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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 11

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 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p77  12[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]He Talked Too Much

All that had gone before was as nothing compared to what happened now in Philadelphia. Frenzied, screaming, throwing flowers, a customarily staid citizenry went into hysterics at the sight of the new ambassador.

He started well. Work had piled up before he got there. L'Embuscade had captured a couple of English merchantmen on her way to Philadelphia, as she was entitled to do. She had also picked up another, the small Grange, not on the high seas but in the territorial waters of the United States — in fact, right in Delaware Bay. The British minister in Philadelphia, George Hammond, immediately protested. As was the custom then, the Secretary of State, Jefferson, referred the complaint to Ternant, the French minister. Ternant pleaded an understandable reluctance to act when his successor was so near at hand. As a result the matter was waiting for Citizen Genêt. He listened to the evidence — and agreed with the British minister. He ordered the  p78 commandant of l'Embuscade to related Grange. This was done.

Genêt's power was great. His "war chest" was tremendous. Nevertheless he began to run short of cash, for he had undertaken a mammoth project. He was not only commissioning all sorts of privateers along the Atlantic Coast, not only making paper advances upon Nova Scotia in hopes of taking over all of Canada, but was actually organizing three armies for the capture of Louisiana and East and West Florida.

True, he had made many of these arrangements before hearing of the President's proclamation of neutrality; but he did not cease such activities even after that, for he considered the proclamation illegal. He declared that everything would be changed when Congress reconvened.

In Philadelphia he promptly issued a commission as major general in the French Army to the frontier hero, George Rogers Clark. Clark was to raise a "Legion of Revolution and Independence of the Mississippi" and lead it down that very river. He was to cooperate with an already organized South Carolina outfit, which would drop down the Tennessee. The target of both was to be New Orleans.

All this required money; and Genêt had been ordered to try and collect the United States' debt to France. He approached the Secretary of the Treasury about this.

Hamilton said no; he could not see the United States spending an unnecessary penny at that time. Besides Hamilton, like all Federalists, hated and feared Citizen Genêt.

The Federalists had reason for their fear. They did not like the quick growth of the new Republican Party, which almost to a man was pro‑French, pro-Genêt. All over the  p79 country political clubs were springing up, modeled after the political clubs of France. Today these would seem harmless, for they were mostly fireworks; but at that time they appeared sinister to the Federalists. What's more, these clubs kept asking the French minister to address them, and Genêt was most obliging.

His instructions, his political convictions, his experience at home, and the seeming adoption of the American public, all combined to make Edmond Charles Genêt think that Congress was the real head of this state, and that George Washington was little more than a despot. Genêt himself saw no charm in Washington; and he did not understand that the people, by and large, firmly believed that their President could do no wrong. Genêt was too bumptious, too filled with his own importance, to realize that a new young republic was bound to be touchy about its independence, its dignity as a sovereign state.

Nevertheless he won his first test of strength.

Citoyen Genêt was one of the vessels he had fitted out as privateers in Charleston. A few days after his arrival in Philadelphia she sailed into that port with two prizes. Nobody was quite sure of the status of those prizes, or whether Citoyen Genêt should be permitted to stay. And so, nothing was done immediately. (The very fact that this vessel bore the minister's name made the whole thing more dramatic. Another Charleston-French privateer, Sans Culotte, had appeared at Baltimore at almost the same time, and didn't attract anywhere near as much attention.)

However, although most of the mariners on the Citoyen Genêt were French, two, Gideon Henfield and John Singletary, were United States citizens. The government contended  p80 that they were breaking the law, and arrested them. Genêt, of course, sprang to their defense.

Genêt always stressed the 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce, and wisely; for many Americans thought that their masters were taking a rather cavalier view of the treaty, and that France was being bilked. Unfortunately Citizen Genêt insisted upon his own interpretation of the treaty, and would not even acknowledge any other. "When treaties speak," he proclaimed, "the agents of nations have but to obey."

Henfield, then, was brought to trial, in July, in the Federal Circuit court at Philadelphia. The judges instructed the jury to find a verdict of guilty, but after being out for two whole days, it found a verdict of not guilty. So Henfield and Singletary were both released, and Genêt crowed like a cock.

He crowed too soon. He did not sense that his personal popularity was based upon the cause for which he stood. And that cause began to slip as the summer wore on.

The revolutionists in France were carrying matters too far. The Girondins, Genêt's party, were out; the slavering Jacobins were in, and heads were falling like peaches from a shaken tree.

The United States was filling with French refugees, most of them from the upper classes, who were bitter about the Revolution and willing to tell stories, which, true or not, were calculated to chill anybody's ardor.

August 1, 1793 the frigates l'Embuscade and Boston, the latter British, met by prearrangement off Long Branch, New Jersey. This duel had been well advertised, and thousands lined the shore or clung to the rigging of nearby  p81 vessels to watch. For two hours they banged away at one another, and then the challenger, Captain Courtney of Boston, was killed and the Britisher backed away.

This would seem a boost to French prestige, and for a little while it was. But that same day a whole French fleet filed into New York harbor from the West Indies, and it was not a boost. A slatternly and dingy fleet, none of its components resembled the spick-and‑span l'Embuscade. The truth soon came out. The sailors were on the verge of mutiny. Shore parties were to be avoided. There were few open outrages, but a great deal of petty violence. Genêt, to give him credit, rushed to the scene and did everything he could to quiet the men. Eventually they left, but by that time French stock was low.

Desperate, the cabinet in Philadelphia put the problem of belligerents' rights up to the Supreme Court. The court refused to rule.

The cabinet at last issued "Rules Governing Belligerents" which were supposed to eliminate discrimination between France and Great Britain. Genêt spurned them. French privateers were putting into many American ports — and why not? How could a land that had no navy keep them out?

The validity of these rules, their legality, was questionable. Normally the responsibility for enforcing them would have lain with the Secretary of State, since this was clearly an international matter. However the responsibility was given to the Secretary of the Treasury, on the excuse that the customs houses were the most convenient places of enforcement. Again Thomas Jefferson protested; and again he was brushed aside.

 p82  The French minister was guilty of various other indiscretions, but the Little Sarah finally made Washington and the cabinet decide to get rid of Citizen Genêt.

Little Sarah was a Britisher taken by French privateers. She had been brought into Philadelphia, where she was being refitted and rearmed. When it was learned that ten cannons had been added to the four she had carried previously, and that her name had been changed to Petite Democrate, no one could doubt that she was about to become a French privateer herself. This was too much! Even if the British minister in Philadelphia hadn't protested (and he did), the American government would have done so.

Jefferson himself pleaded with Genêt, and was snubbed. Genêt would promise nothing, at first, after a while he seemed to agree — though not in writing — that Petite Democrate would not sail for some time. However, Petite Democrate did sail, soon afterward, perhaps without Genêt's knowledge. This did not matter. What did matter was that Genêt, when asked not to release the vessel, had stormed that he would go over the head of President Washington and appeal to the people.

The tale spread, urged on by the Federalists. The Father of his Country had been insulted! Thousands fell away from Citizen Genêt, who blustered in vain. Nobody could do that to George Washington!

On August 16 a message was sent to American minister in Paris, demanding Genêt's recall.

The French government acted promptly. They were in truth delighted because by this time they not only wanted  p83 Genêt's recall — they also wanted his head, literally. They wrote him a blistering letter of rebuke. Then they appointed and sent off his successor, with orders to arrest Genêt and send him back to France.

This, again, was too much. Edmond Charles Genêt might be as Hamilton had said, "a burned‑out comet"; but so long as he stood on American soil he was not subject to arrest and deportation by the agents of a foreign power. Genêt himself understood the situation perfectly. He knew that if he went back home he was as good as dead. So he appealed for and was granted permission to stay in America. Then swallowing his equalitarian pride, he married an heiress, Cornelia Tappen Clinton, daughter of the Governor of New York. In 1804 he became an American citizen and never did go back to France. He never went back into politics either.

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Page updated: 20 May 13