The Founders created the model for dealing with foreign interference — we should return to it
Over the last few weeks, several reports have leaked that the Department of Homeland Security withheld reports condemning Russian interference in the election or falsifying evidence about the severity of the threat. The reports also challenge the veracity of attacks on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s mental health propagated and disseminated by Russian media outlets.
The threat posed by Russia is not a new one. Democrats in Congress have been warning about ongoing Russian interference for months. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed three bills to strengthen internal protections against electoral interference. They have sat, untouched, on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk. President Trump has also refused to address the threats to electoral integrity and, according to some, welcomed foreign interference as long as it helps his reelection chances.
In 1793, President George Washington and his administration faced the first attempt by a foreign power to undermine American foreign policy. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton despised each other and fundamentally differed on every major issue. But they agreed that foreign interference couldn’t be tolerated. They worked together to reject foreign interference and established a precedent that should still guide American foreign policy today.
In February 1793, France declared war on Great Britain and the conflict quickly spiraled to engulf their allies, enemies and colonial holdings. Washington and his Cabinet agreed that the United States had to remain neutral — the new country could ill-afford to fight another war so soon after the end of the Revolution. Accordingly, George Washington and the Cabinet gathered on April 19 and agreed to issue a proclamation declaring American neutrality.
Around the same time, the new French minister, Citizen Edmond Charles Genêt, arrived in Charleston and was greeted with much fanfare. He spent the next several weeks traveling to Philadelphia to present his credentials to Washington, and enjoyed lavish parties, balls and feasts in honor of his arrival. Genêt, and the French government, fully expected the United States to come to its aid under the terms of the Treaty of Defense both countries signed in 1778. He also mistook the widespread enthusiasm for his arrival as unqualified support for the French war effort.
When Genêt arrived in Philadelphia, he was disappointed to discover that the Washington administration would not be joining the war effort, and shocked that the administration intended to enforce neutrality. Genêt assumed that the administration would turn a blind eye to his military activities in honor of their former alliance against Britain. Instead, Jefferson warned Genêt to cease his privateering activities. Privateers were ships owned and captained by private citizens that sailed under a letter of marque, or a license, from a foreign government. During the war, both France and Britain employed huge numbers of privateers to attack the other side’s ships.
While privateers were an accepted part of 18th century warfare, they caused trouble for Washington and the Cabinet when they dragged their captured booty back into American ports or used American docks to refuel and arm their weapons. Accordingly, Washington and the Cabinet declared that privateers could dock to purchase food and necessary supplies, but they could not buy war materiel or bring captured ships back into port.
Genêt violated this neutral policy in spectacularly flagrant fashion. He outfitted a privateer, named Citoyen Genet, and unleashed it on British ships lurking outside American waters. At the end of June, the Citoyen Genet dragged the Little Sarah, a captured British ship, into the port of Philadelphia. Genêt renamed it the Petite Democrate and set about arming the ship as a new privateer. All of these activities took place right under the president’s nose, as the port was about six blocks from Washington’s house.
These activities did not go unnoticed by the British. George Hammond, the British minister to the United States, repeatedly complained to Jefferson and demanded the return of the British ships and crews. At first, Jefferson was willing to give Genêt the benefit of the doubt as the French minister might not have known about the neutrality proclamation when he first landed in the U.S. He urged Washington and the other Cabinet secretaries to give him an opportunity to speak with Genêt and convince the French minister to cease his provocations.
While Jefferson was ardently pro-French and sympathetic to Genêt’s cause, he spent the summer defending the Washington administration and trying to bring Genêt to heel. In a series of letters, Jefferson explained American neutrality and denied U.S. responsibility to enter the war. When Genêt protested that Congress should be responsible for determining foreign policy, Jefferson defended executive prerogative over diplomacy.
On July 10, while Washington was at Mount Vernon, the cabinet received word that the Petite Democrate was about to set sail. Jefferson rushed to meet with Genêt and warned him that the ship must not leave the port of Philadelphia. Genêt “flew into a great passion, talked extravagantly & concluded by refusing to order the vessel to stay.” He then threatened to go above Washington and appeal directly to the American public — a huge insult to Washington, the presidency and the new federal government.
When Washington returned to Philadelphia a few days later, he learned of Genêt’s recent shenanigans and the French minister’s threats to thwart his authority. Washington gathered the Cabinet for two meetings during the first week of August, and they unanimously agreed to request the recall of Genêt as the French minister to the United States.
This decision had widespread international repercussions. First, when the American public learned of Genêt’s threat, they were outraged. Before the flag had taken on symbolic importance, Washington was the closest thing to a national symbol. An insult to him from a foreign representative was an insult to the American people and the United States. Second, when the French government agreed to the request and recalled Genêt, it tacitly acknowledged that the president of the United States had the right to establish foreign policy and demand that it be respected by foreign ministers.
Finally, this episode illustrated that no matter their differences, Hamilton and Jefferson came together in the face of foreign interference. In 1790, two white men could not have been more different. Jefferson was born into a wealthy, slaving-owning, Virginia plantation family. He was pro-French, favored a country of yeoman farmers and distrusted merchants, banks and cities. Hamilton was born to a penniless, unwed mother in the Caribbean. He was pro-British, admired the British banking system and favored a strong federal government, military and investment in industry. Yet, when the nation was threatened, they agreed and worked together to minimize the threat. That’s a model we should still follow today.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a scholar in residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College and the author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.” Follow her on Twitter @lmchervinsky.