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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
When Lafayette was jailed in 1792, the French Revolution no longer wore a face familiar from America’s own fighting days.
Unfortunately for Genêt, he listened to similar talk from “true Americans,” who felt that he must save the President from his own advisers. Hamilton had argued against receiving Genêt at all. Washington overruled him, but Genêt made matters sticky by not bothering to seek a diplomatic reception before he began rallying opinion and money for the French cause. He made a public tour that brought him in a leisurely fashion to the seat of government in Philadelphia.
Jefferson, for as long as he could, nurtured great hopes for the Genêt mission. He was glad to see Ternant, the royal minister, removed, since he thought that remnant of the old regime had been an obstacle to the natural sympathy that would be expressed between the two republics once they understood each other. Jefferson assured his friends that Genêt “offers everything and asks nothing.” Genêt had brought with him a personal letter to Jefferson from his old friend Condorcet, which urged that “our republic, founded like yours on reason, on the rights of nature, on equality, ought to be your true ally … [that] we ought in some sort to form one people.”
This was Jefferson’s hope too, but Genêt took the idea of one people so literally that he acted as a citizen of the world talking to Americans as one of them. The Girondin stage of the French Revolution was the most optimistically proselytizing one, and Genêt felt he could speak to all free men without regard for the ceremonies of established governments. He had replaced his own title with the universal “Citizen.” He expected American officials to set aside their titles too.
When they did not, Genêt treated them as betrayers of their own revolution. He threatened to appeal over the head of Washington to the people the President claimed to represent. He even attacked Jefferson for the State Department’s implementation of the neutrality policy. Jefferson, in his turn, came to realize that Genêt was doing far more damage to the French cause than Ternant ever had. By July 1793 he was writing Madison: “Never in my opinion was so calamitous an appointment made, as that of the present Minister of F[rance] here. Hotheaded, all imagination, no judgment, passionate, disrespectful and even indecent towards the P[resident] in his written as well as verbal communications, talking of appeals from him to Congress, from them to the people, urging the most unreasonable & groundless propositions, & in the most dictatorial style.…He renders my position immensely difficult.”
Jefferson’s only hope of preventing a public reaction against Genêt (and through him against France) was to keep the insulting record of his dealings from publication. But that was made impossible when Genêt went from propagandizing to active war making: he was in touch with Western leaders like George Rogers Clark, who wanted to seize Louisiana from the Spanish. Genêt, an adjutant general of the French army, offered the support of his nation to such a “filibustering” movement. This was all the more embarrassing for Jefferson since Genêt had extracted a letter of recommendation from him introducing Genet’s emissary in this matter to the governor of Kentucky. Genêt, at first a nuisance, had become a disaster.
Yet by the time his recall was demanded, Genêt had to request asylum in this country (where, indeed, he lived out the rest of his long life). During his absence the Jacobins had replaced the Girondins and instituted the Terror. Friends of America like d’Estaing were sent to the guillotine—to which Genêt would undoubtedly have been conducted had he returned to France. Paine, imprisoned by Robespierre, lived in the shadow of the guillotine until its blade fell on Robespierre himself. The Revolution was devouring its own.
America was now a “sister republic” to France only in its own bitter divisions. The ideal accepted by all sides at the beginning of the Washington administration had been a factionless society, in which partisan appeals were to be submitted to impartial consideration. Early divisions had occurred, in the cabinet and in Congress, over matters like the establishment of a federal banking system. But these had not become matters of widespread popular agitation until Genêt made his appeals to the people and Democratic-Republican Societies began staging rallies in imitation of the Parisian mobs. John Adams was no doubt exaggerating when he remembered, late in his life, a time “when ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day threatened to drag Washington out of his house.” But there was tumult and disorder of the sort not seen since the demonstrations against George III.