The Citizen Genêt Affair (1793–1794)


The Citizen Genêt Affair was a diplomatic incident that took place in 1793–94. It helped shape American foreign policy and led to the passage of the Neutrality Act of 1794.

George Washington, Portrait, Stuart

George Washington was President during the Citizen Genêt Affair. This portrait of Washinton was painted by Gilbert Stuart. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Citizen Genêt Affair Summary

The Citizen Genêt Affair — also known as the French Neutrality Crisis — was a diplomatic incident between France and the United States that took place from 1793–1794. In 1793, France declared war on Britain. Under the provisions of the 1783 Franco-American Alliance, the French appealed to the United States for support and sent Edmond Charles Genêt to America to negotiate. However, instead of going to Philadephia to meet with President George Washington, he started by gathering American citizens to volunteer to help France fight Britain and Spain. Washington responded by issuing the Proclamation of Neutrality, which Genêt ignored. Soon after, Genêt defied Washington and sent a ship — a Privateer — out of Philadelphia to attack British ships. This could have led Britain to declare war on the United States. Washington and his cabinet responded by asking the French Government to recall Genêt and send a new Ambassador. The French agreed and sent a replacement — but also accused Genêt of treason. Genêt asked for political asylum in America, which was granted, and he spent the rest of his life living in New York. The affair deepened the divide between political parties in the United States but also led the government to define its policy regarding neutrality and the passage of the Neutrality Act of 1794.

Edmond-Charles Genet. Portrait by Ezra Ames. Image Source: Albany Institute of History & Art.

Citizen Genêt Affair Quick Facts

  1. The Citizen Genêt Affair is also called the French Neutrality Crisis.
  2. Edmond Charles Genêt was the first Ambassador to the United States from the Republic of France. 
  3. Genêt arrived in Charleston, South Carolina on April 8, 1793, and called himself “Citizen Genêt” as a way to emphasize his pro-revolutionary stance and support for the French Revolution.
  4. President George Wahington issued the Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793.
  5. Genêt was very popular and many Americans supported both him and the French Republic because they believed the French Revolution was a similar event to the American Revolution.
  6. In June 1793, the Jacobins took control of the French government from the Girondins.
  7. Genêt wrote a formal complaint to Washington that was published in newspapers.
  8. On August 1, 1793, the United States government formally requested to have Genêt recalled by the French government.
  9. While Genêt was in America, the Jacobins took control of the French government. In January 1794, Genêt was suspected of remaining loyal to the previous government and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
  10. Genêt requested asylum from the United States.

Citizen Genêt Affair History

The French Revolution started in 1789, just six years after the 1783 Treaty of Paris brought an end to the American Revolution. The French Revolution, which was inspired by the American Revolution, changed the landscape of politics and society in Europe. However, it also affected the development of the United States in two significant ways:

  1. It contributed to the growing divide between political parties — the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
  2. It led to the development of American foreign policy regarding neutrality.

Impact of the French Revolution on America

In 1793, the United States was still a young nation and George Washington had just started serving his second term as President of the United States. Efforts to stabilize the country and allow it to grow were affected by domestic incidents — primarily the rise of political parties —  and a significant international event — the French Revolution.

French Revolution, Storming of the Bastille
This painting depicts the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, during the French Revolution. Image Source: Wikipedia.

It was in April 1793 that news reached America that France had declared war on both Great Britain and Spain. This caused issues for the United States on all fronts due to treaties that were agreed to with those nations during and after the American Revolutionary War, and negotiations with Spain over access to the Mississippi River.

  1. Treaty of Alliance with France (1778) — France agreed to provide military support to the United States and declared war against Britain. The Franco-American Alliance helped lead to the United States winning the American Revolutionary War.
  2. Treaty of Paris (1783) — Great Britain agreed to recognize the United States as an independent nation and established boundaries between U.S., British, and Spanish territories in North America.
  3. Jay-Gardoqui Negotiations (1785) — The Treaty of Paris gave Americans access to the Mississippi River, which was essential to trade and shipping. However, in 1784, Spain closed the Port of New Orleans to Americans. John Jay was sent to negotiate a treaty to restore access, however, the treaty was rejected by Congress. Spain retained control of New Orleans and maintained a strong presence in the Southern portion of the present-day United States.

After declaring war, France asked the United States to provide military support in the Western Hemisphere. This put the United States in a precarious situation. Any wrong move could possibly lead to war with any of the countries, which the United States was not prepared for.

Genêt Named Ambassador to the United States

In November 1792, the French Republic — under the control of the Girondin Party — was expecting war with Great Britain and Spain and decided to take action. The Girondins were confident that the United States would honor the Treaty of Alliance and appointed Edmond Charles Genêt as French minister to the United States. 

In January 1793, two weeks before France declared war on Great Britain, Genêt was given specific instructions to:

  1. Convince Americans to support the Treaty of Alliance and participate in the French war effort by helping defend French colonies in the Caribbean. To do this, France would hire Americans to operate as Privateers on its behalf, which would attack British merchant ships.
  2. Request the United States immediately pay roughly two-thirds of the $4.4 million dollars that it borrowed from France during the American Revolutionary War.
  3. Negotiate a new commercial treaty between the two nations.
  4. Use the United States territory as a base of operations for French military efforts to take Canada from Great Britain and Louisiana from Spain. He was also given permission to enlist American citizens and Native American Indians in French service
  5. Offer the United States access to the Mississippi River once the Spanish were removed and the opportunity to acquire Canada once the British were removed.

It is important to note that Genêt was not told to ask the United States government to honor the Treaty of Alliance. Doing so would likely have led both Great Britain and Spain to declare war on the United States.

Citizen Genêt Arrives and Sets Up Privateers

Genêt arrived in Charleston, South Carolina on April 8, 1793. Soon after, he started issuing commissions to American ships to act as Privateers and attack British merchant ships. Under the agreements, the ships were authorized to seize cargo from the ships they captured. Genêt also promised their actions would be protected by the authority of the French government. Genêt negotiated these agreements with the support and approval of William Moultrie, the Governor of South Carolina

William Moultrie, Portrait
William Moultrie was a hero of the American Revolutionary War and Governor of South Carolina. Image Source: Wikipedia.

President Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality

America was divided. The new French government was born out of the French Revolution, which was popular in America. However, the United States was still a very young nation and had a strong trade relationship with Great Britain that was vital to the economy. President George Washington decided to protect the economic interests of the United States and issued the Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793.

“Whereas it appears that a state of war exists between Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great-Britain, and the United Netherlands, of the one part, and France on the other, and the duty and interest of the United States require, that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers:

I have therefore thought fit by these presents to declare the disposition of the United States to observe the conduct aforesaid towards those powers respectively; and to exhort and warn the citizens of the United States carefully to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsover, which may in any manner tend to contravene such disposition.

And I do hereby also make known that whosoever of the citizens of the United States shall render himself liable to punishment or forfeiture under the law of nations, by committing, aiding or abetting hostilities against any of the said powers, or by carrying to any of them those articles, which are deemed contraband by the modern usage of nations, will not receive the protection of the United States, against such punishment or forfeiture: and further, that I have given instructions to those officers, to whom it belongs, to cause prosecutions to be instituted against all persons, who shall, within the cognizance of the courts of the United States, violate the Law of Nations, with respect to the powers at war, or any of them.”

Citizen Genêt Defies President Washington

Genêt did not understand the authority of the Presidency under the United States Constitution. He believed the office was still ceremonial in nature, as it had been under the Articles of Confederation. As a result, he continued to solicit support for the French cause. In fact, he went as far as to accuse President Washington of being under the influence of Great Britain. Genêt aligned himself with the Democratic-Republicans, who were more favorable to the French cause.

Genêt finally arrived in Philadelphia on May 16, 1793, and discovered the Federal Government condemned his actions. Four days later, all French privateers were ordered to leave American ports. On June 11, Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, notified the French Government that the United States refused to pay the loans in advance, as requested. The Girondins had planned to use the money to fund the Privateers and to buy weapons and ammunition. Without the money, Genêt’s mission would be a failure.

The Little Sarah Affair

Despite the setback, Genêt pushed forward with his plan to outfit Privateers. A British ship, the Little Sarah, was captured and taken to Philadelphia. Jefferson warned Genêt that it would be illegal for him to arm the ship — while in an American port — to be used to attack foreign ships.

Genêt renamed the ship La Petite Démocrate — “Little Democrat” — and placed 14 guns and a crew of 120 men on board. 

Alexander Hamilton found out what Genêt had done and notified Thomas Mifflin, the Governor of Pennsylvania. On July 6, Mifflin called up the militia and ordered it to keep the ship from sailing out of port. Genêt was furious and actually threatened to use force if the ship was not allowed to leave port.

Jefferson met with Genêt and explained to him that Washington’s authority in the matter of neutrality was absolute, and the authority was given by the Constitution. At the time, Washington was at Mount Vernon, and Genêt agreed to keep the ship in port until he returned to Philadelphia. When Mifflin was notified the ship would not leave, he sent the militia home.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The President’s cabinet met the next day and discussed the situation. Hamilton and Henry Knox wanted to use the militia to blockade the port and keep the ship from leaving. Jefferson disagreed and insisted the ship would remain until Washinton returned. There were also reports that a French fleet was set to arrive soon. If there was an incident with the Little Democrat, it could lead to war with France.

When Washington returned, he notified Genêt that he expected the Little Democrat and all privateers to remain where they were. Three days later, Genêt defied Washington and ordered the ship out to sea.

Genêt’s Preparations for War

While the Little Democrat Affair was taking place, Genêt had already put other plans in motion.

  1. He organized a military expedition in Kentucky to undertake an expedition against New Orleans. An attack on New Orleans with an American force would undoubtedly lead to war between the United States and Spain.
  2. He was outfitting ships in New York and Baltimore as Privateers and planned to send them to attack British merchant ships in the Atlantic Ocean.

Washington Agrees to Ask France to Recall Genêt

On July 23, Washington informed his Cabinet that he agreed they should ask the French Government to recall Genêt and send a new Ambassador. Washington also believed it was critical to keep the relationship with France strong, so Washington proposed sending Gouverneur Morris to France to meet with the French Government. Morris would take copies of all the letters and articles Genêt had written, as a way to show how he tried to undermine the American Government. Alexander Hamilton also recommended publishing all of Genêt’s correspondence, as a way to undermine Genêt’s popularity with the American public. The meeting ended without making a decision on how to proceed, but the groundwork had been laid for Genêt’s recall.

On the 25th, Washington instructed Jefferson to collect his correspondence with Genêt, and it was read before the Cabinet on August 1. Once the letters were read, Washington and the Cabinet agreed to ask for Genêt’s recall. They also composed a letter that explained the reasons for the request. The situation dragged on through the month of August as the Federalists — led by Hamilton and Knox — and Democrat-Republicans — Jefferson and Edmund Randolph — on the Cabinet debated on whether or not to make a statement to the American people. The Federalists wanted to make a statement, but the Democrat-Republicans were concerned it would affect relations with France. Washington decided to wait. Soon after, popular sentiment started to move in favor of neutrality and a statement from the President was not needed. 

Rules of Neutrality Defined

On August 3, the Cabinet defined the “Rules of Neutrality,” which were sent to President Washington.

1. The original arming and equipping of vessels in the ports of the United States by any of the belligerent parties, for military service offensive or defensive, is deemed unlawful.

2. Equipments of merchant vessels by either of the belligerent parties in the ports of the United States, purely for the accommodation of them as such, is deemed lawful.

3. Equipments in the ports of the United States of vessels of War in the immediate service of the Government of any of the belligerent parties, which if done to other vessels would be of a doubtful nature, as being applicable either to commerce or War, are deemed lawful; except those which shall have made prize of the subjects, people, or property of France coming with their prizes into the Ports of the United States pursuant to the seventeenth Article of our Treaty of Amity and commerce with France

4. Equipments in the Ports of the united States, by any of the parties at war with France, of vessels fitted for Merchandize and War, whether with or without Commissions, which are doubtful in their nature as being applicable either to commerce or War, are deemd lawful; except those which shall have made prize, &c.

5. Equipments of any of the vessels of France, in the Ports of the United States, which are doubtful in their nature, as being applicable to commerce or war, are deemed lawful.

6. Equipments of every kind in the Ports of the United States, of privateers of the Powers at War with France, are deemed unlawful.

7. Equipments of vessels in the Ports of the United States, which are of a nature solely adopted to war, are deemed unlawful; except those stranded or wrecked, as mentioned in the eighteenth Article of our Treaty with France⟨,⟩ the sixteenth of our Treaty with the United Netherlands, the ninth of our Treaty with Prussia, and except those mentioned in the nineteenth Article of our Treaty with France, the seventeenth of our Treaty with the United Netherlands, the eighteenth of our Treaty with Prussia.2

8. Vessels of either of the parties not armed, or armed previous to their coming into the ports of the United States, which shall not have infringed any of the foregoing rules, may lawfully engage or inlist therein their own Subjects or Citizens, not being inhabitants of the United States; except privateers of the Powers at War with France, and except those vessels which shall have made prize, &c.

Recall Letter Finalized

On August 23rd, Washington and his Cabinet finalized the recall letter. The letter and documentation were sent to France. Washington and the Cabinet agreed to wait two weeks to notify Genêt so that he would not have a chance to respond before it reached France.

French Leaders Agree to Recall

Morris met with French leaders on October 8 and presented the letters and documentation. The Jacobin leaders had already made accusations against Genêt that he was actually in America to undermine the French cause. When they came to power in June, the Jacobins charged at least 40 leaders of the Girondin Party with treason and had many of them executed. The letter asking for Genêt’s recall and the explanation for the request helped convince the new government that Genêt was working with the Girondins and was also guilty of treason. The French agreed to recall Genêt and replace him with a commission. They also told Morris that Genêt would be punished for his actions.

The United States Gives Genêt Political Asylum

The new French commissioners arrived in Philadelphia in February 1794. By then, Thomas Jefferson had resigned as Secretary of State and been replaced by Edmund Randolph. Randolph told the commissioners that, as far as the United States was concerned, being removed as Ambassador was enough punishment for Genêt. The United States refused to extradite him to France and allowed him to stay in the country. Genêt was given political asylum and the affair came to an end.

The Outcome of the Citizen Genêt Affair 

Neutrality Act of 1794

On March 13, 1794, the Senate passed the Neutrality Act, which prohibited citizens from enlisting or accepting commissions in foreign military forces, fitting out foreign privateers and warships, or participating in filibuster expeditions. It also made it illegal for citizens to wage war against any nation that was at peace with the United States.

Edmond-Charles Genêt’s Life in America

Genêt spent the rest of his life in New York. In 1794, he married Cornelia Tappen Clinton, the daughter of George Clinton, the Governor of New York. They lived on a farm he called “Prospect Hill” in East Greenbush, New York, along the Hudson River. He lived as a gentleman farmer and wrote a book about inventions. He had 5 children with Cornelia. Genêt died in 1834.

Citizen Genêt Affair Significance

The Genêt Affair forced the United States to formulate a consistent policy on the issue of neutrality. Washington’s Cabinet signed a set of rules regarding policies of neutrality on August 3, 1793, and these rules were formalized when Congress passed a neutrality bill on June 4, 1794. This legislation formed the basis for neutrality policy throughout the nineteenth century. The policy of neutrality would be challenged during the administration of John Adams when the XYZ Affair led to the Quasi-War with France.

Citizen Genêt Affair Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Citizen Genêt?

Citizen Genêt was Edmond-Charles Genêt, the first Ambassador to the United States from the Republic of France. Genêt was responsible for encouraging Americans to go to war with Great Britain and France. This led to President Washington’s 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality and the passage of the Neutrality Act of 1794.

Citizen Genêt Affair for AP US History (APUSH)

This section provides information for kids doing research and students preparing for the AP U.S. History (APUSH) exam.

Citizen Genet Affair Definition for APUSH

The Citizen Genêt Affair was a diplomatic incident that took place from 1793–94. It led to a defined policy of neutrality for the United States regarding its involvement in foreign affairs. The incident furthered division between political parties in the United States and led to the Neutrality Act of 1794.

Interesting Facts About the Citizen Genêt Affair

  • Edmond Charles Genêt served as French minister to the United States from 1793 to 1794.
  • At the time of Genêt’s service, American foreign policy was dominated by events surrounding the French Revolution.
  • President Washington declared a policy of neutrality in the war Great Britain and Spain were waging against the French revolutionary government.
  • The French sent Genêt to the U.S. in 1793 with instructions that would bring him into direct conflict with the U.S. of neutrality.
  • When Genêt arrived in the U.S. in 1793, he called himself “Citizen Genêt” to emphasize his pro-revolutionary stance.
  • Rather than traveling directly to Philadelphia, the U.S. capital, Genêt spent a month in the South, where he spent time encouraging privateers to attack British ships and promoting revolution in Florida, Louisiana, and Canada.
  • By the time Genêt arrived in Philadelphia in May to present his credentials, his actions had eroded his credibility with most of Washington’s cabinet.
  • Eventually, Genêt’s staunchest defender in Washington’s cabinet, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, was forced to disassociate himself.
  • Washington and his cabinet unanimously agreed to request that France recall Genêt, in August 1793.
  • By the time the request for Genêt’s recall reached France, the Jacobins had assumed power, and the Reign of Terror had started.
  • Believing that Genêt’s actions had hurt France’s position with the U.S. government, the Jacobins not only recalled Genêt but also issued a warrant for his arrest.
  • Knowing that Genêt’s return to France would almost certainly mean he would be put to death, Washington allowed him to remain in the U.S.
  • Genêt spent the rest of his life as a farmer in New York state, where he died in 1834.

Overview of George Washington’s Neutrality

This video from Tom Richey discusses George Washington’s foreign policy, including his Neutrality Proclamation, the Citizen Genet Affair, the Jay Treaty, and Pinckney’s Treaty. It also covers the conflict between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton concerning the French Revolution. This lecture was designed chiefly for AP US History (APUSH) students but is good for anyone with an interest in foreign policy, diplomacy, or early US History.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Citizen Genêt Affair (1793–1794)
  • Date 1793–1794
  • Author
  • Keywords Citizen Genêt Affair
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 29, 2024