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The XYZ Affair and the Quasi War with France

Updated: Feb 26

On February 6, 1778, during the Revolutionary War, the United States and France joined in a Treaty of Alliance signed by Benjamin Franklin, the Comte de Vergennes, and others. Also known as the Franco-American Alliance, it set up a military alliance between the two nations and aided the Americans in their cause against the British. In spite of this, in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution, relations between the new French Republic and U.S. federal government became strained.

In 1792, France and the rest of Europe went to war and President George Washington declared American neutrality. The activities of Citizen Genet, and other French Agents, fitting out privateers in American ports and instigating American citizens to attack the Spanish possessions in the Floridas and the Louisiana Territory strained relations further. When the United States signed the Jay Treaty with England and the Treaty of San Lorenzo with the Spanish, it convinced the French that the United States was not acting as a neutral in the wars between Revolutionary France and much of the rest of Europe.

President Washington Meeting with Citizen Genet

Consequently, in 1796 French leaders decided to issue an order allowing for the seizure of American merchant ships, carefully timed to catch as many as possible by surprise. By the end of Washington's presidency in early 1797, the matter was reaching crisis proportions. In May 1797, the President called a special session of Congress to address the deteriorating situation. Opinion on relations with France was divided along largely political lines: Federalists took a hard line, favoring a defensive buildup but not necessarily advocating war, while Democratic-Republicans expressed solidarity with the republican ideals of the French revolutionaries and did not want to be seen as cooperating with the Federalist Adams administration.

Charles Pinckney

President John Adams decided to send an American diplomatic commission to France to negotiate a solution to problems that were threatening to break out into war. Adams choices were, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and John Marshall, both stalwart Federalists, and Elbridge Gerry, who opposed political parties and whom the President considered an impartial and moderating influence on the Commission.

John Marshall

Upon arriving in France, Gerry, Pinckney, and Marshall found that they were unable to formally meet with the Foreign Minister, the Marquis de Talleyrand. Instead, the U.S. envoys were approached by several intermediaries, Nicholas Hubbard (later W,) Jean Hottinguer (X), Pierre Bellamy (Y), and Lucien Hauteval (Z.) Also involved with these negotiations was the playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, who had been involved in funneling French aid to the United States during the American Revolution.

French Foreign Minister Talleyrand

These French intermediaries suggested that Talleyrand would be willing to meet with the Americans and come to an agreement if several conditions were to be satisfied. The French demanded that the United States provide France with a low-interest loan, assume and pay American merchant claims against the French, and lastly pay a large bribe to Talleyrand. The U.S. envoys were shocked, and skeptical that any concessions would bring about substantial changes in French policy.

Elbridge Gerry

As French military victories in Europe increased French power, the French changed the loan terms and threatened an invasion of the United States if the U.S. envoys did not capitulate. When the U.S. envoys proved unwilling to accede to French demands, Talleyrand eventually met with them formally, and dropped most of his requirements, but did not agree to end the seizures of American ships. Pinckney and Marshall prepared to leave France, while Gerry intended to stay in the hopes of averting a war.

XYZ Affair Leads to Anti-French Sentiment

At the end of 1797, Adams addresses Congress, and made it clear that there was a need “to place our country in a suitable posture of defense”. In the meantime, the envoys’ dispatches reached the United States. President Adams prepared for war, and pro-war Federalists pushed Congress to support him. Leaders of the Democratic-Republican party were suspicious of Adams’ motives and demanded that he release the diplomatic correspondence describing the negotiations in France. Adams, knowing its contents, obliged them and released the correspondence, but replaced the names of the French intermediaries with the letters W, X, Y, and Z.

Jean Conrad Hottinguer - Individual X

The release of the dispatches produced a wave of anti-French sentiment as Adams feared would happen. Federalists called for war, and Democratic-Republicans had no effective argument against them, having miscalculated the reason for Adams' secrecy. Federalists used the dispatches to question the loyalty of pro-French Democratic-Republicans; this attitude contributed to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, restricting the movements and actions of foreigners, and limiting speech critical of the government. Despite calls for war, Adams steadfastly refused to ask Congress for a formal war declaration.

Founding the United States Navy and Buildup to War

The slogan “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” became the rallying cry of the Federalists. Even though there was no formal declaration of war, Congress commissioned 1,000 privateers to defend against French hostilities and, on April 30, 1798, by authorizing the acquisition of twelve frigates, launched the United States Navy. By May, the sloop Ganges was guarding the coast between Long Island and Chesapeake and the next month the Constellation and the United States joined her. On July 7, 1798, Congress rescinded all treaties with France. The same day, the USS Delaware captured the French privateer La Croyable off the shores of New Jersey. Two days later, Congress authorized American warships to attack French Navy vessels.

USS Constellation - One of America's First Frigates

Naval Conflicts in the Atlantic and Caribbean

With a fleet of about 25 ships, the U.S. Navy patrolled the coast down through the Caribbean, looking for French ships. The first battle occurred on February 1, 1799 and involved the 36-gun French frigate L’Insurgente. The French attempted to board the Constellation, but she was able to maneuver away and fire on the L’Insurgente. Captain Thomas Truxtun's focus on crew training paid dividends in this engagement as the Constellation captured the French Navy's frigate L'Insurgente and severely damaged the frigate La Vengeance.

By 1 July 1799, under the command of Stephen Decatur, USS United States, refitted and repaired, embarked on its mission to patrol the south Atlantic coast and West Indies in search of French ships which were preying on American merchant vessels. USS Enterprise captured eight privateers and freed eleven U.S. merchant ships from captivity, while USS Experiment captured the French privateers Deux Amis and Diane and liberated many U.S. merchantmen. USS Boston forced the French corvette Le Berceau into submission.

USS Boston vs. Le Berceau

In April 1800, Silas Talbot investigated an increase in merchant ship traffic near Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo, and discovered that the French privateer Sandwich had taken refuge there. On 8 May Talbot’s squadron captured the sloop Sally, and Talbot devised a plan to capture Sandwich by using the familiarity of Sally to allow the Americans access to the harbor. First Lieutenant Isaac Hull led 90 sailors and Marines into Puerto Plata without challenge on 11 May, capturing Sandwich and spiking the guns of the nearby Spanish fort.

The U.S. Navy lost only one ship to the French, the USS Retaliation. She was the captured privateer La Croyable, recently bought by the U.S. Navy. Retaliation left Norfolk on 28 October 1798, with Montezuma and Norfolk, and cruised in the West Indies protecting U.S. commerce. On 20 November 1798, the French frigates L'Insurgente and Volontaire overtook Retaliation while her companions were away on a chase and forced Bainbridge to surrender the hopelessly out-gunned schooner. Even as a prisoner, the American officer managed to serve his country. He saved Montezuma and Norfolk by convincing the senior French commander that those American warships were too powerful for his frigates and induced him to abandon the chase.

The American Ship Planter Fighting Off a French Privateer

In all, the new United States Navy captured 85 French vessels, however, approximately 2,000 American merchant vessels were lost to the French.

Treaty of Mortefontaine Brings Peace with France

President John Adams continued to seek a diplomatic solution to end the expensive war. At the same time, Adams was increasingly concerned by French ambitions in North America. On November 9, 1799, Napoleon’s coup in France marked a change in the direction of French politics and policy. Napoleon was pursuing a policy to obtain Louisiana from Spain.

Soon after, word came to President Adams from William Vans Murray and John Quincy Adams that France wanted to negotiate. Congress approved the Commission, consisting of William Vans Murray, Oliver Ellsworth, and William Richardson Davie, in early 1799 but disputes between Federalists and Jeffersonians delayed their arrival in Paris until March 1800.

By July 1800, France's strategic position was much stronger than when the Commission began negotiations in mid-1799. Napoleon was in firm control of government while Russia, with informal French support, had set up the League of Armed Neutrality to actively resist British policy of searching neutral ships for contraband. Napoleon's victory over Austria at Marengo in June turned the War of the Second Coalition decisively in favor of France.

With the US Commissioners aware of the increasing urgency of making a deal, Clause II of the Convention compromised by 'postponing discussions' on compensation and suspending the Treaties of 1778 and 1788 until this was resolved, while the US agreed to compensate its own citizens for the claimed damages of $20 million. In return, Talleyrand reversed French policy and by confirming the principle of 'free trade, free goods, freedom of convoy. Although connected to French backing for a League of Armed Neutrality, it was an unexpected bonus for the US.

The Signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine on 30 September 1800

On September 30, 1800, the US and French Commissioners signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine ending the hostilities of the undeclared war ending all earlier agreements and reestablishing trade ties between the two nations. Since the new agreement made no provisions for compensation for the seizure of U.S. merchant ships, the Senate did not ratify a finalized version of the treaty until December 18, 1801.

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