The French Revolution, which began with the 1790s, was seen by many American citizens as a chance for another country to throw off the shackles of tyranny. After all, the Colonies had, in the previous decade, successfully removed British control. The idea of the French doing the same had big appeal in the Colonies-turned-States.
But as we know, this upheaval quickly turned from “Revolution” to “Reign of Terror”, and fall of the guillotine’s blade became more common than sunrise and sunset in France. Thousands of the nation’s leaders were slaughtered and tens of thousands of its civilians massacred in a display of countryman-against-countryman butchery that has been rarely duplicated in history.
King Louis XVI was beheaded in January 1793, his head and body stuffed in a basket, then eventually buried in a box. One executioner began an impromptu business, selling bits of the King’s hair and clothing, as schoolboys cheered and licked the King’s blood. Make no mistake, the American Revolution was about freedom, and the French Revolution was a disgusting display of man’s basest inhumanity and brutality.
England watched from across the Channel in horror. William Pitt the Younger called the King’s execution “the foulest and most atrocious act the world has ever seen.” France’s response?…a declaration of war on February 1. News travelled slowly back then, and word of war didn’t arrive in America until early April, but it was immediately felt in the States, as pro-British and pro-French elements took their sides and waited for the government to make its position known. President Washington very quickly (and very wisely, in my opinion) acted and, in April, offered up the Proclamation of Neutrality. America would not take any side.
But in between the arrival of the news of war and the government’s decision to remain neutral, there was another arrival…this one in Charleston, South Carolina. On April 8, 1793, the French Minister to the United States arrived aboard the frigate Embuscade. His name?…Edmund Charles Genet. But, as Chernow writes, “he would be known to history, in the fraternal style popularized by the French Revolution, as Citizen Genet.”
For those with British sympathies, Genet was their worst nightmare. For anyone siding with the French, here was a man to greet with effusive praise and much regailment. Genet’s pomp and arrogance not only made him an incredibly polarizing figure, it also meant he was “all the news” for a while. And that made it easier for the Frenchman to move about and peddle his influence, for Citizen Genet didn’t come to America to escape the Reign of Terror. This man had an agenda.
And over the course of the next year or so, his disregard for American authority and American foreign policy, which under most circumstances was likely treated as sedition, would cause no end of trouble.
We’ll check back in on Citizen Genet again…trust me.
Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton