By John F. Di Leo -
A year into his second term, President George Washington celebrated his 63rd birthday on February 22, 1794, and received one of the best birthday present any head of state ever received. The new minister from France, Jean Antoine Joseph Baron Fauchet presented his credentials as the new ambassador from France, replacing the troublesome Edmund-Charles Genet at last.
Citizen Genet was many things. A child prodigy, fluent in six languages by age twelve, he was born at Versailles in 1763, the only son of a French civil servant. Genet served as court translator in his youth and was then sent to the embassy to Russia, at St Petersburg, at age 25. While serving thusly as a French diplomat, Genet proved so undiplomatic that Empress Catherine the Great had him ejected in 1792, declaring him persona non grata, famously saying that his further presence at the Tsarist court would be “not only superfluous but intolerable.”
Fortunately for him, however, the government he served had changed while he was in Russia; France was now ruled by the Girondists. This new regime loved their bold young anti-monarchist ambassador, and sent him right on to the United States, where he arrived to the immediate public acclaim of huge, excited, and misguided crowds.
Two Parties, No Waiting
Our Founding Fathers made no provision for partisan alliances in the Constitution. The fifty-five patriots who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to design this new government made certain practical compromises to their ideological underpinnings, but one compromise they did not make was to the natural inclination of politicians to team up together in groups.
The system was brilliantly designed to set many interests in place, on the theory that the government would work better if we didn’t have the same kind of “king’s party vs. opposition party” that they had in England at the time. In a nation the size of the United States, and particularly considering the likely size it would eventually reach (the Framers didn’t foresee Alaska and Hawaii, but some certainly foresaw the rest of our expansion), the people would be better served without political parties, they believed.
Let the merchants battle with the farmers on this, let the coastal representatives battle with the frontier interests on that… let the north vie with the south on this, let the large states vie with the small ones on that other. Ever shifting alliances on specific issues, rather than a firm alliance in a party, was thought preferable, and with good reason. The Founders all agreed on the basics, after all, or at least, they thought they did. The Framers of the Constitution saw no reason to allow for unnecessary, unnatural divisions (that’s why, for example, the Constitution only provides for general elections, without the issue of primaries and caucuses. Such were simply not foreseen).
But a rift began to develop during General Washington’s first term. Washington had built a cabinet that he thought composed of the most talented, committed patriots, with vast experience and different backgrounds. He governed as a moderate who saw his obligation as a commitment to represent all Americans, but party divisions were fast brewing.
The Madisonian/Jeffersonians, who had seemed on board with the union as recently as 1787, quickly grew suspicious that Constitutional government would grow too large, and were willing to hold back the growth of the nation if need be, to keep that new government small and weak. The Hamiltonians, by contrast, were committed to building a government that could pay its bills, restore the nation’s credit, and enable a private sector to prosper across the board. These different outlooks quickly grew into the Democratic-Republicans vs. the Federalists.
Across the Pond, the French were inflicting upon themselves a nightmarish revolution, in many ways the opposite of our own. Where ours was driven by love of liberty, religious dedication, and what we would now call an entrepreneurial spirit, theirs was driven by class envy, virulent atheism, acquisitiveness and revenge. Where the United States sought to follow up the years of war with a peaceful era, the French revolutionaries commenced their reign with the declarations of war against Spain, England, and eventually, practically everyone else in sight.
Throughout the War of Independence, Americans tended to continue to love the English traditions in which they had been raised, while shedding the customary English rivalry with the French. The French monarchy, in fact, because our greatest ally; without their support, we would likely never have survived.
As the French Revolution dragged on, commencing in violence and eventually drowning all Paris in blood, their revolution became the dividing line between the developing American parties. The Jeffersonians , now openly calling themselves Republicans, and the Hamiltonians, now openly calling themselves Federalists, grew ever more committed to one side or the other.
Republicans were enamored of France and everything French. Federalists looked at a river of blood flowing from an energetic guillotine, and recoiled in horror.
Citizen Genet Comes Calling
The United States won our independence with the help of the French monarchy, and naturally signed a mutual support treaty with France in gratitude. Now that the revolutionaries had declared a new war against England, their ambassador, Citizen Genet, expected to collect on that commitment.
But our president shared neither their war fervor nor their belief that the treaty obligated us to join them. The United States won its independence with the help of the Bourbons, and it was with the Bourbons that the treaty was made. Had there been a smooth transition from absolute monarchy, to constitutional monarchy, to republic, a case might be made that treaties signed by the late king were still valid. But there was no such transition. The king was violently deposed, imprisoned, and guillotined. The American government owed no favors to the demons who treated our allies thusly.
Of course, no such detailed explanation would have been appropriate from a measured head of state. President Washington merely issued a Neutrality Proclamation and attempted to lead America through the hostilities with minimal involvement and minimal risk, hoping to safely continue trade with both countries as much as possible.
Citizen Genet’s job, as he saw it, was to foil the efforts of the American president by going over his head to the people of the United States. He went on a tour, hitting town after town with great pomp and circumstance, as the official representative of our great ally France, as the living embodiment of that great spirit of magnanimity and wartime valor that won us our independence from evil England.
Everywhere he went, Genet’s charisma recruited volunteers to his cause, exciting sailors and soldiers, and perhaps some who missed service a decade ago and saw a new chance for battle, to volunteer to join up, even if the United States would not formally enter the fray. Genet even went so far as to engage in naval equipment negotiations and the outfitting of privateers on U.S. shores, in violation of every diplomatic protocol, even after a strict cease-and-desist order from President Washington.
Worst of all, throughout Genet’s travels, it slowly became evident that his principle allies – those arranging the rallies, raising funds for his cause – were members of the Madisonian-Jeffersonian alliance. Genet’s illegal efforts to involve the USA in a war despite the government’s neutrality had become a Republican cause.
And yes, President Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson – responsible for relations with foreign ambassadors – acted in the cabinet as a supporter of Washington’s official policy, but acted in private as an engineer of the Republican Party’s effort to tie itself in with the popularity of Genet and the French.
Only in autumn 1793 did Jefferson finally change Republican Party policy, giving a quiet order to sever ties with Genet and the French, after months of encouraging the nascent party to tie its wagon to Genet’s French quarter-horse. Too little, too late. The Republicans and the bloody French Revolutionaries were already linked in the mind of the American people, an image that was not soon forgotten, as more and more word came back throughout the 1790s of the excesses of their reigns of terror.
By outfitting a privateer (essentially, a pirate ship to attack the English navy and/or English seaports), Genet had gone too far, and finally lost his sole defender in Washington’s cabinet by doing so. Washington’s cabinet unanimously sent a letter to France requesting that Genet be recalled. (Historians wonder to this day if they might have been more forceful, or acted sooner, if they had been aware of the full story of Genet’s ejection from the Russian court a year before.) At long last, on February 22, 1794 – on George Washington’s birthday in fact, the new envoy arrived. Baron Fauchet presented his credentials, and the greatest foreign policy crisis of the Washington administration was at least significantly reduced (though naturally our relations with both England and France remained challenging for many years).
To send Genet back to France – heck, to send anyone to France, those days – would have been a death warrant (the Jacobins were now in charge), so the magnanimous Washington granted Genet asylum in the United States. He married the daughter of New York’s governor-for-life, George Clinton, and thankfully refrained from significant political activism for the rest of his life.
Lessons from a Commander-in-Chief
The Genet affair is a microcosm of many of the challenges of the American experiment, all of them a testimony to the nature of our first president.
With whom does one sign a treaty, and what can legitimately break it? In the days when the same family ruled a country for centuries, treaties could still be binding a hundred years after the signers had all died. But in this new world of revolutionary overthrows, when should a treaty be considered nullified? George Washington clearly recognized the spirit of the treaty as much as its letter. He knew that our ally was personified in the Bourbon king, not the geographical site known as France. He knew also that the king didn’t support us out of any love of our republican system, but out of his own interest in thwarting the English, especially in her other colonial holdings. Washington would have honored a treaty with King Louis XVI, but rightly recognized the violent revolution to have broken it.
Contrary to the French government’s insistence and the charismatic Genet’s oratory, Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation was right for America, and did not constitute any violation of our treaty. You can’t break what’s already broken, and the Paris Mob shredded that treaty when they walked an innocent king up to the guillotine.
The issue remains particularly relevant today because of the collapse of the Soviet Union during the first Bush administration. The United States signed an ill-advised treaty called the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty – the ABM Treaty – during the Nixon administration, a treaty that required America to give up its defenses against ballistic missiles, while allowing the Russians to have some, and knowing that the Russians would likely violate it by having many.
Once the Soviet Union broke apart and changed its form(s) of government to varying levels of republics and autocracies, treaty partners had a new opportunity to decide whether or not to renegotiate them. Many chose not to bother, and the United States has still not yet taken a fresh look at all the STARTs and SALTs and ABMs, most of which ought simply be torn up and relegated to the dustbin of history along with communism itself. But the decision made in the 1990s and 2000s to move on various defensive postures that would previously have been considered violations of the ABM treaty are justified by the fact of the USSR’s breakup.
It is our first president’s choice that provides us with the necessary precedent. A treaty remains binding upon new leaders in an orderly succession, whether by birth (like the English) or by death (like the Soviets) or by election (like ours). But such treaties ought to get at least a fresh look when the very system of government of one of the parties is changed and a new and different country emerges.
George Washington was practically born a soldier. His early youthful hope of joining the British Navy being dashed, he became a frontier militiaman for the colony of Virginia, then a consultant for the British army during the French and Indian War, then commander in chief of our own military during the War of Independence.
But George Washington was not a warmonger. All he ever really wanted was to be a productive member of the Virginia community, as a legislator, farmer, merchant, husband and father. Ever since his thirties, he always wanted every public commitment to end in his honorable retirement from public service and return to his beloved family and friends, and to his Mount Vernon estate.
So after a lifetime of wars that were necessary – fighting with hostile American Indian tribes, fighting the French, then fighting the English alongside the French – he finally found himself in a situation in which wars were not necessary. Wars would, in fact, be detrimental.
America was just beginning to do what was needed to put its economy on a solid footing. His administration was straightening out our legal system, standardizing duties on imports (and even outright banning taxation of exports!), establishing a credit rating, paying our debts, printing currency that was finally worth more than the paper it was printed on.
Washington had no intention of sabotaging these many economic advances by getting us into any unnecessary war. His inclination was to err in the best interest of America. He would rather see his own name be besmirched for failing to honor an arguably obsolete treaty, than drag America into an ill-advised war that would most likely jeopardize everything we had gained.
George Washington was no doctrinaire partisan. He felt the pull of allegiance to both England and France, having been raised a Virginia Englishman and having fought alongside the French for seven long years. A case could be made for slightly favoring either side in this war, if it could be done without being dragged fully into the war. His cabinet explored possibilities such as allowing both sides to stop in our ports to replenish supplies, while banning either from outfitting privateers or recruiting.
But the first and foremost commitment in his mind was to the liberty of the American citizen. He saw his job as leading the USA as it joined the family of nations, and behaving, not like the upstart pauper that many thought it, but like the honorable but distant power that it would hopefully become.
He was horrified by the reports from France, and was to become more horrified still when he realized how the Republicans supported the French despite the evil going on in Paris. He sided, rather, with the moderate influences in America – the Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, John Jay wing – that spent every year since the peace with England in ensuring the security of the former Loyalists who had remained. Washington was to be president of all Americans.
So in the end, when the greatest enemy his administration was to see – Citizen Genet – petitioned him for asylum, George Washington was magnanimous. He didn’t punish Genet for how he had carried out his ambassadorship; he didn’t even blame Genet for his zeal in disobedience of the clear order against outfitting of privateers. Washington thought of the man’s future if he returned to France, and spared him the guillotine, by granting him permission to stay.
How many modern politicians – of either party – would be so magnanimous to someone who was such a thorn in his side today? Imagine a Democrat doing such a favor for a Tea Party leader. Imagine a Republican doing such a favor for some Code Pink nut. How tempting it must have been to just say No, shaking his head at the suffering likely to result when Genet returned to face the wrath of his comrades. Despite it all, George Washington forgave him, and most likely saved his very life.
It is in the tale of Citizen Genet that we can best take the measure of General Washington.
He was moderate in leadership, leaving Americans to make up their own minds as free men, to attend rallies and lobby their representatives if they chose. He was stern when given cause to be, when Genet went too far, necessitating the demand for an ambassador’s recall.
But once Genet was no longer the French representative in America – the moment he became a private citizen, rightly fearing his countrymen’s ravenous blade – President Washington could be generous, forgiving, and protective.
President Washington had it in his power to grant this talented but misguided soul a new chance for a happy and peaceful life as a freeman in America. So, as he did so many times in his long life, President Washington made the choice of second chances and human liberty. In the end, President Washington made the choice to put Freedom first.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
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