Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Citizen Genest and Neutrality
By Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (18071886)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1807. Died there, 1886. The Struggle for Neutrality in America. Address delivered before the New York Historical Society, 13 December, 1870.]
IT was well known that a diplomatic envoy had been commissioned by the new French Republic, and was on his way to America. The President had been advised by his Cabinet to receive him at once on his arrival. But neither he nor they had any idea that the chief object of the new mission would be to break up the very policy just formally proclaimed. The chief directors of that changing era of French politics were looking to this country for aid in their conflict with all Europe, and especially on the ocean, where they were conducting an unequal fight with Great Britain. To that end they had, in appealing to the old alliance of 1778, meditated to propose some form of convention by which, in consideration of an exclusive privilege of trade in the ports of each other, making a practical monopoly of their carrying-trade for us, we might be tempted to enter into a union which, however it might have been worded, must inevitably have made us, in the end, a party to the war.
This scheme was not altogether ill-contrived. The popular current in favor of France was at the moment running mountain-high all over America, and even in the Cabinet of Washington it had its most earnest sympathizer in the person of Mr. Jefferson. Though honestly in favor of preserving neutrality as long as possible, he held doubtsand not without good reasonof our ability to preserve it against the feebly-disguised ill-will of Great Britain; and, in the event of a rupture, his disposition prompted a close union with France. Neither was Washington himself by any means averse to this policy, in the last resort. A good field was therefore fairly open to the labors of the new envoy at the moment it was announced that he had landed from a French frigate at Charleston, in South Carolina.
And here I ask your pardon for stopping again for the purpose of making a single observation. In the relations between nations it is not quite enough for a Government to devise forms of policy and direct negotiations. However excellent they may be in the abstract, and however likely to insure a favorable result, if the organ of communication be not also well adapted to promote the object, the issue will surely disappoint expectations. This remark, true in a degree even now, was very much more so in former days, when the telegraph was not at hand to vary instructions, remove sudden obstacles, and rectify casual errors. A signal example of its truth is given in the conduct of Mr. Genest, the new French Minister. He was quite a young man, not more than twenty-seven, had been well trained by his father in the Foreign Office, under the monarchy, and had entered the diplomatic service at St. Petersburg through the influence of his sisters, who were in the household of Queen Marie Antoinette. But he had imbibed such heated Republican sentiments, that, at the breaking out of the Revolution, the Russian Government seized an early opportunity to furnish him with his passports to return to Paris. This event probably recommended him the more to the Republicans, who had now come into power, and particularly pointed him out as a suitable agent to serve their objects in republican America! That it was intended he should act as a fire-brand, there can be little doubt; but that he should run the career which he actually did, was by no means in their contemplation. In the year 1793, to go from Paris to Philadelphia, by the way of Charleston, South Carolina, was certainly not less out of the way than it would be now to go from here to London by way of Rio Janeiro. There could have been but one object in this détour; that was, to try the temper of the population before going to the Government. If such was the case, nothing could have been more satisfactory to him. He was received at Charleston with all the attentions which could have been paid to the greatest benefactor of his race, or military hero; and his progress through the country to Philadelphia was one months continued ovation. People of all conditions, and officers of state, crowded to cheer him on his way. No similar spectacle has ever been seen in any country before or since. And at last, when he reached his destination, a large part of the population of Philadelphia rushed out to meet him at Grays Ferry, and from thence to escort him in triumph to the city. Mr. Genest was neither crafty, cool, nor insincere. This incense did for him what it has done for many a better man before and since: it completely turned his head. He thought he had nothing left to do but to dictate what he desired, and everybody would obey. He began at once to deal out commissions to the right and left, to fit out privateers, and enlist officers and men; to organize Jacobin clubs, and in every other respect to conduct himself in much the same way that he might have done at Paris. President Washington received him with all proper courtesy, and his Secretary of State for a moment seemed to have cherished visions of international amity; but they were both rudely wakened from their repose by the complaints of the British Minister, Mr. Hammond, remonstrating against the capture of British vessels by ships fitted out from our ports under the authority of this new envoy. It was plain that the proclamation of neutrality had been trampled in the dust by him, and that his insolent assumption of authority was fast implicating the country in a conflict with Great Britain.
But what at first might have seemed an alarming onset, in point of fact turned out the greatest piece of good fortune. So outrageous became the action of Mr. Genest, so offensive his mode of treating the Government, that he began to fall in the popular esteem as fast as he had ever risen. Most especially did it place Mr. Jefferson, his most natural friend, in an attitude in which he had no alternative but to disavow all sympathy whatever with his proceedings. Mortifying as it must have been to give up the policy which he had cherished, he showed no hesitation in his course. On him it necessarily devolved to conduct the official correspondence with Mr. Genest, on behalf of the Administration. The papers, as they stand on the record, tell their own story. Considering the sacrifice he had to make of all his cherished notions, nothing in the long and brilliant career of that gentleman seems to me more honorable than the way he acquitted himself on that occasion. The conclusion of it all was, the utter failure of the whole project of France, the material diminution of the popular sympathy with that Republic, the recall of Mr. Genest in disgrace at the request of the President, and the confirmation of the policy of neutrality which this assault had been intended to overthrow.