On This Day, Two Hundred Twenty-Two Years Ago. The Quasi-war with France: An Expanded Blast from the Past

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On July 7, 1798, the United States Congress annulled the Treaty of Alliance we had signed with France during the American Revolution, leading to the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France.

This came as a result of the XYZ affair.  In July 1797, three Diplomats from the US:  Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall (who would later become the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court), and Elbridge Gerry traveled to France to negotiate problems that threatened to lead to war between the US and France.  Among these problems were the French seizure of neutral vessels that traded with Great Britain, with whom they were then at war.  Great Britain had likewise been seizing neutral ships trading with France but the US had worked out an accommodation with Great Britain via the Jay Treaty.

When they attempted to seek these negotiations the French Foreign Minister Talleyrand demanded bribes and a loan before formal negotiations could begin.  While this was common practice in Continental European diplomacy to the Americans it was highly offensive.  Despite nearly a year of attempts to meet for official negotiations Pinckney and Marshall left France in the Spring of 1798 without ever engaging in any formal negotiations.  Gerry, hoping to avoid all-out war as Talleyrand had threatened to declare war if he left, remained until someone with more authority could replace him.  It was not until later in 1798 that Talleyrand sent representatives to the Hague to open negotiations with Williams Van Murray, allowing Gerry to return home in October of 1798

Documents released by the Adams administration, in which the names of French Diplomats Hottinguer, Bellamy, and Hauteval were replaced by the letters “X”, “Y”, and “Z” respectively, leading to the name “The XYZ affair” being attached to the incident caused outrage in the US.  Federalists used the incident as an excuse to build up the US’s military. (Never let a good crisis go to waste.) Considerable anger was directed at Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans for their pro-French stance and Gerry (still at that time in France) although himself non-partisan, was attacked as having significant responsibility for the commission’s failure.

The upshot of this outrage was that Congress annulled our Treaty of Alliance with France on June 7, 1798.  This began the “Quasi-war”.  Neither the United States nor France declared war on each other but for a period of two years they fought naval engagements attacking each others shipping  in the West Indies.  The nascent US Navy along with 365 privateers (privately owned vessels armed and authorized via “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” to fight our nation’s enemies) fared surprisingly well against the French.

John Adams, President at the time, steered a “middle path”, avoiding the outright war that some among his own Federalist party and those of the Democratic-Republicans who tended to favor France which did, after all, style itself as a republic (despite being radically different from the US Republic of the day).  On the Federalist side, most notably, Alexander Hamilton favored war and expected in such a war to be the field commander of US Army forces that would be used to attack holdings of the French and their Spanish allies in the Americas.  In this he had the backing of George Washinton, who would have been the titular head of the army but, being at this time too old for field command, his chosen Lieutenant–Hamilton–would have actually commanded in the field.  This would have dramatically furthered Hamilton’s own political ambitions.

On the Democratic-Republican side, Jefferson strongly favored making peace with France and even alliance.  Strongly pro-Republican and anti-Monarchist, he saw in France an extension of the same revolutionary impulse that had created the United States.  Even the Reign of Terror, over by the time of the quasi-war, did not sway him from this view. (Both of Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s role in the Quasi-war is covered in David McCullough’s biography of John Adams.)

In the end, Adams’ middle course succeeded.  The success of the US and Royal Navies (the Royal Navy was also operating against the French in that area although not in any joint capacity with the United States), along with the more conciliatory position of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, severely reduced the activity of the French forces in the West Indies.  The Convention of 1800, on September 30 of that year, ended the Quasi-war.

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