Citizen Genet and Foreign Policy

United States History

Although one of the first tasks of the new government was to strengthen the domestic economy and make the nation financially secure, the United States could not ignore foreign affairs. The cornerstones of Washington's foreign policy were to preserve peace, to give the country time to recover from its wounds and to permit the slow work of national integration to continue. Events in Europe threatened these goals. Many Americans were watching the French Revolution with keen interest and sympathy, and in April 1793, news came that made this conflict an issue in American politics. France had declared war on Great Britain and Spain, and a new French envoy, Edmond Charles Genet -- known as Citizen Genet -- was coming to the United States.

After the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793, Britain, Spain and Holland had become involved in war with France. According to the Franco-American Treaty of Alliance of 1778, the United States and France were perpetual allies, and America was obliged to help France defend the West Indies. However, the United States, militarily and economically a very weak country, was in no position to become involved in another war with major European powers. On April 22, 1793, Washington effectively abrogated the terms of the 1778 treaty that made American independence possible by proclaiming the United States to be "friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers." When Genet arrived, he was cheered by many citizens, but treated with cool formality by the government. Angered, he violated a promise not to outfit a captured British ship as a privateer. Genet then threatened to take his cause directly to the American people, over the head of the government. Shortly afterward, the United States requested his recall by the French government.

The Genet incident strained American relations with France at a time when relations with Great Britain were far from satisfactory. British troops still occupied forts in the West, property carried off by British soldiers during the Revolution had not been restored or paid for, and the British navy was seizing American ships bound for French ports. To settle these matters, Washington sent John Jay, first chief justice of the Supreme Court, to London as a special envoy, where he negotiated a treaty securing withdrawal of British soldiers from western forts and London's promise to pay damages for Britain's seizure of ships and cargoes in 1793 and 1794. Reflecting the weakness of the U.S. position, the treaty placed severe limitations on American trade with the West Indies and said nothing about either the seizure of American ships in the future, or "impressment" -- the forcing of American sailors into British naval service. Jay also accepted the British view that naval stores and war materiel were contraband which could not be conveyed to enemy ports by neutral ships.

Jay's Treaty touched off a stormy disagreement over foreign policy between the Antifederalists, now called Republicans, and the Federalists. The Federalists favored a pro-British policy because the commercial interests they represented profited from trade with Britain. By contrast, the Republicans favored France, in large measure for ideological reasons, and regarded the Jay Treaty as too favorable to Britain. After long debate, however, the Senate ratified the treaty.

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Source: U.S. Department of State