Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Lost America

The Lewis & Clark Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University houses almost all the plant specimens collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their journey, including many newly discovered species. The federal program Save America’s Treasures paid to rehouse the collection to modern standards.

We don’t usually editorialize or advocate here, but today I’m going to make an exception. As some of our fans may have noticed, blogging hasn’t been as regular around here as our usual standard. The reason has been a time-consuming job search for one-half of the writing team of “Frances Hunter.” Fortunately that’s now resolved. Hopefully that will free up time and emotional energy for fun things like this blog.

Anyone who has taken a peek at the bio section may have noticed that one of us has been fortunate enough to work in a history-related field. As of December 1, that will no longer be the case, for that job fell victim to the budget ax along with so many others in public history.

Consider the current state of this nation’s commitment to our own heritage (thanks to American Heritage magazine for their great editorial roundup of this information):

– Completely eliminated: Save America’s Treasures, the program that saved countless American courthouses, document collections, battleships, historic homes, Native American sites like the Acoma Pueblo, and artifacts like the Gettysburg Cyclorama, the Rosa Parks bus, and the Star-Spangled Banner itself.

– Completely eliminated: Preserve America, which helped small towns and ethnic neighborhoods plan how to preserve entire areas of historic character, developing programs like walking tours, markers, and historic drives.

– Completely eliminated: Teaching American History, which provides grants for public school teachers to undertake intensive study to better teach the American story to kids.

– Completely eliminated: We the People, which funded teacher training, purchased classic books and art for public schools, and sponsored the National Digital Newspaper Project, a program to digitize and put online historic American newspapers from the 1880s to the 1920s.

– Completely eliminated: The National Heritage and Scenic Byways program. Among many others, this ends support for the Heritage Area around the Knife River Village in North Dakota, where Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea, eliminated the chance for a National Heritage Area to preserve Lewis and Clark’s legacy on the West Coast, and ends support for scenic byways along the Lewis & Clark Trail including the Native American Scenic Byway in the Dakotas and the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway in Idaho — not to mention the Natchez Trace.

The Native American Scenic Byway guides visitors through four of the reservations of the Lakota Sioux. It encompasses many of the historic sites of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The program has been eliminated after a 20-year run.

I recently found a reprint of a great book called Lost America, by Constance M. Greiff. Originally published in 1971, Lost America is a pictorial tour of landmark buildings that had been destroyed by neglect and the wrecking ball. In her introduction, Greiff has an excellent analysis of what caused the wholesale destruction of thousands of architectural treasures in our country, particularly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Much of the demolition was the result of a promise made to the nation’s veterans. The GI Bill granted low-cost mortgages to the men who had fought so gallantly in World War II. To make way for the new homes, America’s small towns and villages were converted to suburbs. Urban renewal took much of the rest. After all, what were some crummy old buildings when people needed highways to drive in from their new homes and places to park once they got there?

Greiff identifies a particularly dangerous period for historical sites, writing, “We tend to denigrate the tastes of the generation or two immediately preceding our own at the same time we are attracted to the lifestyle of their predecessors, first, perhaps, as merely amusingly quaint, and then as the object of serious study and admiration … The buildings of [the] past were viewed with contempt as examples of crudity and bad taste. … They were objects to be discarded…” In another book from my library, The Gingerbread Age by John Maass (1957), the author writes of his efforts to photograph America’s Victorian heritage. There was a period of several years where Maass simply could not drive fast enough. He would get wind of a site to photograph and get there only to find out it has been torn down just days before.

The Genie Car Wash sign (1968), Austin, Texas.

My own city is a growing one in which the past is obliterated on an almost daily basis. Recently, citizens did battle to save a vintage neon car wash sign. The passion invoked by such an unremarkable object spoke volumes to the sense of loss experienced by ordinary citizens — again and again supporters  used the sad, desperate words: It’s all that’s left. (The sign was saved.)

The wanton destruction of the post-war era was symbolized most dramatically by the mindless demolition of the fabulous Penn Station in New York, which eventually led to the modern preservation movement. A lot of time has passed since then. The elimination of federal funding for historic preservation says it all about the nation’s current level of commitment to its heritage — it’s not worth a dime. Similarly, states are starving their historic parks and monuments with reduced hours and maintenance, and cutting back on access and preservation of historic archives. Though the battle is ongoing, budget cuts in Georgia aim to eliminate their state archives altogether, ending public access to hundreds of years’ worth of historical documents and artifacts.

A number of Lewis & Clark sites are seriously endangered. Just to cite the most recent example, a high-ranking official of the National Park Service warned that Lewis & Clark National Park in Astoria (site of Fort Clatsop) will be forever changed if a proposed terminal for liquified natural gas is built just three miles away. Visitors will no longer be able to experience the Lower Columbia River with a sense of the beauty that Lewis and Clark experienced.

Paddlers experience the Lower Columbia River Water Trail. Courtesy Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

What do you think? It’s all up to us, and we can’t count on any help from Uncle Sam this time around. If I ever saw a time when “think global, act local” applied, it is in the siege now underway on America’s historical treasures. What books will go unresearched and unwritten when archives are shuttered? What architectural treasures will be neglected, burned, or razed for short-term economic gain? Which of the post-war buildings, now aging themselves, will be labeled monstrosities and meet the fate of their Victorian predecessors? What sites of the Lewis & Clark Trail will be despoiled? What photographs will represent our era in a future Lost America? What will our children and grandchildren say about us?

Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever: Penn Station, 1910-1963. The New York Times wrote, “Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn Station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.”

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Imagine being lost in an unfamiliar wilderness for sixteen days, without food, shelter, ammunition, or any way to let your companions know where you were. Such was the fate of Private George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Only 18 years old when he joined Lewis & Clark’s party in October 1803, Shannon literally grew up along the trail. In the course of the 2 ½ year journey, he suffered one of the most harrowing ordeals of all the men of the Corps of Discovery– facing the wilderness totally alone.

George Shannon

Artist’s rendering of George Shannon

George Shannon was born in 1785 in Washington County, Pennsylvania, an intelligent young man from a good family. He met Meriwether Lewis in Pittsburgh in 1803, while Lewis was awaiting the completion of the expedition’s keelboat.  Shannon was one of three men Lewis took along from Pittsburgh on a trial basis. He officially signed on at Maysville, Kentucky on October 19, 1803, and is usually considered one of the “nine young men from Kentucky,” although his ties to Kentucky were forged later. Shannon was hired onto the expedition as a hunter, at the rank of private. His salary was $25 per month.

Shannon wintered over at Camp Dubois with the rest of the Corps, and was placed in the first squad under Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor. He seems to have been considered a capable and reliable young man, who rarely caused the captains any trouble.The captains thought enough of Shannon’s abilities that they tapped him to discharge Pryor’s duties should Pryor need to be absent from the squad.

Shannon’s ordeal began on August 26, 1804, when he was detailed to search for two missing pack horses near Spirit Mound in present-day South Dakota. Shannon found the horses quickly and proceeded upriver, believing the rest of the Corps to be ahead of him. In fact, the Corps was actually trailing him. With only a rifle and a handful of ammunition, Shannon wandered alone in the wilderness for the next sixteen days, desperately trying to catch up to his companions.

A skilled hunter, Shannon was able to kill his own food until his ammunition ran out, several days after he went missing. He was forced to abandon one of the pack horses which gave out in the wilderness. Loading his rifle with a hard stick, he managed to bring down one rabbit. Otherwise, he survived by eating grapes, keeping the second pack horse in reserve as a last resort.

Finally, on September 11, 1804, Shannon spied the Corps of Discovery coming up the river. One can only imagine his emotions upon finally being reunited with his fellows. A relieved Captain Clark wrote in his journal:

here the man who left us with the horses 16 days ago and has been a head ever Since joined, us nearly Starved to Death, he had been 12 days without any thing to eate but Grapes & one Rabit, which he Killed by shooting a piece of hard Stick in place of a ball—. This man Supposeing the boat to be a head pushed on as long as he Could, when he became weak and feeble deturmined to lay by and waite for a tradeing boat, which is expected  Keeping one horse for the last resorse,—    thus a man had like to have Starved to death in a land of Plenty for the want of Bulletes or Something to kill his meat.

Private Shannon Lost Map

Children’s map – “Where in the World is Private George Shannon?”

Unfortunately for Shannon, it wasn’t the last time he got lost. On August 6, 1805, he was sent out to hunt near the Three Forks, a dangerous and confusing area inhabited by unfamiliar Indians. It was a stressful day for the Corps, with Clark ailing from a hurt ankle and Private Whitehouse seriously injured from almost being crushed by a canoe. A harried Captain Lewis wrote in his journal that night:

Shannon had been dispatched up the rapid fork this morning to hunt, by Capt Clark before he met with Drewyer or learnt his mistake in the rivers. When he returned he sent Drewyer in surch of him, but he rejoined us this evening and reported that he had been several miles up the river and could find nothing of him.    we had the trumpet sounded and fired several guns but he did not join us this evening. I am fearful he is lost again. this is the same man who was seperated from us 15 days as we came up the Missouri and subsisted 9 days of that time on grapes only.

Lewis sent Reubin Fields in search of Shannon, but Fields returned on August 8 and “reported that he had been up Wisdom river some miles above where it entered the mountain and could find nothing of Shannon.”  But the next day, Lewis happily reported that Shannon had finally rejoined the group.

while we halted here Shannon arrived, and informed us that having missed the party the day on which he set out he had returned the next morning to the place from whence he had set out or furst left them and not finding that he had supposed that they wer above him; that he then set out and marched one day up wisdom river, by which time he was convinced that they were not above him as the river could not be navigated; he then returned to the forks and had pursued us up this river.    he brought the skins of three deer which he had killed which he said were in good order. he had lived very plentifully this trip but looked a good deel worried with his march.

Shannon suffered some minor mishaps during the remainder of the expedition, but was careful not to get lost on the return trip. He returned up the Missouri River in 1807, on an ill-fated fur-trading expedition that had the added goal of returning Mandan chief Sheheke to his village. The party was attacked by the Arikara Indians, and Shannon suffered a bullet wound that broke his leg. By the time the party straggled back down the river, gangrene had set in and Shannon was not expected to live. Shannon’s amputated leg was buried at Fort Bellefontaine on the bank of the Missouri River. The young man survived, but his exploring days were over. He was still only 22.

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

George Shannon memorial in Lexington, Kentucky

Shannon went on to study law in Lexington, Kentucky. In the spring of 1810, William Clark recruited him to travel to Philadelphia to assist Nicholas Biddle with editing the Lewis and Clark journals. Clark’s letter of introduction stated that Shannon “possesses a sincere and undisguised heart, he is highly spoken of by all his acquaintances and much respected at the Lexington University where he has been for the last two years.”

After his involvement with the Lewis and Clark journals, Shannon returned to Kentucky, married into a prominent Lexington family, fathered seven children, and embarked on a turbulent legal and political career in Kentucky and Missouri that spanned almost three decades. George Shannon died suddenly August 30, 1836 at the age of 51. A St. Louis newspaper reported that his masonic funeral was attended by “a large assemblage of the ladies and gentlemen of the town … to offer their last testimony of respect to the remains of a good man.” He is buried in an unmarked grave in the Massie Mill Cemetery near Palmyra, Missouri.

The compelling story of Shannon’s ordeal in the wilderness continues to resonate with students of the Lewis and Clark expedition, especially young people. Shannon is the subject of several children’s books, second only to the expedition’s dog, Seaman.

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One of the most humorous incidents in the aftermath of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was poetical rather than political. In those days, political disagreements were fought out in newspapers affiliated with the rival parties, often by anonymous correspondents. While those newspapers affiliated with President Jefferson trumpeted the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition in September 1806 and heaped praise on the homecoming heroes, not everyone was impressed, and some even resorted to barbed satire.

Joel Barlow

Joel Barlow

An epic poem produced by Joel Barlow to commemorate Meriwether Lewis’s achievement proved an irresistible target. Barlow was a Republican politician, diplomat and writer whose claim to fame was producing bombastic poetry extolling the glory of the young American nation. Barlow was best know for his epic poem, The Vision of Columbus: a poem in nine books, which was published in 1787, thanks to subscriptions he had received from people as distinguished as King Louis XVI of France, the Marquis de Lafayette, and George Washington.  This 250-page monster not only praised Christopher Columbus, but provided an entire landscape of America –political, social, and geographic – and instructed its citizens on how best to appreciate their country. In 1807, Barlow had returned to this theme, this time with a 10-volume poem called The Columbiad, an epic vision of the rise of freedom in the New World.

Historian Albert Furtwangler put it diplomatically when he said, “In the view of most critics, then and later, [Barlow’s] talents for poetry could not sustain a serious epic.” Although sensational at the time, Barlow’s verse is painful to modern eyes.  His poem about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, “On the Discoveries of Captain Lewis,” is no exception. Penned for a homecoming dinner party to be held in Lewis’s honor in Washington, D.C. on January 14, 1807, the poem is full of hyperbole, mixed metaphors, and just plain awful verse. The premise of the poem is Christopher Columbus looking down from heaven and praising Lewis as the hope of a new millennium for the United States. Apologies to our readers, but I cannot resist including the whole of it here.

Let the Nile cloak his head in the clouds, and defy
The researches of science and time;
Let the Niger escape the keen traveller’s eye,
By plunging or changing his clime.

Columbus! not so shall thy boundless domain
Defraud thy brave sons of their right;
Streams, midlands, and shorelands elude us in vain.
We shall drag their dark regions to light.

Look down, sainted sage, from thy synod of Gods;
See, inspired by thy venturous soul,
Mackenzie roll northward his earth-draining floods,
And surge the broad waves to the pole.

With the same soaring genius thy Lewis ascends,
And, seizing the car of the sun,
O’er the sky-propping hills and high waters he bends,
And gives the proud earth a new zone.

Potowmak, Ohio, Missouri had felt
Half her globe in their cincture comprest;
His long curving course has completed the belt,
And tamed the last tide of the west.

Then hear the loud voice of the nation proclaim,
And all ages resound the decree:
Let our occident stream bear the young hero’s name,
Who taught him his path to the sea.

These four brother floods, like a garland of flowers,
Shall entwine all our states in a band
Conform and confederate their wide-spreading powers,
And their wealth and their wisdom expand.

From Darien to Davis one garden shall bloom,
Where war’s weary banners are furl’d,
And the far scenting breezes that waft its perfume,
Shall settle the storms of the world.

Then hear the loud voice of the nation proclaim
And all ages resound the decree:
Let our occident stream bear the young hero’s name,
Who taught him his path to the sea.

Barlow’s poem was hailed at the dinner and was reprinted widely in the American press. It is worth noting that the verse in the poem that attracted the most attention was the last one. Barlow was suggesting that the “occident stream” – the Columbia River – be renamed in honor of Meriwether Lewis.

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Barlow’s poem, and his suggestion, proved too big a target to resist. An anonymous Federalist published a satirical jab at the poem and the expedition in the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review in March 1807. The satire is attributed to Jefferson’s rival and eventual successor in the White House —his Federalist nemesis, John Quincy Adams. (Adams never explicitly claimed the satire, but it is worth noting that in the monthly minutes of the Anthology Society for February, the following entry was made: “An excellent poetical communication from J.Q. Adams at Washington was approved.”)

Adam’s poem was set to the tune of Yankee Doodle. Adams said in a preface to the poem, “Our intention is not to deprecate the merits of Captain Lewis’s publick services. We think highly of the spirit and judgment, with which he has executed the duty undertaken by him, and we rejoice at the rewards bestowed by congress upon him and his companions.”  Nevertheless, the poem begins by poking fun at the supposed scientific achievements of the expedition and points out everything that Lewis didn’t discover.

Good people listen to my tale, ‘Tis nothing but what true is;
I’ll tell you of the mighty deed Atchiev’d by Captain Lewis –
How starting from the Atlantick shore By fair and easy motion,
He journied, all the way by land, Until he met the ocean.

Heroick, sure, the toil must be To travel through the woods, sir;
And never meet a foe, yet save His person and his goods, sir!
What marvels on the way he found He’ll tell you, if inclin’d, sir –
But I shall only now disclose The things he did not find, sir.

He never with a Mammoth met, However you may wonder;
Not even with a Mammoth’s bone, Above the ground or under –
And, spite of all the pains he took The animal to track, sir,
He never could o’ertake the hog With navel on his back, sir.

And from this day his course began,Till even it was ended,
He never found an Indian tribe From Welchmen straight descended:
Nor, much as of Philosophers The fancies it might tickle;
To season his adventures, met A Mountain, sous’d in pickle.

Despite the sarcastic words, the poem at one point seems to absolve Lewis of blame for Barlow’s hyperbole. Adams suggests that Lewis himself would pooh-pooh the absurd claims Barlow made about his abilities: “To bind a Zone about the earth, He knew he was not able—, They say he did –but ask himself, He’ll tell you ’tis a fable.”

He never dreamt of taming tides, Like monkeys or like bears, sir –
A school, for teaching floods to flow, Was not among his cares, sir –
Had rivers ask’d of him their path, They had but mov’d his laughter-
They knew their courses, all, as well Before he came as after.

And must we then resign the hope These Elements of changing?
And must we still, alas! be told That after all his ranging,
The Captain could discover nought But Water in the Fountains?
Must Forests still be form’d of Trees? Of rugged Rocks the Mountains?

We never will be so fubb’d off, As sure as I’m a sinner!
Come-let us all subscribe, and ask The HERO to a Dinner-
And Barlow stanzas shall indite- A Bard, the tide who tames, sir-
And if we cannot alter things, By G–, we’ll change their names, sir!

The poem then takes aim at Barlow’s suggestion that the Columbia River be renamed in honor of Lewis, suggesting that Jefferson’s mistress Dusky Sally, Joel Barlow, and even the United States itself should get a new name. The poem ends with a dig at Jefferson and Barlow, suggesting that since the Republicans couldn’t bring about a French-style Reign of Terror, they are going to undermine the Constitution by confusing everyone with a Babel of names.

Let old Columbus be once more Degraded from his glory;
And not a river by his name Remember him in story-
For what is old Discovery Compar’d to that which new is?
Strike-strike Columbia river out, And put in – river Lewis!

Let dusky Sally henceforth bear The name of Isabella;
And let the mountain, all of salt, Be christen’d Monticella –
The hog with navel on his back Tom Pain may be when drunk, sir –
And Joel call the Prairie-dog, Which once was call’d a Skunk, sir.

And when the wilderness shall yield To bumpers, bravely brimming,
A nobler victory then men;– While all our head are swimming
We’ll dash the bottle on the wall And name (the thing’s agreed on)
Our first-rate-ship United States, The flying frigate Fredon.

True – Tom and Joel now, no more Can overturn a nation;
And work, by butchery and blood, A great regeneration; –
Yet, still we can turn inside out Old Nature’s Constitution,
And bring a Babel back of names – Huzzah! for REVOLUTION!

Federalists got a good laugh out of Adams’ poem, but fortunately for the future of American letters, the poetical war of words ended here. The merits of the expedition continued to be a matter of public debate, with Jefferson partisans hailing Lewis’s scientific and anthropologic discoveries, and Federalists complaining that the expedition was an expensive and unproductive boondoggle.

Although the Lewis and Clark Expedition seems tailor-made for an epic poem about the American experience, no other poet attempted it. The journals have to speak for themselves.

More interesting reading: Lewis and Clark Return to Heroes’ Welcome — or Do They?

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Just for fun today.

Osama Bin Laden died, and George Washington met him at the Pearly Gates. He slapped him across the face and yelled, “How dare you try to destroy the nation I helped conceive!”

Patrick Henry approached, punched him in the nose and shouted, “You wanted to end our liberties but you failed!”

James Madison followed, kicked him in the groin and said, “This is why I allowed our government to provide for  the common defense!”

Thomas Jefferson was next, beat Bin Laden with a long cane and snarled, “It was evil men like you who  inspired me to write the Declaration of Independence.”

The  beatings and thrashings continued as George Mason, James Monroe and 66 other early Americans unleashed their anger on the terrorist leader.

As Bin Laden lay bleeding and in pain, an angel appeared. Osama Bin Laden wept and said, “This is not what you  promised me.”

The angel replied, “I told you there would be 72 Virginians waiting for you in Heaven. What did you think I  said?”

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Today we think of Thomas Jefferson as the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, faced down the Barbary pirates, purchased the Louisiana territory, and sent Lewis and Clark to explore it. But if you had told the average American at the close of his presidency that Jefferson would one day be carved in stone on Mount Rushmore, you would’ve been greeted with howls of derision. By the time he left office, Jefferson was about as popular as a rattlesnake. The reason: he had almost singlehandedly crippled the American economy, while depriving Americans of their civil liberties in a far worse way than John Adams ever dreamed of.

The downfall of Jefferson’s second term began in the spring of 1807, when the British warship Leopard fired on the U.S.S. Chesapeake, killing three Americans, wounding 18, and impressing four sailors alleged to have deserted from the British navy. Outraged, Jefferson promptly ordered all British warships out of American waters, but he knew as well as anyone that the nascent United States could ill afford another war with Great Britain. When England announced its intention to search American ships for deserters even more aggressively, Jefferson decided to act. He rammed through Congress a policy he called “peaceable coercion:” a series of five Embargo Acts, effectively banning American trade with all European powers.

The HMS Leopard, 1807

The HMS Leopard, 1807

Jefferson saw the embargo as a kind of social experiment. He believed that embargo would put the squeeze on both Britain and France by denying them American produce, raw materials, and the American market for their manufactured goods. He also believed that without imported luxuries, the American economy would, of necessity, become more self-sufficient. What he didn’t envision was the catastrophic cost.

Tobacco planters in Jefferson’s native Virginia were among the first to feel the pinch. With sales to European markets outlawed, tobacco glutted the domestic market and rotted in the warehouses. Tobacco prices collapsed, along with the planters’ credit. It was the same story with cotton in the southern states. New England also felt the pain. With imports turned away, ports closed, merchants closed their shops, and tens of thousands of fishermen, sailors, and dockworkers lost their jobs.

Defiance of the embargo acts quickly became widespread. The wealthy defiantly bought imported fineries on the black market, while ships sailing between American ports mysteriously found themselves “blown off course” to Canada, or even all the way across the Atlantic. Several government agents charged with stopping irate American citizens from smuggling goods into Canada resigned in fear of their lives. Even in the highly Democratic-Republican Congress, calls for a repeal of the Embargo Acts rose to a furor.

Smugglers defying the "O Grab Me"In March 1808, with rabid opposition to the embargo swelling all over the country, Jefferson was stricken with an incapacitating stress headache that left him feeble, disabled, and insensible for several weeks. By April, however, he had recovered both his strength and a new resolve. In the words of Alan Pell Crawford, author of Twilight at Monticello, “Jefferson began to enforce the embargo with a zeal that struck even his longtime allies as excessive.” Crawford explains, “What began as a ban on trade with Great Britain and France had escalated into a prohibition against all shipping along the Atlantic coast, including routine commerce between American ports. The movement of vessels on lakes, rivers, and bays without approval was also prohibited … Gunboats could stop at will any boat or ship suspected of unlawful commerce; such vessels would then be held until the president personally authorized their release.”

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Jefferson ordered military authorities to treat smuggling on Lake Champlain as an insurrection. He ordered the Navy into service to blockade American ports and seize suspicious outbound cargoes, and urged that anyone who defied the embargo—or even disagreed with it—be prosecuted for treason, punishable by imprisonment or death. As the economic downturn turned into a depression and protests raged up and down the Atlantic coast, Jefferson expressed disappointment in the uncooperativeness of American citizens. He wrote that he hoped “the most guilty may be marked as examples, and the less so suffer long imprisonment.”

If the embargo was disastrous to the American economy, it was barely felt in England and France. Historian Forrest McDonald likened the embargo to “a flea trying to break up a dogfight by threatening suicide.” Along with the economic consequences, the biggest casualty was Jefferson’s popularity. Despite the election of James Madison as his successor in November 1808, the Democratic-Republicans took a shellacking in the congressional elections. The Federalist party captured 70% of congressional seats in northern states, as well as control of all of the state legislatures in New England.

1807 Embargo cartoon

The hated embargo is finally slain, 1809

In January 1809, the new Congress passed a bill quietly lifting the embargo. The sponsor was the congressman from Jefferson’s own district in Albemarle County, Virginia. A few weeks later, Mr. Jefferson’s presidency—along with his “social experiment” and the greatest disaster of his public career—was over. But impressment of American sailors by British warships went on—and erupted into war three years later.

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This 1806 cartoon skewers both Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Jefferson is portrayed as one of the newly discovered prairie dogs. Stung by the hornet (Napoleon), he's spewing gold coins at the feet of a dancing Spaniard eager to palm off the Floridas on the greedy Jefferson. Courtesy Library of Congress.

You probably have a friend or two who is fanatical about their politics. Someone who never stops waxing/ranting about the virtues/evils of Obama/Palin. (Yeah, it’s just as annoying in any permutation.) Someone who works politics into every conversation. Someone who can’t really be friends with someone of the opposite political persuasion; someone who will back you right into a corner in a political argument; maybe even someone who gets in trouble at work because they can’t keep their opinions to themselves.

Such a person was Meriwether Lewis. As a young man and junior officer, Lewis was known as an outspoken, combative Jeffersonian Republican, not above exchanging “hot words” with fellow officers on the matter of politics. The 1790s were one of the most bitterly partisan eras in American history. Jeffersonians warned urgently of the “Federalist terror” to come, while Federalists worried that Republicans would bring about the rule of “the worthless, the dishonest, the rapacious, the vile, the merciless, and the ungodly.”

A silhouette of Meriwether Lewis. Courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello

In other words, politics as usual to the practiced and world-weary eye of a 21st-century American. But it didn’t seem so in the atmosphere of the fragile young republic whose very survival was still in doubt. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he selected Captain Lewis, then 26 years old, to detach from Army service and become his private secretary in the White House. Jefferson had a very special job in mind for Lewis, and no, it wasn’t leading an expedition into the unknown West. It was leading a purge of Federalist officers from the Army.

Lewis had been an army paymaster for several years, a job which required him to travel throughout the back country to remote forts, becoming intimately acquainted with most of the country’s officer corps. Now Jefferson asked Lewis to put that knowledge to good use. As his first project as Jefferson’s closest aide, Lewis produced a roster listing all commissioned officers. Next to each name he wrote a simple symbol, which categorized the officer according to their competence and politics. If lucky, an officer might be an “officer of the 1st class, so esteemed from a superiority of genius and military proficiency” or “a professional soldier without a political creed” or best of all, “Republican.”

Others weren’t so lucky, though as it turned out, there were all kinds of ways to be a Federalist, and some were worse than others. Lewis carefully differentiated between those “opposed to the administration, otherwise respectable,” those “most violently opposed to the administration and still active in its vilification,” and worst of all, those “unworthy of the commissions they bear.” Jefferson used the list judiciously, retaining the Federalist officers whom Lewis deemed competent while axing those “violently” opposed. It was a piece of extraordinary influence for such a young officer.

Thomas Jefferson by Jamie Wyeth

It is interesting from this distance to take a look at what Jefferson, and presumably Lewis, actually believed and advocated. As Jefferson wrote in his First Inaugural Address, Americans deserved:

a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them free to regulate their pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

In practice, this meant that Jefferson favored a minimalist government to a degree that might surprise even the most ardent Libertarian today. Jefferson believed that government was inherently corrupt, that any interference with the activity of the private individual was inherently invasive, and that Americans could stay united just fine without the government’s foot on their necks. This was in direct opposition to the Federalists, who were convinced that the young republic would collapse without strong central authority to lead the way.

A bedrock principle of Jefferson’s was that a government was only legitimate if its power sprang organically from the people. To Jefferson, the best government was local, in the town or ward where the citizen lived. State legislatures and the House of Representatives were all right; he had no use for either the Senate or the judiciary. As for the presidency, he thought so little of it that when he wrote his own list of achievements for his tombstone, he did not even list “President of the United States” among them.

American Sphinx, by Joseph J. Ellis (1996)

Even for his day, Jefferson was quite a radical thinker, and the nation owes a debt of gratitude to James Madison for helping the Sage of Monticello come down from some notions that probably would have wrecked the country (such as the idea that all laws should expire every few years). It is one of history’s great ironies that this most libertarian of presidents undertook the most sweeping executive decision of all time. When Thomas Jefferson laid out $15 million for the Louisiana Purchase, he doubled the country’s size and assumed autocratic rule over an additional 530 million acres of territory — all without a word of consultation from Congress.

As Joseph Ellis writes, “When history presented him with an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity to eliminate forever the presence on America’s western border of any major European power… it triggered his most visionary energies, which then overrode his traditional Republican injunctions.” Jefferson himself didn’t waste a moment worrying about whether buying the West was the right thing to do. Using the kind of rhetoric guaranteed to have Federalists all over the country clutching their pearls and spitting out their morning coffee, he wrote:

Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic or Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children and descendants as those of the eastern, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this.

In other words, the West was the future, even if it broke up the country. Jefferson was soon to send his young enthusiast Meriwether Lewis off to explore its wonders (along with another good plain Republican, William Clark). As it turned out, the Louisiana Purchase was one of the greatest achievements by any American president, cementing Jefferson’s place in history. A little inconsistency was a small price to pay.

And as for politics? As the Army purge suggests, Jefferson could be as hard-boiled as they come. Coincidentally or not, the vast majority of Westerners proved to be freewheeling Republicans, setting the stage for decades of dominance by Jefferson’s political party.

Lewis’s List of Army Officers (from the Library of Congress)

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Lest you think that the recent sex scandals involving former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and North Carolina Senator John Edwards are anything new under the sun, be assured that things were just as down and dirty in the early days of our great republic. Many of the worst accusations centered around the political rivalry of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson—and a scandal-mongering, muckraking journalist named James Callender.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

A Scotsman by birth, James Callender cut his teeth as a pamphleteer in England, publishing satirical attacks on writer Samuel Johnson and pointed commentary on King George III’s policies. Charged with treason, Callender fled to America in 1793. There he set his poison pen to work and made a name for himself as a journalist for the pro-Republican, anti-British press. In 1797, Callender published a series of tracts, History of the United States for the Year 1796, which were complimentary of Thomas Jefferson and Democratic-Republican principles in general. No one paid much attention to the first four tracts, but when issues five and six came out, the whole nation was paying attention. For Callender used his modest pamphlets to expose the scandal concerning Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and one Mrs. Maria Reynolds.

Mrs. Reynolds, was, in all likelihood, a con woman. Her abusive husband made a living by swindling veterans out of their claims to government land and paying them a fraction of their value. Mrs. Reynolds, age 23, sought out Alexander Hamilton in a moment of distress. He wrote later: “With a seeming air of affliction she informed me … that her husband, who had for a long time treated her very cruelly, had lately left her, to live with another woman, and in so destitute a condition … she had taken the liberty to apply to my humanity for assistance.”  Mrs. Reynolds got more than Hamilton’s assistance; she became his mistress. Mrs. Reynold’s husband quickly came back into the picture, and Hamilton found himself the target of a blackmail scheme.

Callender’s tracts revealed the whole shocking story: how Hamilton had paid Reynolds $1000 to crawl back under a rock and allow Hamilton to continue seeing his wife in peace. Eventually, however, Reynolds upped the ante. When Hamilton refused to help him get out of jail on a petty forgery charge, Reynolds tipped off Hamilton’s enemies in Congress to the burgeoning adultery scandal. He provided Hamilton’s enemies with copies of love letters between Hamilton and his wife, and claimed that Hamilton was providing him with inside tips about government securities.

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown (1786)

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown (1786)

Hamilton had managed to keep the lid on the scandal for years, but now James Callender had a hold of it. Enraged, Hamilton accused James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson of leaking the scandalous letters. And he threatened to go public with a bombshell of his own, an old chestnut known as the “Betsey Walker story.”

John Walker had been a good friend and neighbor of Thomas Jefferson’s. During the summer of 1768, Walker left home for four months to help conclude an Indian treaty, asking Jefferson—then a young, single planter and lawyer—to look after his wife Betsey and their infant daughter. Twenty years passed before Betsey Walker cracked and made some kind of confession to her husband. Clearly he didn’t take it seriously, because ten more years passed before Walker wrote a farcical, “Tales of Ribaldry”-style account of what Betsey said happened between her and Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton did not go public with the Betsey Walker story, probably because he simply did not have solid evidence that anything improper had happened. Instead, he decided to go the “I have sinned” route in an attempt to save his public virtue at the expense of his private reputation. In a letter published in the Gazette of the United States, Hamilton confessed to adultery and denied participating in any Treasury speculations. “The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for the purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife…This confession is not made without a blush.”

Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton

Mrs. Elizabeth Hamilton: standing by her man

The misery this must have caused Mrs. Hamilton—then in the late stages of pregnancy—can well be imagined, but even more damaging was the fact that no one believed Hamilton’s claim that he did not participate in any illegal activities. Nor did anyone believe Jefferson’s claims that he had not been the one to give the incriminating love letters to James Callender (though in fact, he did not). In any case, the scandal permanently soiled Alexander Hamilton’s reputation, and  may have cost him a chance at the presidency.

Jefferson himself maintained his usual judicious silence. No doubt remembering Hamilton’s embarrassing confession, when the “Betsey Walker story” finally broke into the open in 1805, Jefferson said nothing publicly to refute it. The closest he came to an admission of guilt came in a letter to a member of his cabinet: “You will perceive that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknolege its incorrectness.”  By that time, Callender had turned on Jefferson, and the “Dusky Sally” scandal had eclipsed both Maria Reynolds and Mrs. Walker in the public’s prurient mind.

Further reading: Tall Tom and Dusky Sally

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Consciously or not, most American history we learn in school promotes the idea of “Manifest Destiny”—the belief that the United States was destined to expand from sea to shining sea across the North American continent. Unfortunately, this idea obscures what a very tenuous thing it was that the United States was able to obtain—and hold—the Louisiana Territory. Powerful European rulers stood in the way, scheming to gain control of the land Meriwether Lewis memorably called “the fairest portion of the globe.” A case in point was the scheme known as the Spanish conspiracy.

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson, traitor extraordinaire

In July 1787, our favorite traitor James Wilkinson arrived in New Orleans to visit with Louisiana Governor General Esteban Miró, the Spanish king’s highest ranking officer in North America. A former brigadier general turned Kentucky merchant, Wilkinson offered Miró an extraordinary proposition. To circumvent the difficulties Kentucky had getting its goods to market, Kentucky would forge a vast (and exclusive) trade empire with Spain. Secretly, however, Wilkinson had bigger plans: to promote Kentucky’s separation from the United States and set it up as a “buffer state”—with himself at its head—between the United States and Spain.

Esteban Rodríguez Miró

Esteban Rodríguez Miró, Governor-General of Louisiana

Intrigued, Miró extended Wilkinson several thousand dollars in credit and the privilege of bringing his goods to New Orleans, duty-free. But except for Wilkinson’s exclusive privileges, Wilkinson asked Miró to keep the Mississippi River closed to Kentucky trade. In the meantime, Wilkinson would raise hell in the Kentucky assembly, demanding that the United States intervene to demand the opening of the river—something he knew George Washington could not do. This would make Kentuckians all too eager to drop their ties to America and accept any terms Spain proposed to bring their goods through New Orleans.

Our friend Manuel Gayoso, the newly appointed Governor of the Natchez District, was to play a critical role in the scheme. In 1789, Gayoso arrived in New Orleans and discussed plans for the Natchez District with Miró. He made tentative plans to visit the Cumberland, Kentucky, and other western settlements to promote the scheme. However, his illness and the death of his wife after their grueling journey from Havana caused a delay, and too many Westerners heard about the new Spanish governor for him to make the trip without arousing American suspicion. But Miró was undaunted. He recommended to the Spanish king that Gayoso conduct undercover work with Wilkinson and the Western settlers who were threatening to break away from the United States.

Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín

Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, Governor of Natchez

If they could pull it off, a Spanish-supported Kentucky would be a barrier to American expansion across the Mississippi River. Gayoso, who had seen world-class diplomatic maneuvering in the courts of Europe, quickly grasped the significance of Wilkinson’s proposals. Gayoso became the principal go-between in the conspiracy, meeting with Wilkinson at Natchez in fall of 1789. Correspondence between the two illustrates how readily Wilkinson was willing to sell out the United States, Kentucky, his friends, and anything else that stood in the way of his goal to become “the George Washington of the West.” Gayoso recognized him for what he was, writing, “I consider his ambition as a favorable circumstance which we may make use of for our own part.”

Wilkinson eagerly betrayed other Americans who had similar ambitions in the West in the name of protecting Spanish security. He also supplied the names of VIPs in Kentucky and Tennessee who could be corrupted by Spanish gold. Wilkinson himself enjoyed a Spanish pension of $2000 yearly beginning in January 1789, with the payments disguised as profits on tobacco sales in New Orleans.

Port of New Orleans, engraved by D.G. Thompson

Port of New Orleans, engraved by D.G. Thompson after a painting by Alfred Waud

Wilkinson’s plans received a rude jolt when the Spanish Council of the Indies authorized the opening of the Mississippi in 1789 for those Westerners willing to pay a duty on the goods they brought to New Orleans. In addition, the Spanish king decided to end tobacco purchases by the government, dashing the hopes of many Kentuckians who had planned to emigrate to Natchez and make a fat profit. Chagrined—at this rate he would never become the “George Washington of the West”—Wilkinson urged Miró to close the Mississippi and end all commerce between Kentucky and New Orleans, to force the Westerners to secede from the United States and seek an independent alliance.

Miró had no intention of agreeing to his proposals. Temporarily stymied, Wilkinson continued to draw his pension and continued to seek out opportunities to betray those Americans who placed their confidence in him, sometimes to the advantage of Spanish defenses in Louisiana.

Miró left the governorship of Louisiana in 1791 and returned to Spain. Francisco Luis Hector de Carondelet, a former governor of El Salvador, was appointed in his place. Carondelet and Gayoso saw eye to eye on the threat to Spain’s holdings in the New World. Together, the two men embarked on a plan to prepare for eventual war with the Americans. They beefed up the Spanish defenses in the Louisiana Territory, outfitting ships, building forts, and raising a militia.

Citizen Genet

Citizen Edmond Charles Genet

Enter Citizen Genet, the Minister Plenipotentiary of France, who arrived in America in 1793 with an implausible—and wholly serious—plan to forge an alliance with Kentucky, wrest Louisiana away from Spain, and return it to French control. At Carondelet’s desperate urging, Gayoso sent over 300 Natchez militiamen to New Orleans to help defend the port against “the Jacobin menace.” The movement of U.S. troops to the frontier in 1794 to counter Indian attacks increased the anxiety of the Spanish governors. Could not these same troops be used to force the opening of the Mississippi that Westerners continually demanded?

Frightened, Carondelet spent almost $300,000 in excess of the funds the king had granted for defenses. When he got wind of Citizen Genet’s plot, Carondelet issued numerous proclamations warning inhabitants of Lower Louisiana to avoid any contact with French agents. From Natchez, Gayoso issued a similar warning and beefed up Spanish defenses along the river. Ultimately, Genet’s plot fizzled, but Gayoso and Carondelet’s anxiety about the intentions of the Americans made them want to revive the idea of a Spanish-friendly buffer state between the U.S. and  Louisiana.

Chickasaw Bluff #1

Chickasaw Bluff #1, along the Mississippi River

Following his establishment of Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas at Chickasaw Bluffs, Gayoso sailed up the Mississippi to visit the Spanish settlements in Missouri. Ostensibly his mission was to inspect Spanish defenses there. In fact, Gayoso had highly secret instructions to rendezvous in Kentucky with certain prominent men who, according to Wilkinson, were known to favor the cause of separation. Inspired by reports of the Whiskey Rebellion and the general dissatisfaction with the federal government in the west, Carondelet gave Wilkinson a cash bonus and the promise of a raise, should the intrigue in Kentucky develop along favorable lines. But conditions “on the ground” proved to be disappointing. Gayoso found little support among the big bugs in Kentucky for separation from the United States.

Still, the outlook wasn’t all bad for Spain’s interests in North America. By the close of 1795, the Louisiana defenses were stronger than they had ever been. Spain’s friendly relations with the Indians gave them an advantage over the Americans. The Spanish empire in the New World was sitting pretty. Or so Carondelet and Gayoso thought…

Jay's Treaty (1795)

Jay's Treaty (ratified 1795)

As usual, they had underestimated the pinheads back home. Diplomatic intrigue proved their undoing. The signing of Jay’s Treaty in 1794 had sparked fear in Spain of an alliance between Britain and the United States. Fearing ultimate war with the United States, and not believing they could win, the Spanish king’s agents decided to open the Mississippi and surrender control to the United States of all Spain’s military posts in disputed territory north of the 31st parallel.

With the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo (also known as Pinckney’s Treaty) at the Spanish Court on October 27, 1795, all of the time, money, planning, and sacrifice of the Spanish frontier governors was undone with the stroke of a pen. The Treaty of San Lorenzo effectively destroyed Spain’s control over the Mississippi River, and with it, its power in the west. It also ended the Spanish Conspiracy, dashing Wilkinson’s hopes to be the “George Washington of the West.”

Gayoso was violently opposed to the treaty and attempted to do everything in his power to get it reversed. Despite his opposition, Carondelet went ahead. On March 16, 1797, the Spanish fort San Fernando de las Barrancas at Chickasaw Bluffs—that Gayoso had worked so hard to build—was evacuated and turned over to the Americans. In one of the great twists of history, the new commander was a young American officer named Meriwether Lewis. A new era in the west had begun.

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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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