Conor Cruise O’Brien‘s last book, First In Peace is a beautifully written and extremely thoughtful analysis of Washington’s actions with regard to the fledgling country’s early diplomacy. The book dwells mostly on the latter half of Washington’s first term through the end of his tenure as president.
Despite its deceptively short length, only about 170 pages, including footnotes, with relatively large type and small-format pages, O’Brien thoroughly examines Washington’s role as a master politician.
He consistently out-maneuvered the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. In most cases they couldn’t see what was coming until it was too late.
Jefferson doesn’t fare too well in the story that O’Brien tells. It wasn’t until later in his life that Jefferson realized how thoroughly he’d been bested by Washington at nearly every turn.
In First in Peace, O’Brien assumes quite a bit of previous knowledge of historical events. The reader should be familiar with Citizen Genet, Jefferson’s involvement with Philip Frenau, and the political environment that existed in America during Washington’s second term. Although not strictly required, the reader will benefit from having read Chernow’s Hamilton biography, possibly Dumas’ work on Jefferson, and Flexner’s Washington biography. O’Brien is clearly familiar with all of these and others. The book is not a flat historical accounting of events. Instead, it offers deeper insights into the motivations of the players and philosophy behind the French Revolution.
O’Brien offers four major insights in this concise volume:
Readers of books reviewed at WWTFT, will recognize the name Genet. He’s cropped up here most recently in the review of Noah Webster the Forgotten Founding Father. Genet was appointed as minister plenipotentiary of France to the United States in 1793 as a replacement for Jean-Baptiste Ternant, who served with Steuben in the American Revolution. The Girondin government in France was recalling Ternant, to whom they gave the deadly label Fayettiste. LaFayette had fallen out of favor in France by then, and being called a Fayettiste tended to result in a quick trip to the guillotine. Consequently, Ternant, no fool, elected to spend the rest of his days in America, rather than to return to France. (When the Girondin government fell, and its replacement recalled him, Genet made the same prudent choice. Washington magnanimously gave Genet asylum, in spite of his virulent attacks upon him.)
Genet was sent to America to foment support for the French against the British. He traveled up the eastern seaboard and stirred people up wherever he went. He even went so far as to outfit privateers to prey on British shipping. He thought he could appeal directly to Congress and even called Washington’s patriotism into question! O’Brien briefly covers the actions of Genet in America, but what is interesting is his analysis of the instructions sent to Genet by the Girondin government. In the book, O’Brien translates selected correspondence between Genet and his government. From these, it is abundantly clear that Genet was not overstepping his role. In fact, according to the diplomatic correspondence, he wasn’t going far enough.
O’Brien brilliantly dismantles the arguments of Jefferson’s apologists who contend that the Secretary of State didn’t know what was up. He uses Jefferson’s own writings and those of Genet and the Girondin government to make his case.
Much to his chagrin, Jefferson was consistently out-foxed by Washington in the political arena. Washington apparently subscribed to the Sicilian admonition to keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. Because Jefferson was part of the administration, it was very difficult for him to outwardly oppose it. He was, after all, Secretary of State. For his part, Washington relied on Hamilton for much of his foreign policy advice, although, as O’Brien shows, it was Washington calling the shots. In 1789 Washington used Gouverneur Morris, in an informal capacity as an American citizen abroad, to discreetly make overtures to the British. He didn’t bother to inform his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. He continued to keep Jefferson in the dark for over a year and only when some correspondence was leaked, did he acknowledge what was going on. This is an indication that Washington didn’t slowly come to distrust Jefferson, as some biographers have said, he never did!
O’Brien put his knowledge of the French language to good use in his research for this book. His analysis of French thought on the superiority of their revolution and culture to all others is eye-opening. As mentioned before, O’Brien references diplomatic correspondence as well as the historical record of revolutionary France. He points out the viewpoint of the French revolutionaries and how they totally misread the American public.
The profoundly nationalist spirit of the French Revolution determined the legitimacy of any government based on how closely it resembled the French Republic. Within French Revolutionary terminology the only legitimacy of any people is derived from the degree of partisanship to the French Revolution. Thus the only “real Americans” were those in support of the French Revolution. Similarly, in their view, no country has any legitimate interests outside of those of the French Revolution. A patriote in any country was anyone who understood and accepted this fact.
It was therefore the duty of all countries “liberated” by the French Revolution to submit. In the view of the French revolutionary government, the United States owed its existence to France (never mind that that French government had been deposed, or the blood shed and sacrifices of Americans themselves). Consequently, they considered the United States a distressing anomaly, because the self-same patriotes, who had the greatest reputations, namely Washingon and Jefferson, lacked “that most basic characteristic of a patriote — unquestioning submission to the will of the French Revolution.” The people of the United States was not eager to be one with France, regardless of their enthusiasm for the French Revolution and gratitude for France’s role in the War of Independence.
A careful reading of O’Brien’s insights into the perceptions of French revolutionary philosophy yields some obvious correlations with socialist revolutions in the 20th century. (See Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism for more on this.) Many of the conceits are nearly identical.
According to O’Brien, though on the face of things there was no relation between the Whiskey Rebellion (which was essentially a tax protest) and the ratification of the Jay Treaty, the two were inextricably linked.
The links between the French Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania consisted of the Democratic-Republican Societies1 and the Republican press: these continued to be enthusiastic for the French Revolution.
The acknowledged leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion, David Bradford and James Marshall announced their intention to imitate the French Revolution, even suggesting at one point that they might set up guillotines.
Of course, history shows that Washington (with trusty Hamilton at the fore), was able to bloodlessly suppress the rebellion in fairly short order. When Washington reported this fact to Congress, he was careful to paint the rebels as having an implicit tie with the Democratic-Republican societies. It was these “self created societies” that formed the core of opposition to ratification of the Jay Treaty and which had been used as a grassroots vehicle for the Republicans under Jefferson.
The Jay treaty was implemented to work out unresolved issues from the American Revolution. Jay negotiated the exodus of the British troops from forts in North America and resolved some unpaid debts due to the British for property and commercial transactions held over from the war. It was part of Washington’s plan to maintain neutrality for the new (weak) nation that he was charting a course for. He sought to keep America free of foreign entanglements. The Jay Treaty was initially very unpopular with much of the country because of the moral debt many Americans felt that they owed France. But Washington understood that France had been looking out for its own interests, that the monarchical government that had helped America was gone, and that it was critical to get the British out of their strongholds in the United States.
By deftly drawing attention to the linkage between the Democratic-Republican societies and the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington was able to deal a body blow to the republican opposition. His measured, but firm response to the Whiskey Rebellion was hard to fault. When this was taken in concert with Washington’s overwhelming popularity and prestige with the American people, his pronouncements, however subtle, against the Democratic-Republic societies in his address to the House, were sufficient to cause the American people to lose enthusiasm for them. If Washington told them that these societies were suspect, most ordinary Americans at the time would take his word for it.
Because these societies were defined by the enthusiasm and support for the French Revolution, once their legitimacy was questioned, support for the French Revolution became itself a suspect cause. Thus Washington was able to use his precise handling of the Whiskey Rebellion to severely weaken opposition to ratification of the Jay Treaty without explicitly calling the French revolutionary cause into question at a time when many Americans supported it out of gratitude for France’s help in the American Revolution.
Washington was able to make this connection between the bad aspects of the Democratic-Republican societies, but leave the public to come to their own conclusions about the French Revolution (after laying it out for them to find). His appointment of James Monroe, an ardent Francophile, as the minister plenipotentiary to France, gave the public appearance that Washington was not playing favorites between the French and the British and might even have some sympathy to the French cause.
This appointment accomplished several things. First, it left the Republicans very little room to argue that the administration was being partisan. After all, Monroe was solidly in the pro French camp and his appointment now made him part of the administration, and by extension the Republicans as well. And, as stated above, it bolstered the appearance that Washington wasn’t opposed to the French Revolution. Finally, it also put a powerful adversary to ratification of the Jay Treaty on the other side of the Atlantic.
O’Brien sums up Washington’s political mastery of the Republicans,
Washington’s destruction of the Democratic-Republican societies, with a few economical words, prepared the way for his successful fights for the endorsement of the Jay Treaty, first by a majority in the Senate, and later — most unexpectedly to Republicans — by a narrow but sufficient victory in the House of Representatives. In retrospect, the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, and the humiliation of its political supporters among and around the Democratic-Republican Societies, can be seen as the dispersion and disarming of the most likely force, at the popular level, of resistance to the Jay Treaty. This was a well-prepared preemptive strike, as Washington’s Republican critics were later ruefully to recognize.
O’Brien’s book is packed with insight and erudition and well worth reading.