Connecting the President and the People: Washington's Neutrality, Genet's Challenge, and Hamilton's Fight for Public Support
Abstract

As the French Revolution intensified with the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793, so did the American public's interest in foreign affairs. Since President George Washington seized the initiative in foreign affairs (rather than Congress, as was expected by many at the time), the executive became the focal point of the developing relationship between the American public and the newly established federal government. The events centered on the Washington administration and the French Minister, Edmond Genet, placed the office of president of the United States squarely at the intersection of foreign affairs and popular politics. By focusing on the political activity that swirled around President George Washington's controversial proclamation of neutrality, this essay examines how Federalists, especially the administration's own Alexander Hamilton, tried to shape the public's understanding of the proclamation. When Washington thrust his administration into the burgeoning foreign crisis, the president put himself and the executive office at the center of the public debate. By looking at newspaper essays, community resolutions, presidential replies, and the Gideon Henfield trial and verdict, this essay argues that the Washington administration experienced the power of public opinion as an advantageous political force as well as an obstacle to its policy of neutrality. Washington's proclamation of neutrality, which injected executive authority into the realm of foreign affairs at a time when the American public was intensely interested in foreign events, contributed to the developing relationship between the American people and the newly established executive office.


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