Ornamental Separator

The Botanist and Citizen Genêt

Frenchman André Michaux just wanted to discover American plants but was caught in international intrigue

“The chief objects of your journey are to find the shortest & most convenient route of communication between the US. & the Pacific ocean … to learn such particulars as can be obtained of the country, through which it passes, it’s productions, inhabitants & other interesting circumstances. …

“You will . . . take notice of the country you pass through, it’s general face, soil, rivers, mountains, it’s productions animal, vegetable, & mineral so far as they may be new to us & may also be useful or very curious; … the names, numbers, & dwellings of the inhabitants … languages, manners, state of society & of the arts & commerce among them.”

These were not Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as the pair set off in 1804 on the Corps of Discovery expedition. Instead, they were written by Jefferson, at the behest of the American Philosophical Society (APS), to André Michaux, a visiting French natural historian, in April 1793.

Jefferson had long dreamed of unlocking the unexplored region west of the early republic, in part because of the wonders that land surely held and in part because he was worried about British intentions for the area. In 1792, he proposed to members of the APS that “we should set on foot a subscription to engage some competent person to explore that region...by ascending the Missouri, crossing the Stony mountains, and descending the nearest river to the Pacific.”

His timing was good because Michaux, who had spent seven years in America as the French royal botanist, had recently found himself “destitute of means.”

Michaux had studied with Bernard de Jussieu, a leading French botanist at the Grand Trianon gardens at Versailles, and then with André Thouin at the Jardin du Roi in Paris. Louis XVI was keen on importing into France plants and trees from all around the world that might be useful, and in a commission dated July 18, 1785, he declared that “His Majesty has resolved to attach... André Michaux to the title and position of Royal Botanist...to undertake useful voyages at His Majesty’s expense.”

Two months later, on Sept. 28, 39-year-old Michaux boarded Le Courrier de New York and set sail for the fledgling United States. He spent the next eight years “botanizing” — a word he was quite fond of — around the United States and Canada, eventually shipping more than 60,000 plant samples back to France. He visited Philadelphia a few times during those years but never interacted directly with Jefferson or the APS before a visit on Dec. 8, 1792.

When Michaux arrived in Philadelphia at the end of 1792, Louis XVI was in prison awaiting trial. Michaux didn’t know if he was still acting as a botanical minister or if he would ever get the back pay he was due and, if not, how he could cover his mounting debts.

He came up with a plan he hoped would solve his problem and still allow him to botanize.

Two days after arriving in Philadelphia, Michaux approached members of the APS and suggested an exploration of the country west of the Mississippi River would yield geographical information. He offered to go to the sources of the Missouri and beyond, and sought financial backing from the Society. Jefferson, who in addition to serving as secretary of state in George Washington’s administration was also the vice president of the APS, quickly took charge of handling Michaux’s proposal.

In his Western expedition proposal presented to the APS on Jan. 20, 1793, Michaux asked for no salary — only that the APS stand good for the debts he had incurred until he was, hopefully, reimbursed for his back pay. The following day, though Michaux would not have known it, Louis XVI went to the guillotine, a pivotal point in the French Revolution.

Soon after that, Jefferson indicated that the APS would sponsor the expedition, giving Michaux the first official subscription and stating that the APS was “desirous of obtaining for ourselves relative to the land we live on, and of communicating to the world information so interesting to curiosity, to science, & to the future prospects of mankind, promise for ourselves, our heirs.” The first two signatures on the subscription were President George Washington ($100) and Vice President John Adams ($20).

The APS charged Jefferson to communicate to Michaux detailed instructions regarding the expedition, which he did in a letter dated April 30, 1793. A decade later, President Jefferson reminded Lewis and Clark that “a considerable portion of [the instructions] being within the field of the Philosophical society, which once undertook the same mission.” Lewis and Clark’s instructions are essentially a longer, more detailed version of those given to Michaux.

Initially, everything seemed set for Michaux to set out on an expedition west. Then Edmond Genêt arrived.

Minister Plenipotentiary Genêt, the first official representative of the new French Republic, came to America on May 16, 1793, and was greeted with open arms by the Washington administration. But Washington did not know that “Citizen” Genêt — a term many Frenchmen of the Revolutionary era insisted on using — had been issued secret instructions.

The regime of the new French Republic had ordered Genêt to “pave the way for the liberation of Spanish America...[and] deliver our ancient brothers in Louisiana from the tyrannical yoke of Spain.... [which] will be easy to carry out if the Americans wish it.” These covert instructions put him directly at odds with Washington, who had recently issued his proclamation of neutrality.

Genêt had done his homework. He knew that the citizens of Kentucky had been involved in endless squabbles with the Spanish over navigation rights on the Mississippi, and Genêt reasoned he could use Kentuckians’ animus to his advantage.

But to set his plan in motion, he would need the help of someone who knew America and Americans better than he did. For that he turned to his countryman. Michaux was, as Genêt described him, “in every respect an estimable man...and accustomed to traveling in the American backwoods.”

Genêt told Michaux to go to Kentucky and gauge the sentiments of the people on the question of joining with the French to put an end to Spain’s control of Louisiana. Michaux was to meet with Gen. George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s brother and a long-standing Francophile, about spearheading an assault on New Orleans. Michaux still considered himself a representative of the French government, and so he put the APS expedition on hold and used June 1793 to prepare for the journey to Kentucky.

Jefferson soon knew that Michaux was going to Kentucky and that Genêt had sponsored the trip, but he did not yet know the real reason, describing Michaux to the governor of Kentucky only as a “Conductor of a botanical establishment belonging to the French nation.... [who] goes to Kentucky in pursuit of objects of Natural history and botany.... Mr. Genet the Minister of France here, having expressed to me his esteem for Mr. Michaud...I take the liberty of recommending him to your notice.”

Jefferson was shocked when, in early July, Genêt came to visit him. “Mr. Genet called on me and read to me very rapidly instructions he had prepared for Michaud who is going to Kentuckey,” Jefferson wrote of the meeting. “Besides encouraging those inhabitants to insurrection, he speaks of.... [an] expedition against N. Orleans, and then Louisiana to be established into an independant state connected in commerce with France and the US.” Jefferson added that Genêt “communicated these things to me, not as Secy. of state, but as Mr. Jeff.”

Secretary of State Jefferson then informed Citizen Genêt that “enticing officers and souldiers from Kentucky to go against Spain, was really putting a halter about their necks, for that they would assuredly be hung, if they commd. hostilities against a nation at peace with the US.”

But Jefferson neither tried to stop the mission nor tell others in the Washington administration about it. The reason remains unclear.

On July 16, Michaux left Philadelphia and by late August was approaching Danville, Kentucky. By then, Genêt was the talk of Philadelphia. Washington had learned of his plans for Louisiana and that he had been commissioning private ships to capture British craft.

On Aug. 23, Washington sent a request to the French government to recall Genêt. That request was written largely by Jefferson, who had taken the lead on the matter, so that the wording would not offend the French government. Washington’s administration made no public announcement of the request and did not tell Genêt for at least three weeks.

When Genêt eventually learned of the recall request, he was furious, but it would take time for the request to reach Paris and for the deliberations to follow, and he saw no reason to stop Michaux’s mission or, apparently, to tell him about the requested recall.

Michaux arrived in Danville on Sept. 10, and a week later he met Gen. Rogers Clark, who informed him that the “enterprise in question was dear to his heart.” A month later, the general wrote Genêt that he would be honored to work with France on this endeavor and would “surmount every obstacle and pave my way to Glory which is my object.” He also informed Michaux that he could gather troops, but he needed boats, supplies and money. Michaux promised Rogers Clark all that would be forthcoming, but first he had to return to Philadelphia to meet with Genêt.

Michaux returned to Philadelphia on Dec. 12, quickly met with Genêt and wrote Rogers Clark that Genêt would secure all resources needed, but “the difficulty or rather impossibility to [effect] a diversion with the navy, forces the Minister to delay those operations untill next Spring.”

That delay ended up being more significant than Michaux could have imagined.

By January 1794, Genêt was told he was no longer acting as a representative of the French government and was recalled. The Jacobin Committee of Public Safety, now in power, had approved Washington’s request.

The mission to marshal American forces to free Louisiana was over.

Once the “Genêt Affair” was resolved, all things Genêt, including Michaux, were deemed insufferable, and Jefferson and the APS understood it would be improper for Michaux to be first to explore the far west. Michaux too had likely had enough. By this point he wanted to be left alone so he could botanize to his heart’s content, which is what he did for the next two years, before sailing back to France.

Eventually, the spotlight on exploration fell on Lewis and Clark, who headed west after the acquisition of the Louisiana territory from France in May 1803. Earlier that year, Jefferson had asked Congress for $2,500 to mount an expedition to explore the Missouri River and locate the Northwest Passage. The round trip, which began in May 1804, covered some 8,000 miles and resulted in the discoveries of plants, animals and places unknown to the explorers until that journey. And it allowed the United States to push westward, claiming more resources and, ultimately, more power. 

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