Citizen Genet

January 23, 2004

I am wrestling with how best to tell the tale of Edmond Charles Genet, the young Frenchman who came to America in the spring of 1793 to try to bring the United States into revolutionary France's war with Britain and Austria. My earlier draft went into great detail about Genet; I find him fascinating. Within six months he went from the hero of two nations, cheered in both, active in both, to being a pariah in both. You have to work to get both George Washington and Maximillian Robespierre to declare you persona non grata, but Genet managed.

I need to check to see if there is a recent biography of him. There must be. If there is not, perhaps I will write one. ... hmm, I see four books written between 1928 and 1946, mostly focusing on his diplomatic mission, a monograph on the Genet mission from 1976, several masters essays, and a 1969 microfilm edition of his papers. Genet's life beteen 1793 and his death in 1834 goes on my list of possible future projects.

Here is the section I am cutting out of the current chapter. The prose is adequate, though a bit rhetorical and a bit purplish.

The French Revolution arrived in the United States in April of 1793 in the form of a young well-spoken man. Edmond Charles Genet, known by his revolutionary salutation as Citizen Genet, was the representative of that French republic that had been created after the king was deposed. The winds were a potent omen of Genet's future, blowing him off course on his initial journey so that he landed in South Carolina rather than his intended destination of Philadelphia. He set foot in Charleston on April 8th, about two weeks after the United States learned of the French regicide. Genet was friendly with the Gironde and shared their romantic expansionism and their belief in an international revolution that would free people everywhere to partake in their innate rights. He hoped to bring the United States into an alliance with its sister republic, and he did his best to bring the United States into the existing war. After landing in Charleston Genet tarried for a few days, issuing letters of marque and reprisal to four privateers which would be manned by American sailors and arranging with the French consul in Charleston to set up a prize court. On April 18 Genet left for Philadelphia so that he could officially be received by the United States Government. Genet chose to travel by land, calculating that the enthusiastic reception he had received on the docks of Charleston might well be repeated along his journey. He calculated correctly, for every village and hamlet along the 28 day journey turned out to cheer the personification of the French Revolution. His trip was a grand progress and not a simple journey. When Genet arrived in Philadelphia on May 16, he was greeted with an even more enormous festival. The American Revolution had engaged in a few moments of dramatic public theater, but only in a few. The French Revolution had used political theater at every instant, from dramatic confrontations to formal set pieces. The king had his long tradition of pageantry and spectacle, and the French Revolutionaries countered with their own pageants, their own stylized gestures. Genet brought this theatricality, this sense of making grand gestures and of playing to the balconies, with him to Philadelphia.

Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and the other American leaders were very familiar with the politics of personal presentation. Their accustomed venue was not a street full of cheering citizens but a drawing room or other circumscribed site. The American cabinet tried to decide what to do with this flamboyant and charismatic Frenchman. They had a good idea of his intentions, having quickly heard of the privateers and of his attempts to raise a force of American soldiers to spread the principles of the French Revolution to Louisiana, Florida, and Canada. They soon learned from Genet that he also wished the United States to liquidate its debt to France as quickly as possible and to enter into new treaties of commerce and amity. While the cabinet deliberated on Genet and worked out a policy towards the new French republic, Philadelphians competed with one another to fete the French Revolution and its ambassador. Genet used the politics of personality and the politics of theater to pressure the cabinet. The most visible and influential expression of this Revolutionary support was the network of Democratic-Republican clubs.

During the 1790s it appeared that other aspects of the French Revolution had followed Jefferson across the water, especially the political clubs that had done so much to radicalize French politics. The Philadelphia Democratic-Republican club was formed in May of 1793 as part of the American celebration of Citizen Genet and, through him, the French Revolution. The Democratic clubs were modeled in part after the Jacobin clubs, in part after the clubs for socializing and discussion that were already popular among men of the era. Democratic societies sprung up all across the nation to hear the news from France, and to discus the principles of the French and American Revolutions. They were largely debating clubs and celebratory societies, but they were debating and celebrating radical politics and radical republicanism. Similar Jacobin clubs and corresponding societies had appeared in England, Belgium and most of Europe in 1792 and 1793, and the American clubs appeared to be similarly radical. They were formed amid widespread approval of the French Revolution. Despite the hesitations caused by the regicide and the September massacres, many Americans in 1793 still addressed one another as citizen and some even wore the red Phrygian caps that symbolized sans-cullote radicalism. Support for the French Revolution was not limited to future radicals: Reverend Jedediah Morse of Charlestown, Massachusetts, preached several sermons praising the revolution as a continuation of the American revolution. Later, in 1798, Morse would lead the crusade against the French Revolution and against enlightenment ideals. In 1793, however, radicals and conservatives alike saw France catching contagious liberty from the United States, and Americans praised themselves for their good example. It appeared that the American Revolution had shown a light unto all the world, and that others were attending to it. The Puritan vision of creating an exemplary commonwealth that all would follow was realized in a republican form in the early 1790s. It was only realized for a brief moment before events proved to Americans that the French Revolution was different from their revolution.

In America, political leaders were vigilant against any Americanization of French radicalism and any attempt to extend the logic of the American Revolution into current politics. They feared an American commune, and they feared that backwoods farmers would constitute that commune. Backwoods radicalism in the Fall of 1793 coincided with a plague crisis in the capital, fears fed on fears, and a rural tax revolt and a few debating clubs took on the aspect of a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the Federal government. The yellow fever epidemic of September 1793 killed 3,000 to 4,000 people in a city of about 40,000. It was a devastating scourge, and a terrifying scourge. Those who could, fled the city. Those who could not flee, prayed, mourned, and did what the could to ease their neighbors' suffering. Congress adjourned to the suburb of Germantown, but little business was done. In the midst of this calamity Philadelphians heard that Western Pennsylvanians had gone from protesting the excise tax and threatening the tax collectors to forming mobs and in one instance seizing the house of a tax collector. In the midst of the panic induced by pestilence in the capital and war abroad, this back-country insurrection appeared to be the first step in a second, more radical, American revolution. Frontier unrest in Massachusetts had sparked one constitutional reaction, and the Pennsylvania rebellion appeared to be a direct frontier challenge to the authority of the new federal government. More, the frontier rebels were speaking the same language that the men now sitting in Congress had themselves used against British rule, and the rebellion was being reported in a city where people were wearing red caps to show their support for the French Revolution and for the ideals of liberté égalité and fraternité. Washington and the cabinet members felt that the nation was being drawn into the worldwide wars and the worldwide revolution. Hamilton organized and Washington himself led a force of 15,000 militia across the Alleghenies to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. The rebels, who had never been as organized or intransigent as Philadelphians had feared, never contested Washington's advance. He arrested a few of the leaders, and then marched back home again. The leaders were tried for treason and acquitted. Chastised by the experience, they curtailed their political activities. Jeffersonian leaders who had been accused of encouraging the rebels quickly disavowed any connection.

Citizen Genet failed in his mission. Washington and the cabinet chose to interpret neutrality more strictly than Louis XVI's government had done in 1775 and 1776. They forbade French privateers from basing themselves in American Ports. They blocked Genet's plans for a land conquest of the West, and although they did accelerate some of the debt repayment they were otherwise unhelpful in the matter of commercial treaties. Genet had gotten the impression from Jefferson that much of the cabinet would have preferred closer ties with France, and certainly the cheers of the crowds convinced him that the American people favored the French Revolution. He burned his bridges by demanding that the United States agree with his plans, and then threatening to appeal directly to the American people if his demands were not met. Genet threatened a radical revolution in the United States if it did not become a client state of the French Revolution. This was too much even for Jefferson, and the cabinet refused the demand, revoked Genet's credentials, and leaked his threats to the nation. Genet had misjudged the cabinet, and he had misjudged the nation. American much preferred Washington to Genet, their cabinet and elected officials to the Constituent Assembly in France, and their rule of law to the imperial demands of revolutionary necessity. Genet's failure discredited the French Revolution for many and encouraged Americans to think of France as a threat and not as a friendly nation. It predisposed them to look for French attempts to subvert other nations according to the demands of revolution and of necessity. Genet never returned to France. He was recalled by the Jacobins following their coup in the summer of 1793 at about the same time that his credentials had been rejected by the United States government. Genet retired to private life rather than re-crossing the Atlantic, and settled in the Hudson river valley. There he married the daughter of New York governor Henry Clinton. Genet's story had a happy ending, although far from the ending he had anticipated when he left France.

EDIT - corrected references, added a paragraph that had been in a different place in the out-takes file.

Posted by Red Ted at January 23, 2004 08:31 AM | TrackBack

In case you care to know, I have just finished an extensive biography of Citizen Genet in French based on materials in French Foreign Ministry archives and the Library of Congress. i'm still searching in Paris for a publisher who would care a damn about this forgotten phenomenon.

Posted by: claude Moisy at May 13, 2006 03:58 AM

claude Moisy: How can I contact you?
Danny (daniel (at) flam (dot) co (dot) il)

Posted by: Daniel Flam at July 12, 2006 03:37 PM

Am interested in Genet because of his interaction with Andre Michaux, French botanist who was in America from 1785-1796, whose journals we are translating. Eliane Norman

Posted by: Eliane Norman at August 10, 2006 03:55 PM

Just thought you might like to know I am related to Citizen Genet (I have his middle name). Wanted to say thanks for keeping this history alive!!!

Posted by: marta Getty at October 20, 2006 06:58 PM
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