Mission to France

James Monroe’s mission as Minister to France occurred during one of the most difficult periods in Franco-American relations. The previous American Minister, Gouverneur Morris, was recalled at the request of the French government, due to his support of the monarchy.[1] After the overwhelming unpopularity of Morris, Washington understood that he needed to appoint a new minister whose political beliefs would be more radical and more in tune with French sentiments. Diplomatic relations between France and the United States were complicated by more than Gouverneur Morris’s royalist leanings. The Americans were caught in the middle of the war between England and France, who were preying on American shipping and taking American seamen prisoner. Both the French and the British were unhappy with American neutrality in their war. Politics in France were becoming more radical, and the United States was trying to walk a difficult line of supporting a fellow republic while recognizing the need for a stable government.

James Monroe stepped into these conflicts on May 26, 1794 when the Senate approved his appointment to France. A few days later, on June 5, Congress added to Monroe’s problems by passing the Neutrality Act, which, like previous legislation, indicated the United States would not support the French during their Revolution. Five days later, Monroe received his instructions for his mission to France. Monroe’s directions gave him little power to negotiate any problems America had with France, and Monroe was not given detailed information on John Jay’s mission to England, or any information about the treaty Jay was trying to negotiate.

While Monroe traveled to France, the Thermidorian Reaction occurred, placing the French government in total chaos, and overthrowing Robespierre. Robespierre had used the Committee of Public Safety to control the Reign of Terror, attacking anyone who disagreed with him. As much as many Frenchmen believed the removal of Robespierre saved France, the leaders who removed Robespierre did not include immediate plans for the future of the government. Monroe arrived in the middle of this.

With no clear head of the government and no other foreign representatives in France, it was unclear what protocol Monroe should follow, or who he should present himself to. In a gesture of great democracy, Monroe went directly to the President of the National Convention. The convention greeted Monroe with great celebration, welcoming him as a fellow Republican. In an elaborate ceremony, the French even placed Monroe’s gift of an American flag next to their own in the Convention.

From the moment of his arrival, James Monroe consistently supported the fledgling French government, seeing the Thermidorian Reaction as the savior of the French Revolution. Monroe chose to see the connections and commonalities between the new French Revolutionary government and the new American Republic. He presented a calming of tensions and a return to order in his letters home, at times even allowing his pro-French bias to blur the reality of situation in France. This was complicated by the lack of accurate sources available to Monroe.

By early January of 1795, Monroe appeared to have healed tensions between France and the United States, when the French Directory removed the previous two years’ decrees allowing French impressments of American sailors and seizure of American goods. The declaration also reaffirmed Franco-American trading, and much of the Alliance of 1778. America’s problems with France appeared to be on the mend through the hard work of James Monroe.

However, less than two weeks later on January 16, 1778, Monroe found himself back on delicate footing when John Jay, the Minister to England, insisted that he would only inform Monroe about the terms of the Jay Treaty if Monroe would keep them confidential. Monroe rejected Jay’s offer, because he would not be able to tell the French what he knew. Based on letters from Jay, Monroe told the French that Jay’s Treaty would not violate the terms of the Alliance of 1778, although the French would later challenge that claim. The French foreign minister had access to private information on the treaty that differed from Monroe’s, which increased tensions. When the Jay Treaty appeared in the newspaper before the Secretary of State notified Monroe of the terms, the French felt even more betrayed by Monroe.

On June 24, 1795 Congress passed the Jay Treaty, added to Franco-American distrust. Two months later, on August 20, 1795, the first French Republic ended, being replaced with a constitutionally based Directory government. The Directory government was designed to prevent the takeover by one dictator or absolute monarch.

Franco-American relations deteriorated with the passage of the Jay Treaty. The French felt they could no longer rely on Monroe, although Monroe continued to advance their cause with the goal of unanimous American support for their republican government. Petty incidents, like Washington placing the French Minister’s gift of a flag in the National Archives instead of within Congress, became international events due to the distrust between the two countries.

In July of 1796, Washington recalled Monroe. Monroe’s return to the United States was deeply embroiled in partisan politics. Washington’s advisors believed that Monroe had not tried hard enough to justify the need for Jay’s Treaty to the French.[2] Monroe’s departure from France was largely caught up in the allegations of early Federalist Era partisan politics, including claims that he was providing his allies at home with confidential information.


[1] Beverly W. Bond, Jr., “The Monroe Mission to France 1794-1796,” Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science 23, no.2-3 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1907), 9.

[2] Arthur Scherr, “The Limits of Republican Ideology: James Monroe in Themidorian Paris, 1794-1796,” Mid-America: An Historical Review 79, no. 1 (Winter 1997), 35.

Bond, Beverly W., Jr. “The Monroe Mission to France: 1794-1796,” Johns Hopkins University Studies of Historical and Political Science 25 ser., no. 2-3 (February 1907): 9-101.

Hodge, Carl C. and Cathal J. Nolan, eds. “George Washington,” U.S. Presidents and Foreign Policy: From 1789 to the Present (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007).

Preston, Daniel. “Class Notes, Jeffersonian America,”University of Mary Washington, Fall Semester 2006.

Scherr, Arthur. “The Limits of Republican Ideology: James Monroe in Thermidorian Paris, 1794-1796,” Mid-America: An Historical Review 79 no. 1 (Winter 1997): 5-45.