The Citizen Genêt Affair of 1793

Old portrait of Edmond Charles Genet, ‘Citizen Genet’
Edmond Charles Genet. US Department of State

The new United States federal government had largely managed to avoid serious diplomatic incidents until 1793. And then along came Citizen Genêt.

Now more infamously known as “Citizen Genêt,” Edmond Charles Genêt served as France’s foreign minister to the United States from 1793 to 1794.

Rather than maintaining friendly relationships between the two nations, Genêt’s activities entangled France and the United States in a diplomatic crisis that endangered the United States government’s attempts to remain neutral in the conflict between Great Britain and Revolutionary France.

While France ultimately resolved the dispute by removing Genêt from his position, the events of the Citizen Genêt affair forced the United States to create its first set of procedures governing international neutrality.

Who Was Citizen Genêt?

Edmond Charles Genêt was virtually raised to be a government diplomat. Born in Versailles in 1763, he was the ninth son of a lifelong French civil servant, Edmond Jacques Genêt, a head clerk in the ministry of foreign affairs. The elder Genêt analyzed British naval strength during the Seven Years' War and monitored the progress of the American Revolutionary War. By the age of 12, the young Edmond Genêt was considered a prodigy due to his ability to read French, English, Italian, Latin, Swedish, Greek, and German.

In 1781, at age 18, Genêt was appointed court translator and in 1788 was assigned to the French embassy in Saint Petersburg, Russia to serve as ambassador.

Genêt eventually came to despise all monarchical systems of government, including not only the French monarchy but the Tsarist Russian regime under Catherine the Great, as well. Needless to say, Catherine was offended and in 1792, declared Genêt persona non grata, calling his presence “not only superfluous but even intolerable.” The same year, the anti-monarchist Girondist group rose to power in France and appointed Genêt to his post of minister to the United States.

Diplomatic Setting of the Citizen Genêt Affair

During the 1790s, American foreign policy was dominated by the multi-national fallout being generated by the French Revolution. After the violent overthrow of the French monarchy in 1792, the French revolutionary government faced an often-violent colonial power struggle with the monarchies of Great Britain and Spain.

In 1793, President George Washington had just appointed former U.S. ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson as America’s first Secretary of State. When the French Revolution led to war between America’s top trade partner Britain and American Revolution ally France, President Washington urged Jefferson, along with the rest of his Cabinet, to maintain a policy of neutrality.

However, Jefferson, as leader of the anti-federalist Democratic-Republican Party, sympathized with the French revolutionaries. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Federalist Party, favored maintaining existing alliances—and treaties—with Great Britain.

Convinced that supporting either Great Britain or France in a war would place the still comparatively weak United States in imminent danger of invasion by foreign armies, Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality on April 22, 1793.

It was this setting that the French government sent Genêt – one of its most experienced diplomats—to America to seek the U.S. government’s help in protecting its colonies in the Caribbean. As far as the French government was concerned, America could help them as either an active military ally or as a neutral supplier of arms and materials. Genêt was also assigned to:

  • Obtain advance payments on debts owed to France by the United States;
  • Negotiate a commercial agreement between the United States and France; and
  • Implement provisions of the 1778 Franco-American treaty allowing France to attack British merchant ships using French ships stationed in American ports.

Unfortunately, Genêt’s actions in trying to carry out his mission would bring him – and potentially his government—into direct conflict with the U.S. government.

Hello, America. I’m Citizen Genêt and I’m Here to Help

As soon as he stepped off the ship in Charleston, South Carolina on April 8, 1793, Genêt introduced himself as “Citizen Genêt” in an effort to emphasize his pro-revolutionary stance. Genêt hoped his affection for French revolutionaries would help him win the hearts and minds of Americans who had recently fought their own revolution, with the help of France, of course.

The first American heart and mind Genêt apparently won belonged to South Carolina governor William Moultrie. Genêt convinced Gov. Moultrie to issue privateering commissions that authorized the bearers, regardless of their country of origin, to board and seize British merchant ships and their cargo for their own profit, with the approval and protection of the French government.

In May 1793, Genêt arrived in Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital. However, when he presented his diplomatic credentials, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson told him that President Washington’s Cabinet considered his agreement with Gov. Moultrie sanctioning the operations of foreign privateers in American seaports to be a violation of the U.S. policy of neutrality.

Taking more wind from Genêt’s sails, the U.S. Government, already holding favorable trade privileges in French ports, refused to negotiate a new trade treaty. Washington’s Cabinet also refused Genêt’s request for advance payments on U.S. debts to the French government.

Genêt Defies Washington

Not to be deterred by the U.S. government’s warnings, Genêt began outfitting another French pirate ship in Charleston Harbor named the Little Democrat.

Defying further warnings from U.S. officials to not allow the ship to leave port, Genêt continued to prepare the Little Democrat to sail.

Further fanning the flames, Genêt threatened to bypass the U.S. government by taking his case for French piracy of British ships to the American people, who he believed would back his cause. However, Genêt failed to realize that President Washington—and his international neutrality policy—enjoyed great public popularity.

Even as President Washington’s Cabinet was discussing how to convince the French government to recall him, Citizen Genêt allowed the Little Democrat to sail and begin attacking British merchant ships.

Upon learning of this direct violation of the U.S. government’s neutrality policy, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton asked Secretary of State Jefferson to immediately expel Genêt from the United States. Jefferson, however, decided to take the more diplomatic tact of sending a request Genêt’s recall to the French government.

By the time Jefferson’s request for Genêt’s recall reached France, political power within the French government shifted. The radical Jacobins group had replaced the slightly less radical Girondins, who had originally sent Genêt to the United States.

The foreign policy of the Jacobins favored maintaining friendlier relations with neutral countries that could provide France with crucially needed food. Already unhappy with his failure to fulfill his diplomatic mission and suspecting him of remaining loyal to the Girondins, the French government stripped Genêt of his position and demanded that the U.S. government hand him over to French officials sent to replace him.

Aware that Genêt’s return to France would almost certainly result in his execution, President Washington and Attorney General Edmund Randolph allowed him to remain in the United States. The Citizen Genêt affair came to a peaceful end, with Genêt himself continuing to reside in the United States until his death in 1834.

The Citizen Genêt Affair Solidified US Neutrality Policy

In response to the Citizen Genêt affair, the United States immediately established a formal policy regarding international neutrality.

On August 3, 1793, President Washington’s Cabinet unanimously signed a set of regulations regarding neutrality. Less than a year later, on June 4, 1794, Congress formalized those regulations with its passage of the Neutrality Act of 1794.

As the basis for U.S. neutrality policy, the Neutrality Act of 1794 makes it illegal for any American to wage war against any country currently at peace with the United States. In part, the Act declares:

“If any person shall within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States begin or set on foot or provide or prepare the means for any military expedition or enterprise ... against the territory or dominions of any foreign prince or state of whom the United States was at peace that person would be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Although amended several times over the years, the Neutrality Act of 1794 remains in force today.