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George Washington's 'Alabama Incident': The Affair of 'Little Sarah'

Citizen Genet formally presented to Washington

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By John Laskey

 

Sixty years before the 'Alabama Incident', Britain and the USA had nearly come to blows over another affair of a privateer ship enjoying a safe haven in neutral waters. But on the earlier occasion, the roles of the complainant and defendant in the case were reversed.

 

(This article appeared under the same title in 'Crossfire', the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) no. 76 - April 2005. Reproduced here with picture)

 

The problem I have with the study of a particular period of history, however interesting, is that a kind of shell develops around the beginning and the end dates of the era. Thus: 'the American Civil War - 1861 to 1865' True, that's when the hostilities took place but they neither started nor really ended there. And of course no one knew at the time about those neat 'bookend' years that announce themselves on the article you are reading, the film you are watching or lecture you are attending about the Civil War. Since there probably isn't much left to write about that is truly original about the war, I have found some enjoyment in attempting to peel off layers under the thought processes of major figures in an effort to see more closely how they made decisions crucial in their own time. Many of the major figures must have constantly been seeking precedents in the rapidly unfolding events, even though they seldom admitted that, or had time to think out loud, as if they were in some Hollywood historical epic.


The US ambassador to Britain at this time who led an equally skilful diplomatic offensive to keep Britain from joining the war on the side of the Confederacy was Charles Francis Adams. Adams came from a distinguished line of American Presidents. His father John Quincy Adams had helped draft the 'Monroe Doctrine', establishing the United States' principled opposition to European interference upon the American continent. Subsequently, he had leant his intellectual heavyweight talents to the emerging American anti-slavery movement. Charles Francis's grandfather John had signed the Declaration of Independence. He had become the second President of the US after George Washington and was the first US ambassador to Great Britain.

 

A gulf of 70 years now separated son from grandson. But when Charles Francis considered the actions of James Bulloch, the skilful and discrete Confederate agent in Liverpool who made possible the building and escapes of the Southern raiders - most famously the raider Alabama - he may have appreciated a certain irony. A very similar event that occurred in his grandfather's time, with the US playing Great Britain's role as unwitting host to enemy raiders.

 

The First 'Confederacy'

 

At the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 America was in some turmoil following its recent war of independence, which had been largely underwritten by the French king. During the struggle for independence there had been little time to agree what sort of republic the thirteen rebelling Colonies would become. Indeed, the original Articles of Confederation of 1778 that predated the later Constitution created a loose assembly of autonomous states, a scenario that the states which formed the 1861 Confederacy would hark back to.

 

In the political chaos following the independence war, two broad factions formed. Those supporting less government and an emphasis on the rights of the common man formed around Thomas Jefferson, the visionary gentleman farmer of many contradictions. Those seeking tighter control through a stronger, centrist government with a national financial system orbited Alexander Hamilton, a conservative of Creole origins who, notwithstanding his revolutionary war credentials, was pro-British. Jefferson distinctly favoured the former ally France, and in the middle of this see-saw stood President George Washington, respected by both sides though discreetly inclining to Hamilton's faction.

 

At first, the majority of Americans welcomed the French Revolution. It seemed that their own egalitarian achievement had now taken seed in Europe, lead by brothers-in-arms from their own hard-fought independence struggle. Growing British mistrust of the French Revolution was hardly likely to alter that opinion.

 

Inevitably the increasing radicalisation of the French Revolution lead to war between this 'new' and the 'old' Europe of kings and old empires. Then as now, the US favoured the new European order over the old one. French agents felt free to fit out and recruit for privateers in safe American harbours. In spite of the United States' official neutrality there was no shortage of men or financial backing for this and into the wave of popular support stepped the new, radical French ambassador, Citoyen Charles Edmond Gênet.

 

An Ambassador of Rebellion

 

Gênet was no ambassador of the old school. After all, he represented not just France but the Rights of Man, as propounded by Tom Paine, the same English radical whose writings had been extolled by Washington himself during the darkest days of the struggle for American independence. Who therefore could stand in Gênet's way, as he made triumphal tours of the country and was received with acclamation, including by Jefferson himself?

 

Washington was a natural conservative and took fright at this barnstorming. He was also practical: both Britain and Spain were both at war with revolutionary France and both had powerful navies and huge tracts of land adjoining the US. A declaration of neutrality was duly issued, but Gênet was no Bulloch and would have none of that. Things really came to a head when French privateers started hauling captured British ships into US ports. The British ambassador, in a neat reversal of Charles Francis Adams's role during the Civil War, protested vigorously to Washington (that is, the man, not the later capitol). Tensions between the Hamilton and Jefferson factions began to develop into distinct pro and anti-French camps, which in turn spawned mobs supporting one or the other roaming around Philadelphia, then the seat of US government. And it was in Philadelphia that Gênet started openly arming and equipping a new privateer, manned by an American crew. The ship was called the Little Sarah and almost lead the new republic into war with its former British masters.

 

Little Sarah's Defiance

 

Washington's orders to impound Little Sarah were ignored; in much the same way as, 70 years later, the Alabama shrugged her way through feeble bands of red tape being wrapped around her departure from Liverpool by an indifferent British government. Washington's reaction was however rather fiercer than Prime Minister Palmerston's 70 years later. He got Jefferson himself to write to Gênet declaring him persona non grata. Washington then made sure his fellow Americans would back this coup against their former hero by artfully revealing details of the ambassador's high-handed expressions of contempt for American neutrality. His bluff called, Gênet withdrew.

 

Fortunately for his life he did not leave America before learning that there had been a change of government in France, and that the new Jacobin dominated regime was not only now at total war with 'old' Europe but also ridding itself of any internal dissent through the 'Terror'. Gênet wisely sought political asylum and Washington granted his request.

 

Charles Francis Adams will surely have known this story, and of how his grandfather John took weapons into Philadelphia to defend himself against the excited mobs. During the Civil War it was of course Liverpool that favoured another rebellion that challenged Washington's own shaky Union of 70 years before. Perhaps Charles Francis thought on the irony of the 'Citizen Gênet' affair in his dealings with Palmerston, when this time the head of state seeking to steer a neutral course was on the other side of the Atlantic.

 

There is an interesting postscript. Gênet finally adopted the citizenship of the country he had hoped to inveigle in a war against his own country's enemy. During the First World War his namesake great-great-great-great grandson went back to France to join the famous Lafayette squadron of the French air force, and became a famous fighter ace for his re-adopted country.

 

 

Primary Sources

Palmer, Dave R. '1794 - America, Its Army And The Birth Of The Nation'

Presidio Press, 1994

 

Secondary Sources

Tedeschi, Ronald F. Jr. 'The US Constitution And Fascinating Facts About It'

Oak Hill Publishing Co, 1998

 

Illustrations

 

'Citizen Genet formally presented to Washington' (detail) by Howard Pyle. From Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1897 April, p. 666 (Image from author's collection)

 

© ACWRT(UK) 2005