In July 1793, less than three months after President George Washington had declared the United States impartial toward the conflict raging in Europe, French Minister Edmond-Charles-Edouard Genet tested America's incipient neutrality. With instructions from his government, Genet armed a French privateer in Philadelphia and simultaneously launched an offensive against Spanish Louisiana using disaffected American pioneers. The episode began on July 5, when Genet shared the French plans for western invasion in a private meeting with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Ten days later Genet's agents departed for Kentucky to rendezvous with American Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. The effort, though ultimately unsuccessful, was to be one of the most intriguing and contentious affairs in the history of the young Republic.

As Washington's cabinet grappled with Genet's privateering escapades, details of French interest in the Spanish southwest also came to light. Following a meeting of the cabinet on July 18, 1793, Jefferson recorded: "Genl. Knox tells us Govr. Blount (now in town) has informed him that when Mt.florence was in France, certain members of the Execve. council enquired of him what were the dispositions of Cumbld. settlemt. &c. towards Spain? Mt.florce. told them unfriendly. They then offered him a commission to embody troops there, to give him a quantity of blank commissions to be filled up by him making officers of the republic of France those who should command, and undertaking to pay the expences. Mt.florce. desired his name might not be used." James Cole Mountflorence, the subject of Jefferson's note, had been sent to Paris in 1792 as a commercial and land agent for William Blount, governor of the territory that would soon become Tennessee. Jefferson's representation of the cabinet meeting, which has been cited by several historians of the American West, indicates that France approached an unreceptive Mountflorence in an attempt to gauge western opinion and gain his support for an effort to wrest Louisiana from Spanish control. 1 A recently uncovered document in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, shows that Mountflorence approached French authorities with plans for western intrigue, not vice versa.

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Published in the William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Oct., 2008), pp. 779-796. Additional volumes and issues can be found at the following website, http://oieahc.wm.edu/wmq/.