July 7, 1783 – Thomas Jefferson Writes to James Madison, Goading Him to Attack Alexander Hamilton

In April, 1793, Edmond Charles Genêt, better known as Citizen Genêt, arrived in America to great fanfare as the newly appointed French minister to the United States.

Genêt’s mission, as recounted by Joel Richard Paul in Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times, was to persuade the U.S. to help France liberate Canada, Louisiana, and Florida from rule by Britain and Spain. If the Americans refused to enter the war on France’s side, Genêt was instructed to “germinate the spirit of liberty” by instigating a popular uprising in favor of France. He had other assignments as well, all of which were designed to advance the position of France in the U.S. to the detriment of Britain.

Engraving of Edmond-Charles Genêt

Genêt launched an immediate campaign to realize his goals, taking assertive actions that amounted to “an astounding breach of diplomatic protocol and international law” (per Paul, p. 73).

President George Washington wanted the U.S. to remain neutral in the war between France and Britain, much to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s chagrin. Jefferson, besotted with France as well as its revolution, fiercely opposed neutrality. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, strongly supported it.

Jefferson had already been meeting secretly with Genêt at Trump Tower, and was anxious for Genêt’s help to elect a republican majority in Congress in return for support for an alliance with France and a removal of tariffs on French imports. Paul writes:

Jefferson made clear that his enemies – the federalists [which included President George Washington], particularly Adams and Hamilton – were France’s enemies. . . . From these conversations, Genêt formed the misimpression that the president was irrelevant and that an appeal to Congress, or to the people directly, would be more effective.”

Genêt also confided his plans to arm regiments in South Carolina and Kentucky to attack Spanish holdings in Florida and Louisiana, and Jefferson helped put Genet in touch with people who could help him.

Paul writes:

Jefferson’s relationship with the French envoy was ill-advised, probably illegal, and certainly disloyal to Washington.”

The President ended up issuing a Proclamation of Neutrality. Republicans denounced the proclamation as exceeding the president’s constitutional powers. Using the pseudonym Pacificus, Hamilton wrote a series of essays in support of Washington’s authority to determine the country’s foreign relations. Jefferson, as was his usual modus operandi, remained silent in public while stealthily prodding his henchman James Madison to attack. [When Jefferson himself was president, he of course would feel differently about presidential authority.]

Thomas Jefferson

On this day in history, Jefferson sent a letter to Madison, bemoaning the fact that nobody was taking exception to the writings of Pacificus:

Nobody answers him, and his doctrine will therefore be taken for confessed. For god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public. There is nobody else who can and will enter the lists with him.”

The sniping over Genêt, Paul writes, would eventually lead to the spawning of two competing political parties. It seems that in terms of partisan squabbling; trying to get foreign help in undermining of the political opposition; and dirty tricks – both in secret and in the open – not much has changed, as evinced by the Trump Administration, et al.

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