Ever since he announced plans to address a joint session of the United States Congress next month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has become a central figure in American domestic politics. And while he claims surprise over the controversy he has kicked up, those with a sense of history will know this isn’t the first time a visiting dignitary has gotten tangled up in a partisan scuffle.
In early 1793 Edmond-Charles Genet, the French ambassador to the United States, set sail across the Atlantic for his new diplomatic post. France had become a republic only months before; like Israel today, it was the only democracy in a region dominated by autocracies.
Like Mr. Netanyahu, Genet saw his country as a key American ally, and he believed that the two nations shared similar ideals and that both confronted enemies of pure evil. Indeed, France had just declared war on Britain, Europe’s most powerful counterrevolutionary force; Genet’s job was to muster American support for the war.
When Genet landed in Charleston, S.C., he was bombarded with festivals and celebrations. The outpouring of pro-French sentiment overwhelmed him as he traveled overland to Philadelphia, the nation’s capital. “I received without intermediary the fraternal sentiments of the American People for the French,” he wrote to his boss, the French foreign minister. “My trip has been a succession of uninterrupted civic fetes and my entry into Philadelphia a triumph for liberty.”
He had come at an awkward moment. The 1790s were a period of bitter political polarization, more severe than anything today. Divisions between Federalists and the Republicans had fractured American political life, and many Republicans even doubted the political legitimacy of the president’s administration. Genet thought he could use the partisan division to his advantage in the conflict with Britain.
But President George Washington had other ideas. He had no appetite for foreign intervention and, upon learning about the war between France and Britain, convened an emergency cabinet meeting to craft a response. Within weeks, he had published his famous Proclamation of Neutrality, a document that would guide American policy for much of the next 120 years. The United States, Washington had decided, would not support France against its enemies.
Genet was unimpressed. He thought he could challenge the president’s authority by appealing directly to France’s allies in Congress and among the public. “The old Washington,” as Genet privately called him, seemed destined to give in when confronted with the powerful pro-French sentiment in Congress. “Our friends,” Genet triumphantly wrote the foreign minister, “will enthusiastically support us in defending our rights in the next Congress, despite General Washington.”
Genet’s political base was formidable indeed. Pro-French Republican clubs exerted more sway on American politics than the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or its sister organizations do today. According to one French diplomat, Genet “had secret or avowed followers in several states and up to the heart of Congress.”
But Genet had overplayed his hand; his reckless diplomacy had alienated both his enemies and his allies. Even Thomas Jefferson, the Republican secretary of state whose support for the French Revolution was second to none, finally distanced himself from the diplomat. Forced to choose between his loyalty to Washington and his allegiance to France, Jefferson repudiated Genet.
The president of the United States, he tartly reminded the French ambassador, is “the only channel of communication between this country and foreign nations, it is from him alone that foreign nations or their agents are to learn what is or has been the will of the nation.” Genet’s meddling in the constitutional order, Jefferson believed, could not be tolerated.
Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, the speaker of the House and the man who invited Mr. Netanyahu, might consider Jefferson’s warning: “No foreign agent can be allowed to question” the president’s authority, nor “interpose between him and any other branch of government.”
Genet was blinded by the support of his zealous allies, and his mission backfired spectacularly, damaging both French diplomacy and the cause of French republicanism in the United States. Genet’s actions left pro-French politicians in Congress isolated and weakened — a serious risk for American supporters of Israel today. Genet’s behavior, complained a pro-French politician, left those “who love his cause to deplore that he was deputed to support it.” In the showdown between a twice-elected president and a foreign emissary, the president emerged victorious.
The Genet Affair was the first in a series of events that led to the “Quasi-War” between the two former allies a few years later. Thanks in part to Genet’s blundering, the two sister republics — although they both stood on the same side of the great struggle between monarchy and republicanism — had become enemies. Within a few years, anti-French sentiment dominated the country, and the United States and Britain were quickly mending fences. Two hundred years later, anti-French feelings still rear their head.
Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Boehner: Take note.
François Furstenberg, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation.