Effects of the French Revolution in U.S.

A revolution, violent in its nature and far-reaching in its consequences, had broken out in France. It was the immediate consequence of the teachings of our own revolution. The people of France had long endured almost irresponsible despotism, and were yearning for freedom when the French officers and soldiers, who had served in America during the latter years of our struggle for independence, returned to their country full of republican ideas and aspirations. They began to question the right of a few to oppress the many. The public heart was soon stirred by new ideas, and in the movement that followed, Lafayette was conspicuous for awhile. The rumblings of the pent volcano of passion in the bosom of society were heard on every hand. Legislators assumed to be responsible to the people; and the Parliament of Paris, which for hundreds of years had been a mere court for registering royal edicts, now (1787) refused to do so, and in consequence the new and grievous taxes which the war had rendered necessary, could not be levied. The puzzled king called the States-General together. It was a body which had not met for nearly two hundred years. Like the Long Parliament of England, it soon took all power into its own hands, and very shortly the king was, in effect, a prisoner in his palace, and the representatives of the people proceeded to make society as level as possible. The Bastille, whose history represented royal despotism, was assailed by the citizens of Paris and pulled down. The privileges of the nobility and clergy were abolished, and the church property was seized. The king's brothers and many of the nobles fled in affright across the frontier, and tried to induce other sovereigns to take up the cause of royalty in France and restore the former order of things. The Emperor of Austria (brother of the French queen), and the King of Prussia, entered into a treaty to that effect, at Pilnitz, in 1791.

When this treaty became known, matters were brought to a crisis in France. War followed. English troops were sent to Flanders to watch the movements on the continent. Robespierre and other self-constituted leaders in Paris, held sway for awhile, and the most frightful massacres of nobles and priests ensued. Eighteen hundred were slain in one night. The weak and unfortunate king, who had in vain accepted constitution after constitution as it was offered to him, was now deposed and a republic was established. Lafayette and other moderate men had disappeared from the arena, which had become an awfully bloody one. The king was tried on a charge of inviting foreigners to invade France, was found guilty and beheaded in Jan., 1793. His beautiful queen soon shared his fate. The English troops sent to Flanders were called to fight the French, for the rulers of France had declared war against Great Britain, Spain, and Holland, in February.

When Mr. Jefferson came into the cabinet of Washington, he had just returned from France, where he had witnessed the uprising of the people against their oppressors. Regarding the movement as kindred to the late uprising of his own countrymen against Great Britain, it enlisted his warmest sympathies, and he expected to find the bosoms of the people of the United States glowing with feelings like his own. He was sadly disappointed. The conservatism of Washington and the tone of society in New York, in which some of the leaven of Toryism yet lingered, chilled him. He became suspicious of all around him, for he regarded the indifference of the people to the struggles of the French, their old allies, as an evil omen. He had scarcely taken his seat in the cabinet before he declared that some of his colleagues held decidedly monarchical views; and the belief became fixed in his mind that there was a party in the United States continually at work, secretly and sometimes openly, for the overthrow of republicanism here. This idea became a sort of monomania, and haunted him until his death more than thirty years afterward.

Jefferson soon rallied under his standard a large party of sympathizers with the French revolutionists. Regarding Hamilton as the head and front of the monarchical party, he professed to believe that the financial plans of that statesman were designed to enslave the people, and that the rights and liberties of the States and of individuals were in danger. Hamilton, on the other hand, regarded the national Constitution as inadequate in strength to perform its required functions, and believed weakness to be its greatest defect. With this idea Jefferson took issue. He charged his political opponents, and especially Hamilton, with corrupt and anti-republican designs, selfish motives, and treacherous intentions; and so was inaugurated that system of personal abuse and vituperation which has ever been a disgrace to the press and political leaders of this country. Bitter partisan quarrels now prevailed, in which Jefferson and Hamilton were the chief actors. The people were greatly excited. The Republicans, who hated the British intensely, called the Federalists the "British party," and the Federalists called their opponents the "French party." The latter hailed with joy the news of the death of the French king, and applauded the declaration of war against England and Holland, forgetting the substantial sympathy which the latter had shown for the Americans during their struggle for independence. Only Washington appeared calm in the midst of the uproar that proceeded from antagonists in his cabinet.


JOHN ADAMS took the chair as chief magistrate of the republic, in the spring of 1797, with a powerful, energetic, and disappointed political party in opposition. They lacked only two votes in the electoral college of giving the office to Adams's democratic rival, Thomas Jefferson, who became Vice-president. It was well for Jefferson's peace of mind and his public reputation that he was not elected President at that time, for he could not have satisfied the expectations of the ultra French faction which had gathered around him, and been true to his moral and patriotic convictions of duty to his country.

The French Directory, composed of five persons who had been installed executive rulers of France late in 1795, and who were supported by two legislative chambers known respectively as the Council of Ancients (the Senate) and Council of Five Hundred (the popular Assembly), were then feeling strong and proud, and were treating other governments with great insolence. The victories of the French armies, led by the rising young Napoleon Bonaparte, had given them Northern Italy. They were preparing for an invasion of Ireland with a fair prospect of success (for Irishmen were waiting to join the invaders against the English), and their corsairs were depredating with impunity upon American commerce. In the plenitude of their pride, when they heard that the people of the United States, refusing to bow to their dictation, had probably elected the opponent of their friend, Mr. Jefferson, they declared that until our government had redressed some alleged grievances of which they complained, no minister of our republic should be received by them.

James Monroe, a senator from Virginia, who had been sent to France as minister, in 1794, remained as such after the installation of the Directory. He had been received in a most theatrical manner, as he was properly regarded as the representative of the ultra sympathizers with the French revolutionists, in America. At a public reception in the French National Convention, he read an address written in the style of the missives issued by the American Democratic Societies, to which an enthusiastic member of the Convention replied in a grandiloquent manner, and closed his oration with the following words: "To-day, the sovereign people themselves, by the organ of their faithful representatives, receive you; and you see the tenderness, the effusion of soul, that accompanies this simple and touching ceremony; I am impatient to give you the fraternal embrace, which I am ordered to give in the name of the French people. Come and receive it in the name of the American people, and let this spectacle complete the annihilation of an impious coalition of tyrants." Then Monroe, according to precedent, stepped forward and received and returned the fraternal and national embrace and kiss of the representative of the French people.

Having opposed Jay's treaty at the French republican court, Monroe was recalled by his government in 1796, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina was appointed to fill his place. On Pinckney's arrival in France late in the year with the letter of recall and his own credentials as minister, the Directory refused to receive him. Not only so, but after treating him with great discourtesy, the Directory peremptorily ordered him to leave France. He withdrew to Holland in February, 1797, and there awaited further orders from home. When Mr. Adams took the Presidential chair, the United States were without a diplomatic agent in France.

Disappointed by the failure of the "French party" to elect Mr. Jefferson President of our republic, the insolent Directory, after hearing of the result in the electoral colleges, determined to punish a people who dared to thwart their plans. In May, 1797, they issued a decree which was tantamount to a declaration of war against the United States. It not only authorized the capture of American vessels under certain conditions, but declared that any American found on board of a hostile ship, though placed there without his consent, by impressment, should be hanged as a pirate. The poor American seaman was then continually exposed to impressment into the British service, and by this decree, if found there, he would be subjected to a pirate's fate, by the French! Strangely as it seems, Joel Barlow, an American Democrat who had actively sympathized with the French Jacobins, wrote concerning this savage decree to a relative in this country: "The government here is determined to fleece you to a sufficient degree to bring you to your feeling in the only nerve in which your sensibility lies, which is your pecuniary interest." At a Jacobin festival at Hamburgh, in 1793, Barlow had presented a song that was sung with great glee, written by Thelwall, an Englishman, to the air of God Save the King, the first stanza of which reads:

"God save the guillotine! Till England's king and queen Her power shall prove; Till each anointed knob, Affords a clipping job, Let no rude halter rob The guillotine."

Return to Our Country, Vol II