On this day in cabinet history – August 1, 1793

August 1, 1793 was a red-letter day for cabinet (and presidential) history. On July 31, President George Washington summoned the department secretaries to a cabinet meeting the next morning at 9 AM. Recognizing that the issues facing the cabinet might take a while to resolve, Washington invited the secretaries to join him for a family dinner at 4 pm after the meeting [1].

edmond charles genetThe issue before the cabinet was the conduct of French minister Edmond-Charles Genêt. In April 1793, Washington had declared that the United States would remain neutral in the war between France and Great Britain. As part of its efforts to stay out of the conflict, the administration had prohibited foreign nations from arming privateers in American harbors. Privateers were privately owned ships armed and outfitted to attack enemy nations. Ignoring numerous warnings from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Genêt spent the summer arming and authoring privateers to fight on behalf of the French. The final straw came in July when Genêt threatened to go above the president’s head and appeal directly to the people and Congress to support the French cause [2].

citizen genet affairOn August 1, 1793, the cabinet gathered and agreed unanimously to send a letter to the French government requesting Genêt’s recall [2]. The French government agreed to the request, but Washington permitted the disgraced minister to stay in the United States because Genêt would likely face execution if he returned to France.

This meeting had several important ramifications for the cabinet, United States diplomatic relations, and the presidency. First, it was significant that the cabinet decision to request Genêt’s recall was unanimous. Despite Jefferson’s sympathies for the French Revolution, he agreed that no foreign minister could be permitted to flout U.S. neutrality policy. The administration’s stand against Genêt and its insistence on neutrality would have been weakened by a divided cabinet vote.

Second, although former allies, relations between the United States and France were tense in 1793 and continued to deteriorate throughout the 1790s. Requesting the recall of a minister was a major diplomatic moment for the new United States. Through the recall, Washington and his cabinet asserted the United States’ right to craft its own foreign policy and demanded that it be respected by foreign nations.

Third, although stated less bluntly, the Citizen Genêt affair confirmed the president’s supremacy in diplomacy. When Genêt threatened to appeal to the people, Jefferson corrected Genêt and explained how the U.S. Constitution worked: “the Executive, Legislative & Judiciary, each of which were supreme in all questions belonging to their department & independent of the others: that all the questions which had arisen between him & us belonged to the Executive department” [4]. Jefferson then went on to say that the executive was supreme in executing the laws and treaties. Although Jefferson has been used to embody the small government and weak executive position, this statement suggests otherwise. Washington, Hamilton, Knox, and Randolph agreed that diplomatic relations should remain under the purview of the president. During his own administration, Jefferson continued to assert the president’s dominance over foreign affairs.

Perhaps more importantly, when news of Genêt’s threat to appeal to the people was made public, the people turned against Genêt. Washington received numerous proclamations of support from counties and gatherings of citizens. The “Citizens of Norfolk, Virginia” proclaimed “That the constitution of the United States having provided adequate authority to communicate with foreign Nations, & to negociate with their Ministers on all subjects of national concern, a deviation by any such Ministers from the regular mode of communication thus constituted, is offensive to the dignity of our Nation” [5]. In effect, the American public resoundingly supported Jefferson’s interpretation of the Constitution that the president was responsible for foreign affairs.

Notes:

[1] George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, 31 July 1793. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, ed. W.W. Abbot, et al. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987-), 13: 309-310.

[2] “Enclosure: Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on a Conversation with Edmond Charles Genet, 10 July 1793,” The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 13: 202-207.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, “Notes of a Cabinet Meeting on Edmond Charles Genet, 1 August 1793,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. John Catanzariti (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 26: 598.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Citizens of Norfolk, Virginia to George Washington, 31 August 1793, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 13: 591-593.


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