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So this week’s supplemental is an outgrowth of two things. First, listener James Ruff’s question during the 250th episode about American attitudes toward the French Revolution. So congratulations, James, this episode is partly your fault. But it also comes from another little project that I’ll go ahead and tease right now. For those of you who are also Dan Carlin fans, he may have directed you over to this debut episode of the 10 American Presidents podcast that he narrated about Richard Nixon for British podcaster Royfield Brown. Well, Royfield talked me into doing the Washington episode, which should be coming out at some point soon. And there’s already a little short pre-interview with me about George Washington posted up already. If you Google 10 American Presidents podcast, I’m sure you’ll be able to find it. So between the 250th episode and preparing to talk about George Washington for roughly 30 hours straight, I got deep into the weeds of the thoroughly entertaining Citizen Gené affair. Edmund Charles Gené was born in 1763 in Versailles. He was the youngest of nine children and the son of the head clerk of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So his father basically ran the central clearinghouse for correspondence and intelligence during the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence. So from the day he was born, Gené was immersed in the world of international politics.
Young Edmund was also something of a precocious little genius, and by the time he hit puberty, he was fluent in six different languages, though as we will see, not one of those languages was the language of diplomacy. At the age of 18, he was appointed to a position as court translator, and then in 1788 at the ripe old age of 25, Gené was dispatched on his first foreign assignment, joining the French embassy attached to the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg. This was of course just before the Revolution broke out, and when it did, Gené was a pretty staunch supporter.
After a childhood spent in the palace at Versailles, and now a year spent at the opulent court of Catherine the Great, Gené had come to loathe the extravagant despotism of old Europe, and it would appear that he was unable to keep his disdain for the trappings of monarchy to himself. After one too many indiscretions, Catherine got sick of him and declared him persona non grata in 1792, calling his presence in Russia both superfluous and intolerable.
Once back in Paris, the insurrection of August 10th upended everything, and after the national convention convened, Gené was appointed ambassador to the United States, surely the one country on earth that might stick with revolutionary France now that it was a republic. But keep in the back of your mind that Gené received this appointment in the early days of the convention, when the Girondins still held the levers of power. Once winter passed and war with the rest of Europe declared, Gené sailed away from France and landed in Charleston, South Carolina on April 8th, 1793.
Word of his arrival preceded him, and when he landed, he found himself an immediate smash hit. The southern Jeffersonians were far more enthusiastic about the French Revolution than the northern Federalists were, so Gené was welcomed with open arms in South Carolina, and a string of parties were thrown in his honor.
Gené loved every minute of it, and the citizens of Charleston appeared to love every minute of him. He was young, still just 30 years old. He was handsome and charming and flamboyant and bursting with revolutionary confidence. He encouraged his new American friends to call him Citizen Gené instead of Monsieur, as was now the style in republican Paris. Besides enjoying the trappings of being a celebrity, Gené had a list of things that were expected of him now that he was in the United States. He was to secure U.S. support and maybe even protection for French colonies in the West Indies. He was to press for early repayment of debts that the Americans had racked up during the War of Independence. He was to negotiate a new commercial treaty to help keep France supplied with all the stuff they were now having a hard time scrounging up.
All of that would have to wait, though, until he got up to the American capital in Philadelphia. But there was another thing on his to-do list that he could get going on right now. According to the American-French treaty signed back in 1778, French privateers based in American ports could go out and attack British merchant ships and then come back to those American ports with their prizes. So with the blessing of South Carolina’s governor, Gené commissioned four new privateer ships and issued them official certificates under the protection of French law. Not without a certain flair, these four ships were dubbed the Republican, the Anti-George, the St. Culottes, and the Citizen Gené.
Up in Philadelphia, the arrival of Citizen Gené was more a cause for concern than celebration for President George Washington and his cabinet. It was still unclear whether the Treaty of 1778 was still operative, signed as it was by a man who had just gotten his head chopped off. Washington himself sure didn’t think it was operative anymore, and he believed with every fiber of his being that the United States was best served by remaining neutral in any European war.
The young country was simply not strong enough to play ball on that level. So on April the 18th, Washington posed a set of wide-ranging questions to his cabinet on the immediate and future course of American foreign policy. But really, it all boiled down to whether the United States should issue a neutrality proclamation.
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, not wanting any part of a French alliance, recommended immediately declaring neutrality. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, who may have welcomed a French alliance but knew Washington was wary, said that the United States should hedge its bets. We’ll let the French make their offer, and then let the British make their offer, and then we’ll decide which is better.
But in making this suggestion, Jefferson read Washington all wrong. The president was not happy at all about the idea of putting America’s sacred honor up on the auction block. So as he so often did, Alexander Hamilton won the point. And on April the 22nd, George Washington issued the neutrality proclamation, although technically the word neutrality never appeared.
The neutrality proclamation ignited a brief firestorm in the Jeffersonian-backed Republican press. They were angry both that Washington was turning his back on an ally that had helped them win independence, and also that he had bypassed Congress to do it. This was just an executive proclamation, which led to murmurings that Washington was trying to make himself a king.
Meanwhile, a citizen Genet was still making his way north. Everywhere he stopped, he was greeted like some kind of popular itinerant preacher spreading the gospel of revolution. As he moved, a new breed of popular clubs began to spring up, clubs that seemed to owe a lot to the model of the Jacobin Club. The first one appeared in Philadelphia in April, and by year’s end there would be ten more, then twenty more the year after that. These popular societies were of course protected by the First Amendment’s right to free association, but President Washington did not like them one bit, and in time he would come to actively hate them and suspect them of fomenting treason against the federal government. Almost all of the members of the society seemed to be ex-anti-federalists, all those guys who had led the charge against the Constitution, and they were now actively cheering on even the most excessive phases of the French Revolution. So there was no telling what these guys might do.
It finally took a month for Genet to get from Charleston to Philadelphia, a delay that did not endear him to George Washington even a little bit. On May the 16th, Genet finally entered the Capitol, and like everywhere else he was greeted as a hero, and he gave a great speech to an enthusiastic crowd. In the President’s house, George Washington wondered when the new ambassador from France was going to get around to actually presenting his credentials to the head of state of the United States of America.
When Genet finally did decide to present his credentials, he was greeted with a calculated coldness by Washington. But Genet dismissed the possible implications of this coldness for the success of his mission. He had just spent the last month being convinced that the whole country was with him. Washington’s stiff demeanor was just proof that the old general was out of touch.
Before Genet arrived in Philadelphia, the source of what would become some pretty explosive tension had already sailed up the Delaware River, a French ship with two captured British vessels in tow. After his meeting with the President, Genet set to work rechristening one of those ships, La Petite Democrat, and he commissioned it into his little privateer fleet. Washington was furious that Genet was, in Washington’s mind, threatening American neutrality. But Genet believed it was his right under the old treaty to do exactly what he was doing. And besides, he was a popular hero, while old man Washington needed to be put out to pasture. By the beginning of June, even Jefferson was starting to tell Genet to tone it down, that strutting around openly defying George Washington was only hurting their shared cause. Genet replied that Washington had clearly been put under the thumb by the Federalist Party, who were using the doddering President as a puppet to erect an American monarchy.
Jefferson was indignant about this reply. Whether he recognized that Genet’s confidence was likely fed by propaganda Jefferson’s own press hacks were writing, we don’t know.
As the refitting of La Petite Democrat neared completion, Genet was busy writing bold letters home that he had the old general on the run, and that the people were with him. When the President left the Capitol for a few weeks on personal business, Jefferson told Genet that he better not try to sail the ship out of the harbor until the President got back. Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of War Henry Knox discussed ramping up the military presence at the mouth of the Delaware to stop La Petite Democrat if Genet tried to defy the order.
But Genet said that he would wait until Washington returned, though he also said that if Washington didn’t say it was okay for the ship to set sail, that Genet was going to go over the President’s head and appeal directly to the American people. The people, after all, were the true sovereign. Now a threat like that is, of course, an unthinkable breach of diplomatic protocol, and even Thomas Jefferson now realized that citizen Genet was turning out to be a disaster. Then, two days after saying he wouldn’t launch the ship before Washington got back, Genet said, eh, screw it, and launched the ship.
When Washington got back to Philadelphia, he was cross-eyed with rate, and he had his cabinet drop a series of explicit orders laying down the rules of conduct between the neutral Americans and all European belligerents. Privateers cannot be armed in American ports. Their prizes cannot be offloaded in American ports. In response to this, Genet started to follow through with his threat to go over Washington’s head. With French sailors roaming Philadelphia getting people riled up, Genet himself delivered a fiery speech that called on the citizens of Philadelphia to defend true liberty, not the crypto-royalist Federalists and their puppet George Washington.
For a few nights running, huge crowds roamed the streets, ominously congregating around the President’s house and demanding that he declare war on England. This was all, of course, too much for the cabinet, and by the end of July they were deep in discussions about how to demand the recall of Genet without offending the French government. After all, neutrality meant neutrality. The last thing they wanted was for France to declare war on the United States, too, and force the country into a fight it didn’t want to fight.
It was suggested that maybe they deliver all of Genet’s impetuous correspondence to Paris and say, look, just send us a guy who won’t try to blatantly undermine an elected government. But before they came to any firm decisions, Federalists up in New York, specifically John Jay and Rufus King, took it upon themselves to publish the correspondence. The result was a swift backlash against the French ambassador. Genet had made the mistake of both believing his own hype and the anti-Washington invective streaming off the partisan Jeffersonian presses. He completely missed the fact that George Washington was George Washington, an overwhelming majority of Americans still thought of him as nothing less than a minor deity. Genet had convinced himself that he was beating George Washington in a popularity contest. But when it came out how flagrantly disrespectful he was being, it turned out that he was not.
In late August 1793, the cabinet decided it was time to formally demand the recall of citizen Genet. But of course, we know what has happened back in Paris in the meantime, don’t we? That’s right, the Girondins that appointed him to his job have been purged from the convention. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the now mountain-controlled convention has already dispatched a replacement for Genet with orders to maintain friendly relations with the United States lest they too be pushed into an anti-French coalition. The new ambassador arrived with instructions to arrest Genet and put him on a boat back to France where he would stand trial for his crimes. And everyone knew exactly what that meant.
The once haughty and disrespectful Genet then came down and begged Washington for asylum. At the urging of no less an advisor than Alexander Hamilton, the president granted the request. They may not like the bugger, but they weren’t going to send him to his death just for being obnoxious. So Genet stayed in America. For the rest of his life, as it turned out. He wound up wooing the daughter of hugely powerful New York governor George Clinton, and then settled into a life of rustic tranquility.
Having thus avoided being guillotined at the age of 30, a citizen Genet lived out his days on a comfortable little estate overlooking the Hudson River. In a last act of revolutionary patriotism, he died at the ripe old age of 71 on July 14, 1834, the 45th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille.
Do not get into a popularity contest with George Washington.
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