May 22, 2024

Symbolic Trump-Macron Friendship Tree May Have Died, Echoing Past

Author: Jonny Lupsha, News Writer
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By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

A sapling oak given by France as a gift to the United States may have died, CNN reported. Intended to symbolize the friendship between Presidents Trump and Macron, the tree was planted in 2018. Its death would mirror the Franco-American relationship in the 1790s.

Presidents Donald Trump, his wife Melania, and Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, plant a tree at the White House at the start of the French leader's first official visit to Washington, April 23, 2018.
President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron planted a friendship tree in 2018 on the South Lawn of the White House. (Photo from Wikipedia/Public Domain)

According to CNN, the White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have not confirmed the tree’s death and the tree was brought by French President Emmanuel Macron to American President Donald Trump in April 2018 to commemorate Macron’s first visit to the Trump White House. The presidents were reported to have a clear friendship, though recent reports suggest their amicable relationship has deteriorated. It wouldn’t be the first time the United States and France quickly soured from being close allies; one of the most turbulent examples of which happened during the late 18th century.

Edmond-Charles Genêt, French Diplomat

Shortly after the American Revolutionary War, Americans were torn by the increasingly radical uprising in France. “The Federalists and their leaders, Hamilton and Adams, wanted to keep politics in elite hands,” said Dr. Suzanne M. Desan, the Vilas-Shinners Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “They mistrusted France and its radical Revolution. In contrast, Jefferson and the Republicans wanted a more democratic republic and they felt a tight bond with the French revolutionaries.”

In 1793, a French diplomat named Edmond-Charles Genêt arrived in the United States for a visit with George Washington. Genêt traveled on orders to convince the Americans to pay back the debt they owed France from the Revolutionary War. “He should also urge the Americans to officially reiterate their alliance with France, according to the 1778 treaty,” Dr. Desan said. At the same time, France had just gone to war with England and Spain and—unknown to most Americans—Genêt was also sent to stir up revolutionary fervor in Louisiana and Florida, which the Spanish owned, and Canada, which was an English territory. He enlisted secret agents to sow discord in Canada while investing in rebellion in Louisiana even before meeting with Washington in Philadelphia.

How the Franco-American Relationship Crumbled

When he arrived to meet Washington and his Cabinet, Genêt’s demands of renewed treaties and owed debts fell on deaf ears. Furthermore, the Americans refused to take up arms against Spain or England, endorsing neutrality, but Genêt refused to concede. “Then Genêt made a bad move,” Dr. Desan said. “He angrily threatened to appeal to the American people over the head of Washington. He misjudged where power lay, and he had insulted the American president.” Even the sympathetic Thomas Jefferson grew weary of him.

Genêt somehow convinced an entire fleet of ships to attack the British at Halifax then sail south to free Spanish Florida, though en route, the fleet thought better of it and returned home. Meanwhile, neither Genêt’s Canadian agent nor his investment in Louisiana ever bore fruit. Genêt had failed completely, leaving a bad impression of French revolutionaries on many Americans.

“The Genêt affair gave Hamilton and the Federalists ammunition in their pursuit of anti-French, pro-British policies,” Dr. Desan said. “In 1794, the United States cozied up to England with a new treaty—the Jay Treaty.” Among other things, the Jay Treaty abolished tariffs for British goods entering port in America. “In short, the treaty promoted British-American trade, but it turned American neutrality squarely against France.”

The French saw this as a betrayal, and the rift between France and the United States grew during John Adams’s administration. After a series of unproductive diplomatic meetings in both countries, “Adams and the Federalists in Congress launched what came to be called the Quasi-War,” Dr. Desan said. “They cut off trade with France and empowered American privateers to raid French vessels. The Americans expanded their military, constructed war ships, and set up a Navy Department.” She added that although neither nation officially declared war, their ships were “more or less” at war for the next two years until a peace treaty could be drafted.

The disintegration of Franco-American relations in the 1790s was sudden and swift. Although similar incidents seem unlikely now, the rumored death of the symbolic sapling oak at the White House invites a look back at a time when America and France stood violently at odds.

Dr. Suzanne M. Desan contributed to this article. Dr. Desan is the Vilas-Shinners Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in the history of 18th-century France. She earned her B.A. in History from Princeton University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley.

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