Citizen Genet: The Undiplomatic Diplomat

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The French Revolution was an early foreign policy crisis for the Washington administration.  Jefferson and his followers were enthralled by the French Revolution, viewing it as the culmination of what they had started in the American Revolution.  Federalists, including Washington, were appalled by the atrocities committed by the French revolutionaries.  More than that, Washington feared that America, due to the enthusiasm of many Americans for the French Revolution, was at risk of being drawn into a war against Great Britain on the side of France.

In the Spring of 1793 Edmond-Charles Genet arrived in America.  The ambassador of the French revolutionary regime, he insisted on being known as Citizen Genet rather than Ambassador Genet.  Genet’s mission to America was to enlist American privateers to wage war upon the British.  President Washington quickly told him that this was in violation of American neutrality and denounced all attempts by Genet to drag America into the war between Britain and France.  Genet’s attempts to ignore Washington alarmed Jefferson, who, as Secretary of State, had a meeting with Genet that degenerated into a screaming match.  Washington was furious at the behavior of Genet.

The American government formally requested his recall.  Genet received a letter of rebuke from his government:

“Dazzled by a false popularity you have estranged the only man who should be the spokesman for you of the American people. It is not through the effervescence of an indiscreet zeal that one may succeed with a cold and calculating people.”

Genet’s successor, Citizen Fauchot, arrived in January 1794, with documents from the French government denouncing Genet’s conduct as criminal, and an arrest notice summoning him back to France.  Fearing for his life, Genet request asylum.  Hamilton, his greatest foe in the cabinet, interceded with Washington to grant the request, and Genet spent the rest of his long life in America in New York state as a gentleman farmer, marrying a daughter of Governor Clinton and becoming a naturalized American citizen.

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