The French Revolution

Few other international events had such a profound impact on the United States as the French Revolution, which began in 1789 when the French overthrew King Louis XVI. Thomas Jefferson and many other Americans rejoiced that the French were continuing the revolutionary cause to plant democracy in Europe. Jefferson believed that a firm friendship with republican France would benefit both countries.

However, when the revolution turned bloody, heads (literally) began to roll, and war erupted between France and Britain, American public opinion became split. Though most of Jefferson’s supporters believed the United States should still honor the 1778 Franco-American alliance, more conservative Americans, such as Alexander Hamilton, thought the United States should seek an alliance with London.

Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation

After a heated debate over whether the United States should ally itself with France or Britain, Washington finally ended the debate when he issued his Neutrality Proclamation in 1793. The proclamation pledged mutual friendship and the desire to trade with both nations.

The Citizen Genêt Affair

The neutrality issue was not closed for the French, however. France’s ambassador to the United States, Edmond Genêt (or Citizen Genêt, as he preferred to be called), violated Washington’s neutrality order by commissioning U.S. privateers to fight for France and trying to make arrangements to use U.S. ports in the war effort against Britain. The Citizen Genêt affair, as it came to be called, caused such outrage that Genêt was recalled as ambassador. He chose to remain in the country, however, and ultimately even became a U.S. citizen. Jefferson, displeased and embarrassed by Genêt, eventually resigned his cabinet post, in part over the affair.

The Whiskey Rebellion

The domestic turbulence and foreign clashes of the late 1780s caused many Americans to grow discontented with their new government—a problem that was only exacerbated by the passage of Hamilton’s excise tax in 1790. Because most farmers converted their grain harvests to alcohol before shipping, the tax placed a heavy burden on their already-empty pocketbooks.

In reaction, a small band of Pennsylvania farmers initiated the Whiskey Rebellion against the government in 1794 to redress grievances and seek change. Rumors of insurrection and another revolution circulated from the West, through the countryside, until they reached lawmakers in Philadelphia. In response, Washington organized an army of 13,000 and marched them to western Pennsylvania. Upon arrival, however, the troops found that the shocked and awed rebels had already disbanded. This first true test of the new federal government did much to demonstrate Washington’s willpower and the government’s authority.

Popular pages: The Constitution (1781–1815)