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he wrote, “of Mr. Genet's sentiments and conduct in the gazettes form a small part only of the aggregate. But you can judge from them to what test the temper of the executive has been put in its various transactions with this gentleman. It is probable that the whole will be exhibited to public view in the course of the next session of Congress. Delicacy towards his nation has restrained the doing of it hitherto. The best that can be said of this agent is, that he is entirely unfit for the mission on which he is employed; unless (which I hope is not the case), contrary to the express and . unequivocal declaration of his country made through himself, it is meant to involve ours in all the horrors of a European war.” But there was another side to the neutrality question even more full of difficulties and unpopularity, which began to open just as the worst of the contests with Genet was being brought to a successful close. Genet had not confined his efforts to the seaboard, nor been content with civic banquets, privateers, rioting, and insolent notes to the government. He had fitted out ships, and he intended also to levy armies. With this end in view he had sent his agents through the south and west to raise men in order to invade the Floridas on the one hand and seize New Orleans on the other. To conceive of such a performance by a foreign minister on the soil of the United States, requires an effort of the imagination to-day almost equal to that which would be necessary for an acceptance of the reality of the
Arabian nights. It brings home with startling clearness not merely the crazy insolence of Genet, but a painful sense of the manner in which we were regarded by the nations of Europe. Still worse is the fact that they had good reason for their view. The imbecility of the confederation had bred contempt, and it was now seen that we were still so wholly provincial that a large part of the people was not only ready to condone but even to defend the conduct of the minister who engaged in such work. Worst of all, the people among whom the French agents went received their propositions with much pleasure. In South Carolina, where it was said five thousand men had been enlisted, there was sufficient self-respect to stop the precious scheme. The assembly arrested certain persons and ordered an inquiry, which came to nothing; but the effect of their action was sufficient. In Kentucky, on the other hand, the authorities would not interfere. The people there were always quite ready for a march against New Orleans, and that it did not proceed was due to Genet's inability to get money; for the governor declined to meddle, and the democratic society of Lexington demanded war. Matters looked so serious that the cavalry was sent to Kentucky, and the rest of the army wintered in Ohio. It was actually necessary to teach the American people by the presence of the troops of the United States that they must not enroll themselves in the army of a foreign minister.
Nothing can show more strikingly than this the almost inconceivable difficulties with which the President was contending. To develop a policy of wise and dignified neutrality, and to impress it upon the world, was a great enough task in itself. But Washington was obliged to impress it also upon his own people, and to teach them that they must have a policy of their own toward other nations. He had to carry this through in the teeth of an opposition so utterly colonial that it could not grasp the idea of having any policy but that which, from sympathy or hate, they took from foreigners. Beyond the mountains, he had to bring this home to men to whom American nationality was such a dead letter that they were willing to defy their own government, throw off their allegiance, and enlist for an offensive war under the banners of a crazy French Girondist. It is neither easy nor pleasant to carry out a new foreign policy in time of general war, with one's own people united in its support; but when the foreign divisions are repeated at home, the task is enhanced in difficulty a thousand-fold. Nevertheless, there was the work to do, and the President faced it. He dealt with Genet, he prevailed in public opinion on the seaboard, and in some fashion he maintained order west of the mountains. Washington also saw, as we can see now very plainly, that, wrong and unpatriotic as the Kentucky attitude was, there was still an excuse for it. Those bold pioneers, to whom the country owes so much, had very substantial grievances. They knew nothing of the laws of nations, and did not yet realize that they had a country and a nationality; but they had the instincts of all great conquering races. They looked upon the Mississippi and felt that it was of right theirs, and that it must belong to the vast empire which they were winning from the wilderness. They saw the mighty river held and controlled by Spaniards, and they were harassed and interfered with by Spanish officials, whom they both hated and despised. To men of their mould and training there was but one solution conceivable. They must fight the Spaniard, and drive him from the land forever. Their purposes were quite right, but their methods were faulty. Washington, born to a life of adventure and backwoods conquest, had a good deal of real sympathy with these men, for he knew them to be in the main right, and his ultimate purposes were the same as theirs. But he had a nation in his charge to whom peace was precious. To have the backwoodsmen of Kentucky go down the river and harry the Spaniards out of the country, as their descendants afterwards harried the Mexicans out of Texas, would have been a refreshing sight, but it would have interfered sadly with the nation which was rising on the Atlantic seaboard, and of which Kentucky was a part. War was to be avoided, and above all a war into which we should have been dragged as the vassal of France, so Washington intended to wait, and he managed to make the Kentuckians wait too, a process by no means agreeable to that enterprising people.
His own policy about the Mississippi, which has already been described, never wavered. He meant to have the great river, for his ideas of the empire of the future were quite as extended as those of the pioneers, and much more definite, but his way of getting it was to build up the Atlantic States and bind them, with their established resources, to the settlers over the mountains. This done, time would do the rest; and the sequel showed that he was right. A little more than a year after he came to the presidency he wrote to Lafayette: “Gradually recovering from the distresses in which the war left us, patiently advancing in our task of civil government, unentangled in the crooked politics of Europe, wanting scarcely anything but the free navigation of the Mississippi, which we must have, and as certainly shall have, if we remain a nation,” 1 etc.
Time and peace, sufficient for the upbuilding of the nation, that is the theme everywhere. Yet he knew that a sacrifice of everything for peace was the surest road both to war and ruin. Peace must be kept; yet war was still the last resort, and he was ready to go to war with the Spaniards, as with the Indians, if all else failed. But he did not mean to have all else fail, nor did he mean to submit to Spanish insolence and exactions. The grievances of the pioneers of the West were to be removed, if possible, by treaty, and if that way was impossible, then by fighting.
* The italics are mine.