A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

Strained loyalties: the French Revolution 1789-1799

Hamilton's reservations about an alliance with France were only intensified by the French Revolution, which was met with sweeping adulation throughout the United States. To the people who had carried out a model revolution, France's efforts to do the same were watched with a maternal eye. Lafayette, of course, was close to the hearts and minds of the Americans as he acted out his role as an early arbiter of reason. Jefferson, who had been in Paris during the outbreak of the revolution, saw it as a manifestation of the "revolution in human sentiment" begun by America, and another reason that the United States should support the movement by aiding France as she had aided the United States' efforts.

At the outset, Hamilton was almost alone in his disapproval of the events in France. As news of excesses reached American shores, the Secretary of the Treasury began expressing his doubts about the revolution's outcome. The unfolding events, he wrote to Washington in 1790, "[do] not prognosticate much order or vigour in the affairs of that country for a considerable period to come." In France he saw none of the bedrock of reason and moderation that governed the American Revolution and its aftermath.

That Hamilton's concerns were well founded became clear as France fluctuated from constitutional monarchy, to a republic after the flight of the King, to the reign of terror under Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety all within a few years. The revolution-related events of early 1793 quickly made the French crisis an American one. The news that King Louis XVI had been guillotined reached the United States in March; and soon after that, the French declared war on Britain, Holland, and Spain.

Those in the majority, like Jefferson, who continued to support France believed that the excesses of the revolution would end at some point, and a republic would rise out of the chaos. They applauded France's declaration of war against Britain and viewed it as yet another blow to monarchy and tyranny.

Hamilton, on the other hand, saw devastating consequences to supporting France. In November of 1792, after he had learned that the King had been deposed, Hamilton suspended payments on the debt to France on the grounds that, if the monarchy were restored, any payments made to the interim regime would likely not be credited as such.

Even more pressing were considerations of war. The United States had signed a treaty of alliance with France in 1778, but any support of France during its current war might drag the United States into a conflict in which it could ill afford, monetarily or otherwise, to participate. Hamilton advocated a strict neutrality for the United States; a neutrality vehemently opposed by the Republicans on the basis that, as France had helped the United States win her independence, it was incumbent upon the United States to reciprocate. With the impending arrival of French minister Edmund Genet, these issues reached new urgency. Washington posed the question to his cabinet members: should the United States issue a proclamation of neutrality? Should they receive Genet without qualification as a representative of the legitimate government of France? Should they continue to honor the treaties signed with the monarchy, and if they did, would it be a violation of neutrality?

In his written response, Hamilton showed after a typical lengthy argument citing experts in international law that treaties are made with specific governments on the basis of the government's character, energy, and trustworthiness. That nations had the right to change their governments Hamilton did not deny, but if those changes in government "render treaties that before subsisted between it and another nation useless or dangerous or hurtful to that other nation, it is a plain dictate of reason, that the latter will have a right to renounce those treaties . . . to take care of its own happiness." Nations in turmoil, in other words, have no right to drag other nations into their wars. Receive the minister, Hamilton advised, but make it clear that the act of reception does not indicate an alliance.

Jefferson rejected Hamilton's arguments entirely, and the cabinet was split down the middle; the Virginians, Jefferson and Attorney General Randolph, in favor of upholding the treaty of alliance; Hamilton and Secretary of War Knox in agreement to void it. Washington, who had already decided upon his course of action, issued a proclamation of neutrality which included a prohibition against private citizens engaging in actions that violated the neutrality. He did, however, take Jefferson's advice not to suspend the entire treaty of alliance with France, and to receive Genet without qualification, while at the same time making it clear that no new treaties would be entered into until a stable government were installed. The Genet Mission turned out to be the United States' first major foreign relations crisis.

The Genet Mission and the Neutrality Controversy (April 1793-January 1794)

"Citizen" Edmund Genet, appointed under the Girondins as the French republic's minister to the United States, landed at Charleston on April 9, 1793. Instead of immediately traveling to Philadelphia and presenting his credentials as was diplomatic protocol, Genet tarried in the south, enjoying a warm reception and drumming up support for the French cause. Handsome, flamboyant, and charismatic, Genet was celebrated wherever he stopped, and was soon convinced he had won the hearts of the American people. Little did he know that his visit was to create a firestorm of controversy. It was during this time that the already steaming Federalist and Republican press hostilities boiled over, galvanizing the intensity of feelings within each party, and animosity within the Washington cabinet.

Not knowing, nor caring to find out, the official position of the United States on France's war with the rest of Europe, Genet immediately began engaging in actions hostile to Britain, and which were soon to violate the Neutrality Proclamation. He commissioned privateers which brought their prizes into American ports and hired on American citizens, and he authorized expeditions against the Spanish territories. Genet had, in essence, instituted his own war office on American soil. George Hammond, the British minister, protested Genet's activities, and demanded compensation for the prizes seized by his privateers.

While Genet was making his whirlwind tour of the south, Washington and his cabinet were engaging in a series of tense and often hostile meetings to decide their policy. It was during these meetings that the rift between Jefferson and Hamilton, who seldom masked their contempt for each others' opinions on foreign policy issues and whose face-to-face bickerings were stoked by the tandem newspaper war, became shockingly apparent to Washington, who soon dispaired of reconciling their differences.

While Jefferson patently disagreed with Hamilton's efforts to pursue a policy which would not offend the British, Hamilton used every bit of influence he could muster to bring Washington to his side of the controversy. Jefferson's press accused Hamilton and the Federalists of monarchical designs; Hamilton's press contended that the Republicans were bent on dragging the United States into war with Britain.

In addition, Washington was coming under fire for the Neutrality Proclamation, especially its injunction against citizens' involvement in privateering activities. When two citizens were arrested for that offense, the anti-administration outcry reached fever pitch. Washington, who had until then been an untouchable icon, was incensed by the hostile criticism.

In the Federalist press, Hamilton ardently defended the President's constitutional right to issue the Neutrality Proclamation. The opposition claimed that the President had no power under the constitution to issue a proclamation nullifying treaties or parts of treaties without the approbation of the senate. In his "Pacificus" letters, Hamilton once again broadly interpreted the constitution by invoking executive power and that office's express power to execute laws to prove that the President was within his rights to issue the proclamation. He also objected to the claim that the United States should support France out of gratitude, stating in Pacificus #4 that alliances are formed on the basis of "mutual interest and reciprocal advantage." As gratitude can be inimical to interest and advantage, it cannot be used as a reasonable basis for an alliance between nations. Justice and good faith, rather, are the sound bases for such agreements.

Genet continued his highly inappropriate behavior, and even Jefferson, who was at the beginning indulgent, was becoming concerned that Genet's actions would eventually do more harm than good to the pro-French cause. Jefferson's requests of Genet to cease his privateering activities were rebuffed by the obnoxious minister, who was engaged in his own bizarre efforts to secure the support of the American people for his cause, and spurred by the shrill pro-French/anti-administration press, to oppose the policies of the Washington administration "in the interest of liberty." Hamilton advised refusing debt payments that Genet had demanded and Jefferson agreed to that course of action, although with a mildly worded letter of rejection as opposed to the rebuke Hamilton wanted to issue.

Completely exasperated with Genet, Washington decided to request the minister's recall. Again, Hamilton and Jefferson agreed on the principle but not on the manner in which it was to be carried out. Hamilton preferred immediate suspension, while Jefferson advised a less inflammatory recall. Jefferson, who was disillusioned by the French minister's continual disregard of his advice, and equally tired of having to contend with Hamilton on issues of foreign policy, handed his recommendations to Washington along with his resignation. Washington knew he could ill afford to lose his Secretary of State during such a crucial time, and persuaded Jefferson into delaying his departure by agreeing to a friendly request for Genet's recall. In January 1794, Washington delivered a conciliatory address to his countrymen, explaining the principles behind American neutrality and the reasons for Genet's recall, and asking for their support in the time of crisis.

It turned out that Edmund Genet remained in the United States after his recall. Having heard that the Jacobins were as displeased with his behavior as the Washington administration, he decided that Washington's republic was preferable to an almost certain appointment with the guillotine in his own. Genet married Cornelia Clinton, daughter of Governor George Clinton of New York, and settled down to a quiet and comparatively obscure life on a farm; but the foreign relations crisis his visit engendered would not soon be forgotten.