Citizen Edmond Charles Genet

Citizen Edmond Charles Genet
Citizen Edmond Charles Genet

Edmond Charles Genet (known as “Citizen Genet”) was French ambassador to the United States in the 1790s, and was accused of engaging in clandestine schemes detrimental to American interests.

He was born in Versailles in 1763, the son of a royal bureaucrat. While he was still an adolescent, his intelligence and family connections secured him a clerkship in the foreign affairs ministry. In 1787, he was appointed secretary of the Russian embassy in St. Petersburg, but Genet’s zealous support of the French Revolution led Catherine the Great to order his removal in 1792.

Back home in France, Genet was hailed by the ruling Girondin faction as a hero of the republic and welcomed into the highest circles of government. His newfound fame led to his appointment as minister to the United States, charged with the important task of improving the relations between the two countries that had deteriorated since the American Revolution.

When Genet departed for the United States in early 1793, he was only thirty years old, an impulsive, rash young man whose native talents were never honed by hard work. This was unfortunate, for the difficulty of his assignment was enough to tax even the most artful diplomat.

First, Genet was to negotiate with a generally pro-British Washington administration a new treaty granting more commercial favors to France. Second, he was to ask Americans to support attacks upon Spanish and English possessions in North America, schemes that would very likely involve the young nation in international hostilities.

And last, Genet, in effect, had to convince the Americans to pay for his mission and its intrigues, for the French government had not appropriated any funds for the purpose; rather, they hoped that the money would come from an advance payment of the $5.6 million debt the United States owed France.

In April 1793, Genet arrived in Charleston where he was given a hero’s welcome by a host of state dignitaries. Wanting to see the country, Genet embarked for Philadelphia by land and, after a monthlong, triumphant journey north, arrived in the nation’s capital and was honored, in his own words, with “perpetual fêtes.” The popular adulation, combined with initial amicable meetings with federal officials, apparently led Genet to believe that the success of his mission was assured.

He was, of course, wrong. While Genet was on his way to Philadelphia, the Washington administration had issued the Proclamation of Neutrality, forbidding “all acts and proceedings whatsoever” that would involve Americans in the European conflict. Undaunted and apparently oblivious to the niceties of international protocol, Genet set in motion a chain of events that would shortly force the Washington administration to demand his recall.

First, without the approval or, indeed, the knowledge of the U.S. government, Genet issued letters of marque for privateers—manned primarily by U.S. crews—to prey on British shipping. The prizes, when brought back to U.S. ports, were to be condemned and sold in courts set up by local French consuls.

Immediately, the Washington administration protested that licensing the seizure of foreign ships was a violation of U.S. neutrality and the sale of prizes on U.S. soil was a violation of U.S. sovereignty. To no avail, Genet argued that France asked no more than what it granted the infant U.S. during the American Revolution and that his actions were fully justified by the 1778 Franco-American treaty.

A second and potentially more volatile category of Genet’s schemes was his vision of “liberating” Louisiana, Florida, and Canada from their Spanish and English masters. While in South Carolina, Genet delegated the scheme to seize Spanish Florida to the French consul in Charleston, Michel Ange Mangourit, who assembled 300 men under the command of a Revolutionary War veteran, Elijah Clarke.

Out west, as the French were well aware, the settlers were furious with the national government due to their inability to secure the navigation of the Spanish-controlled Mississippi River or protect the citizens from Indian attacks. Having been instructed to take advantage of this situation and foment an attack upon New Orleans, Genet was elated when, upon arriving in Philadelphia, a letter awaited him from the Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark.

Clark, now a deeply embittered and indebted alcoholic living in Louisville, Kentucky, offered to raise a 1,500-man army to march on New Orleans. Genet promptly sent French botanist André Michaux, armed with a letter of recommendation from Thomas Jefferson, to begin talks with the Kentuckians.

Both expeditions, however, were dismal failures, primarily due to the inability of Genet to secure funding and the Washington administration’s determined opposition to his plans. The lack of money was due to the Washington administration’s refusal to advance payment on the $5.6 million debt.

Upon receiving the news in mid-June, Genet, left without any means of financing his ambitious intrigues and rightly fearing the imminent collapse of his entire mission, attacked the administration in a number of impolitic letters. Underestimating the power of the executive branch and overestimating the force of public opinion, Genet believed he could appeal to the American people over Washington’s head.

The effort backfired, however; the American public was dismayed as word leaked of his discourtesies toward the Washington administration. In August, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the American minister in Paris, formally requesting Genet’s recall.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation cooled the ardor of Governor William Moultrie, who immediately forbade any further recruitment for an attack on Florida. Shortly after, before Elijah Clarke and his men could seriously complicate U.S. relations with Spain, they were ordered to disband.

In Kentucky, George Rogers Clark’s previous boast that 1,500 men would flock to his banner proved to be exaggerated. No more than a few dozen volunteers ever appeared, nor did the money promised him by the French.

Any remaining enthusiasm for attacking New Orleans dissipated when several high officials, including Jefferson and the governor of the Northwest Territories, Arthur St. Clair, made it abundantly clear that anyone who supported an attack upon Spanish territory would be subject to prosecution.

Back in France, meanwhile, the newly ascendant Jacobins denounced Genet as an enemy of the republic. Concerned about continuing the supply of U.S. foodstuffs, the French government quickly granted America’s request for a recall, and Genet’s replacement, Jean Fauchet, revoked all commissions issued by Genet and canceled the expeditions against Spanish territories.

Faced with the very real possibility of execution should he return to France, Genet chose to remain in the United States. In 1794 he married the daughter of New York Governor George Clinton. After spending eight years on a farm in Long Island, Edmond and Cornelia Genet moved to an estate outside Albany, where they raised six children. Genet spent the rest of his days as a landed gentleman, tinkering with inventions and only occasionally involving himself in politics. He died on Bastille Day, 1834.