Archive for the ‘French Revolution’ Category

Indian of the Nation of the Shawanoes, by Victor Collot (1796)

How many of us remember what we learned in school about the early Federal period in American history? Probably not much — because little is actually taught about this fascinating period in which the United States was struggling to be born. In many ways, the emerging nation was just a pawn in a wicked game between European powers for control of the North American continent — and manifest destiny was anything but.

Our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (on sale now, click the Buy Our Books tab at the top) centers around one such conspiracy in which both the Spanish and French were using (and being used by) some of the most famous Americans in the West in an attempt to break Kentucky loose from the United States and push the Americans back across the Alleghenies. George Rogers Clark, the brilliant, erratic, embittered hero of the American Revolution and beloved older brother of William Clark, was heavily involved in the French portion of the scheme. Its failure further blasted his reputation and led some in the United States to consider him something of a traitor.

Though the plot of Fairest has as many twists and turns as a John Le Carré novel (or at least it seemed that way when we were working on it and trying to to control the plot), I have to admit it is simplified from the real McCoy. In reality, Clark’s restless spirit could not be contained. Just two years after the failure of the plot described in our novel, he was involved in yet another French conspiracy, this one spearheaded by a military and political officer by the name of Georges Henri Victor Collot.

Tall, dark-haired, and intensely patriotic, Collot was in his 40s when he was recruited to undertake an intelligence mission for France to understand the political climate of the American West. If conditions were right, the French hoped they might learn enough to take possession, by either political or military means, of two key North American cities. Pittsburgh, under American control, and St. Louis, under Spanish control, were the keys to the interior of the continent. Eventually, the French hoped to drive the Spanish out of New Orleans and control the entire continent west of the Atlantic seaboard.

To that end Collot recruited an expert mapmaker, Joseph Warin, and several Canadian voyageurs and American boatmen. He set off down the Ohio River in March 1796 and made extensive notes on the topography, frontier settlements, Indians, and wildlife. Collot professed that geography was his true interest, but in reality he paid special attention to the placement and situation of American and Spanish forts throughout the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. He also stopped in for a chat with George Rogers Clark, to find out if the aging general might still be interested in leading a mercenary mission to storm down the Mississippi and seize New Orleans, as Clark had attempted to do earlier (read all about it in Fairest).

George Rogers Clark on his way to Kaskaskia, by Howard Pyle

What Collot found when he arrived in Clark’s hometown of Louisville resulted in perhaps the most wrenching yet compassionate account of Clark ever written. Later printed in Collot’s book Journey in North America, it is worth relating in full:

We cannot leave Louisville without relating a circumstance which does honor to the American character, and which would not disgrace the annals of the finest days of Rome.

A person of great military talents, and who had acquired considerable reputation in the war which procured independence to America; who had also gained from the natives almost the whole of the immense country which forms now the Western States; the rival, in short, of General Washington; had retired to Louisville after the peace, either from caprice or discontent against the government at that time, in the hope of ending his days tranquilly in the middle of his family, and on the spot which had been the scene of his achievements.

But unhappily, idleness and listlessness, inseparable companions, followed him in his retreat. He who is conversant only with military affairs, who knows nothing of agriculture or commerce, and has no taste for the charms of nature, is soon wearied of still life. Drinking and intoxication became the sole resource of this officer, and he carried this degrading passion to such an excess, that he was often found lying in a state of stupified drunkness in the streets.

We were the witnesses of a scene the most humiliating for a man who once inspired sentiments of high veneration, but now excited only those of pity. We returned about seven in the evening from taking a walk in the environs of Louisville, when we perceived, in the midst of the square, a number of persons who were crowding around something that lay extended on the ground, on which a blanket had been thrown, and which a man was about to take up and carry off.

Drawing near to satisfy our curiosity, I asked the man, who appeared to me to be a shoemaker, what was the matter. He turned towards me with a look expressive of sorrow, and said, “Do you not see, sir, that it is that hero, that great man; he has forgotten at the moment the important services which he has rendered us; but it is our duty to remember them; I cover him thus, to preserve him from the contempt of the people.” He had, indeed, as soon as he saw him fall, run out of his shop with a woolen blanket, which he threw over him, and carried him into his house, where we were witnesses of the affectionate care with which he treated him.


Map of St. Lewis (St. Louis) by Victor Collot and Joseph Warin (1796)

By this time, Collot had begun to attract attention as a potential spy, with “Mad Anthony” Wayne, commanding general of the United States Army (and a major character in Fairest) issuing orders that he be detained and arrested. Collot was stopped at Fort Massac by Zebulon Pike (father of the explorer) and searched, but managed to talk his way out of the jam, especially since his papers were all written in French which no one at the fort was able to read. He proceeded down river, compiling what was then the most accurate and detailed description and maps of the river systems of the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi. Along the way, Collot had adventures to rival his successors Lewis and Clark, including digging up fossils, being caught in titanic thunderstorms, being chased by bears, and enduring an Indian attack which gravely injured mapmaker Joseph Warin.

For his troubles, Collot was arrested again upon his arrival in New Orleans, this time by the Spanish governor. Warin was also arrested and died of his wounds while awaiting release. Eventually, Collot was allowed to leave. By the time he got back to France, the government had lost interest in his work. He died in 1805, but eventually the importance of his maps and manuscript were recognized. His Journey in North America was published in 1826. Collot’s writing is fascinating and delightfully acerbic. The book may be read in its entirety online thanks to the Wisconsin History Society and is available at their American Journeys site.

For more reading:

The Spanish Conspiracy
The André Michaux Story – Part 1
The Citizen Genet Affair – Part 1

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Andre Michaux week on Frances Hunter's American Heroes

Join us all this week as we learn about André Michaux, the French botanist who played a little-known but pivotal role in the history of North American exploration. Leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe!

André Michaux left Philadelphia on July 15, 1793, accompanied by two non-commissioned French officers of artillery. On August 14, he took a keelboat down the Ohio to Limestone (now Mayesville), Kentucky, observing plants and animals along the way. There Michaux he took leave of his companions, got horses for his journey, and headed into the interior of “Kaintuck.”

American oak documented by Andre Michaux

American oak documented by Andre Michaux

Michaux started visiting the people Citizen Genet had instructed him to see, for whom he had letters of introduction. On his way to Lexington, he spent time looking at the deposits of fossil shells and bones at Buffalo Lick, an area of bitter saline springs. On September 13, Michaux presented himself to Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby. Michaux did not record Shelby’s reaction in his notes, but later Shelby sent a letter to Jefferson expressing his opposition to the Louisiana Scheme and predicting its collapse.

On September 16, Michaux reached Louisville and finally made contact with George Rogers Clark. Unlike Shelby, he found Clark “very eager for the undertaking.” Michaux waited a month for Clark to frame a reply to Genet, spending his time botanizing around Lexington and Danville. On October 21, 1793, he finally received Clark’s note to Genet, in which he enthusiastically accepted his commission and concluded: “I will surmount every obstacle and pave my way to Glory which is my object.”

But there was one problem – “no bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Though Clark was confident he could recruit as many men as they needed, first he had to get boats and provisions, and he needed cash. “Without it our Scheams may be Ruined, and for so fair a prospect to meet with any difficulty of that nature would be lamentable,” he told Michaux. Michaux got busy soliciting donations from merchants in Lexington and Danville. “They have all promised to advance me so much money as possible,” he wrote Clark, but for immediate funds “I shall be in the necessity to have recours to Philadephia.”

On November 10, Michaux set out once more for the East. He traveled the 130-mile Wilderness Trail to Cumberland Gap and down to the Tennessee settlements on the Holston River, noting plants and ferns along the way. He arrived in Philadelphia in December to find that all hell had broken loose. The city was recovering from a terrible outbreak of yellow fever and thousands had fled, leaving government offices, newspapers, postal services, and businesses almost at a standstill. Michaux also learned that across the sea in his native France, the Reign of Terror was taking its fearful toll, with Robespierre in control, a civil war raging, and the French army embattled on every front.

Robespierre's Reign of Terror

Robespierre's Reign of Terror took a fearful toll

As for Genet, he’d spent the last four months in New York, desperately trying to commandeer for his Louisiana scheme the ships of the French fleet which had fled to New York harbor in the wake of the terrible insurrection in Santo Domingo. Genet was chagrined and disappointed when the ships returned to France, but this was nothing compared to his shock when he learned that the Washington administration had formally requested his recall. The official document, prepared by none other than Thomas Jefferson, had reached Paris in October. The French Committee on Public Safety agreed without protest, already well-aware of Genet’s indiscreet behavior. They did, however, agree to allow Genet to stay in his post until a replacement arrived.

Ever optimistic, Genet received Michaux and his report about events in Kentucky enthusiastically. He instructed Michaux to report to George Rogers Clark that the plan was on, but would have to be deferred until the spring of 1794 because of the difficulty of obtaining the needed French ships. Michaux wrote Clark about this, telling him excitedly about recent French military successes (“All the Troops under Duck of York taken prisoners … the Queen of France paid for her treasons of her head”). He enclosed 400 dollars for the cause, all he could pry loose from Genet.

With the liberation of Louisiana postponed, Michaux had hopes of resurrecting his plans for his journey to the Pacific. He visited with Jefferson and others in the American Philosophical Society to discuss the planned Western journey. He seems to have been broadening his interests during this time to include birds and animals.

In mid-January 1794, news of Citizen Genet’s official recall reached Philadelphia. By this time, much of Genet’s rude and insolent conduct toward the U.S. government had been made public. Michaux recorded nothing in his journal about this, but he did report a meeting in which he returned all the blank commissions entrusted to him. Genet, still in his post until a replacement arrived, permitted Michaux to return home for a visit to Charleston, promising to send him on another mission to Kentucky in the spring.

With a sigh of relief, Michaux headed toward Charleston and home. He was not on hand for the February 1794 arrival of the new French minister to the U.S., Jean Fauchet. Almost immediately, Fauchet quashed Genet’s Louisiana plans. Responding to protests by the Washington administration and disturbed by wild rumors of large-scale military recruitment by Clark in Kentucky, Fauchet issued a proclamation in March 1794, canceling all commissions conferred by Genet and instructing French citizens in America to abide by American neutrality. The Louisiana scheme was officially dead.

Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín

Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, Governor of Natchez

As for Michaux, he was probably glad to lay down his role as secret agent and go back to what he loved best: botany. He set out on one more major American expedition, in the spring of 1795, traveling across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Tennessee. Near Nashville, he stopped at the plantation home of Andrew Jackson, then an obscure lawyer. He visited Kentucky and dined with Governor Shelby, and discussed with him the idea of an overland journey to the Pacific. He traveled through Indiana and Illinois. During the following autumn, he roamed the Mississippi as far north at St. Louis, and as far south as Fort Massac. One night, he camped on the shores of the river where the Belle Riviere falls into the Mississippi. On the opposite shore was the camp of the Spanish Governor of Natchez, Don Manuel Gayoso. Gayoso sent a boat to find out who he was, and told him the news of the peace between France and Spain. Michaux probably didn’t tell Gayoso of his involvement in the late plot to dispossess him and take Louisiana for France.

Weathering harrowing winter storms, Michaux’s last port of call before turning for home was Louisville, where he conferred for the last time with George Rogers Clark, who was still trying to obtain reimbursement from the French government for all his expenses raising and equipping an army on their behalf. Michaux couldn’t help him out there, as he himself hadn’t been paid in years, and had all but exhausted his own estate supporting his country’s enterprise.

Flora Boreali Americana, by Andre Michaux

Flora Boreali Americana, by Andre Michaux

It is no doubt with regret that André Michaux turned his back forever on his dream of exploring the Missouri River. He arrived back in Charleston in early summer. In August 1796,  he sailed for France. Though many of his specimens were tragically lost in a shipwreck, upon returning home he produced two landmark books on North American plants, the Histoire des chenes de l’Amerique septentrionale (“Oaks of North America,” 1801) and the Flora Boreali-Americana (“Flora of North America,” published posthumously in 1803). Michaux never returned to American shores. He died during an expedition to Madagascar in 1802.

Michaux’s contributions to botany cannot be overestimated. He is credited with the discovery and description of over 300 plant species, and his work and that of his son Francois, also a famous botanist, is still well-known today. He was an outstanding scientist, a loyal Frenchman, and an able diplomat. I wonder how the history of North American exploration might have been different if this brilliant botanist had blazed the trail up the Missouri River, instead of Lewis & Clark?

Previous: André Michaux Part I: The King’s Botanist

André Michaux Part II: The Reluctant Secret Agent

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Andre Michaux week on Frances Hunter's American Heroes

Join us all this week as we learn about André Michaux, the French botanist who played a little-known but pivotal role in the history of North American exploration. Leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe!

Citizen Genet

Citizen Edmond Charles Genet

When Edmond Charles “Citizen” Genet arrived in the U.S. in April 1793 to take up his duties as French minister to America, King Louis had met his death on the scaffold. After a long and stormy voyage on the French frigate Embuscade, Genet disembarked in Charleston. France had by this time declared war on both England and Spain, so Genet immediately set about outfitting and arming four privateers in the Charleston port. He gave little care to how the U.S. government would react to such actions.

Cheered by enthusiastic crowds, Genet set out for Philadelphia, being wined and dined all along the way. Meanwhile, the Embuscade, which he had sent on ahead, arrived in Philadelphia with a fat war trophy: a British merchant ship, captured in Delaware Bay. The sight was greeted with jubilation, and Genet received a hero’s welcome.

As an ardent French patriot, André Michaux probably shared in the initial enthusiasm at his compatriot’s arrival. Shortly thereafter, Genet informed Michaux of his new “assignment.” Genet had a plan for liberating Louisiana and Florida—then under the control of Spain—and required a liaison and courier who could carry instructions between the ministry in Philadelphia and American frontier leaders. Michaux was clearly the man for the job. He was an intrepid explorer and seasoned traveler, was the soul of loyalty to France, spoke English, and had the cover of being a known and respected scientist. No one would question his departure.

Michaux’s feelings about his new role were doubtless mixed. On the one hand, he was loyal to his native country. On the other hand, he must have felt chagrined that his planned botanizing trip up the Missouri was now delayed. Not to mention that Genet’s complicated and extralegal  military and political schemes were far outside the botanist’s usual line of work.

George Rogers Clark

George Rogers Clark

Genet provided Michaux with letters to 20 prominent western leaders, including George Rogers Clark (William Clark’s older brother).  Clark had already written to Genet in February 1793, offering to recruit an army of 1500 Kentuckians and take Louisiana from the Spanish garrison, asking only for financial support and two or three frigates from the French government to provide support in New Orleans. Genet was prepared to take him up on his offer.

Genet was coolly received by George Washington in May 1793, but this didn’t dampen his ardor. Before Michaux had even left for Kentucky, Genet wrote home to France: “I am inciting the Canadians to throw off the yoke of England; I am arming the Kentuckians, and I am preparing an expedition by sea to support the descent on New Orleans,” boasting that his success was in spite of “Old Washington” who had hindered his progress “in a thousand ways.”

Genet set up a private meeting with Jefferson, who proved to be a wary if sympathetic ally.  Genet revealed his plans for recruiting an army in Kentucky to Jefferson, and confided the role he wanted André  Michaux to play in the scheme. Worried, Jefferson warned Genet that “his enticing officers and soldiers from Kentucky to go against Spain was really putting a halter about their necks, for that they would assuredly be hung, if they commenced hostilities with a government at peace with the United States.” Despite of his fears, Jefferson privately supported Genet’s cause and agreed to write Michaux a letter of introduction to Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby.

Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby

Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby

Amidst all this turmoil, Michaux was preparing for his trip. Genet provided him with a formal commission as an agent of France, a five-page Memoir of Instructions, and authority to confer with George Rogers Clark as to how the mission would be conducted. He was to cultivate the Indians in the area with gifts. Genet entrusted him with commissions en blanc for Indians and frontiersmen who agreed to join the cause. Clark was promised the rank of brigadier general in the French army. In sum, Michaux was empowered to raise, in the name of the French Republic, “an Independent and Revolutionary Legion.”

Michaux didn’t show it, but he must have had doubts about this grandiose mission. Living in “half a world of fantasy,” Genet had been able to come up with only about $750 to finance the Kentucky venture. His own salary unpaid for many years, Michaux knew all too well how much trust to put in government promises. This was the burden he carried when he finally set out for Kentucky in July 1793.

Previous: André Michaux Part I: The King’s Botanist

Next: André Michaux Part III: Scientist and Patriot

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Andre Michaux week on Frances Hunter's American Heroes

Join us all this week as we learn about André Michaux, the French botanist who played a little-known but pivotal role in the history of North American exploration.  Leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe!

One of my favorite characters in our new book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe, is the French botanist turned revolutionary agent André Michaux. Few people know that Michaux was Thomas Jefferson’s first choice for the feat of exploration that eventually became known to history as the Lewis & Clark expedition. Michaux has a bit of a shady reputation as a spy, which is entirely unfair. In fact, Michaux was more qualified than either Meriwether Lewis or William Clark to undertake such a trip.

The Great Park at Versailles

The Great Park at Versailles

André  Michaux was born in 1746 in the royal domain of Sartory in the great park of Versailles. He was the son of a farmer in the service of the king, Louis XV. His father’s fields bordered magnificent royal gardens, so it’s not surprising that André  became interested in botany. After four years of boarding school, Michaux went to work for his father and developed a passion for the science of agriculture and horticulture.

Both his parents were dead before he was twenty. He married in 1769, but his wife died giving birth to their son after less than a year of marriage. Shattered, André  threw himself into his work and found mentors among the royal court who were willing to help him cultivate his talents. He resolved to become a naturalist explorer and collector, in the service of his king. He began formal studies in botany in 1777 and moved to Paris in 1779 to study at the famed Jardin du Roi.

Jardin du Roi, Paris

Jardin du Roi, Paris

Michaux traveled to England, the Auvergne region of France, and Spain, collecting seeds and plants for the royal gardens and nurseries. In 1782, he was commissioned by Marie Antoinette to visit Persia (now Iran) to collect plants and trees for the garden at Trianon. He had a difficult time getting there, braving wild animals and hostile Arabs and Turks. At one point Michaux was kidnapped by Arabs and held for eight days before his consul could arrange for his release. He arrived in Persia in 1783 and spent an amazing year collecting plants and mineral specimens and documenting the animal life of the Persian desert. He was back in France by spring 1785, with a magnificent collection of seeds and plants for the royal gardens.

Michaux was immediately commissioned the “king’s botanist.” He expected the King to order him to expand his eastern travels farther into Asia, but instead, Louis XVI sent him across the Atlantic to America. The French were flush with their success in helping the colonies beat England in the American Revolution. The presence of Ben Franklin and his successor, Thomas Jefferson, in Paris fostered an enthusiasm for intellectual and scientific exchange between the two countries. It is probable that Michaux first met Jefferson in the summer of 1785, though there is no record of it. Michaux sailed for the New World in the fall of 1785, landing in New York after a stormy passage of 47 days.

Michaux prepared hundreds of plant and tree specimens to be shipped back to France, where people were clamoring for American plants. By special permission of the General Assembly of New Jersey, he was permitted to purchase 200 acres for use as a garden for cultivating plants for the French king. He traveled around the eastern seaboard, recording that in Connecticut a stranger like himself was welcomed only after he had answered the following questions: “Who are you? Whence do you come? Where are you going? What is your business? What is your religion?”

Rhododendrons, introduced to America by Andre Michaux

Rhododendrons, introduced to America by Andre Michaux

He visited George Washington at Mount Vernon in June 1786, and Washington offered to let him keep some of his collections there until he was ready to go back to France. Michaux continued on to the Carolinas, where he was warmly welcomed in Charleston but found the cost of living too high to bear. He rented (and later purchased) a country home near Charleston with 111 acres for cultivating plants to take home. He also made plans to send partridges, ducks, deer, wild turkeys, and even buffalo home for the King’s hunting grounds!

Michaux brought his teenage son Francois over from France to live with him. Accompanied by Francois, Michaux botanized along the coastal regions of Carolina and Georgia in 1787, then moved up into the mountains and the Cherokee Nation, where he engaged Indian guides to lead him along steep and rocky trails. In 1788, he visited Florida. Throughout his travels, Michaux kept a detailed journal of his adventures and the people and plants he encountered. In 1789, he spent 8 weeks in the Bahamas.

King Louis XVI of France

King Louis XVI of France

For some time, Michaux had become uneasy about the difficulty of obtaining funds for his gardens in New Jersey and Charleston and for financing his journeys. In July 1789, he learned of the storming of the Bastille, hardly reason for confidence that the check was in the mail. Adding insult to injury, Francois was shot in the eye by an errant partridge hunter and partially lost his vision. Michaux sent his son back to France in early 1790, along with fourteen chests of trees, seeds, and acorns. While Michaux was on botanizing tour of Georgia and Cumberland Island, he learned that Louis XVI made a desperate attempt to escape from Paris and was brought back and imprisoned.

Michaux feared he would be recalled before he could complete his darling project, a botanical geography of eastern America, and he wanted to carry his research on botanical topography northward into Canada. In the spring of 1792, he spent the summer exploring among the rivers and lakes of Quebec, engaging Indian guides to help him traverse difficult mountain trails and portage around river obstacles. He barely made it back before winter engulfed the Hudson Bay.

In the meantime, France abolished the monarchy and officially proclaimed the Republic of France. After seven years living in a free society, Michaux probably didn’t shed many tears over the fall of the monarchy. It did, however, throw his financial situation into chaos. He was not certain that the French Republic would renew his services, let alone honor his unpaid back salary. He was destitute.

Ever resourceful, Michaux approached the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, proposing a journey to the sources of the Missouri River, for geographical knowledge. His offer piqued the interest of Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State. At Jefferson’s urging, some of the most prominent men of the age became subscribers for the trip, including Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton. President Washington pledged 100 dollars. Surprisingly, Michaux turned down the subscription, telling the Society he preferred to travel at his own expense. Any money raised would be used to pay off his back drafts on his salary. He quite clearly did not want to be obligated to the U.S. government.

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

In March or April 1793, Jefferson submitted instructions to Michaux, very similar to those he wrote out later for the Lewis and Clark expedition. (It is documented that Jefferson’s 18 year old neighbor, Meriwether Lewis, learned of Michaux’s planned trip and begged to be allowed to go. Jefferson turned him down.) Michaux was getting ready to leave for the west when who should arrive on the scene but the first diplomatic envoy from the new French Republic, the minister plenipotentiary “Citizen” Genet.

Little did our unassuming botanist friend know that he would soon become a reluctant secret agent.

André Michaux Part II: The Reluctant Secret Agent

André Michaux Part III: Scientist and Patriot

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Citizen Genet in Philadelphia

Citizen Genet is feted in Philadelphia, 1793

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.

Embuscade vs. Boston

The Embuscade fights the British ship Boston

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.

George Washington's House in Philadelphia

George Washington's House in Philadelphia

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.


Maximilien Robespierre, architect of the "Reign of Terror"

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.

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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.

Citizen Genet

Citizen Edmond Charles Genet

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.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great of Russia by Johann-Baptist Lampi

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.

The Guillotine

French nobility going to the guillotine

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.

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