America’s Long Journey: Monroe, the French, and the Federalists

Monroe, the French, and the Federalists

Before Randolph, it had been James Monroe’s turn to fall from favor.

And here we see the combined advantage and disadvantage of working from future back to past. Working backward, we already know that Randolph would lose his cabinet post, but we haven’t yet come to the story of the disruptive Citizen Genet. Those living at the time were ignorant that Randolph would fall (let alone that Hamilton would be continuously and covertly feeding Cabinet secrets to the British representative), but Citizen Genet was fresh in their memory.

We’ll get to Genet. For the moment, suffice it to say that he, in his ham-fisted way, poisoned the American politics of the 1790s and beyond. Before Genet, the nascent Federalist and Republican parties already viewed each other as rivals advocating significantly different economic and political futures. After Genet, they saw each other as subversive organizations acting on behalf of Britain or France, respectively. Washington attempted to hold the balance, like Adams after him, and like Adams after him, he had to do so pretty much alone among one-sided partisans.

In 1794, he requested Monroe to become Minister to France, replacing Gouverneur Morris, who in his disapproval of the French revolution had made himself highly unpopular with the French revolutionary government. Monroe obligingly resigned from his Senate seat and proceeded to Paris, where he met an enthusiastic response. For one thing, he was not his predecessor. For another, he was known to be partial to France, and his selection by Washington was taken as a reassurance of American neutrality. And perhaps the fact that Monroe was partly French by descent helped, who knows? When he was presented to the National Convention, right after the fall of Robespierre, the presiding officer kissed him on both cheeks.

Monroe’s speech to the convention was criticized by his superiors as being inappropriately over-exuberant. However, taking advantage of his popularity with the French government, Monroe was able to obtain freedom for Americans held in French prisons. Unfortunately, to be popular in Paris meant to be suspected in Philadelphia. In Genet’s aftermath, Monroe’s most innocent actions would be viewed with suspicion by Hamilton and company. (Of course, as an avid and influential Republican, he would have been under the Federalist microscope in any event. But the super-heated atmosphere of the time made every situation more volatile.)

So, for instance, Monroe obtained the release from prison of Thomas Paine. Paine had been arrested for opposing the execution of King Louis XVI, but the revolutionary government agreed to release him, provided that he be deported to the United States. Republicans and others remembered Paine’s tremendous service to the patriot cause during the revolution. His pamphlet “Common Sense,” which was published in January, 1776, which presented the case for independence in a style that anyone could understand, attained a huge circulation. Washington had it read to all his troops. But Paine’s atheism and his anti-British bias made him unpopular – to put it mildly! – with Federalists, regardless of past services, and anyone helping him fell under suspicion.

Secretary of State Randolph’s instructions told Monroe to improve relations with France, and this was a task dear to Monroe’s heart. He assured the French that Washington’s policy was one of strict neutrality between France and Britain, which of course they were happy to hear, but weren’t sure they could believe. And then came word of Jay’s Treaty.

As discussed below, it was a bad treaty. Possibly it was as good as Americans could expect to obtain under the circumstances, but the impossibility of doing better didn’t make it good. To France, it must have seemed a slap in the face, if not a stab in the back. And where did it leave Monroe? All the time it had been under negotiation, he had been reassuring the French that Jay would not be allowed to make any commitment contrary to the U.S.-French alliance that had been signed in the aftermath of the Battle of Saratoga. All during that time, Jay refused to give him any information on the progress or content of the negotiations.

He had told the French that American policy did not favor Britain. Jay’s Treaty showed otherwise. The French were angry, and alarmed, and it was up to Monroe to soothe them as best he could, regardless of the fact that he agreed with them. A minister represents his country, not his own feelings. When necessary, he defends positions he feels to be indefensible, and argues cases he doesn’t believe in. So do lawyers, and Monroe was a lawyer. But this was too much for his discretion. He felt that he had been employed to deceive the country he was accredited to.

Then, in early 1796, the French determined to send a special envoy to sever relations, which, had it happened, might easily have led to war. Such a development would have further strained – perhaps ruined – Washington’s policy of neutrality. Hamilton would have been pleased, one imagines, but not Washington. Monroe prevented this calamity, talking them out of it, but in so doing, he went too far. Writing to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, he implied that the problems between the two countries might be removed by the outcome of the presidential elections of 1796. There was only one way to read that: Monroe was as much as saying, your hope is in a Federalists loss. Naturally the word spread.

For this and other reasons, Washington discharged Monroe as Minister to France, claiming his “inefficiency, disruptive maneuvers, and failure to safeguard the interests of his country.” This public criticism by George Washington was Monroe’s reward for helping to keep France from sliding into active hostility to the United States.

Monroe’s presence, his obvious partiality, and his intercession with the French government at critical times all furthered Washington’s steadfast policy of neutrality between the two contending giants. So there is considerable irony in the fact that Monroe fell from grace because he attempted to do what Washington sent him over there to do.

Hard-working, loyal James Monroe, born into the planter aristocracy but never quite in the inner circle, his ambitions repeatedly deferred, always having to wait his turn, always doing his best in impossible situations and then getting blamed for disappointing results. Probably that isn’t a fair assessment of his life, but it surely must have felt that way to him sometimes.


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