The Quasi-War was an undeclared naval war between the U.S. and France, 1798-1800. It was inconclusive militarily, but had a profound impact on American politics, as war opponent Thomas Jefferson defeated President John Adams for reelection in 1800, even as Adams was ending the war.
Although the United States had gained British recognition in 1783 following the American Revolution, it remained endangered by European economic and military rivalries and by insecure possession of the Ohio Valley. Indeed, both Britain and Spain were attempting to separate the western region from the United States. Of particular concern to the Federalist-mercantile classes was the fear that France also was planning to surround the new republic by gaining or regaining possession of Canada, Florida, and the Louisiana country. The agrarian and democratic classes led by Thomas Jefferson tended to discount this fear and instead professed sympathy for the ideals of the French Revolution. Foreign policy was the major force behind the creation of the first voter-based political parties in the world during the First party System.
The outbreak in Europe of the War of the First Coalition between Britain and France produced, after 1792, an economic upheaval which both revived and entangled the Federalist-mercantile interests. The sale of grain to France, and the replacement of the British merchant flag by the neutral American one in Near Eastern trade, proved enormously profitable to Americans. The british tried to kill, by blockade, the French grain trade. The major issues with Britain, including its occupation of forts in the Ohio Valley, were resolved by Jay's Treaty of 1795, which brought ten years of peace and profitable trade between the U.S. and Britain.
At the same time the insolent conduct of the French minister Edmond Genet ("Citizen Genet") forced President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to demand his recall. The ruling French Directory chose to interpret these acts as an expression of pro-British policy by the Federalist administration, headed, between 1797 and 1801, by President John Adams. Both as a war measure and to relieve its financial strain, the Directory inspired the seizure of 316 U.S. merchant vessels, and even went so far as to seize British merchantmen within U.S. territorial waters.
The XYZ Affair
Despite Republican pressure to overlook the provocation, and the demand of some Federalist Party leaders led by Alexander Hamilton for an outright declaration of war, Adams attempted to reach a peaceful solution by sending a special mission to Paris. The French foreign minister, Charles de Talleyrand, refused a meeting, but instead sent three unofficial representatives to U.S. commissioners Charles C. Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry. The French agents set forth a number of grievances including U.S. refusal to open its ports to French prizes (ships seized at sea), the forced recall of Minister Genet, and the previous dispatch of an American minister, Pinckney himself, who was unacceptable to the Directory. They then demanded a national loan of $64,000,000 to the French Republic, a personal bribe to the Directors, and reaffirmation of the Franco-American Alliance of 1778 as indispensable preliminaries to any settlement. Pinckney and his fellow commissioners refused to enter discussions upon this basis, giving rise to the newspaper slogan, "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!" The Directory thereupon retaliated by declaring that cargo of British origin would render a neutral ship liable to capture, a virtual ultimatum against the neutral rights of the United States.
Adams refused to consider the French proposals. The Republicans, mistakenly thinking Adams had rejected reasonable terms, demanded to see the correspondence, which Adams sent to Congress (replacing the actual names of the French agents, with the letters "X," "Y," and "Z.") The public outrage was overwhelming against France.
The off-year elections to Congress were held between April 1798 and March 1799. The Federalists captured more seats than they would ever have again. This victory was largely a southern phenomenon. In Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, significant contests were won by Republicans because of the party's ability to dispel the stigma of close association with France and win over the more moderate Federalists. Republicans who did not dispel their pro-French image met defeat at the polls, especially in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. More Federalists were elected to Congress from the South than at any time since Washington's first term. Many southerners feared a French invasion, and preparedness by some southern cities included building naval vessels. Kentucky and Tennessee were least angered by the XYZ relations. Concern for the preservation of liberty remained the chief worry of westerners. Kentucky and Virginia responded to the Alien and Sedition Acts with the [[Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions] (1798) (secretly written by Jefferson and James Madison) to challenge the Adams' administration, but many other states repudiated these Resolutions. The election results indicated that people wanted an independent policy which would insure the integrity of American national interest. The XYZ Affair forced Americans to recognize that they must be truly free of both England and France in order to develop their national character.
In July, 1798, and over Republican protests, Congress denounced all treaties with France, authorized the raising of an army of 10,000 men commanded by former president George Washington, and provided for the establishment of a new Navy Department and the commissioning of fifteen cruisers for reprisals upon the French. It also attempted to take advantage of the war spirit by enacting the four Alien and Sedition Acts, ostensibly aimed against French revolutionary agitators and doctrines, but also intended to suppress the Republican opposition.
The merchants of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and those of Philadelphia signed subscription lists to build warships for loan to the navy even before the government discussed or authorized such a construction program. Baltimore and three Virginia cities followed shortly thereafter, all before Benjamin Stoddert took office as the first secretary of the new Navy Department. Charleston, Boston, and Salem subscribed ships after Congress enacted legislation to reimburse subscribers with "navy stock" paying 6% interest, which was 2% lower than other government securities.
The War at Sea
The ensuing two years (1798-1800) of undeclared hostilities witnessed no land engagements, although Hamilton proposed the seizure of Florida and New Orleans, which belonged to France's ally, Spain. Regular naval engagements were few, since the British Navy held the bulk of the French battle squadrons under strict blockade. Actions were confined to the American Atlantic coastline and to the West Indies, the scenes of French depredations and of the surviving French commerce. The inexperienced U.S. Navy was represented chiefly by Thomas Truxtun, commander of the "Constellation," a 48-gun heavy frigate. On Feb. 9, 1799, off St. Kitts, Truxtun ran down and captured the French 40-gun cruiser "L'Insurgente" after an hour's fight. A year later, on Feb. 2, 1800, off Basse Terre, Truxtun nearly destroyed but failed to make a prize of the "Vengeance," a vastly superior 52-gun battle cruiser. The 30-gun light cruiser "Boston," under George Little, fought and took the 24-gun "Berceau" on Oct. 12, 1800, after another hard action.
During the war, the U.S. Navy took 84 armed French vessels, most of which were raiding privateers, and lost only the 14-gun "Retaliation" to overwhelming force. In the course of the conflict, U.S. foreign trade increased by $21,000,000 as a result of the protection afforded it by the navy. By the end of the war, the navy consisted of six heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, and one brig-of-war, in addition to twenty-one merchantmen converted to naval duty.
The unexpected fighting ability of the U.S. Navy, which destroyed the French West Indian trade, together with the growing weaknesses and final overthrow of the Directory in France, combined to produce in Talleyrand a desire to reopen negotiations. At the same time, an embarrassing quarrel with Hamilton, and the increasing Republican outcry against his tottering administration, caused Adams to take sudden and unexpected action rejecting the hawks in his own party and offering peace to France. On Feb. 18, 1800, he sent to the Senate his nomination of William Murray as minister to France to negotiate peace, as Federalists cried betrayal.
The subsequent negotiations, embodied in the Treaty of Mortefontaine of Sept. 30, 1800, affirmed the rights of Americans as neutrals upon the sea and abrogated the alliance with France of 1778, but failed to provide compensation for the $20,000,000 "French Spoliation Claims" of the United States. The treaty also implicitly ensured that the United States would remain neutral toward France in the wars of Napoleon.
Results of the War
The Federalist capitalization upon the war fever of 1798, embodied in the Alien and Sedition Acts, however, recoiled against Adams. These statutes provided a rallying cry for the Republicans who nominated Jefferson and defeated Adams in the presidential election of 1800. Even though opposed in principle to the employment of force, the Republicans themselves were later forced to subdue the Barbary pirates, wage war against Britain in 1812, and again coerce France before securing general recognition of the territorial and maritime rights of the United States.
- See Frederick C. Leiner, Millions for Defense: The Subscription Warships of 1798. (1999)