Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)
Chapter 23. CITIZEN GENÊT
On March 4, 1793, George Washington was sworn in for his second term as president. Unlike his talkative treasury secretary, the president believed in brevity and delivered a pithy inaugural address of two paragraphs. As he spoke in the Senate chamber, tension crackled below the surface of American politics that contrasted with the rapturous mood of the first inauguration. Fisher Ames, always a shrewd observer of the scene, mused that “a spirit of faction…must soon come to a crisis.” He foresaw that congressional Republicans would discard their comparatively decorous criticism of Washington’s first term: “They thirst for vengeance. The Secretary of the Treasury is one whom they would immolate…. The President is not to be spared. His popularity is a fund of strength to that cause which they would destroy. He is therefore rudely and incessantly attacked.”1
Washington’s second term revolved around inflammatory foreign-policy issues. The French Revolution forced Americans to ponder the meaning of their own revolution, and followers of Hamilton and Jefferson drew diametrically opposite conclusions. The continuing turmoil in Paris added to the caution of Hamiltonians, who were trying to tamp down radical fires at home. Those same upheavals encouraged Jeffersonians to stoke the fires anew. Americans increasingly defined their domestic politics by either their solidarity with the French Revolution or their aversion to its incendiary methods. The French Revolution thus served to both consolidate the two parties in American politics and deepen the ideological gulf between them.
Most Americans had applauded the French Revolution as a worthy successor to their own, a fraternal link renewed in August 1792 when the National Assembly in Paris bestowed honorary citizenship upon “Georges Washington,” “N. Madison,” and “Jean Hamilton.”2 When Hamilton received a letter from the French interior minister confirming this, he scribbled scornfully on the back: “Letter from government of French Republic, transmitting me a diploma of citizenship, mistaking the Christian name…. Curious example of French finesse.”3 But events in Paris had taken a bloody turn that horrified American representatives there. During the summer of 1792, William Short—Jefferson’s former private secretary in Paris, now stationed in The Hague—wrote to Jefferson of “those mad and corrupted people in France who under the name of liberty have destroyed their own government.” The Parisian streets, he warned, “literally are red with blood.”4 Short described to Hamilton mobs breaking into the royal palace and jailing King Louis XVI. In late August, a guillotine was erected near the Tuileries as Robespierre and Marat launched a wholesale roundup of priests, royalists, editors, judges, tramps, prostitutes—anyone deemed an enemy of the state. When 1,400 political prisoners were slaughtered in the so-called September Massacres, an intoxicated Robespierre pronounced it “the most beautiful revolution that has ever honored humanity.”5 “Let the blood of traitors flow,” agreed Marat. “That is the only way to save the country.”6
For a long time, Jeffersonians had dismissed these reports of atrocities as rank propaganda. Moved by the soul-stirring rhetoric of the French Revolution, they affected the title of “Jacobin” and saluted one another as “citizen” or “citizeness,” in solidarity with their French comrades. After France declared itself a republic on September 20, 1792, American sympathizers feted the news with toasts, cannonades, and jubilation. When Jefferson replied to William Short’s letter, he noted that the French Revolution had heartened American republicans and undercut Hamiltonian “monocrats.” He regretted the lives lost in Paris, he said, then offered this chilling apologia: “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest…. [R]ather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.”7 For Jefferson, it was not just French or American freedom at stake but that of the entire Western world. To his mind, such a universal goal excused the bloodthirsty means.
On January 21, 1793, more grisly events forced a reappraisal of the notion that the French Revolution was a romantic Gallic variant of the American Revolution. Louis XVI—who had aided the American Revolution and whose birthday had long been celebrated by American patriots—was guillotined for plotting against the Revolution. The death of Louis Capet—he had lost his royal title—was drenched in gore: schoolboys cheered, threw their hats aloft, and licked the king’s blood, while one executioner did a thriving business selling snippets of royal hair and clothing. The king’s decapitated head was wedged between his lifeless legs, then stowed in a basket. The remains were buried in an unvarnished box. England reeled from the news, William Pitt the Younger branding it “the foulest and most atrocious act the world has ever seen.”8 On February 1, France declared war against England, Holland, and Spain, and soon the whole continent was engulfed in fighting, ushering in more than twenty years of combat.
News of the royal beheading reached America in late March 1793, at an inopportune time for the Jeffersonians, who had stressed France’s moral superiority over Britain. Would they condemn or rationalize the action? The answer became clear when Freneau’s National Gazette published an article entitled “Louis Capet has lost his caput.” The author qualified his levity in celebrating the king’s death: “From my use of a pun, it may seem that I think lightly of his fate. I certainly do. It affects me no more than the execution of another malefactor.”9 The author said that the king’s murder represented “a great act of justice,” and anyone shocked by such wanton violence betrayed “a strong remaining attachment to royalty” and belonged to “a monarchical junto.”10 In other words, they were Hamiltonians. Once upon a time, Thomas Jefferson had lauded Louis XVI as “a good man,” “an honest man.”11 Now, he asserted that monarchs should be “amenable to punishment like other criminals.”12
Madison admitted to some qualms about “the follies and barbarities” in Paris but was generally no less militant than Jefferson in admiring the French Revolution, describing it as “wonderful in its progress and…stupendous in its consequences”; he denigrated its enemies as “enemies of human nature.”13 Madison agreed with Jefferson that if their French comrades failed it would doom American republicanism. Madison was not fazed by Louis XVI’s murder. If the king “was a traitor,” he said, “he ought to be punished as well as another man.”14 Like Jefferson, Madison filtered out upsetting facts about France and mocked as “spurious” newspaper accounts that talked about the king’s innocence “and the bloodthirstiness of his enemies.”15
One mordant irony of this obstinate blindness was that while Republicans rejoiced in the French Revolution and cited the sacred debt owed to French officers who had fought in the American Revolution, those same officers were being victimized by revolutionary violence. Gouverneur Morris, now U.S. minister to France, informed Hamilton after the king’s execution, “It has so happened that a very great proportion of the French officers who served in America have been either opposed to the Revolution at an early day or felt themselves obliged at a later period to abandon it. Some of them are now in a state of banishment and their property confiscated.”16 With the monarchy’s fall, the marquis de Lafayette was denounced as a traitor. He fled to Belgium, only to be captured by the Austrians and shunted among various prisons for five years. Tossed into solitary confinement, he eventually emerged wan and emaciated, a mostly hairless cadaver. Lafayette’s family suffered grievously during the Terror. His wife’s sister, mother, and grandmother were all executed and dumped in a common grave. Other heroes of the American Revolution succumbed to revolutionary madness: the comte de Rochambeau was locked up in the Conciergerie, while Admiral d’Estaing was executed.
If Republicans turned a blind eye to these events, the pro-British bias of the Federalists perhaps sharpened their vision. As early as March 1792, Jefferson groused in his “Anas” about Washington’s “want of confidence in the event of the French revolution…. I remember when I received the news of the king’s flight and capture, I first told him of it at his assembly. I never saw him so much dejected by any event in my life.”17 Washington was indeed sickened by the bloodshed in France, and this widened the breach between him and Jefferson. John Adams was quite prescient about events in France and regretted that many Americans were “so blind, undistinguishing, and enthusiastic of everything that has been done by that light, airy, and transported people.”18 He warned that “Danton, Robespierre, Marat, etc. are furies. Dragons’ teeth have been sown in France and will come up as monsters.”19
No American was to expend more prophetic verbiage in denouncing the French Revolution than Alexander Hamilton. The suspension of the monarchy and the September Massacres, Hamilton later told Lafayette, had “cured me of my goodwill for the French Revolution.”20 Hamilton refused to condone the carnage in Paris or separate means from ends. He did not think a revolution should cast off the past overnight or repudiate law, order, and tradition. “A struggle for liberty is in itself respectable and glorious,” he opined. “When conducted with magnanimity, justice, and humanity, it ought to command the admiration of every friend to human nature. But if sullied by crimes and extravagancies, it loses its respectability.”21 The American Revolution had succeeded because it was “a free, regular and deliberate act of the nation” and had been conducted with “a spirit of justice and humanity.”22 It was, in fact, a revolution written in parchment and defined by documents, petitions, and other forms of law.
What threw Hamilton into despair was not just the betrayal of revolutionary hopes in France but the way its American apologists ended up justifying a “state of things the most cruel, sanguinary, and violent that ever stained the annals of mankind.”23 For Hamilton, the utopian revolutionaries in France had emphasized liberty to the exclusion of order, morality, religion, and property rights. They had singled out for persecution bankers and businessmen—people Hamilton regarded as agents of progressive change. He saw the chaos in France as a frightening portent of what could happen in America if the safeguards of order were stripped away by the love of liberty. His greatest nightmare was being enacted across the Atlantic—a hopeful revolution giving way to indiscriminate terror and authoritarian rule. His conclusion was categorical: “If there be anything solid in virtue, the time must come when it will have been a disgrace to have advocated the revolution of France in its late stages.”24
Reports that France had declared war against England and other royal powers did not reach American shores until early April, when Hamilton informed Washington, then at Mount Vernon, “there seems to be no room for doubt of the existence of war.”25 Washington rushed back to Philadelphia to formulate policy. He inclined instantly toward neutrality and blanched at rumors that American ships were getting ready to wage war as pro-French privateers. Before Washington’s arrival, Hamilton mulled over a neutrality proclamation and consulted with John Jay, not Thomas Jefferson, who was slowly being shunted aside in foreign policy. The day after his return on April 17, Washington asked his advisers to ponder thirteen questions for a meeting at his residence the next morning. The first question was the overriding one: Should the United States issue a proclamation of neutrality? The next twelve questions related to France, among them: Should America receive an ambassador from France? Should earlier treaties apply? Was France waging an offensive or defensive war? In these queries, with their implicit skepticism of France, Jefferson saw the handiwork of Hamilton, even though Washington had taken pains to write out the questions himself.
With his usual fierce certitude, Hamilton believed that neutrality was the only proper course and had already lectured Washington on the need for “a continuance of the peace, the desire of which may be said to be both universal and ardent.”26 This had less to do with scruples about war than with a conviction, shared by Washington, that the young country needed a period of prosperity and stability before it was capable of combat. The United States did not even possess a regular navy. At such a moment, Hamilton said, war would be “the most unequal and calamitous in which it is possible for a country to be engaged—a war which would not be unlikely to prove pregnant with greater dangers and disasters than that by which we established our existence as an independent nation.”27 Though Jefferson sympathized with France and Hamilton with Great Britain, they agreed that neutrality was the only sensible policy. The two secretaries differed on the form this should assume, however, and three days of spirited debate ensued.
At a dramatic session on April 19, Washington listened as Jefferson, eager to extract concessions from England, opposed an immediate declaration of neutrality, or perhaps any declaration at all. Why not stall and make countries bid for American neutrality? Aghast, Hamilton said that American neutrality was not negotiable. Drawing on his formidable powers of persuasion, he pummeled his listeners with authorities on international law: Grotius, Vattel, and Pufendorf. Hamilton carried the day, and the cabinet decided to issue a declaration “forbidding our citizens to take part in any hostilities on the seas with or against any of the belligerent powers.”28 Jefferson was horrified at suspending the 1778 treaties with France, sealed during the Revolution. But Hamilton argued that France had aided the American Revolution not from humanitarian motives but only to weaken England. He also argued that the French, having toppled Louis XVI, had traded one government for another, rendering their former treaties null and void. Predictably, he opposed a friendly reception for the French minister recently arrived in America, lest it commit the United States to the French cause. Nonetheless, Jefferson triumphed on the issue of accepting the new French minister without qualifications, as Washington demonstrated anew that he was not a puppet in Hamilton’s hands.
On April 22, after days of heated rhetoric from Hamilton and Jefferson, Washington promulgated his Proclamation of Neutrality. Hamilton was the undisputed victor on the main point of issuing a formal, speedy executive declaration, but Jefferson won some key emphases. In particular, Jefferson had worried that the word neutrality would signal a flat rejection of France, so the document spoke instead of the need for U.S. citizens to be “friendly and impartial” toward the warring powers.29 The proclamation set a vital precedent for a proudly independent America, giving it an ideological shield against European entanglements. Of this declaration, Henry Cabot Lodge later wrote, “There is no stronger example of the influence of the Federalists under the leadership of Washington upon the history of the country than this famous proclamation, and in no respect did the personality of Hamilton impress itself more directly on the future of the United States.”30 With the Neutrality Proclamation, Hamilton continued to define his views on American foreign policy: that it should be based on self-interest, not emotional attachment; that the supposed altruism of nations often masked baser motives; that individuals sometimes acted benevolently, but nations seldom did. This austere, hardheaded view of human affairs likely dated to Hamilton’s earliest observations of the European powers in the West Indies.
The Neutrality Proclamation provoked another contretemps between Jefferson and Hamilton. The secretary of state opposed the form of this milestone in American foreign policy and expressed his indignation to Monroe: “Hamilton is panic-struck if we refuse our breech to every kick which Great Britain may choose to give it.”31 Madison, too, was enraged by the “anglified complexion” of administration policy and dismissed the proclamation as a “most unfortunate error.” The executive branch, he thought, was usurping national-security powers that properly belonged to the legislature. Didn’t Congress alone have the power to declare war and neutrality? He deplored Hamilton’s effort to “shuffle off” the treaty with France as a trick “equally contemptible for the meanness and folly of it.”32 Madison favored American support for France and bemoaned that Washington had succumbed to “the unpopular cause of Anglomany.” He still viewed the French Revolution as an inspirational fight for freedom and asked indignantly why George Washington “should have anything to apprehend from the success of liberty in another country.”33
On April 8, 1793, the new French minister to the United States sailed into Charleston, South Carolina, aboard the frigate Embuscade and enjoyed a tumultuous reception from a giant throng. His name was Edmond Charles Genêt, but he would be known to history, in the fraternal style popularized by the French Revolution, as Citizen Genêt. Short and ruddy, the thirty-year-old diplomat had flaming red hair, a sloping forehead, and an aquiline nose. Gouverneur Morris sniffed that he had “the manner and look of an upstart.”34 Though he often acted like a political amateur, he had an excellent résumé. Fluent in Greek at age six, the translator of Swedish histories by twelve, he spoke seven languages, was an accomplished musician, and had already seen diplomatic service in London and St. Petersburg. He was so closely associated with the moderate Girondists that, before the king’s head was severed, there had been speculation that Citizen Genêt might accompany the royal family to America.
In social situations, the bustling young emissary could be charming and engaging, but he did not behave with the subtlety and prudence expected of a diplomat. Indeed, if Hamilton had decided to invent a minister to dramatize his fears of the French Revolution, he could have conjured up no one better than the vain, extravagant, and bombastic Genêt. The Frenchman was to swagger and bluster and wade blindly into the warfare between Hamilton and Jefferson.
Citizen Genêt landed with a lengthy agenda. He wanted the United States to extend more funds to France and supply foodstuffs and other army provisions. Much more controversially, he wanted to strike blows against Spanish and British possessions in North America and was ready to hire secret agents for that purpose. Jefferson became his clandestine accomplice when he furnished Genêt with a letter introducing a French botanist named André Michaux to the governor of Kentucky. Michaux planned to arm Kentuckians and stir up frontier settlements in Spanish Louisiana. Jefferson’s aid violated the policy of neutrality and made Hamilton’s unauthorized talks with George Beckwith seem like tame indiscretions in comparison.
What most roused Washington’s and Hamilton’s ire was that Genêt’s satchel bulged with some blank “letters of marque.” These documents were to be distributed to private vessels, converting them into privateers. The marauding vessels could then capture unarmed British merchant ships as “prizes,” providing money for the captors and military benefits for France. Genêt wanted to recruit American and French seamen. Once settled in South Carolina, he chartered privateers to prey on British shipping from American ports and also assembled a sixteen-hundred-man army to invade St. Augustine, Florida. In Philadelphia, Hamilton condemned this mischief as “the height of arrogance” and divined its true intent: “Genêt came to this country with the affectation of not desiring to embark us in the war and yet he did all in his power by indirect means to drag us into it.”35 Hamilton was convinced that, far from acting alone, Genêt was executing official policy. His suspicions were to be vindicated.
Ten days after his arrival, Citizen Genêt began a prolonged journey north to Philadelphia to present his credentials to Washington. Acting more like a political candidate than a foreign diplomat, he was cheered at banquets, and his six-week tour acquired major political overtones. In many cities, Genêt’s presence spawned “Republican” or “Democratic�� societies whose members greeted and embraced each other as “citizens.” These groups feared that once the European powers had overthrown the French Revolution, they would crush its American counterpart. Jittery Federalists worried that the new societies would mimic the radical Jacobin “clubs” that had provoked mayhem in Paris. As these groups forged links with one another, Hamilton thought they might replicate the methods of the Sons of Liberty chapters that helped spark the American Revolution. As a precaution, he advised his customs collectors to inform him of any merchant ships in their ports being pierced with loopholes for guns—a sign they were being converted into privateers.
With each day of his northward journey, the uproar over Genêt’s activities mounted, and Federalist resentment vied with Republican adulation. While Genêt traveled, the Embuscade pounced upon the British ship Grange in American waters and hauled this prize to Philadelphia. George Hammond, the British minister, protested hotly to Thomas Jefferson, noting that such actions mocked Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation. The secretary of state privately applauded these violations of U.S. law. When the Grange arrived in Philadelphia, Jefferson could not contain his joy. “Upon her coming into sight, thousands and thousands…crowded and covered the wharves,” he told James Monroe. “Never before was such a crowd seen there and when the British colours were seen reversed and the French flag flying above them, they burst into peals of exultation.”36 Enchanted by Genêt, Jefferson informed Madison that he had “offered everything and asks nothing…. It is impossible for anything to be more affectionate, more magnanimous than the purport of his mission.”37
This was all preamble to Citizen Genêt’s triumphant landing at Philadelphia on May 16, 1793, when he was welcomed by Governor Thomas Mifflin amid repeated volleys of artillery fire. Republicans hoped that an outpouring of affection for Genêt would cement Franco-American relations, and the two countries’ flags flew side by side across the city. French sympathizers rented Philadelphia’s biggest banquet hall for an “elegant civic repast,” passed around “liberty caps,” and roared out “The Marseillaise.” The new ambassador even joined a Jacobin club in Philadelphia. Jefferson was jubilant. “The war has kindled and brought forward the two parties with an ardour which our own interests merely could never excite,” he told Madison.38 One Federalist writer could not believe the adoration heaped on Genêt: “It is beyond the power of figures or words to express the hugs and kisses [they] lavished on him…. [V]ery few parts, if any, of the Citizen’s body, escaped a salute.”39
Where others saw camaraderie and high spirits, Hamilton detected an embryonic plot to subvert American foreign policy. The organizers of Genêt’s reception “were the same men who have been uniformly the enemies and the disturbers of the government of the U[nited] States.”40 Philadelphia was a stronghold of Republican sentiment, and leading figures flaunted their pro-French feelings. John Adams was appalled by daily toasts drunk to Marat and Robespierre, and he recalled one given by Governor Mifflin: “The ruling powers in France. May the United States of America, in alliance with them, declare war against England.”41 At times, Francophile passion was so unbridled that Adams feared violence against Federalists. “You certainly never felt the terrorism excited by Genêt in 1793,” Adams chided Jefferson years later, “when ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house and effect a revolution in the government or compel it to declare war in favor of the French Revolution and against England.”42 Though vice president, Adams felt so vulnerable to attack that he had a cache of arms smuggled through back lanes from the war office to his home so that he could defend his family, friends, and servants. The new republic remained an unsettled place, rife with fears of foreign plots, civil war, chaos, and disunion.
In private talks with George Hammond, Hamilton promised that he would vigorously contest efforts to lure America into war alongside France. He also predicted that the United States would extend no large advances to the revolutionary government, and he delayed debt payments owed to France. In a dispatch to London, Hammond noted that Hamilton would defend American neutrality because “any event which might endanger the externaltranquillity of the United States would be as fatal to the systems he has formed for the benefit of his country as to his…personal reputation and…his…ambition.”43 If Hamilton’s unofficial meetings with Hammond showed gross disloyalty to Jefferson, the latter repaid the favor. Soon after arriving in Philadelphia, Genêt told his superiors in Paris of his candid talks with the secretary of state. “Jefferson…gave me useful notions of men in office and did not at all conceal from me that Senator [Robert] Morris and Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton, attached to the interests of England, had the greatest influence over the president’s mind and that it was only with difficulty that he counter-balanced their efforts.”44
Dubious about both the outcome and the legitimacy of the French Revolution, Hamilton recommended that Genêt be accorded a lesser diplomatic status. Washington overruled him and instructed Jefferson to receive the ambassador civilly, but with no real warmth, a reservation Jefferson interpreted as “a small sacrifice” by Washington to Hamilton’s opinion.45 When Genêt first arrived, Jefferson had resisted efforts to expel privateers in Charleston that Genêt had equipped with weapons. Everybody else in the cabinet—Washington, Hamilton, Knox, Randolph—regarded these actions as an affront to American sovereignty and sought to banish the ships. On June 5, Jefferson had to tell Genêt to stop outfitting privateers and dragooning American citizens to serve on them. At this point, Genêt again showed his inimitable cheek. Only ten days after Jefferson’s warning, he began to transform a captured British merchant ship, the Little Sarah, into an armed privateer renamed La Petite démocrate. What made this additionally infuriating was that Genêt defied American orders in Philadelphia, “under the immediate eye of the Government,” as Hamilton put it.46 Hamilton and Knox wanted the ship returned to Britain or ordered from American shores; Washington adopted this latter course over Jefferson’s dissent.
Amid this imbroglio, Hamilton wrote to Washington on June 21 that he wished to resign when the next congressional session ended in June 1794. He wanted enough time to enact the programs he had initiated and to clear his name in the ongoing inquiry led by William Branch Giles, but he was chafing under the restraints of office. He kept scribbling tirades against the French Revolution and then stashing them in the drawer.
The day after Hamilton drafted his letter to Washington, Citizen Genêt informed Jefferson that France had the right to outfit ships in American ports—and, what was more, the American people agreed with him. Hamilton, taken aback by this effrontery, termed the letter “the most offensive paper perhaps that ever was offered by a foreign minister to a friendly power with which he resided.”47 A few days later, Hamilton had a tense exchange with Genêt, telling him that France was the aggressor in the European war and that this freed America from any need to comply with their old defense treaty. When Hamilton defended Washington’s right to declare neutrality, Genêt retorted that this misuse of executive power usurped congressional prerogatives. The scene had decided elements of farce: Citizen Genêt was lecturing the chief author of The Federalist Papers on the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
On July 6, Citizen Genêt committed a colossal blunder that dwarfed all previous gaffes. With Washington at Mount Vernon, Genêt took advantage of his absence to inform Alexander J. Dallas, the secretary of Pennsylvania, that he rejected the notion of American neutrality. He said that he planned to go above Washington’s head and appeal directly to the American people, asking their assistance to rig French privateers in American ports. Genêt was doing more than just flouting previous warnings; he was clumsily insulting the U.S. government and slapping the face of the one man who could not be slapped: George Washington. Dallas related the story to Governor Mifflin, who passed it on to Hamilton and Knox, who passed it on to Washington. Suddenly, Jefferson’s enchantment with Genêt disappeared. “Never, in my opinion, was so calamitous an appointment made as that of the present minister of France here,” he protested to Madison. “Hotheaded, all imagination, no judgment, passionate, disrespectful, and even indecent toward the P[resident] in his written as well as verbal communications…. He renders my position immensely difficult.”48
Hamilton was outraged, while also mindful that Genêt had handed him a blunt weapon to wield against France. On July 8, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Knox conferred at the State House to figure out what to do with La Petite démocrate. The absent Washington had already ruled that privateers armed in American ports should be stopped or forcibly seized. Hamilton and Knox wanted to post a militia and guns at a strategic spot called Mud Island, a few miles down the Delaware River, preventing the ship from escaping. Jefferson favored the milder course of dealing with American crew members rather than the ship itself. While not making promises, Genêt told Jefferson that the vessel wouldn’t sail from Philadelphia before Washington returned. Hamilton, who did not trust Genêt, wanted forcible action to prevent La Petite démocrate from getting away. In a memo, he wrote, “It is a truth the best founded and of the last importance that nothing is so dangerous to a government as to be wanting either in self confidence or self-respect.”49 But Hamilton could not prevail upon his colleagues to use force.
Washington returned to Philadelphia on July 11. La Petite démocrate managed to slip away and sail past Mud Island on July 12. On the spot, Hamilton proposed that the French government be asked to recall Genêt. Even Jefferson registered no protest. A few days, later La Petite démocrate was at sea.
As he watched Genêt’s boorish behavior, Hamilton longed to broadcast his views to the public. He was not born to be a silent spectator of events. By late June, Hamilton could contain himself no longer and rushed into print. On June 29, 1793, a writer billing himself as “Pacificus” inaugurated the first of seven essays in the Gazette of the United States that defended the Neutrality Proclamation. Throughout July, Hamilton’s articles ran twice weekly, their impact enhanced by Citizen Genêt’s intolerable antics.
In the first essay, Hamilton dealt with the objection that only Congress could issue a neutrality proclamation, since it alone had the power to declare war. Hamilton pointed out that if “the legislature have a right to make war, on the one hand, it is, on the other, the duty of the executive to preserve peace till war is declared.”50 Once again, Hamilton broadened the authority of the executive branch in diplomacy, especially during emergencies. He also speculated that the real reason behind the brouhaha over neutrality was the opposition’s desire to weaken or remove Washington from office. In the second essay, he disputed that the Neutrality Proclamation violated the defensive alliance with France. That treaty, Hamilton noted, did not apply to offensive wars, and France had declared war against other European powers. In the third essay, Hamilton evoked the devastation that might result if America was dragged into war on France’s side. Great Britain and Spain could instigate “numerous Indian tribes” under their influence to attack the United States from the interior. Meanwhile, “with a long extended sea coast, with no fortifications whatever and with a population not exceeding four millions,” the United States would find itself in an unequal contest.51
In subsequent installments, Pacificus presented Louis XVI as a benevolent man and a true friend of America: “I am much misinformed if repeated declarations of the venerable Franklin did not attest this fact.”52 French support for the American Revolution, he argued, had emanated from the king and high government circles, not the masses: “If there was any kindness in the decision [to support America], demanding a return of kindness from us, it was the kindness of Louis the XVI. His heart was the depository of the sentiment.”53 It took courage for Hamilton, stigmatized as a cryptomonarchist, to express sympathy for a dead king. In the last “Pacificus” essay, he defended American neutrality on the grounds that a country “without armies, without fleets” was too immature to prosecute war.54 To amplify his views, Hamilton organized rallies to demonstrate popular approval of the Neutrality Proclamation.
Hamilton was always fond of his “Pacificus” essays, which show the impassioned pragmatism that informed his foreign-policy views. He later incorporated them into an 1802 edition of The Federalist, proudly telling the publisher that “some of his friends had pronounced them to be his best performance.”55 Hamilton must have enjoyed bundling these essays with The Federalist, because they had provoked a venomous response from his main Federalist coauthor, James Madison. It was Jefferson who prodded Madison into taking on Hamilton over the Neutrality Proclamation. Jefferson had read the first few “Pacificus” essays with mounting dismay and decided once again to deploy a proxy to refute Hamilton. On July 7, he urged Madison to tilt lances with the treasury secretary: “Nobody answers him and his doctrines will therefore be taken for confessed. For God’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public. There is nobody else who can and will enter the lists with him.”56
Jefferson must have thought that Madison would leap at the chance to resist the expanded executive powers embodied in the Neutrality Proclamation. Instead, Madison balked. From his Virginia plantation, he complained to Jefferson that he lacked the necessary books and papers to refute “Pacificus,” and he griped about the summer heat. He blamed hordes of houseguests who overstayed their welcomes. Did even Madison tremble at the thought of confronting Hamilton? When he had exhausted all excuses, he told Jefferson grudgingly, “I have forced myself into the task of a reply. I can truly say I find it the most grating one I ever experienced.”57
In the end, Madison hammered away at Hamilton with five essays published under the name “Helvidius.” The first essay reflected the deep animosity that had sprung up between the Federalist collaborators: “Several pieces with the signature of Pacificus were late published, which have been read with singular pleasure and applause by the foreigners and degenerate citizens among us, who hate our republican government and the French Revolution.” Madison complained of “a secret Anglomany” behind “the mask of neutrality.”58 He flayed Hamilton as a monarchist for defending the Neutrality Proclamation. Such prerogatives, he said, were “royal prerogatives in the British government and are accordingly treated as executive prerogatives by British commentators.”59
In prose more pedestrian than Hamilton’s, Madison brought the perspective of a strict constructionist to the neutrality issue. He wanted full authority over foreign policy to rest with Congress, not the president, except where the Constitution granted the chief executive specific powers. Madison was both edited and supplied with cabinet secrets by Jefferson, who seemed to have no reservations about abetting this assault on a presidential proclamation.
The instigator of many articles against his own administration, Jefferson knew that they were upsetting Washington. He felt sympathy for the president but also believed he was getting his just deserts. He wrote to Madison in June:
The President is not well. Little lingering fevers have been hanging about him for a week or ten days and have affected his looks most remarkably. He is also extremely affected by the attacks made and kept on him in the public papers. I think he feels those things more than any person I ever yet met with. I am extremely sorry to see them. [Jefferson then indicated that Washington had brought the attacks on himself.] Naked, he would have been sanctimoniously reverenced, but enveloped in the rags of royalty, they can hardly be torn off without laceration.60
During that eventful summer of 1793, administration infighting grew increasingly cutthroat. On July 23, Washington held a cabinet meeting that took on a surreal atmosphere. The president wanted to ask for Genêt’s recall without offending France. This pushed Hamilton into an extended harangue on the crisis facing the government. He alluded to a “faction” that wanted to “overthrow” the government, and he said that to arrest its progress the administration should publish the story of Genêt’s unseemly behavior; otherwise, people would soon join the “incendiaries.”61 What made this dramatic scene so unreal was that the spiritual leader of that faction was sitting right there in the room: Thomas Jefferson.
That summer, Jefferson found Hamilton both insupportable and inescapable. Besides his Treasury job, Hamilton conducted a full-time career as an anonymous journalist. In late July, the American Daily Advertiser printed his piece called “No Jacobin,” the first of yet another nine essays that issued from Hamilton’s fluent pen over a four-week period. He began by hurling a thunderbolt: “It is publicly rumoured in this city that the minister of the French republic has threatened to appeal from The President of the United States to the People.”62 The leak of this secret information about Genêt’s insolent disrespect toward Washington had a pronounced effect on public opinion. In coming weeks, Hamilton continued to lash out at Genêt for meddling in domestic politics: “What baseness, what prostitution in a citizen of this country, to become the advocate of a pretension so pernicious, so unheard of, so detestable!”63
On August 1, Jefferson found himself trapped again in a cabinet meeting with Hamilton, the human word machine, who spontaneously spouted perfect speeches in every forum. The treasury secretary thundered on about the need to disclose the damaging correspondence with Citizen Genêt. From Jefferson’s notes, we can see the highly theatrical manner that Hamilton assumed in Washington’s small cabinet. “Hamilton made a jury speech of three quarters of an hour,” a weary Jefferson told his journal, “as inflammatory and declamatory as if he had been speaking to a jury.”64 One senses the laconic Jefferson’s perplexity in dealing with this inspired windbag. “Met again,” Jefferson reported the next day. “Hamilton spoke again three quarters of an hour.”65 Hamilton repeated charges made by the royal European powers that France wanted to export its revolution to their countries. Jefferson inwardly reviled Hamilton as a traitor to republican government. “What a fatal stroke at the cause of liberty; et tu Brute,” he wrote in his diary.66
At this point, Jefferson finally aired his own views. He predictably opposed public exposure of government dealings with Genêt and also warned of the futility of cracking down on “Democratic” societies that had sprung up since Genêt’s arrival. If the government suppressed these groups, Jefferson argued, people would join them merely “to assert the right of voluntary associations.”67 His point was well taken, but he had squandered his credibility with the president, as he was about to discover in peculiarly dramatic fashion.
With heroic fortitude, Washington had tried to remain evenhanded with Hamilton and Jefferson, but he could no longer tolerate this dissension in his cabinet. A sensitive man of pent-up passion, he also could not endure the vicious abuse he had taken in Freneau’s National Gazette. In May, Washington had asked Jefferson to fire Freneau from his State Department job after the editor wrote that Washington had signed the Neutrality Proclamation because the “Anglomen” threatened to cut off his head. Convinced that the National Gazette had saved the country from monarchy, Jefferson refused to comply with Washington’s request. Now, in a cabinet session, Henry Knox happened to mention a tasteless satirical broadside called “The Funeral Dirge of George Washington,” in which Washington, like Louis XVI, was executed by guillotine. This libel was thought to have been written by Freneau. Knox’s reference lit a fuse inside Washington, and the seemingly phlegmatic president became a powder keg. In his “Anas,” Jefferson described the unusual scene:
The President was much inflamed; got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself; ran on much on the personal abuse which has been bestowed on him; defied any man on earth to produce one single act of his since he had been in the government which was not done on the purest motives; [said] that he had never repented but once the having slipped the moment of resigning his office and that was every moment since; that by God he had rather be in his grave than in his present situation; that he had rather be on his farm than to be made emperor of the world; and yet they were charging him with wanting to be a king. That that rascal Freneau sent him three of his papers every day, as if he thought he would become the distributor of his papers; that he could see in this nothing but an impudent design to insult him. He ended in this high tone. There was a pause. Some difficulty in resuming our question.68
Jefferson scored few points in the cabinet that August. It was decided that America, as a neutral nation, could not allow belligerent powers to equip privateers in her ports or give them asylum. As head of the Customs Service, Hamilton was charged with punishing violators, fortifying his hand in foreign affairs. All the while, Jefferson conspired to strip Hamilton of his power. On August 11, he sent a confidential letter to Madison, noting that Republican representation would be stronger in the new House. The time had therefore ripened for weakening Hamilton with two measures: splitting the Treasury Department between a customs service and a bureau of internal taxes and severing all ties between the Bank of the United States and the government. If Jefferson could not diminish the man, he would try to diminish the office.
For all his growing dismay over the incorrigible Genêt, Jefferson still blocked cabinet efforts to release the full saga of Genêt’s impertinent behavior.69 He threatened to resign in late September, telling Washington that he hated having to socialize in the circles of “the wealthy aristocrats, the merchants connected closely with England, the new created paper fortunes,” and he again cited steps being hatched to bring a monarchy to America.70 Jefferson agreed to stay until year’s end only after Washington agreed to keep confidential Genêt’s obnoxious conduct. His cabinet colleagues continued to dissent. “Hamilton and Knox have pressed an appeal to the people with an eagerness I never before saw in them,” Jefferson told Madison.71
Hamilton got the story out indirectly by prompting Senator Rufus King and Chief Justice John Jay to publish a revealing letter in a New York paper. An agitated Genêt protested to Washington, asking him urgently to “dissipate these dark calumnies.”72 His letter’s intemperate tone would only have strengthened the suspicions he sought to allay, and Jefferson consequently had to draft a letter to France on August 16 asking for Genêt’s recall.
Jefferson admitted that the tales told about Genêt were not Federalist fabrications. “You will see much said and gainsaid about G[enet’s] threat to appeal to the people,” Jefferson told Madison. “I can assure you it is a fact.”73 All through August, Madison and Monroe crafted resolutions thanking France for aiding the American Revolution. When Washington broke with Citizen Genêt, a crestfallen Madison stated that it “will give great pain to all those enlightened friends of the principles of liberty on which the American and French Revolution are founded.”74 Nor would Philip Freneau concede that the French Revolution had taken a vicious turn. In early September, to stress parallels between the two revolutions, he printed in succession the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Constitution.
The situation in Paris, however, soon undermined this thesis. That spring had seen the creation of the Committee of Public Safety, soon the principal vehicle of revolutionary terror. In June, the moderate Girondist faction, to which Genêt belonged, was purged and placed under house arrest by radical Jacobins. This Jacobin triumph, Hamilton realized, had made French officials receptive to American requests to cashier the bumbling Genêt, whom they accused of offending a friendly power. Led by Robespierre, the Jacobins swept aside all obstacles to their Reign of Terror. Nocturnal house searches and arbitrary arrests became routine by the fall. Priests were persecuted and churches vandalized in an anti-Christian campaign that led the cathedral of Notre-Dame to be renamed the Temple of Reason. On October 16, Marie Antoinette—or the “widow Capet,” as she was designated—was pulled from her cell, stuck in a tiny farm cart, paraded through streets teeming with heckling citizens, and beheaded. The guillotine worked overtime: twenty-one Girondists were executed on October 31 alone.
As Hamilton got wind of the bloody fate that awaited Citizen Genêt in Paris, he urged Washington to allow him to remain in the United States, lest Republicans accuse Washington of having sent the brash Frenchman to his death. Washington agreed to give him asylum, and Citizen Genêt, ironically, became an American citizen. He married Cornelia Clinton, the daughter of Hamilton’s nemesis Governor George Clinton, and spent the remainder of his life in upstate New York. In the end, Washington never submitted to Hamilton’s wish to publicize a detailed account of Genêt’s dealings with the administration. But Hamilton had gotten most of what he wanted in the Genêt affair, including the dearest bonus of all: the exit of Thomas Jefferson from the cabinet by year’s end.