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Liberté Egalité Animosité
When the French Revolution broke out two hundred years ago this month, Americans greeted it enthusiastically. After all, without the French we could never have become free. But the cheers faded as the brutality of the convulsion emerged—and we saw we were still only a feeble newborn facing a giant, intimidating world power.
July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
But Jefferson’s words were being undermined without his knowledge. Lafayette, leading French troops (with Rochambeau) against the Austrians, concluded in 1792 that his home government had reeled out of control. He defected from the army and was soon writing Washington from an Austrian jail, posing delicate problems for the President, who wanted to help his old ally without committing America to either of the two sides Lafayette had already taken. The French Revolution no longer wore a face familiar from America’s own fighting days.
Jefferson’s hopes shifted to Brissot de Warville, the rising leader of the Girondin faction, a friend of America who spoke of “our” revolutions and republics (Washington deleted a similar “our” from one of Jefferson’s documents addressed to France). The summary execution of aristocrats by popular tribunals in France led to some nervous arguments in America over the need to break eggs when making revolutionary omelets. Jefferson had written to Lafayette, before his defection, that “we are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed.” After Lafayette’s imprisonment Jefferson wrote to his former secretary, William Short: “My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to the cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it now is.”
Jefferson did not know, when he wrote those words, that Louis XVI had been executed on January 21, 1793. Jefferson later wrote that he would have voted, if he were in the French government, for removing the king but not for killing him. That was also Thomas Paine’s attitude at the time, and Paine was in a position to do something for the king. Ironically, he tried to arrange to have Louis conducted into exile in America, under the safe-conduct of the new minister about to depart for Philadelphia, Edmond Charles Edouard Genêt. Despite Paine’s arguments, Citizen Louis Capet was condemned, and Americans began to realize that revolution meant one thing in a home country deposing its ruler and another in colonies seceding from an empire. There had been no regicide involved in the American Revolution—not even any executions of Loyalists. The death of the king raised the stakes of this second revolution, for its sympathizers as well as its participants.
“Republicans” in America had to rationalize the violence by a harsher definition of what revolution means. As French philosophes had used the American Revolution to change their society, so Jeffersonians out of government argued that the French Revolution, by its logic of antiaristocratic purity, showed that changes were still to be made in American society. If the French Revolution was different from the American, that only meant that the American Revolution should be made to resemble the French more closely. Democratic-Republican Societies were formed not only to support the French Revolution but to import some of its practices. Some Americans began to address each other as “Citizen” and to wear the liberty cap. Bostonians even decided that the proper term for a woman was “Citess.”
The aim of all this activity was to push America into open support of France. To prevent this, Washington decided to proclaim the neutrality he had been observing all along. Jefferson argued that he had no power to do this—that only Congress can declare war and that the state of peace when no such declaration has occurred does not need to be proclaimed by the Executive, the department of government that lacks war powers. But Americans were organizing support for a foreign belligerent, and Washington wanted to prevent that. Jefferson at least succeeded in keeping the actual word neutrality out of the so-called neutrality proclamation of 1793.
Jefferson was more enthusiastic about the French Revolution than was France’s minister to America.
At the very time Washington was proclaiming neutrality in Philadelphia, the new French minister arrived in Charleston. With him, the French Revolution acquired a particular face in America that would prove fatal to hopes for Franco-American unity—the face of Citizen Genêt. Genêt, a young aristocrat popular with the Girondins, made it his open aim to rally the American citizenry against its own government’s stated policy. This was a bracing prospect for people like James Madison, who deplored the President’s neutrality in a letter to Jefferson: “The proclamation was in truth a most unfortunate error. It wounds the national honor, by seeming to disregard the stipulated duties to France. It wounds the popular feelings by a seeming indifference to the cause of liberty.…If France triumphs, the ill-fated proclamation will be a millstone which would sink any other character [but Washington’s] and will force a struggle even on his.”