The Citizen Genet Affair

Scandals regarding foreign influence in U.S. domestic affairs are nothing new—such an incident occurred within the Founders’ lifetimes. Known as the “Citizen Genet Affair,” it potentially threatened the young republic’s fragile unity and weak national security.

In 1793, French minister Edmond Charles Genet arrived in the U.S. to muster popular support for Revolutionary France against Great Britain and Spain. Rather than go to the capital to meet with President George Washington—as was diplomatic protocol—Genet remained in South Carolina, where he was welcomed with enthusiasm and, with the consent of the governor, began recruiting American volunteers to serve as privateers—i.e. pirates sanctioned by the French government—against the British. To bolster his efforts, he called himself “Citizen Genet” to appeal fellow republicans. Four privateering ships were outfitted in the state’s ports, with many more planned.

When Genet finally arrived in Philadelphia to present his credentials to the U.S. government, he was met with strong opposition. Secretary of State Jefferson, a Francophile sympathetic to the French Revolution, nonetheless informed him that the recruiting of privateers violated U.S. neutrality and could precipitate a crisis. While Genet was busy circumventing the federal government, Washington had issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality” to avoid joining either the French or the British. His administration was concerned that the still-weak U.S. could easily be invaded by one or the other power; moreover, Americans—including the highest officials in government—were bitterly divided between pro-British and pro-French camps.

Not only did Genet threaten this delicate balancing act, but by appealing directly to state officials and the American people, he had also ignored the constitutional requirement that the U.S. President be the focal point of foreign affairs. The privateers he had commissioned were already capturing British ships, and he ignored American warnings and continued garnering support. In a rare show of unity, President Washington, backed by both pro-British Hamilton and pro-French Jefferson, petitioned France to recall Genet.

However, the more extreme revolutionaries had just taken power in France, and Genet’s membership in the more moderate wing meant he would likely be killed. He appealed to the same U.S. government he had flaunted for asylum, and it was none other than Hamilton, his fiercest critic, that convinced Washington to grant him safe haven. Genet lived out the rest of his life more or less quietly in New York.

The U.S. government thereafter made it clear that foreign policy was to remain the purview of the federal government—namely the executive, as set forth in the Constitution—and that no foreign official was to go about influencing the political persuasions of the populace (much less recruiting them for foreign wars).

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica; State Department

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