1793 · Philadelphia, PA
Autograph Letter Signed in French, to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, July 9, 1793, Philadelphia. 2 pp., 8 x 13¼ in. Historical Background
Genêt wrote this letter regarding the 1793 Genêt Affair precipitated by the capture of British vessel Little Sarah, offering a riveting account of this erstwhile emissary's explanation of his actions. "Citizen Genêt," as he was known by American Francophiles, was charged with encouraging France's former ally, the newly liberated United States, to repay its debts. Another more dubious diplomatic goal was to ensure support for France's war with Britain, either through obtaining credit or supplies in the United States, or as Genêt would attempt, by entangling the new nation in the conflict.
Sometime in the spring of 1793, the French frigate Embuscade commandeered the British vessel Little Sarah and dragged it into Philadelphia. The ship was there outfitted as a French privateer and renamed La Petite Démocrate. On June 22, the Washington administration began to investigate the disturbing claims coming from the nation's capital. Thomas Jefferson prevented a public relations disaster by dispersing a local militia that had mustered in response to fears that La Petite Démocrate would leave Philadelphia without presidential approval. Genêt wrote this letter in the middle of the Affair in response to Jefferson's request for further information.
Jefferson and Genêt met in person just two days before this letter was written, discussing some of the same points later addressed in written form. Jefferson chose to regard Genêt's equivocal statements as a promise that La Petite Démocrate would not sail until President George Washington returned to consider the case. On the following day, July 8, Jefferson met with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of War Henry Knox. Hamilton and Knox wanted to place a battery manned by militia on Mud Island, seven miles below Philadelphia, to prevent the ship from leaving the Delaware River. Jefferson dissented from the opinion.
Genêt then had La Petite Démocrate moved to Chester, below the proposed fortifications on Mud Island. In this letter, Genêt explains that the ship, which featured a copper hull, four cannon, and catapults, could employ many stranded French sailors who were "exposed to danger" in Philadelphia. "I formed the opinion that the acquisition of this vessel would be advantageous to the Republic," Genêt blithely writes.
Washington returned on July 11 and assembled his cabinet on July 12. Prior to the cabinet meeting, Jefferson received Genêt's assurance that La Petite Démocrate
would remain in Philadelphia until further notice. The cabinet decided to obtain counsel from the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court on questions regarding American neutrality, and Jefferson asked Genêt to keep La Petite Démocrate from sailing until the justices had time to respond. A few days later, Genêt dispatched La Petite Démocrate
to attack British shipping in the Atlantic, in clear violation of his pledge to Jefferson. On August 1, the cabinet agreed to request Genêt's recall as French ambassador, fewer than three months after he had arrived in the capital.
Complete Translation from French
Note pertaining to la Petite Démocrate captured by frigate Embuscade heretofore The Little Sarah that Citizen Genet has had armed on behalf of the Republic and whose launching was opposed by some.
*1 British property and equipped by the enemy with 4 cannon and several catapults and other arms.
*2 her rigging and her masts in good condition
Philadelphia, July 9, 1793, 2nd year 2 of the Republic
Lieutenant Commandant General to Mr Jefferson
You have asked me for details about the Brigantine la Petite Démocrate, previously called the Little Sarah, which is at this moment armed and ready to leave from Delaware. This warship,*1 Sir, was captured by the Republic's frigate Embuscade and sent to Philadelphia. The construction was elegant and solid, her hull lined with copper, and her molding superior.*2 Based on the Embuscade's captain's report and that provided by other knowledgeable sailors, I formed the opinion that
*3 I have entrusted the command to Citizen [Annot?], an ensign not in the service of the Navy of the Republic
*4 of the Republic and of my specific instructions, as soon as it is ready.
the acquisition of this vessel would be advantageous to the Republic, and this consideration, along with my wish to procure employment for a rather large number of French sailors here who are exposed to the dangers that often accompany idleness and misery, made me determined to acquire her on behalf of the State.
I had her repaired right away. I outfitted her with more cannon that were on board of 4 French vessels*3 and I will appoint her better [pending] a letter from the Executive Council.*4
I have to limit myself, Sir, to relating these facts which are not susceptible to advance discussion by me, nor will give rise to any by your government.
Edmond-Charles Genêt, also known as Citizen Genêt
(1763-1834) was born in Versailles and was a prodigy who could read seven languages by age twelve. At age eighteen, he became a court translator. Sent to St. Petersburg in 1788, Empress of Russia Catherine II expelled him from the imperial court in 1789. In 1793, he was dispatched to the United States to promote American support of France in its wars with Great Britain and Spain. Genêt commissioned four privateering vessels, and his activities in the United States threatened American neutrality. When he met President George Washington in Philadelphia, he asked for a reversal of American neutrality in favor of France. When Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson objected to his actions, Genêt protested. Washington ultimately sent him a letter of complaint on the unusually united advice of both Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Genêt's reply was obstinate, and Washington asked the French government to recall Genêt. Fearing the guillotine if he returned, Genêt asked for asylum in the United States and moved to New York. There, he married the daughter of Governor George Clinton and lived out Alexis de Toqueville's dream of the life of the American farmer until his death some forty years later. (Inventory #: 24762)