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He was born in Versailles in 1763. He was the only child of a French civil servant who analyzed British naval strength during the Seven Years War and monitored the progress of American independence. Genêt was a prodigy: by the age of twelve he could read English, Italian, Latin and Swedish.
Over time, Genêt became disenchanted with the ancien regime, learning to despise not just French monarchs, but all monarchs, including Catherine the Great. In 1792 Catherine declared Genêt persona non grata, calling his presence "not only superfluous but even intolerable." In 1792, the Girondists, who had gained power in Paris, declared Genêt ambassador to the United States.
The Citizen Genêt Affair
He was dropped off in Charleston, South Carolina by the French ship, the Embuscade on April 8. Instead of traveling to the then U.S. capital in Philadelphia to present himself to President Washington for accreditation, he stayed in South Carolina. His arrival was greeted with enthusiasm by the people of Charleston, who threw a string of parties in his honor.
However, his goals in South Carolina were to recruit and arm American privateers which would join French expeditions against British trade. He commissioned four privateering boats in total: the Republican, the Anti-George, the Sans-Culotte, and the Citizen Genêt. Working with French consul Michel-Ange Mangourit , he organized American volunteers to fight Britain's Spanish allies in Florida. After raising the militia, he set sail toward Philadelphia, stopping along the way to marshall support for the French cause, finally arriving May 18.
His actions had put in peril U.S. neutrality in the war between France and Britain, which Washington had pointedly declared in his April 22 1793 Neutrality Proclamation. When he met with Washington, he asked for what amounted to a suspension of American neutrality. When turned down by Jefferson, and informed that his actions were unacceptable, Genêt protested, while all the time his privateers were capturing British ships, and his militia was preparing to move against the Spanish.
Genêt continued to defy the wishes of the United States government, capturing British ships and rearming them as privateers. Almost declaring him persona non grata at Hamilton's advice, Washington instead sent Genêt an 8,000 word letter of complaint on Jefferson's counsel. Genêt replied obstinately.
The Jacobins, having taken power in France by January 1794, sent word recalling Genêt to France. Genêt, knowing that he would likely be sent to the guillotine, asked Washington for asylum. Ironically, it was Hamilton, Genêt's fiercest opponent in the cabinet, that convinced Washington to grant him safe haven in the United States.
Genêt died near Albany, New York, in 1834.
- Citizen Genêt and Foreign Policy - historical context
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