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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

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In today’s political landscape, taking a side on any particular issue is likely to get a person on the wrong side of about half the country.  But that’s not really news.  We live with a strongly-divided two-party system with each one holding positions that are, in most cases, diametrically opposed to each other.  Whether it be about the size of government, some social issue, or whatever, taking a position generally involves very little middle ground.

But sometimes, taking a stand in the middle offers little or no protection, either.  Let’s look at one such instance from the pages of history.

As the 18th century came to a close in America, few issues were more divisive than the French Revolution.  Whether it was the general population, or those Founders in charge of the fledgling government, opinions pretty much fell into two camps.  There were those that favored the uprisings that began in Paris, heralding them as “the son of the American Revolution”.  Others maintained that it was little more than a sadistic, reverse-engineered purge, one in which the people not only overthrew their leadership, but led them to the guillotine to relieve them of their “headship”.

Once Louis XVI had felt the blade’s bite on his neck in January of 1793, it took but a week for the French to declare war on England and Holland.  And that put President Washington in a difficult position.  Did he side with the French, who had clearly been an ally in America’s own struggle for independence?  Or would it be with England, an enemy not so long ago, but not so now?  The country was deeply split on the issue, but the President didn’t pander to either side.

In his biography of the man, Ron Chernow writes that “Washington hoped to win respectability from foreign powers, but he also wanted to stay free of foreign entanglements so the young nation could prosper.”  And on April 22, 1793, he did just that, landing directly in the middle of the issue with what came to be known as the Proclamation of Neutrality.  The final document didn’t actually contain the word neutrality, but asked the nation’s citizens to “pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers.”

And you can probably predict what happened.  A few people (mostly those less inclined to the French position) were pleased with the President’s stance.  But many others had a completely different reaction, one that was neither friendly nor impartial.  They believed Washington and his “minions” were turning their backs on the one alliance that had sustained them during the Revolution.  It mattered little that a strong case could be made for France supporting the Colonies out of self-interest (keeping the British pre-occupied) as opposed to some sort of Revolutionary altruism.  Also ignored in much of the negative feelings was the small fact that most of the French supporters of the Revolution now had their disconnected heads stuffed between their knees.

Members of Congress was also upset, believing they had been side-stepped by the President.  They contended that if Congress had the power to declare war, it also had the power to declare neutrality.  Some went so far as to say that Washington was acting the part of a monarch, issuing an edict from his Hamiltonian-inspired throne.

There appears to be truth to the old adage that landing in the middle of an issue only serves to make everybody mad.  It certainly worked for Washington on this day in history…

Recommended Reading: Washington – A Life

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This hasn’t been a very good month for writing.  If one thing hasn’t gotten in the way, it’s been another.  I really wanted to write about Orde Wingate and the Gideon Force yesterday, so of course, our Internet Service Provider decided to disconnect our DSL service.  And we were kind of pre-occupied anyways, owing to an ice storm.  Unfortunately, the format of Today’s History Lesson means that Wingate has to wait another year.  Our internet connection has been restored, so we move on…

To France…

The French Revolution in the late 18th century drew very different reactions in America, depending on who was asked.  Some believed that the drastic changes in France were taking it down the road to violence, upheaval, and bloodshed.  Others thought it closely mirrored the American version, fought and won against the British just 10 years before.  The growing French unrest reverberated through nearly all facets of American life, including politics.

In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow writes, “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.”

But in France, the summer of 1792 was less about ideology and the niceties of political debate and more about violence and retribution.  William Short, at one time the private secretary to Thomas Jefferson in Paris, continued in correspondence with his boss, writing from Holland of “those mad and corrupted people in France who under the name of liberty have destroyed their own government.”  The streets, he said, ran red with blood.

Still, many in America (a majority, in fact) supported Robespierre and those with him, romanticizing their actions and comparing them to recent American history, while simultaneously ignoring the slaughter that these men brought upon their own countrymen.  The overthrow of the government in September of 1792 was met in the States with celebrations and toasts.

And then, on January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded.  A goodly number of Americans gasped.  Sure, France with in the midst of turmoil and people were going to die.  But even those most “akin” to the uprising in France remembered well how Louis XVI had been a staunch ally of the American cause during the Revolution.  Sure, his support had been self-serving to a degree, as he was waging his own war with Britain.  But he was a supporter nonetheless, and more than one American who had given him or herself the label of “Jacobin” was now given sudden pause.

Thomas Jefferson, who had once called King Louis XVI “a good man” and “an honest man”, and now desperately wanted to hold on to his support of the Revolution, said that monarchs were “amenable to punishment like other criminals.”

Americans struggled with the trickle of news that came across the ocean.  Some were aghast at the reports, while others tried to downplay the news as sensationalism.  But regardless, the French Revolution quickly lost what little similarity it had to its American counterpart and took on the luster of a Stalin-esque purge, with thousands and thousands of professors, priests, politicians, and “enemies of the enemy of the state” meeting the edge of the guillotine’s blade in a wide-reaching political massacre.

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