U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Other State Department Archive SitesU.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Home Issues & Press Travel & Business Countries Youth & Education Careers About State Video

The Citizen Genêt Affair, 1793-1794

Edmond Charles GenÍt served as French minister to the United States from 1793 to 1794. His activities in that capacity embroiled the United States and France in a diplomatic crisis, as the United States Government attempted to remain neutral in the conflict between Great Britain and Revolutionary France. The controversy was ultimately resolved by GenÍt's recall from his position. As a result of the Citizen GenÍt affair, the United States established a set of procedures governing neutrality.

American foreign policy in the 1790s was dominated by the events surrounding the French Revolution. Following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1792, the revolutionary French Government clashed with the monarchies of Spain and Great Britain. French policymakers needed the United States to help defend France's colonies in the Caribbean - either as a neutral supplier or as a military ally, and so they dispatched Edmond Charles GenÍt, an experienced diplomat, as minister to the United States. The French assigned GenÍt several additional duties: to obtain advance payments on debts that the U.S. owed to France, to negotiate a commercial treaty between the United States and France, and to implement portions of the 1778 Franco-American treaty which allowed attacks on British merchant shipping using ships based in American ports. GenÍt's attempt to carry out his instructions would bring him into direct conflict with the U.S. Government.

The French Revolution had already reinforced political differences within President George Washington's Cabinet. The Democratic-Republicans, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, sympathized with the French revolutionaries. The Federalists, led by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, believed that ties with Great Britain were more important. President Washington attempted to steer a neutral course between these two opposing views. He believed that joining Great Britain or France in war could subject the comparatively weak United States to invasion by foreign armies and have disastrous economic consequences. President Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality on April 22, 1793.

GenÍt arrived in Charleston, South Carolina on April 8, 1793ócalling himself "Citizen GenÍt" to emphasize his pro-revolutionary stance. GenÍt immediately began to issue privateering commissions upon his arrival in Charleston, with the consent of South Carolina governor William Moultrie. These commissions authorized the bearers, regardless of their country of origin, to seize British merchant ships and their cargo for personal profit, with the approval and protection of the French Government.

When GenÍt arrived in the U.S. capital of Philadelphia in May to present his credentials, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson informed him that the United States Cabinet considered the outfitting of French privateers in American ports to be a violation of the U.S. policy of neutrality. GenÍt's mission ran into further difficulties when the U.S. Government expressed no interest in a new commercial treaty, as it already enjoyed favorable trading privileges in French ports. The U.S. Cabinet also refused to make advance payments on U.S. debts to the French government.

GenÍt ignored American warnings and allowed the outfitting of another French privateer, the Little Democrat. Defying numerous warnings from U.S. officials to detain the ship in port, GenÍt continued to ready the ship to sail. GenÍt also threatened to take his case to the American people, bypassing official government opposition. GenÍt failed to realize that Washington and his neutrality policy were politically popular, and that his pro-British enemies would depict such an attempt as foreign meddling in American domestic affairs.

Washington's Cabinet met to consider a response to GenÍt's defiant actions. All members agreed to request GenÍt's recall, but were divided as to how to go about doing so. Before the Cabinet reached a decision, GenÍt allowed the Little Democrat to sail and begin attacking British shipping. This direct violation of neutrality forced the U.S. Government to take more prompt action and request that the French government recall GenÍt. However, Secretary of State Jefferson stopped short of expelling Genet from the United States, as Hamilton had wished.

By the time Jefferson's request for recall reached France, power had shifted from the more moderate Girondins, who had originally sent GenÍt on his mission, to the radical Jacobins. French policy began to emphasize friendlier relations with neutral countries who could provide crucially needed food supplies. French officials were already dissatisfied with GenÍt's failure to fulfill his diplomatic mission, and the Jacobins suspected him of continued loyalty to the Girondins. The French government recalled GenÍt, and demanded that the U.S. hand him over to the commissioners sent to replace him. President Washington and Attorney General Edmund Randolph, aware that GenÍt's return to France would almost certainly result in his execution, allowed GenÍt to remain in the United States. U.S. and French diplomatic goals favored friendly neutrality, and the GenÍt affair came to an end. GenÍt himself continued to reside in the United States until his death in 1834.

The GenÍt affair forced the United States to formulate a consistent policy on the issue of neutrality. Washington's Cabinet signed a set of rules regarding policies of neutrality on August 3, 1793, and these rules were formalized when Congress passed a neutrality bill on June 4, 1794. This legislation formed the basis for neutrality policy throughout the nineteenth century.


  Back to top

U.S. Department of State
USA.govU.S. Department of StateUpdates  |   Frequent Questions  |   Contact Us  |   Email this Page  |   Subject Index  |   Search
The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs, manages this site as a portal for information from the U.S. State Department. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.
About state.gov  |   Privacy Notice  |   FOIA  |   Copyright Information  |   Other U.S. Government Information

Published by the U.S. Department of State Website at http://www.state.gov maintained by the Bureau of Public Affairs.