January 2020 Spot of Parchment

On this day (January 15) in 1794, President George Washington sent a message to the United States Senate and House of Representatives and forwarded them correspondence between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and French minister to the U.S. Edmond Charles Genêt. While Washington’s note was brief and straightforward, the attached correspondence was quite fiery.

Nine months before, Genêt had arrived in the United States with the highest hopes for a Franco-American partnership. France had declared war on Great Britain in February 1793 and Genêt planned to purchase supplies for the war effort, sign up American soldiers and sailors to fight in the war, authorize privateers to pillage on behalf of the French navy, and launch an invasion of Spanish territory from American bases. These goals were ambitious and wildly at odds with Washington’s intentions to maintain American neutrality.

When Genêt arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, he should have made his way to Philadelphia as quickly as possible to present his credentials. Instead, he spent the next several weeks enjoying parties and balls in his honor, setting up French courts to adjudicate privateer cases (which was ridiculously insulting to American sovereignty), and authorizing American captains to sail as French privateers. By the time he finally arrived in Philadelphia, Washington was pissed. Genêt’s French privateers had captured British ships and dragged them into American ports, which had not gone unnoticed by British officials in the U.S. They had submitted complaints to Jefferson and now the administration was stuck between two warring European superpowers.

Jefferson convinced Washington to give Genêt a second chance. The French minister had been at sea when Washington issued his proclamation asserting American neutrality and Jefferson argued that maybe he didn’t know about American neutrality when taking flagrantly insulting action. Washington agreed to let Jefferson talk to Genêt and smooth things over. During the next few months, Jefferson sent letter after letter to Genêt explaining why he couldn’t persist in arming French privateers and dragging their captured bounties into American ports (especially when they were British ships). Genêt responded that the president didn’t have the authority to establish foreign policy and he threatened to go over Washington’s head and appeal to the American people.

For the sake of brevity, I’m distilling months of correspondence and interactions into a few paragraphs, but here is the key takeaway: By the beginning of August 1793, Genêt had armed yet another privateer in the port of Philadelphia and ignored Washington’s orders to stand down. Fed up, Washington and the cabinet agreed to request Genêt’s recall from the French government. This step was a monumental one. The new United States government had never before requested the recall of a foreign minister and France’s response would reveal whether they respected American independence, the government’s sovereignty over its own citizens, and its ability to establish foreign policy.

In January 1794, when Washington sent his letter to Congress, his administration was still waiting on France’s reply. In the meantime, Genêt continued his antics and was recruiting soldiers in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia for an expeditionary force against the Spanish colony in Louisiana. When confronted by Jefferson, Genêt denied that the French government had given him the authority to raise a force, but admitted that he granted commissions to officers willing to serve in this capacity. Genêt’s shenanigans threatened to drag the U.S. into conflict with its neighbors to the west, as well as the east. If American citizens attacked Spanish holdings, officials in Spain would hold the U.S. accountable—even if the force had been organized by the French.

Washington received word later that month that France agreed to recall Genêt, which was a big moment for the president, the executive branch, and the country. France had agreed, at least tacitly, that Washington had the authority to determine American foreign policy and French foreign ministers had to abide by American rules. Ironically, Washington agreed to let the disgraced minister stay in the United States provided he cause no further trouble as an American citizen. Washington knew that sending Genêt back to France would almost certainly result in his execution during the Reign of Terror. Instead, Genêt moved to New York, married Cornelia Clinton (the daughter of Governor George Clinton) and lived out the rest of his days in relative obscurity.

(To read more about the Neutrality Crisis and the larger-than-life characters involved, see chapter 6 of my book!)

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