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The XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War with France

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how and why competition intensified conflicts among peoples and nations from 1754 to 1800

Suggested Sequencing

This Narrative should be assigned to students following the George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796 Primary Source and the George Washington and the Proclamation of Neutrality Decision Point. It should be used before The Alien and Sedition Acts Narrative.

In September 1796, a retiring George Washington offered his advice to his country, warning Americans to avoid “passionate attachments” and “permanent alliances.” Over the last few years of his administration, European wars had threatened American neutral rights and national sovereignty. The British had seized American vessels and impressed its sailors, while the French had captured more than three hundred American ships in 1795 alone. Washington’s successor, John Adams, faced a foreign policy crisis the moment he took his presidential Oath of Office on March 4, 1797.

Two days before, the French had issued a decree threatening all American shipping. The French navy and privateers brazenly preyed on U.S. merchant ships along the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean. The French were angry about the Jay Treaty the United States had signed with Great Britain and believed it formed an American-British anti-French alliance. Besides attacking American ships, the French also refused to receive the new U.S. minister to France, Charles C. Pinckney, who replaced James Monroe.

President Adams would not countenance such insults to American national honor and security. On May 16, 1797, he addressed a special session of Congress and asked for war preparations. The irate president asserted that the United States would defend itself and persuade the French that “we are not a degraded people, humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and sense of inferiority, fitted to be the miserable instruments of foreign influence; and regardless of national honor, character, and interest.” Congress agreed to fund the building of a fleet of warships and increased coastal fortifications, though it stopped short of creating a large army as Adams wished.

The president wanted peace through strength and honor and dispatched a peace delegation to France consisting of John Marshall, Charles C. Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry to negotiate an end to the crisis. The envoys arrived in Paris in late September and early October, lodging a few blocks from the foreign ministry.

On October 8, French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand briefly welcomed the delegation and received their diplomatic credentials. Talleyrand, however, disdained the American statesmen and sought to benefit financially from his office. Over the next several months, his secretary and agents code named X, Y, and Z demanded the United States offer France a loan of $12 million and a bribe of $250,000 as the price of ending French depredations against American shipping. Talleyrand added that he also expected an apology for President Adams’s belligerent speech and the Jay Treaty.

A political cartoon showing a group of people robbing a woman, while another group of people watches in the background.

In this political cartoon, French men representing the agents codenamed X, Y, and Z rob the woman, who represents the young United States. The rest of Europe watches from afar.

Marshall and Pinckney were especially insulted by the French attempt at blackmail. Pickney retorted, “No, no, not a sixpence!” when confronted with the repeated demands. Marshall wrote to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, describing France’s outrageous behavior. The delegation believed it was defending American national honor and interests, but the fruitless meetings with the French were part of Talleyrand’s strategy to delay negotiations and continue seizing American trade vessels. Meanwhile, he and his agents tried to exploit a split in the American delegation and win over Elbridge Gerry.

Gerry was sympathetic to the French and wanted to avoid both a war with France and any alliance with Great Britain. In the face of Talleyrand’s demands, he was evasive and noncommittal. But his agreement to meet privately with Talleyrand and his agents and conceal the content of those meetings from Marshall and Pinckney made him seem a pawn of the French.

French pressure increased as Talleyrand escalated his demands. He and his agents threatened to meddle in American politics in favor of the pro-French Jeffersonian-Republican Party. Marshall was incensed at this violation of American national sovereignty and replied, “[France’s] extreme injustice offered to our country would unite every man against her.” Pinckney, for his part, defended American national honor and warned, “We neither came to buy or beg a peace.”

Talleyrand ratcheted up the pressure still more when he ordered all three American envoys expelled and threatened to take away their passports. Although he was bluffing, the warnings came often. He added another demand, that the American envoys also apologize for Washington’s Farewell Address. Finally, the mission fell apart in the spring of 1798 when Marshall and Pickney had enough and departed, though Gerry continued to treat with the French to no effect.

A portrait of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand was a wily statesman who survived violence and regime changes during the French Revolution by constantly switching his loyalty. Napoleon later called him a “piece of dung in a silk stocking.” The portrait is by Talleyrand’s contemporary, the French painter Pierre-Paul Prud’hon.

The envoys’ diplomatic dispatches had finally arrived in the United States on March 5, 1798, and were read by an irate president. They detailed the outrageous demands for bribes and loans in the course of the XYZ Affair. Adams drafted a war message to Congress and readily complied with a congressional request for the correspondence. When the papers were published, they shocked the members of Congress and the American people.

A war fever swept through the country, with the popular slogan “Millions for defense but not a cent for tribute” uttered everywhere. Mobs burned Talleyrand in effigy and beat up French sympathizers. Congress agreed to additional war measures and created a large provisional army with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in command. It also allowed merchant ships to arm themselves and authorized American privateers. Congress revoked the 1778 treaty with France and placed an embargo on French trade. In this Quasi-War, the United States prepared for war and fought on the open seas but did not formally declare war on France. In the midst of this war fever, the Federalists took other extreme measures, with Congress passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, allowing the president to expel foreigners and suppress free speech in the name of national security.

Eventually, the crisis was defused when President Adams sent another peace delegation to France in early 1799. Fortunately, in 1798 the British Admiral Lord Nelson had defeated a French fleet off the coast of Egypt, making war with the United States impractical for France. Moreover, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France in 1800 and wanted peace with the United States because he desired the Louisiana Territory. The Convention of 1800 was the peace treaty that ended tensions between France and the United States.

The United States, as a relatively weak, new country, had to defend its national sovereignty, independence, and honor in a dangerous world of great powers. The Jay Treaty, the Pinckney Treaty, and the Quasi-War with France demonstrated that the new republic would do so. The foreign policy principles of neutrality and strength practiced by Washington earlier in the decade had provided the foundation by which the new republic of the United States interacted with the great European powers.

Review Questions

1. The XYZ Affair was a result of

  1. the failure of U.S. trade policy in the mid-1790s
  2. the undeclared naval war between America and France
  3. the seizure of American ships by the British
  4. the impressment of American sailors by European naval powers

2. French Foreign Minister Talleyrand’s agents X, Y, and Z demanded all the following from the United States’ delegation to Paris except

  1. a $12 million loan
  2. a $250,000 bribe
  3. a declaration of war against Great Britain
  4. an apology for the Jay Treaty

3. President John Adams reacted to the XYZ Affair by doing all the following except

  1. allowing merchants ships to arm themselves
  2. breaking diplomatic relations with France
  3. proposing a provisional army to be headed by George Washington
  4. authorizing the use of privateers against the French

4. What event immediately precipitated the anti-French fever that swept across the country in 1798?

  1. The publication of the American envoys’ diplomatic dispatches
  2. President Adam’s war message to Congress
  3. The expulsion of the American envoys from France
  4. Congress’s withdrawal of the Jay Treaty

5. “Millions for defense but not a cent for tribute” meant

  1. the United States was gearing up for war with Britain on the basis of the failure of the Jay Treaty
  2. many citizens wanted a larger navy for the United States
  3. anger over the XYZ Affair pushed the public to want war with France
  4. the United States was insulted by Napoleon’s demands in the Convention of 1800

6. What controversial legislation was a result of war fever and the XYZ Affair?

  1. The Jay Treaty
  2. The Alien and Sedition Acts
  3. Pickney’s Treaty
  4. The embargo of 1799

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain the relationship between the Jay Treaty and the XYZ Affair.
  2. Explain the reason for the failure in negotiations that led to the XYZ Affair and the affair’s immediate impact.

AP Practice Questions

“ARTICLE I. There shall be a firm, inviolable, and universal peace, and a true and sincere Friendship between the French Republic, and the United States of America, and between their respective countries territories, cities, towns, and people without exception of persons, or places.

ARTICLE II. The Ministers Plenipotentiary of the two Parties, not being able to agree at present respecting the Treaty of Alliance of 6th February 1778, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce of the same date, and the . . . Convention of 14th November 1788, nor upon the indemnities mutually due, or claimed, the Parties will negotiate further on these subjects at a convenient time, and untill they may have agreed upon these points, the said Treaties, and [. . .] Convention shall have no operation, and the relations of the two Countries shall be regulated as follows.

ARTICLE III. The Public Ships, which have been taken on one part, and the other, or which may be taken before the exchange of ratifications shall be restored.

ARTICLE IV. Property captured, and not yet definitively condemned, or which may be captured before the exchange of ratifications, (contraband goods destined to an Enemy’s port excepted) shall be mutually restored on the following proofs of ownership, viz, The proof on both sides, with respect to Merchant Ships, whether armed, or unarmed, shall be a Passport.”

Convention of 1800

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. What was the most significant reason for signing the document associated with the excerpt?

  1. The United States wanted unlimited free trade with the French.
  2. The United States wanted to fight on the side of the British during the Napoleonic Wars.
  3. The French were pressuring the United States to renew their military alliance from the American Revolution.
  4. The French wanted control of trade routes in the Caribbean Sea.

2. Despite the change in the relationship between the United States and France, based on the excerpt, within the next decade, the two nations were able to

  1. maintain their alliance during the War of 1812
  2. complete a historical land sale that doubled the size of the United States
  3. preserve an amiable trade relationship in the Caribbean
  4. protect trans-Atlantic trade from the British navy

Primary Sources

Adams, John. “Special Message to the Senate and the House.” May 16, 1797.

Adams, John. “Message to the Senate and House. Regarding Reports of the Envoys to France.” March 19, 1798.

Suggested Resources

Berkin, Carol. A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism. New York: Basic, 2017.

Brown, Ralph Adams. The Presidency of John Adams. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1975.

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

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