Citizen Genet arrived in America in the spring of 1793 to find that everybody was wild for the French Revolution. People went about singing the Marseillaise, cheered news of French victories in her war against England, and mobbed Philadelphia to see a waxworks version of King Louis getting his head chopped off. In the cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton pressed for American neutrality, while Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson argued for an allegiance to France.
Genet was only thirty years old. His biographer describes him as “A very handsome young man, with a fine, open, laughing countenance and a ruddy complexion, active and full of bustle, pleasant and unaffected, ‘more like a busy man than a man of business.'” He further describes him as “Impatient, hot-headed, petulant, fanatic, a good deal of a spoiled child, perhaps a little to precocious, too unabashed, too arbitrary – all of these things – but not a fool, not an adventurer, not without conspicuous and ingratiating qualities, and never ridiculous.”
Genet’s instructions were ambitious: he was to negotiate a new treaty of amity and commerce; prevent any arming of privateers and harboring of prizes in American ports, other than French ones; recruit American ship owners to raid against English ships and France’s other enemies; and recruit disgruntled frontiersman into armed bands for the purpose of inciting insurrection against the Spanish Americas. He had been warned by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the coldness of the American temperament (probably thinking of George Washington). He had been advised to employ indirect methods of approach, and to exert all possible influence on American public opinion.
Genet jumped into his new job with reckless abandon. Within ten days of his arrival in Charleston, he manned two privateers, sent the French ship Embuscade toward Philadelphia on a raid against British ships, and started his Spanish ventures in motion. He was given a heroes’ welcome all the way to Philadelphia, a continuous ovation of bells, guns, public addresses, civic feasts, and Fraternal Hugs.
Genet was warmly received in Philadelphia by everybody but George Washington. The day he met with Washington, he was astonished to see medallions of King Louis and his family in the parlor. Heedless of American neutrality and full of open disrespect for Washington, Genet was about as diplomatic as a bull in a china shop. He outfit French raiders in American ports, asked for an advance on the U.S.’s two-million dollar debt to France, and set about inciting French Canadians against England and Kentuckians against Spain. Further, he encouraged the formation of republican societies that began to clamor for war with England and attack the administration.
Genet met with Jefferson, with whom he talked openly and intimately. He told Jefferson all about his Spanish enterprises, and Jefferson expressed support, though he did say that participants from Kentucky might be hung if they were captured. At the same time, Jefferson proved elusive when it came to the details of specific agreements that might be formed between the U.S. and France. Privately, he assured the British minister of America’s commitment to neutrality.
In June 1793, George Washington finally ran out of patience. He proclaimed that all privateers in American waters should be seized. Genet had just armed the brig Petit Democrate in Philadelphia, and she was ready for sea. The Pennsylvania governor was requested to call out the militia and prevent the vessel from departing. Washington was out of town at Mount Vernon, so Genet confronted Jefferson and had a screaming meltdown. After some discussion, Jefferson persuaded Genet not to let the vessel leave until Washington got back. Ten days later, she sailed anyway.
Washington returned to Philadelphia in July, in high dudgeon. Genet asked for an interview and was informed that all communication had to go through the Secretary of State. He had the audacity to call at the president’s house, where he suggested they discuss a new treaty. Washington politely but firmly showed him the door. The president was furious.
Even Jefferson realized that Genet had become too hot to handle. He had done all in his power to drag the U.S. into war on the side of France. Jefferson wrote to Madison, “Finding at length that the man was incorrigible, I saw the necessity of quitting a wreck which would but sink all who should cling to it.” In cabinet discussions, Jefferson and Hamilton came to a rare moment of agreement: it was time to throw Genet under the bus.
Public opinion began to turn against Genet. In September, Genet learned that the Cabinet had requested his recall. Meanwhile, in France, the Girondist government had fallen, the Jacobins were in power, and Robespierre was looking into the complaints about Genet. Genet received a blistering rebuke from home: “Dazzled by a false popularity you have estranged the only man [Jefferson] who should be the spokesman for you of the American people. It is not through the effervescence of an indiscreet zeal that one may succeed with a cold and calculating people.”
Genet’s successor, Citizen Fauchet, arrived in January 1794. Hamilton described him as “a meteor following a comet.” He carried with him documents condemning Genet’s conduct as criminal. At Hamilton’s urging, Washington refused to permit Genet to be extradited back to France, where he almost certainly would have faced the guillotine.
Genet was thirty-one, his career was over, and he was facing permanent exile. The sale of his furniture, carriage and horses brought in just enough money to buy a small farm on Long Island. Citizen Genet became a citizen farmer and married Miss Cornelia Clinton, daughter of the governor of New York. He became a naturalized American citizen and never saw France again. He was invited back by Napoleon, but he had brains enough not to go, wanting nothing to do with the man who was to proclaim himself emperor. He died in Prospect Hill, New York in 1834, eternally bitter about the way France had treated him.