated matters by endeavoring to open direct communication with that branch of the government, and would probably have been supported by some of the more reckless Gallicans among the representatives. It can hardly be supposed that the attempt would have succeeded. Congress can not officially know of the existence of a foreign minister except through the president (see EXECUTIVE, III.); and the exercise even of consular functions is dependent on revocable permissions, known as exequaturs, from the president. Congress, however, was not regularly to meet for six months. June 14, in a letter relating to the payment of the debt due to France, Genet very directly intimated that the federal government had "taken it on itself" to decide the question "without consulting congress upon so important a matter." He then repeated without success official and unofficial demands for an extra session of congress until, Sept. 18, in a final burst of passion, he declared that he was "persuaded that the sovereignty of the United States resides essentially in the people, and its representation in the congress; that the executive power is the only one which has been confided to the president; that this magistrate has not the right to decide questions, the discussion of which the constitution reserves particularly to the congress; and that he has not the power to bend existing treaties to circumstances and to change their sense." In this connection it is worthy of note that Genet's instructions of the previous January had designated him as "minister plenipotentiary to the congress of the United States," a phrase which, if construed by the knowledge of the American constitution elsewhere shown in the instructions, could only argue a possible view to this very phase of affairs.


—In this general manner, by passing over the executive and interfering with domestic concerns, the revolutionary envoys had usually succeeded in making the friendship of France almost as dangerous as her enmity to any government with which they came in contact, and in this case it must be acknowledged that the trial was a severe one for a form of government as yet hardly four years old. It was increased by the facts that the only definite, active sympathy of the country was with France, that the mass of the people was indifferent to, or strongly inclined to approve, any course of action which would make against Great Britain; and that the only opposing influence was negative, rather an incipient dislike to the violence of the French revolution that any active sympathy with Great Britain. In the cabinet Jefferson represented the first class, Randolph and Knox the second, and Hamilton the third. Hamilton undertook the defense of the administration in a series of seven letters, signed "pacificus," in which, with great ability, be defended the proclamation on the very evident ground that, while a declaration of war lay in the power of congress, it was the president's duty to see that the peace was kept until war was declared Madison, at Jefferson's request, replied in five letters, signed "Helividius."


—From Genet's first arrival he had encouraged the formation of the French faction into associations to further "the principles of the revolution" (see DEMOCRATIC CLUBS), and these, and their newspaper organs, Bache's Advertiser and Freneau's Gazette, attacked the president freely. One of them, in a pasquinade called "the funeral of Washington," went so far as to represent him upon the guillotine. The president seems to have kept his equanimity until, at a cabinet meeting, Aug. 2, when Genet's race had been almost run, he got, says Jefferson, "into one of those passions when he can not command himself," and declared "that he had never repented but once the having slipped the moment of resigning his office, and that was every moment since; that by God he had rather be in his grave than in his present situation; that he had rather be on his farm than to be made emperor of the world; and yet that they were charging him with wanting to be a king."


—About July 1, Genet seems to have become satisfied that the government of the United States was not composed of easily inflammable material, and that congress was not to be called together at his bidding, and to have decided upon the next step in such cases, an appeal to the people. He had hitherto disregarded the prohibition of the equipment of privateers; and had equipped and sent to sea eight privateers, which, with two French frigates, had captured about fifty British merchantmen, some of them, like the Grange, within the jurisdiction of the United States. When he proceeded to equip another privateer, the Little Democrat (formerly the Little Sarah), in Philadelphia itself, then the national capital, he seems to have sought to force an issue with the government. Orders were sent to detain her, July 6; Genet, after threatening an appeal to the people, evasively declared that the vessel was not ready, and was not yet going to sea; and, July 8, when the guards had been removed, the vessel sailed. the acquittal of Henfield by a jury, in spite of evidence, led Genet further in the course he had marked out. Passing to New York city, he had begun to expedite the cause there, when he found himself impeded, rather than helped, by a rumor of his threat to appeal from the government to the people. Some of his partisans denied the story, whereupon chief Justice John Jay and Senator Rufus King, of New York, issued a card in the newspapers, Aug. 12, vouching for the truth of it. This practically closed Genet's career. Hitherto he had been a danger; henceforth he was only a nuisance. The drift of the public meetings began to run continually more strongly against him personally, not against France or in favor of Great Britain. He took the liberty of demanding a contradiction of the story from the president himself, who refused to hold communication with him except through the state department; he then demanded a prosecution of Jay and King for libel; and when this was refused, he published the whole correspondence and began a prosecution on his own account in November, but soon abandoned it. The "appeal to the people," which Genet had threatened and Hamilton had urged upon the president in July, had thus been finally made, to Genet's complete discomfiture and astonishment. The whole episode is interesting as almost the only case in which a French revolutionary envoy, having a fair opportunity and freedom of speech in a neutral or friendly country, failed to overthrow or convert the constituted authorities to the "principles of the revolution."


—A request for Genet's recall had already been determined upon at three cabinet meetings, Aug. 1-3, and it was made in a long and able letter of Aug. 16, to Morris, the American minister in Paris, written by Jefferson. It rehearsed Genet's persistent misconstructions of the treaties, his disregard of American neutrality, and his various insolences of language to the president in his state papers, declared the continued friendship of the United States for France, and asked the recall of Genet. A copy of the letter was sent to Genet. Hammond had previously been informed, Aug. 5, that the United States would make compensation for British vessels captured by French privateers equipped in American ports after June 5, the date on which Genet had been informed that such equipments must cease; but that, after Aug. 5, the British government must be satisfied with the active exertions of the federal government to maintain neutrality. Aug. 7, Genet had been informed that his illegal captures must be restored; otherwise the federal government would make restitution for them and look to France for indemnity. The French government, Oct. 10, disavowed all responsibility for the "punishable conduct" and "criminal manœuvres" of their agent in the United States, and promised his prompt recall; but at the same time they requested, in return, the recall of the American minister at Paris, Gouverneur Morris, whose active antipathy to the dominant party of France had operated to lessen his usefulness in that country. Genet's recall was not known until the following January. Before the middle of September, 1793, he had been compelled to perceive that he would only be recognized through his official intercourse with the executive; that the executive was determined to maintain neutrality, not active alliance with France; and that he had nothing to hope from an appeal to the people, further than barren editorials in a few newspapers. His mission, therefore, as far as its essential object was concerned, was already a failure; but he still had some power, personally or by his subordinates, to annoy the administration, and this power he exercised throughout the remainder of the year. Some of the French consuls persisted in attempting to exercise admiralty jurisdiction in prize cases; and the administration, Sept. 7, threatened to revoke the exequatur of any consul who should so offend. The penalty was enforced in the case of the French vice-consul at Boston, A. C. Duplaine, who had rescued a libeled French prize from the United States marshal, Aug. 21, with the help of a body of marines from a French frigate in the harbor. Genet's agents had two expeditions under way, one from Georgia against Florida and the other from Kentucky against New Orleans, France being now at war with Spain also. For the support of his soldiers and sailors, whose number he stated. Nov. 14, to be about 2,000, he again urged the United States to pay in advance a portion of the debt to France. This was refused, for the assigned reasons that payments had already been made in advance to cover, the year 1794, and that there was no fund from which to legally draw the money for an more payments; a still more cogent reason was the natural unwillingness of a neutral administration to furnish Genet with funds whose expenditure could only involve fresh breaches of neutrality.


—Before the month of November the administration felt strong enough to take a higher tone toward Genet; but a fair opportunity did not come until Nov. 14. In a letter of that date, in reply to one from Jefferson objecting to certain French consular commissions which had not been addressed directly to the president, Genet assumed to state the constitutional functions of the president, relative to the reception of foreign ministers, as "only those which are fulfilled in courts by the first ministers for their pretended sovereigns, to verify purely and simply the powers of foreign agents accredited to their masters and irrevocable by them when once they have been admitted." In his answer, Nov. 22, Jefferson emphatically stated that the president was the only channel of communication between this country and foreign nations; that foreign agents could only learn from him what was or had been the will of the nation; and that no foreign agent could be allowed to question what he communicated as the will of the nation, to interpose between him and any other branch of the government, under pretext that either had transgressed its functions, or to make himself the arbiter between them. I am therefore, sir, not authorized to enter into any discussions with you on the meaning of our constitution, or to prove to you that it has ascribed to him alone the admission or interdiction of foreign agents. I inform you of the fact by authority from the president. In your letter you personally question the authority of the president, making a point of this formality on your part; it becomes necessary to make a point of it on ours also; and I am therefore charged to return you these commissions and to inform you that the president will issue no exequatur to any consul or vice-consul whose commission is not directed to him in the usual form." To restrict Genet to legitimate diplomatic functions was to deprive him of most of his capacity for mischief; accordingly his career in the United States may be considered finally ended. A message from the president, Jan. 20, 1794, announced that the request for the recall of Genet had been agreed to by the French government; but the utter destruction which had already overtaken his party, the Girondins, at the hands of the Jacobins, was a plain warning to Genet not to return to France. He therefore remained in New York, where he married a daughter of Governor Clinton. He attracted no further public attention until his death in 1835.


—The most ambiguous position in regard to the whole affair of Genet and his mission is that of Jefferson. Prima facie, the whole case is strongly in his favor: his state papers are all exceedingly creditable, being frank, explicit, and yet very temperate, even including the last crushing letter of Nov. 22. His private correspondence, however, and, still more, two dispatches of Genet to the French government, July 25 and Oct. 7, 1793, have thrown some doubts on Jefferson's earnestness: Genet says, in terms, that Jefferson had at first fraternized with him, had cautioned him against the influence which Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris were exerting on the president's mind in favor of Great Britain, and had aided him in organizing his expedition against New Orleans. In an official letter of Sept. 18 to Jefferson, Genet did not hesitate to charge him with having made himself the "generous instrument" of the request for Genet's recall, "after having made me believe that you were my friend, after having initiated me into mysteries which have inflamed my hatred against all those who aspire to an absolute power," and significantly remarked, that "it is not in my character to speak, as many people do, in one way and act in another, to have an official language and a language confidential." The last covert charge is utterly unwarranted: so far as all the evidence goes, Jefferson's language, both official and confidential, was at first cordially in Genet's favor, and as cordially against him when his plan of action had become evident. In the authorities cited below, the reader will find the case fairly given in von Holst, unfavorably to Jefferson in Hildreth, and favorably to him in Randall.


—The case of Genet got little notice from congress, whose attention, in the winter of 1793-4, was entirely taken up by the first proposition to attack the commercial intercourse of Great Britain and the United States. (See EMBARGO, JAY'S TREATY.) Both the Genet episode, and that of Jay's treaty which immediately followed it, are instructive instances of the almost invariable influence which successive presidents have exerted in favor of peace abroad. Washington's example was closely followed by Adams in 1798, by Jefferson during his terms of office, and by Madison until he yielded to the force of the war feeling in 1812. (See DEMOCRATIC-REPUBLICAN PARTY. III.: MONROE DOCTRINE; EXECUTIVE. III.)


—See 4 Hildreth's United States, 413; 1 von Holst's United States, 113; 2 Pitkin's United States, 357; 1 Schouler's United States, 246; 1 Tucker's United States, 504; 2 Spencer's United States, 318; 2 Marshall's Washington (ed. 1831), 260, and note ix.; 31 Atlantic Monthly, 385; Sparks' Life of Washington, 452, and 10 Washington's Writings, 534; Trescott's Diplomatic History, 91; 2 sparks' Life of Gonverneur Morris, 288; 1 Jay's Life of Jay, 298; J. Q. Adams' Life of Madison, 53; 2 Rives' Life of Madison, 322, 1 Wait's American State Papers, (2d edit.) 157, 198, 4 Hamilton's Works, 360; 4 Jefferson's Works (ed. 1829), 490; De Witt's Jefferson, 221; 2 Randall's Jefferson, 157; 1 Tucker's Jefferson, 432. The proclamation of April 22, 1793, is in 1 Statesman's Mannual, 46.


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