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This Day in History: The Citizen Genêt Affair

On this day in 1793, members of George Washington’s cabinet send him memos regarding the so-called “Citizen Genêt Affair.” Have you ever heard of Edmond-Charles Genêt? He was a French minister who managed to turn some Americans into French-protected privateers, despite an official U.S. position of neutrality in European conflicts.

How, exactly, was the United States government to respond to Genêt’s actions? The position of neutrality was important to Washington. A new country with a new government must stabilize itself before it risked war. Genêt’s actions threatened to undermine Washington’s efforts to keep the peace.

The catalyst for all these events was the French Revolution, combined with France’s ongoing conflicts with other European nations. George Washington didn’t want anything to do with it. On April 22, 1793, he’d issued a Neutrality Proclamation. The United States would not take sides.

Not everyone agreed with the decision. France had helped America in its Revolution. Shouldn’t the United States now help its friend? Indeed, one editorialist soon blasted Washington’s decision as “disgraceful to the American character.”

In the meantime, the French had already dispatched Genêt as their minister to the United States. But Genêt handled his duties a bit oddly. When he arrived in America, he landed far south of the capital and took his time before attempting to meet with Washington. His decision was unusual. Typically, a minister would arrive and present himself directly to the President.

Unsurprisingly, one of Washington’s contemporaries remarked that Genêt had “the manner and look of an upstart.”

Genêt traveled slowly toward Philadelphia, gathering support from Americans as he traveled. He even began issuing commissions to Americans: These commissions were privateering commissions that allegedly authorized Americans to seize British ships. The commissions guaranteed Americans the protection of the French government.

On May 15, Alexander Hamilton summarized the offenses of Genet to this point: “[H]e causes two privateers to be fitted out, to which he issues Commissions, to cruise against the enemies of France. There also, the Privateers are manned and partly with citizens of the United States, who are enlisted or engaged for the purpose, without the privity or permission of the Government of this Country . . . . One or both these Privateers make captures of British Vessels, in the neighbourhood of our Coasts, and bring or send their prizes into our Ports.”

Genêt was repeatedly asked to stop his efforts. In June, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Genêt, advising him that “the President . . . after mature consultation and deliberation was of opinion 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.”

The Washington administration soon sent a demand that France recall its minister. By then, however, the French government had changed hands. The new French government was not terribly satisfied with Genêt and his failed mission. It demanded Genêt’s return.

Washington could not comply. The French were upset, and Genêt would certainly be executed if he returned to his home country. Thus, Washington allowed Genêt to stay in America, where he settled into a respectable life. He got married and lived out his days as a private resident in America.

Kind of an anti-climactic end to Genêt’s story, after so much furor over his earlier actions. Isn’t it?

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