The Quasi-War Between France and the U.S.

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Scene depicting the action of 9 February 1799, when the USS Constellation (left), commanded by Captain Thomas Truxtun, captured the French frigate L'Insurgente (right).

Deteriorating relations with France preoccupied the John Adams administration as French naval policies threatened American shipping causing the first undeclared war.

France had been instrumental in the cause for American liberty, a war that ended in 1783 and resulted in long term treaties between the two countries. By 1797, however, relations rapidly deteriorated, culminating in the Quasi War, a naval conflict between American and French ships fought primarily in the Caribbean. The Federalist dominated Congress had strengthened the navy and voted two million dollars for war preparedness. The confrontation with France monopolized policy during the Adams’ presidency, both internationally and internally.

France Stokes the Fires of War

The French Revolution, begun in 1789, had gone through several phases. By 1795 the excesses of the Revolution were curbed as the Thermidorian Reaction brought to power the Directory, an oligarchy of sorts composed of five members. France was at war with several European nations including Great Britain as the Adams presidency began. In early 1797 the Directory demanded an American alliance. After the United States refused, Ambassador Charles Pinckney was ordered out of the country and French ships were ordered to harass American shipping.

The XYZ Affair

Not wishing to go to war with France, President Adams dispatched three special envoys to Paris with instructions to negotiate an end to the growing hostilities. Charles Pinckney, Elbridge Gerry, and John Marshall arrived in France but were immediately pressed for a “loan” of one million dollars, seen by many as a bribe (some historians record the amount as a quarter of a million). Earlier American historians attribute the phrase, “millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute” to Pinckney, although it was most probably stated by John Marshall once he returned to America.

Pinckney and Marshall returned to the United States but Gerry was allowed to remain in France, perhaps because he was an Anti-Federalist. The Anti-Federalists led by Thomas Jefferson – a great friend of France, opposed war with the Directory. The French response outraged many Americans and unleashed a wave of patriotism.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

The Federalist-led Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1797. Despite anti-French sentiment, however, the acts were, according to historian John Clark Ridpath, “unwise and unpopular.” The Alien Act provided for immediate deportation of any foreigners deemed a threat to national security and tightened naturalization laws. The Sedition Act targeted freedom of speech and the press, criminalizing any criticism of the president or the government. Jefferson’s newly emerging Republican-Democrats viewed the measure as a legislative attempt to silence them in the on-going political process.

Conduct of the Naval War and the Rise of Napoleon

In an act of further preparedness, the American army was reorganized in 1798 and George Washington was called out of retirement to act as Commander in Chief. Given his age, the actual work fell on Alexander Hamilton, promoted to the rank of Major General. But it was the Federalist navy that superbly distinguished itself during the Quasi War.

American ships captured over 100 privateers and made shipping in the Caribbean safe again. This caused insurance rates for shipping to drop. Examples like Commodore Truxtun’s victory over the French man-of-war Insurgent highlighted the skills of the young navy. Truxtun’s ship, the Constellation, was smaller and outgunned while the French ship carried 45 guns and over 400 men.

In 1799 the Directory was overthrown and Napoleon assumed leadership as First Consul. Napoleon’s greatest fear in terms of the conflict was the possibility of an Anglo-American alliance. Prevailing upon the new US ambassador to France, Mr. Vans Murray, the French government swiftly concluded an end to the war. The resulting treaty voided all prior Anglo-French treaties and neither side demanded compensation for losses. The war ended as John Adams failed in his attempt at reelection. Jefferson led his party to victory and control of the Congress.

References:

  1. Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (University of Illinois Press, 1989)
  2. David MCCullough, John Adams (Simon & Schuster, 2008)
  3. John Clark Ridpath, A Popular History of the United States of America (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1880)