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The Citizen Genet Affair

May 13, 2012

On May 16, 1793 Henry Knox, Secretary of War under George Washington, sent a memorandum to the President advising him on how to deal with a situation involving captured British ships being brought into American ports, refitted as French ships, and partially manned by American citizens all under the orders of the French Ambassador Charles Genet. As a self-proclaimed neutral nation in the war between France and Britain, America could not withhold the ships, Knox argued, as it would clearly show favoritism for the French.

This incident was the central element of what is referred to as the Citizen Genet affair. Genet had been sent to the United States of America to gather support for the French regime in their war against Britain. Arriving in April, at the port of Charleston, South Carolina, he was met with a great welcome. Ambassadors usually present themselves directly to the Head of State, but Genet took his time stopping to gather support along the way. When he did finally present himself in the Capital, he was welcomed by Thomas Jefferson as President Washington was gone at the time. Genet refused to listen to the administration when it repeatedly asked him to stop gathering support for France and to stop encouraging American citizens to fight Spain, an ally of Britain, in the Spanish held territory of Florida. His work culminated with the outfitting of British ships for French use and partially manning them with American citizens. Washington and his cabinet, including Knox, demanded his recall. Circumstances had changed, however, in France and the regime which had commissioned Genet was no longer in power. Knowing that Genet would most likely meet his end if he returned to France, he was allowed to stay in America although no longer as one representing France. He married, settled down, and lived out his life in peace.

–Erin Sutter is a senior Ashbrook Scholar majoring in History and Political Science.

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