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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 10

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The American Privateers

Donald Barr Chidsey

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p71  11[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]The Boy Wonder

France was changing, violently. The throne teetered, it wobbled, and at last it fell. Louis XVI was beheaded. France had become a republic; and she announced that she was about to replace her ambassador to the United States, Jean Baptiste de Ternant, with Edmond Charles Genêt.

Here was an extraordinary person, Genêt. He was not, as had been said of his serious-minded young countryman the Marquis de Lafayette, "a statue walking around looking for a pedestal to stand on." No, Genêt always had been on a pedestal, at least in his own eyes.

A child prodigy, who at the age of five could spout Greek and English, he was soon to learn five other languages, in every one of which he was, to put it mildly, fluent. At fifteen he published his own translation from the Swedish of a biography of Eric XIV. He was also a scientist and an inventor.

He was an ardent Republican, and when he was sent to Russia he at first delighted Catherine the Great, for he was tall and handsome. But when he began to spout revolutionary  p72 talk the lady turned cold, and soon he was asked to leave. Back in Paris the Girondins hailed him a hero: to be snubbed by an empress was, to those people, an honor.

When he sailed for America Genêt had with him something that could cause untold trouble — a bagful of privateering commissions.

France had just launched the second of her wars of the Revolution. The first had been against Austria and Prussia, neither of which was much of a commercial nation, in the seagoing sense, and so this contest had not involved the new United States. The second war was different. It was against Great Britain, Holland, and Spain, all maritime nations.

The French Revolution had been watched carefully from this side of the sea, and on the whole with approval, even enthusiasm. President Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, was a lover of France. And because of a slave uprising in Santo Domingo, a large number of French planters had taken refuge in the United States, where they were liked. Moreover, the man in the street knew, everybody knew, that France had saved our life with her army and navy in 1781. Without France we would have been obliged to settle for something less than complete independence.

We still owed France many millions of dollars; but we owed her a great deal more than that — we owed her a moral debt of gratitude.

The French Revolution was something of a fad, a vogue, in this country. Liberty poles were erected, or old ones refurbished. Liberty caps were worn. The tricolor was everywhere.  p73 People saluted one another as "Citizen" or "Citizeness." People practiced singing the "Ça ira."

It was known well in advance that Genêt was preparing to come, and this knowledge caused worriment in Philadelphia, the capital, where Washington called more than one special meeting of the cabinet.

The cabinet then was not large. Besides Thomas Jefferson it included Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General. In other words, there were four votes, and, as Jefferson wrote to his friend James Madison, "Our votes are usually 2½ against 1½," the off-and‑onner being Randolph. John Adams was Vice-President, and it may be assumed that he would have made the odds even greater against Jefferson. However at that time it was not the custom for a Vice-President to sit in on cabinet meetings.

Yet if the cabinet was small, its sessions often were stormy. Washington tried to be impartial. Knox and Randolph took now this side, now that. The real gladiators were Hamilton and Jefferson.

Their conflict, a classic, has persisted to this day.

Jefferson was determinedly the democrat. Hamilton had married money and was fiercely aristocratic in his ideas.

They were even a contrast in their respective appearances, these two young men, Jefferson being tall, gangling, sloppy of dress, shy of manner, whereas Hamilton was short, dapper, aggressive.

In Philadelphia, in April of 1793, these two were at it again.

The cabinet was in agreement that everything possible  p74 should be done to keep America out of the new war. We were deeply in debt, and the scars of our own Revolution had by no means healed.

It was more or less believed, too, that France would not ask us to join her, since we would be of more use as a biased neutral; but would not that offend England to the point where she would declare war against us? Hamilton thought it would; Jefferson disagreed.

As Jefferson saw it, our obligation was clear. We had made the treaty of 1778 in good faith, and made it not with Louis XVI but with France. If the French had subsequently decided upon a totally different type of government, why, that was their business. Hamilton contended that we had made a contract with "the Crown of France," which no longer existed. He also pointed out that the treaty obliged one party to help the other when either had been attacked. France had not been attacked, Hamilton said. She had declared war against Great Britain, Spain, and the Netherland, not they against her. "Self-preservation is the first duty of a nation," averred Alexander Hamilton; but Thomas Jefferson, who feared that an offended France would turn snarling upon her former ally, warned that "an injured friend is the bitterest of foes."

Immediately there were two points to be decided:

(1) Should this lad Genêt, this new minister, when he landed in America, be received officially, thereby implying recognition of and even approval of the regicides of Paris?

(2) Should Washington, as he wished to do, issue a proclamation of neutrality?

It was at last decided that Genêt should be received,  p75 yes, but in an atmosphere of the most formal and most frigid politeness.

The proposed proclamation of neutrality brought about a much longer debate, Hamilton being for it, Jefferson against.

Jefferson reminded the members of the cabinet that the Constitution gave Congress the right to declare war. Implicit in that, he argued, was the right to declare neutrality. Weren't they the same thing? Only Congress could act on such a question; and the thing to do was either call a special session of Congress — which everyone knew Jefferson could control — or else put the whole matter aside until the regular session reconvened in a few months.

The declaration of neutrality was issued April 22. In deference to Jefferson's feelings the word "neutrality" did not appear in it, but the meaning was plain.

Edmond Charles Genêt had landed at Charleston, South Carolina, April 8.

Why Charleston? Philadelphia, where the government sat, was as near to France and just as good a harbor. Genêt himself said that contrary winds were accountable, but no one believed this. The probable reason was that Charleston as the southernmost large port in the United States, and therefore the nearest to Santo Domingo, contained a large percentage of French refugees.

Genêt was tumultuously received. They went mad about him, wining and dining him, cheering and toasting and serenading him, clamoring that he speak — a demand from which he made no demur.

He had dark, deep‑set, expressive eyes. His passionate  p76 belief in his own cause was apparent in everything he did and said.

He had come in a French frigate, l'Embuscade, but after a few days in South Carolina he sent her on ahead to Philadelphia. This was even more astonishing. In those days anybody who possibly could do so travelled by water rather than by land. Land travel was back-breaking, heart-breaking. But the ineffable Citizen Genêt did not appear to mind.

He stayed eleven days in Charleston, where Governor Moultrie, among others, fairly fawned on him. He exhorted. He waved the tricolor. He shouted defiance to all tyrants. Also, he set up the local French consulate as a vice-admiralty court with orders to libel and to condemn prizes brought in by French privateers, and he issued no fewer than four privateering commissions.

There is little doubt that Genêt had the paper authorization to do this. There is a great deal of doubt, though, whether he had the right to do it before he had even presented himself with his credentials to President of the United States. No matter. Genêt was irrepressible, all action.

He took twenty-eight days to get to Philadelphia, a trip that might have consumed somewhat less than a quarter of that time. But he went a long way around in order to visit every Republican, pro‑French community that he could find — to organize clubs, make speeches, and hand out commissions, of which he had three hundred.

Genêt was in Richmond when he heard that President Washington had issued a proclamation of neutrality. It  p77 must have been like a blow right between the eyes. Now his dawdling ceased. He was all speed. He even broke an appointment to address a meeting at Fredericksburg. He fairly flew to Philadelphia; and he burst upon that capital on May 16, exactly five weeks and three days after landing in America.

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Page updated: 20 May 13