He was young, but that doesn’t really excuse him. He was only a couple of years younger than Jefferson was when he penned the Declaration of Independence. The fact is, he was both highly intelligent and foolish.
Highly intelligent: By the time he was 12 years old, he could read French, English, Italian, Latin, Swedish, and German, and at age 18 he was appointed court translator. But too close a look at monarchy led to his becoming an avid republican, and in 1792 the revolutionary government appointed him minister to the United States.
Foolish: Thinking that he could appeal to the American people over the heads of their representatives, he defied Washington, he defied Jefferson, he defied the whole Cabinet. He was lucky to escape with his head.
The Franco-American Treaty of Alliance of 1778 obliged the United States to help France defend the West Indies. The problem was, a war with England and Spain was a recipe for disaster for the infant country. Instead, on April 22, 1793, Washington proclaimed American neutrality.
Two weeks earlier, Edmond Genêt had arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, aboard a French warship, calling himself “Citizen Genêt” to emphasize his pro-revolutionary stance. His government had charged him with several tasks: obtaining American help in defending France’s colonies in the Caribbean; obtaining advance payments on debts that the government owed to France; negotiating a commercial treaty between the two countries; and implementing the provisions of the 1778 Franco-American treaty which allowed the French to use American ports to base ships that would attack British merchant shipping.
For an experienced diplomat, Genêt showed few signs of knowing what behavior was acceptable or unacceptable in an envoy. As soon as he arrived in Charleston, he issued four privateering commissions, authorizing the holders to seize British merchant ships and their cargo, with the approval and protection of the French Government. (Granted, he had the consent of South Carolina governor William Moultrie, who didn’t have the right to give it.) Then he spent time organizing American volunteers to fight in Spanish Florida. On his way to Philadelphia, he stopped several times to try to drum up citizen support for the French cause.
All these actions endangered American neutrality in the war between France and Britain. Genet met a cool reception from the government when he arrived in May. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson informed him that the Cabinet considered the outfitting of French privateers in American ports to be a violation of the U.S. policy of neutrality.
While Genêt was in Philadelphia talking to Washington and Secretary of State Jefferson, his privateers were capturing British ships, and his militia was preparing to move against Florida. Meanwhile he asked, in effect, for a suspension of American neutrality. Jefferson refused, and told him that his actions were unacceptable. Genêt, angry that the Jay treaty limited American trade with the West Indies and accepted the British view that naval stores and war materiel were contraband, and could not be conveyed to enemy ports by neutral ships, persisted in his un-neutral actions.
Finally Washington, on the unusual joint advice of Jefferson and Hamilton, sent him an 8,000-word letter of complaint.
Genêt remained obdurate. He threatened to take his case to the American people, bypassing official government opposition. He outfitted a captured British ship as a privateer, the Little Democrat. He ignored numerous warnings to detain the ship in port, and when he allowed the Little Democrat to sail and begin attacking British shipping,
That did it. The Cabinet agreed to request Genêt’s recall. (Hamilton wanted to have him expelled, but Jefferson stopped short of that.) But by the time Jefferson’s request for recall reached France, power had shifted from the Girondins who had sent Genêt to the radical Jacobins. They were already dissatisfied with Genêt’s failures, though the failure were not his fault. (The administration had no interest in a new commercial treaty, and it refused to make advance payments on U.S. debts to the French government. What was Genet supposed to do about it?) Besides, the Jacobins suspected him of continued loyalty to the Girondins. In January 1794, the French government recalled him and demanded that he be handed over to the commissioners sent to replace him.
In a lovely irony, the advocate of the revolution decided to save his own neck from the guillotine, and asked Washington for political asylum. Even nicer irony, it was Hamilton who persuaded Washington to grant it. (Genêt married the daughter of New York Governor George Clinton, and spent the remaining 40 years of his life as a gentleman farmer in New York state.)
As a result of the Citizen Genêt affair, the United States established a set of procedures governing neutrality. Washington signed a set of rules regarding policies of neutrality on August 3, 1793. These rules were formalized when Congress passed a neutrality bill on June 4, 1794, and that legislation formed the basis for neutrality policy throughout the nineteenth century. So Citizen Genet’s mission did have some positive effect after all.