A few months before France declared war upon England, February 1, 1793, Edmond Genet was appointed French Minister to the United States. He landed at Charleston, April 8, and at once began activities so authoritative as to amount to an erection of French sovereignty in the United States. The subsequent failure of his efforts and the abrupt ending of his diplomatic career have so reacted upon his reputation that associations of boastful arrogance and reckless incompetency cling to his name. This estimate holds him too lightly and underrates the peril to which the United States was then exposed. Genet was no casual rhetorician raised to important office by caprice of events, but a trained diplomatist of hereditary aptitude and of long experience. His father was chief of the bureau of correspondence in the Department of Foreign Affairs for the French monarchy, and it was as an interpreter attached to that bureau that the son began his career in 1775. While still a youth, he gained literary distinction by his translations of historical works from Swedish into French. Genet was successively attached to the French Embassies at Berlin and Vienna, and in 1781 he succeeded his father in the Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1788, he was Secretary of the French Embassy at St. Petersburg, where his zeal for French Revolutionary principles so irritated the Empress Catherine that she characterized him as “a furious demagogue,” and in 1792 he was forced to leave Russia. In the same year he was named Ambassador to Holland, and thence was soon transferred to the United States.
It is obvious that a man of such experience could not be ignorant of diplomatic forms and of international proprieties of behavior. If he pursued a course that has since seemed to be a marvel of truculence, the explanation should be sought in the circumstances of his mission more than in the nature of his personality. When the matter is considered from this standpoint, not only does one find that Genet’s proceedings become consistent and intelligible, but one becomes deeply impressed with the magnitude of the peril then confronting the United States. Nothing less than American independence was at stake.
It should be borne in mind that France, in aiding America against England, had been pursuing her own ends. In August, 1787, the French government advised its American representative that it had observed with indifference the movements going on in the United States and would view the break-up of the Confederation without regret. “We have never pretended to make of America a useful ally; we have had no other object than to deprive Great Britain of that vast continent.” But, now that war with England had broken out again, it was worth while making an effort to convert America into a useful ally. Jefferson, while Minister to Paris, had been sympathetic with the Revolutionary movement. In 1789, the English Ambassador reported to his government that Jefferson was much consulted by the leaders of the