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At its beginning all Americans hailed the Revolution in France with joy, but its terrible excesses, when they appeared, produced here the same effect as in England, of alienating everyone conservatively inclined. This included the mass of the Federalist party. On the contrary, most of the Republicans, now more numerous, now less, actuated partly by true insight into the struggle, and partly by the magic of the words "revolution" and "republic," favored the revolutionists with a devotion which even the Reign of Terror in France scarcely shook. It was in consequence of this attitude on its part that the party came to be dubbed "democratic-republican" instead of "republican," the compound title itself giving way after about 1810 to simple "democratic."

John Adams From a copy by Jane Stuart, about 1874, of a painting by her father, Gilbert Stuart, about 1800--in possession of Henry Adams.

Hostility to England, the memory of France's aid to us in our hour of need, the doctrine of "the rights of man," then so much in vogue, the known sympathies of Jefferson and Madison, who were already popular, and, alas, a mean wish to hamper the administration, all helped to swell the ranks of those who swung their hats for France. A far deeper motive with the more thoughtful was the belief that neutrality violated our treaty of 1778 with France, a conclusion at present beyond question. Politically our policy may have been wise, morally it was wrong.

The administration, at least its honored head, was doubtless innocent of any intentional injustice; and it could certainly urge a great deal in justification of its course. The form and the aims of the French Government had changed since the treaty originated, involving a state of things which that instrument had not contemplated.  France herself defied international law and compact, revolutionizing and incorporating Holland and Geneva, and assaulting our commerce. And war with England then threatened our ruin. Yet the pleading of these considerations in that so trying hour, even had they been wholly pertinent, could not but seem to Frenchmen treason to the cause of liberty. As to many Federalists, trucklers to England, such a charge would have been true.

France was not slow to reciprocate in the matter of grievances. In fact, so early as May, 1793, before the proclamation of neutrality could have been heard of in that country, orders had been issued there, wholly repugnant to the treaty (which had ordained that neutral ships could carry what goods they pleased--free ships, free goods), to capture and condemn English merchandise on American vessels. Provisions owned by Americans and en route to England were also to be forfeited as contraband. Even the most reasonable French officials seemed bent on treating our country as a dependency of France.

We see this in the actions of Genet, the first envoy to America from the French constitutional monarchy, accredited hither by a ministry of high-minded Republicans while Louis XVI. still sat upon his throne. Genet arrived in Charleston in 1793, before our neutrality had been proclaimed. Immediately, before presenting his credentials to our Government, he set about fitting out privateers, manning them with Americans, and sending them to prey upon British ships, some of which they captured in American waters. All this was in utter derogation of the treaty, which only guaranteed shelter to bona fide French vessels. Under a law of the French National Convention, Genet assumed to erect the French consulates in this country into so many admiralty courts for the trial of British prizes. We could not have allowed this without decidedly violating international law at least in spirit. He also devised and partly arranged expeditions of Americans, to start, one from Georgia to invade Florida, another from Kentucky to capture New Orleans, both as means of weakening Spain, which up to this time and for several years later was France's foe.


But Genet's worst gall came out in his conduct toward Washington. Him he insulted, challenging his motives and his authority for his acts and threatening to appeal from him to the people. He tried to bully and browbeat the whole cabinet as if they had been so many boys. So ludicrous did he make himself by such useless bluster, that his friends, at first numerous and many of them influential, gave him the cold shoulder, and the ardor for France greatly cooled. At length Washington effected his removal, the more easily, it would seem, as he was not radical enough for the Jacobins, who had now succeeded to the helm in France. The officious Frenchman did not return to his own country, but settled down in New York, marrying a daughter of Governor Clinton. He was succeeded by Adet.

 George Clinton. by Ezra Ames (May 5, 1768 – February 23, 1836) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Upon learning that the United States had ratified Jay's treaty, France went insane with rage. A declaration of war by us could not have angered her more. Adet was called home and the alliance with America declared at an end. Barras dismissed Mr. Monroe, our minister, in a contemptuous speech, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, sent as Monroe's successor, was not only not received but ordered from the land. New and worse decrees went forth against American commerce. Our ships were confiscated for carrying English goods though not contraband. Arbitrary and unheard-of tests of neutrality were trumped up, wholly contrary to the treaty, which indeed was now denounced. American sailors found serving, though compelled, on British armed vessels, were to be condemned as pirates.


These brutal measures, coupled with Napoleon's increasing power, begot in America the belief, even among Republicans, that France's struggle was no longer for liberty but for conquest. The insolence of the French Government waxed insufferable. President Adams, to a special session of the Vth Congress, on May 19, 1797, announced the insult to the nation in the person of Pinckney, and urged preparation for war. A goodly loan, a direct tax, and a provisional army, Washington again leader, were readily voted. Our Navy Department was created at this time. The navy was increased, and several captures were made of French vessels guilty of outrage. Adams, however, to make a last overture for peace, despatched John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry to the aid of Pinckney, the three to knock once more at France's doors for a becoming admission. In vain. The only effect was a new chapter of French mendacity and insolence, furthering America's wish and preparations for war. Napoleon's recent Italian victories, terrifying Europe, had puffed up France with pride. Talleyrand assumed to arraign us as criminals, and what was worse, pressed us, through his agents, to buy his country's forgiveness with gold. "You must pay money," our envoys were told, and "a good deal of it, too."

John Marshall.

All this was duly made known at Philadelphia, and the President assured Congress that no terms were obtainable from France "compatible with the safety, honor, and general interest of the nation." The opposition thought this an exaggeration, and called for the despatches, expecting refusal or abridgment. The President sent every word.

 Elbridge Gerry by James Bogle after John Vanderlyn [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Confusion seized the Republicans. Federalists were again in the ascendant, the VIth Congress being much more strongly federalist than the Vth. For once proud, reserved John Adams was popular, and anti-French feeling irresistible. "Millions for defence but not a cent for tribute," echoed through the land. Hosts of Republicans went over to the administration side. Patriotism became a passion. Each night at the theatre rose a universal call for the "President's March" [Footnote: The music was that of our "Hail Columbia."] and "Yankee Doodle," the audience rising, cheering, swinging hats and canes, and roaring "encore." The black cockade, American, on all hands supplanted the tricolor cockade worn by the "Gallomaniacs;" and bands of "Associated Youth," organizing in every town and city, deluged the President with patriotic addresses.

Seeing that we could not be bullied and that the friends of France here were Americans first; ashamed, on their publication, of the indignities which he had offered our envoys, and after all not wishing war with what he saw to be potentially another naval power like England, the sly Talleyrand neatly receded from his arrogant demands, and expressed a desire to negotiate.