Imagine that you’ve always considered yourself to be somewhere in the political center, maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your country’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”. So much so, that you are subject to execution by your government. And all that time, your politics haven’t changed.
Our strongest ally in the American Revolution lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into its own revolution. 17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-94 “Reign of Terror”, including King Louis XVI himself and his queen, Marie Antoinette. Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial. The monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene and for the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France found themselves at war.
Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships which were trading with their adversary. The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” between Great Britain and its former colonies, better known as the “Jay Treaty”, all but destroyed relations with the French Republic. France retaliated by stepping up attacks on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 vessels in one 11-month period, alone.
France had been the colonies’ strongest ally during the American Revolution, now the Jay treaty infuriated the French, who believed the agreement violated earlier arrangements between the two nations. Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed money to “L’ancien Régime”, not to the “First Republic” which had overthrown it and executed its King.
In 1796, France formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States, rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s Ambassador, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two. They were future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, the man who later became the 5th Vice President, lending his name to the term “Gerrymander”. Their instructions were to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, with terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.
The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded a bribe for himself and substantial ‘loan’ to the French Republic, before so much as meeting with the American delegation. The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time. The Americans were appalled.
Believing that the Adams administration sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian allies in Congress joined with more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications. It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis to follow.
Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker, was identified in the transcripts, only as “W”. W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney. Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a large loan to the French government, and a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself. Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the Americans. Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), Talleyrand’s personal emissary, was then sent to negotiate with Elbridge Gerry. X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a bribe.
American politics were sharply divided over the European war. President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists. Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité’ espoused by French revolutionaries.
In the UK, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos. A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, laughs from a nearby hilltop.
At this point, the United States had little means of defending itself. The government had disbanded the Navy along with the Marine Corps at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” doing customs enforcement. The Naval Act of 1794 established a standing Navy for the first time in US history. In October 1797, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates. One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War with France, and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy.
Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, their failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States. Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, authorizing American privateers to attack French shipping. The undeclared “Quasi-War” with France, had begun.
Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.
For the United States, military involvement proved decisive. Before military intervention, the conflict with France resulted in 28 Americans killed, 42 wounded, and over 2,000 merchant ships captured. Following intervention, the US suffered 54 killed and 43 wounded, with only a single ship lost, and that one was later recaptured.
The undeclared naval war with our former ally was settled with the Treaty of Mortefontaine, also known as the Convention of 1800, and ratified the following year.