Pelosi is right. The first generation of American political leaders understood the danger of foreign involvement in their elections because they lived through it. Throughout the 1790s, France’s ambassadors repeatedly sought to influence the results of American elections, hoping to sway policy in their favor.
Even after this meddling ended, fear of foreign influence persisted, ultimately making subsequent untainted elections seem illegitimate. Public faith in the democratic process had eroded. The entire experience convinced the founding generation that democracies live or die based on the integrity of their elections — a lesson we must remember today.
In 1793, a quirky and energetic man named Edmond-Charles Genêt arrived in the United States to assume his position as the new ambassador of France. Many Americans responded enthusiastically to Genêt at political gatherings and social engagements as he integrated himself with the Francophile Democratic-Republican party that opposed the Federalist Washington administration.
Unsurprisingly, relations between Genêt and the Washington administration quickly soured. George Washington’s repeated refusal to align American interests with France angered Genêt. According to some accounts, he warned that if the president continued to rebuff him, he would “appeal to the people” themselves. This threat earned him immediate infamy, because it suggested that Genêt might seek to influence the American elections in 1794 to build support for policies friendly to France. To prevent him from taking such actions, the Washington administration demanded that France recall Genêt.
The new French ambassador, a sulking, stubborn man named Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet, practiced greater discretion in advancing French interests. But though he was not as flamboyant as Genêt, Fauchet nonetheless paid small subsidies to Democratic-Republicans as they fought against the adoption of the looming Anglo-American “Jay Treaty” that would harm France’s interests.
His successor, Pierre-Auguste Adet, followed the Genêt model. Fearing the adoption of the Jay Treaty, Adet brazenly followed through on Genêt’s threat to “appeal to the people.” He leaked a secret copy of the treaty to a friendly newspaper, stirring up violent but ultimately ineffective protests. Encouraged by instructions from France, he then decided to engineer the resignation or defeat of President George Washington, whom he had determined to be an enemy of France. During 1796, Adet traveled through New England, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York to organize opposition to Washington and his Federalist allies.
That September, Washington announced that he would not run for a third term. But he did so with a warning, possibly with Adet in mind, against the “insidious wiles of foreign influence.”
With Washington out of the picture, Adet began to openly advocate for the election of Thomas Jefferson as the next president. A week before Pennsylvania chose its crucial slate of presidential electors, Adet published a letter suggesting that only Jefferson’s election could avert war with France. Though his superiors had authorized him to share France’s newly aggressive policy much earlier, Adet timed his announcement to maximize its electoral effect.
This stunt may have backfired. Many Americans reacted furiously to Adet’s implication. One newspaper writer exhorted Americans to “be on your guard, this is the crisis, when foreign powers will make their great effort to secure a lasting influence over your affairs and Direct Your Government.” Another essayist, signing his name “National Pride,” remarked, “If the choice of a President of the United States is to depend on any Act of a foreign nation, farewell to your liberties and independence.” Numerous observers claimed that Adet’s efforts cost Jefferson more support than it gained him.
In the end, Jefferson narrowly lost the election to John Adams and Franco-American relations further deteriorated into what became known as the “Quasi-War.” Unable to sustain a diplomatic pretense for their involvement in American politics, the French government ended its direct support for the Democratic-Republican opposition.
But this did not stop fear of foreign meddling in the elections of 1798 and 1800.
The notorious XYZ Affair of 1798 raised these concerns anew. That year, a French diplomat named Pierre Bellamy appeared to ask American envoys in Paris for a bribe to continue negotiations to prevent a war between the two nations. After they refused his offer, Bellamy warned that France could use its “diplomatic skill” in America to mobilize its “French party” against the Federalists.
Genêt, Fauchet and Adet’s inappropriate actions provided a context in which Federalists could magnify Bellamy’s taunt into wild and unfounded allegations about French interference in the elections not just that year, but also in 1800. They began to refer to their opponents, as Bellamy had done, as the “French Party.” Some even claimed that a shadowy French branch of the Free Masons known as the “Illuminati” sought to manipulate American political institutions.
In the late 1790s, despite the absence of direct meddling, Americans argued more forcefully than ever against foreign involvement in elections. One newspaper writer explained that “it is the vital principle of a republic to repel from its elections all foreign interference.” Another produced a second Declaration of Independence announcing a separation from France that listed among France’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” that “she has interfered in our elections and attempted to gain a dangerous ascendancy in our Councils.”
These Americans understood that allowing a foreign adversary to determine the outcome of elections would mean the death of their experiment in democracy. Without integrity in elections, there could be no legitimate representation in government.
A similar dynamic has begun to unfold today. Russian intrusion in the 2016 presidential election has fueled doubts about the legitimacy of the American electoral system. Further interference from foreign nations will only invite conspiracy theorizing about future elections, undermining faith in this pillar of representative government.
In fact, the ostensible beneficiary of such meddling, Jefferson, would later discover the downside of the practice. While Jefferson could have condemned or prevented Adet’s actions, he apparently chose not to because of the potential political benefits to himself. He criticized such foreign interference only when it was against his party. During the War of 1812, he suspected without evidence that the British government had paid New Englanders to oppose his friend James Madison’s administration and to even organize a secession movement.
As with many Republican leaders today, foreign meddling in American politics bothered Jefferson little when it benefited him. Yet Republicans may find, as Jefferson did, that future external electoral interference could harm their party’s interests. Abiding by the principle that American elections belong only to Americans is both just and practical.