As revolution and war engulfed Europe in the 1790’s, George Washington desperately needed to keep the new American nation out of the war between Great Britain and Revolutionary France. Instead, he found himself embroiled in a diplomatic crisis that gravely threatened American neutrality. The crisis was engineered by Edmond Charles “Citizen” Genet, the bad-boy French minister to the United States, in league with members of Washington’s own cabinet. This series will explore the Citizen Genet affair, which figures into our upcoming book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe.
Edmond Charles Genet was born in Versailles in 1762, his parents ninth and last child and only surviving son. Before his birth, his mother dreamed that the Virgin Mary came to her, bringing a handsome baby boy in a little white cradle. To show her gratitude, Mme. Genet dressed her son in tiny white suits, hats, and shoes until his fifth birthday.
Genet’s family home was the meeting place for learned and artistic types in Versailles. His four sisters were favorites at the royal court, ladies-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. Genet was something of a prodigy. By age 7, he was studying ancient and modern languages with two tutors, learning history and law from his magistrate father, and learning to ride, fence, dance, and play the pianoforte. At age 12, the King Gustav III of Sweden gave him a medal for translating from Swedish into French the History of the Reign of Eric XIV.
Using his father’s diplomatic connections, Genet attended the University of Göttingen in Germany, spent time at the embassy in Berlin and later at the embassy in Vienna. He returned to Paris in September 1781, just in time for his father’s funeral. He was immediately appointed to succeed his father at the Minister of Foreign Affairs, where he supervised a staff of eight interpreters (he was still only nineteen). In 1783, he accompanied a diplomatic mission to London, where he became interested in manufacturing and scientific enterprises.
When he returned to France, he made the first of a series of hotheaded mistakes, writing a report condemning a proposed stamp tax and angering a powerful nobleman. Before he knew it, his bureau at the Ministry was discontinued and its duties absorbed by other departments. There happened to be a vacancy at the Embassy at St. Petersburg, so in 1787, Genet set off on the long journey to Russia. On the way, he managed to offend the King of Poland by singing an indiscreet comic song. He got along better with Catherine the Great, who felt that he filled out a dragoon’s uniform nicely and gave him a pair of diamond knee buckles. He was promoted to captain and appointed Charge d’Affaires.
Meanwhile, the French Revolution began to gather steam. In 1790, King Louis XVI swore to maintain a constitution. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs instructed his representatives to adhere to the Constitution, while privately advising them to do no such thing. Genet, however, became an avowed and rabid constitutionalist. Catherine the Great soon began to think of him as an insane demagogue, while the representatives of the exiled French princes called him a “crazy little fool.” Catherine eventually banned him from the Russian court. He was given a one-way ticket back to France in July 1792.
Genet’s views were extreme, but his decision to become a patriot rather than a royalist probably saved two of his sisters from the guillotine. They stayed with the queen until the last minute when the royal family was taken prisoner the summer of 1792, and one of them held the door against the mob. When he arrived back in Paris in October, he found out that the royal family had been imprisoned and the Genet family fortune was destroyed.
Genet himself was welcomed by the Girondist group in power. Because of his unstinting ardor for the constitution, he was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to America. There was talk of exiling King Louis to America, and Genet was proposed as a possible escort. However, the Girondists joined the Jacobins in voting for the King’s execution. One of Genet’s sisters committed suicide rather than be sent to the scaffold for having given Marie Antoinette a few francs on the day of her arrest.
On January 23, 1793, Genet started for Brest, to embark on the frigate Embuscade. At the gates of Paris, they stopped him and searched his trunks, having heard a rumor that he was smuggling the Dauphin inside. He was detained at Brest for a month by contrary winds, and then, finally, he left France forever.
Coming Monday: The little French comet hits America.