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The Quasi-War: America's First Foreign War

JR is enthusiastic about American history, especially from the Early Republic down to the Civil War.

Relations Between France and America Decline

When King Louis XVI was deposed in 1792, many Americans, such as Thomas Jefferson (the Secretary of State at the time), had celebrated the new French Republic seeing the new nation as a revolutionary comrade in arms. But the administration of President George Washington was more circumspect, with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, in particular, being leery of where the French Revolution was heading.

The military adventurism and political activities of the new French regime's minister to America, Edmond-Charles Genet, did not help matters and occurred against the backdrop of increasing factionalism in the United States between Hamilton's Federalists and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans.

When war broke out between France and the British Empire, America found itself caught in the middle thanks to British policies that hampered American trade and pressed American sailors into the Crown's service. Hamilton was desirous of maintaining Washington's policy of neutrality and also of restoring the trade with Britain, America's primary trade partner at this time. The pro-France faction, however, wished to ramp up an already tense situation into an all-out trade war in favor of pursuing a stronger trade relationship with the French.

The Federalists prevailed with the successful negotiation of the Jay Treaty in 1794, to the howls of the Republicans. The Jay Treaty resolved all lingering issues between the United States and Great Britain leftover from the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolutionary War and restored the trade. But it also angered the French government, already upset over America's refusal to pay the debt left over from the Revolutionary War and the old Franco-American Alliance. The American position was the debt was owed to the Kingdom of France, not the French Republic, and rendered void by the execution of King Louis in 1793. President Washington ratified the Jay Treaty after a tumultuous reception in August 1795 but it took another year for the furor to die down.

France decided to respond with hostility. The new Directory government needed both cash and to make a statement of strength, so it decided to authorize privateers to act against American shipping engaged in commerce with Britain. When Charles Cotesworth Pinckney arrived as the new United States Minister to France (in replacement of the pro-France James Monroe), the Directory refused to acknowledge him and cut off diplomatic relations.

This then was the ominous situation that greeted John Adams when he succeeded Washington as President in March 1797. Adams recognized that war was likely on the horizon (316 American merchant vessels had already been seized by French privateers) and sent a diplomatic team consisting of Elbridge Gerry and John Marshall to join Pinckney in Paris to head it off by negotiating a new treaty of alliance. But the new French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord would only give them 15 minutes and then left them with three of his officials. The three Frenchmen wanted a bribe of over $250,000 to open negotiations, including a loan in that amount as well as an apology. The Americans refused and left in early spring of 1798, except for Gerry.

“No! No! Not a sixpence!”

— Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

The XYZ Affair and the American Response

The president received word of all this over early March. Still believing that peace could be maintained, Adams announced to Congress the diplomatic mission had failed but without the full details. By April the Republicans (in an unlikely alliance with Federalist hawks, who hoped to embarrass them) pressured the Adams Administration to release the full correspondence of the negotiating team. Adams obliged, only redacting some of the French names as W, X, Y, and Z.

The crowing of his own party's war hawks only justified the president's worries about the outbreak of war. Adams had already asked for an increase in the defensive capabilities of the United States. Congress responded to the "XYZ Affair" by granting President Adams the larger military he wanted: The nascent United States Navy (recently re-established in 1794) would be increased in size to 12 frigates of no more than 22 guns each and a 10,000 man army was mustered. By the end of April, a dedicated Department of the Navy was established as a cabinet-level post with Benjamin Stoddert as Naval Secretary. The next month Congress authorized public vessels to attack armed French ships operating off the coast.

On July 4th George Washington emerged from retirement to assume command of the so-called "Provisional Army" as lieutenant general and overall commander-in-chief for any armies involved in the possible war. But Washington would not take personal command except in the field, leaving the day-to-day running of affairs to Alexander Hamilton, who was appointed a major general at the former president's strong urging and given the post of inspector general. Adams was greatly troubled by this, as he had wished to appoint Henry Knox to the position of inspector general. The president was ultimately forced to acquiesce due to the tremendous prestige of Washington but would remain wary of Hamilton's ambitions.

On July 7th Congress formally rescinded the 1778 treaties establishing the Franco-American Alliance. On the 9th it authorized the US Navy to attack French warships in American waters as well as the commissioning of privateers. Two days later the United States Marine Corps was created.

But the president refused to ask Congress for a declaration of war. John Adams remained committed to his opposition to a formal war with France. On July 16th Congress authorized the funds to finish the three frigates which had begun construction in 1794 but remained unfinished. These vessels were USS Congress (launched August 15th, 1799), USS Chesapeake (launched December 2nd), and the USS President (launched April 10th, 1800). Meanwhile, the United States Navy was already proving itself well at sea. On the same day that Congress rescinded the treaties, USS Delaware captured the privateer La Croyable off Great Egg Harbor Bay, New Jersey. The French vessel was soon after pressed into American service as the USS Retaliation.

Ironically, Retaliation would be the Americans' only warship loss of the conflict, surrendering to the French in late November 1798 only to be recaptured in June 1799. In short order, Secretary Stoddert realized that he needed to concentrate his resources where they could do the most good. To that end, most of the Navy was deployed along the southern coast of the United States and in the Caribbean, the location of the French naval bases, on the offensive, or sent on escort duty. By the end of the year, Stoddert planned to have 20 ships active in the Caribbean.

John Adams, President of the United States 1797-1801

John Adams, President of the United States 1797-1801

Thomas Truxtun and the USS Constellation

Over the next two years, the US Navy would perform admirably, leaving an incredible record of performance against both privateers and French warships alike. By the end of the fighting, the United States had captured 1 frigate, 2 corvettes, 1 brig, and 111 privateers while sinking 7.

One of the most famous episodes was the battle between the American frigate USS Constellation (commanded by Commodore Thomas Truxtun) and French frigate L’Insurgente on February 9th, 1799, near the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. The Americans successfully forced the French vessel to surrender after the two ships exchanged heavy fire for little over an hour, marking the first significant victory of American sea power. By the end of the year, the French sent an additional six warships to their bases in the Antilles to ramp up operations. On New Year’s Day, 1800, the armed schooner USS Experiment acquitted itself well in a battle against a squadron of barges from the French aligned faction of an ongoing civil war in Haiti known as the War of Knives, into which the United States had already been drawn due American friendliness to and recognition of the faction of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

The Constellation engaged the much heavier armed La Vengeance a month later. This battle was ended indecisively, with La Vengeance managing to slip away after a five-hour night time pummeling left both warships heavily damaged. Nevertheless, the French had attempted to surrender twice throughout the battle.

USS Constitution, flagship of Silas Talbot during the Quasi-War.

USS Constitution, flagship of Silas Talbot during the Quasi-War.

The USS Constitution and the Capture of the Sandwich

In April Commodore Silas Talbot began investigating shipping activity near the city of Puerto Plata on Santo Domingo and discovered a privateer, the Sandwich, operating from there. On May 8th, the Americans captured the French sloop Sally, and Talbot devised a plan to capture Sandwich by using Sally to enter the harbor undetected.

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On May 11th, the USS Constitution arrived near Puerto Plata and landed a small party of around 90-100 marines and sailors led by Lt. Isaac Hull which marched on Sandwich while Sally entered the harbor and attacked. Both the French and Spanish were caught off guard. Hull’s men captured the privateer corvette and then overran the Spanish fort of Fortaleza San Felipe, spiking its guns before sailing off in triumph.

When the French moved against the Dutch colony of Curacao on July 23rd, the Americans looked on anxiously. Curacao had been an important port for American merchant shipping in the Caribbean, so the US Navy had previously stationed warships there as recently as May that year. When the French sent more ships and men on September 5th, the American consul called for aid, with two sloops arriving on the 22nd.

By this time the colony had changed hands to the British. A Royal Navy frigate, HMS Nereid, had arrived on the 10th, ordered to thwart French ambitions towards the island, and began engaging the privateers and ships firing on the town on Willemstad. Informed by American merchants that the Dutch were willing to hand over the colony in exchange for protection, a force of Royal Marines landed and accepted the surrender of Willemstad on the 13th. The French demanded the surrender of the colony on the 22nd, just as the American warships USS Merrimack and USS Patapsco arrived.

The following day, the Americans disembarked their contingent of marines, repelling a French attack on Willemstad that afternoon. The following day the French made a second attack but declined to assault the town. On the morning of the 25th, Merrimack discovered the French had abandoned their positions and evacuated the island.

Fortazela San Felipe, the Spanish fort guarding Puerto Plata which was captured by US Marines and sailors during the Quasi War.

Fortazela San Felipe, the Spanish fort guarding Puerto Plata which was captured by US Marines and sailors during the Quasi War.

The End of the Naval War

The final two major naval engagements of the Quasi-War occurred in October. The first was the battle between the American frigate USS Boston and the French corvette Berceau northeast of the island of Guadeloupe on October 12th. The battle lasted from afternoon until night and ended with the French ship forced to surrender after being rendered immobile. When the Boston returned home with her new prize, it was discovered that hostilities were over and Berceau was repaired and returned to France.

The second was fought on October 25th between the American schooner USS Enterprise and the French privateer brig Flambeau off the island of Dominica. Enterprise had been set sail for the Caribbean back in March to disrupt French shipping. By the time she encountered the more heavily armed Flambeau on the night of the 24th, Enterprise had already built up a record of accomplishment fighting privateers. The subsequent battle lasted 40 minutes and the French ship surrendered, with Enterprise taking another two privateers as prizes before discovering the Quasi-War was over. The United States Navy was now, at the end of hostilities, 30 warships strong, with 700 officers and 5,000 seamen.

Federalists Ascendant at Home

While the undeclared war at sea raged, American politics entered a new partisan phase. The "High Federalists", the name that was given to supporters of Alexander Hamilton, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1798. Paranoia about the large French and radical Irish immigrant populations was rampant. From the perspective of the Federalists, France had meddled in internal American affairs multiples times in the last half-decade and the country had been faced with an armed rebellion in the west (the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94 in western Pennsylvania) on top of that. French agents had been caught making military surveys on the western frontier of the United States. Something had to be done.

The fact the immigrants were voting overwhelmingly Republican after attaining citizenship also undoubtedly played a role. The Alien Acts tripled the residency time requirements (from 5 years to 14) for citizenship and gave the president the right to expel any resident, non-citizen, alien who he judged as posing a threat to the United States. The Sedition Act was aimed at the notoriously partisan newspapers, instituting a federal level seditious libel law. Unsurprisingly, the Sedition Act overwhelmingly targeted Republicans, with over a dozen being arrested and convicted under its terms. Hamilton had opposed the original drafts of the Alien and Sedition Acts until they had been revised and both he and President Adams supported these laws as extreme wartime measures.

These events sent Vice President Thomas Jefferson into deep gloom. Despairing of the future of American freedom, he left the capital and returned to his home at Monticello, believing that a "reign of witches" had taken hold in America. When Hamilton received the post of inspector general in October, things only seemed to worsen. Jefferson fretted that his old enemy was conspiring to start a war, either with France or to use the Provisional Army to start one elsewhere.

As it was, Hamilton was committed to the maintenance of American neutrality and wanted to avoid foreign entanglements such as any sort of formal cooperation with the British against the French. On the other hand, the former Treasury Secretary was also desirous of taking advantage of Spain's alliance with Revolutionary France to acquire Florida and Louisiana, both widely believed to be the keys to America's westward growth and economic development. At one point he even briefly entertained the idea of backing an armed liberation of Spain's South American colonies, egged on by the Venezuelan patriot and military adventurer Francisco de Miranda.

But Hamilton found himself bogged down in the minutiae of managing his army. Issues of supply and organization plagued him every day. His designs to control the Mississippi River would ultimately flounder and came to nothing.

Alexander Hamilton, leading Federalist

Alexander Hamilton, leading Federalist

The Republicans React

Elbridge Gerry returned to the United States in early October to give President Adams the news that Talleyrand was ready to treat with the United States seriously. For Adams, this was the affirmation of his faith in peace he needed. Gerry's account was backed up by John Marshall and by the president's son, John Quincy Adams (the minister to Prussia). More would come over the next several months from both government officials and private citizens alike. All of this bolstered the president's resolve that a peaceful solution could still be found to the crisis. On December 7th, 1798 he made that resolve clear before a joint session of Congress, upsetting both his party and the Republicans alike (the latter doubted his sincerity and opposed his continued support for a defensive military).

Meanwhile, it was slowly dawning on the Federalists that they had overreached. By the end of the year, both Kentucky and Virginia had passed resolutions (authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively) condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts as unconstitutional and calling upon the states to follow their lead in nullifying laws they deemed as violating the federal compact.

While the states reacted negatively to the resolutions (four wanted no part in the dispute, and the other ten condemned them for trying to do the judiciary's job in deciding constitutionality), Hamilton was worried. For him, the idea that the states could reject federal laws was dangerous. The inspector general began writing of the necessity of a system of interstate canals to bring the country together and the breaking up of the larger states of the union. An armed march through Virginia was even contemplated.

Whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force.

— Thomas Jefferson

Adams Reaches Out for Peace

In February 18th, 1799, President Adams shocked the nation. In a brief letter to the Senate, the president announced his intention to appoint a special envoy to France and nominated William Vans Murray (then US Minister to Holland) to the job. No one had been aware of what the president was planning, By now Adams had come to believe that his primary cabinet officers (Timothy Pickering at State, James McHenry at War, and Oliver Wolcott, Jr at Treasury) were loyal to Hamilton but not him. Not even the president's wife knew what he was up to. The seeds had been laid in January when Thomas Adams (another of the president's sons) relayed from John Quincy that Talleyrand had reiterated he was prepared to negotiate (even more so now, following the French naval defeat off the Nile in August 1798).

Both parties were shocked, and the High Federalists, for all their outrage, were unable to stop the appointment. Adams ultimately compromised with his party, appointing a further two special envoys to join Murray, Governor William Davie of North Carolina, and Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. The delegation did not depart, however, until President Adams felt they would be received with due respect by the French government. This reassurance came in August, but fresh news of political upheaval within the Directory kept the mission at home. The president's long seclusion in his hometown of Braintree over the majority of the year did not help matters.

In March an uprising in Pennsylvania brought about a new Federalist blunder. 140 German farmers in the town of Bethlehem rose in revolt over a new land tax (levied to pay for the Provisional Army) and other tax grievances. After chasing off a United States Marshal, the farmers went home and remained peaceful. But Hamilton saw in this incident, called Fries's Rebellion after its leader John Fries, the seeds of a second Whiskey Rebellion. He urged an overwhelming show of force, leading to federal troops sweeping the region. President Adams would later pardon everyone involved, but the incident only added on to the growing dissatisfaction with the Federalist Party.

This disease of the imagination will pass over, because the patients are essentially republican. Indeed the Doctor is now on his way to cure it, in the guise of a taxgatherer.

— Thomas Jefferson

Hamilton Confronts Adams

By October President Adams had reemerged from Braintree to journey to Trenton to meet his cabinet. Due to a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, the government had temporarily relocated to the New Jersey town. Concerns that the cabinet was going to sabotage the peace mission prompted his decision. To the president's surprise, it was Alexander Hamilton who met him at Trenton.

The inspector general took the extraordinary step of going to meet his commander-in-chief without being called. Several accounts of the meeting survive, but all paint a picture of Hamilton extremely agitated and unnerved. John Adams was not George Washington and would not just allow Alexander Hamilton to have his way. The inspector general argued eloquently against sending the peace mission to France, believing the British and their allies in the Second Coalition had the upper hand and would soon restore the French royal house. Adams dismissed this concern outright, but Hamilton's further belief the Directory at least was doomed to collapse and that America should not negotiate with a lame-duck government was prescient. In any case, Adams would not budge and allowed Hamilton to make a fool of himself.

On October 16th the president gave his final decision: the peace mission was going to France. It set sail a month later. Adams had won the biggest political battle of his presidency, and Hamilton returned to his army at Newark utterly defeated.

In February 1800, news arrived in the United States of the Coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9th, 1799). The Directory had fallen was replaced by the Consulate, headed by Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Revolution’s most successful general. On May 5th President Adams began clearing house in his administration, firing James McHenry after an explosive tirade over Hamilton. On May 10th Adams asked for Pickering to resign, but the Secretary of State refused. Adams fired him anyway two days later and named Massachusetts senator Samuel Dexter to War and John Marshall to State. Wolcott survived by successfully ingratiating himself with the president.

The Provisional Army was dissolved that summer by a Congress eager to deny Adams credit for getting rid of a now unpopular institution. By September, no news had reached America of the state of the negotiations with France. First Consul Bonaparte was regarded as a mystery and no one what he was doing to influence events. It was not until November that good news arrived that a new treaty had been signed on October 3rd.

Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul. His 1799 coup of the Directory paved the way for Franco-American reconciliation.

Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul. His 1799 coup of the Directory paved the way for Franco-American reconciliation.


The peace mission arrived in Paris in March. However, the complicated multiple negotiations being undertaken by Talleyrand (now back in power after a brief fall during the last months of the Directory), meant the Americans had to wait until April to be addressed. Bonaparte's primary foreign policy aim concerning North America was the restoration of the French colonial empire. To this end, he and Talleyrand were largely focused on the transfer of Spanish Louisiana back to French control.

Once negotiations were underway, they hit a snag over the issue of compensation for American shipping losses, estimated at $20,000,000. The French did not want to pay if the 1778 Franco-American Alliance and its underlying treaties were no longer in force. If the Americans wanted a new treaty, they would have to accept no compensation. The deadlock stretched out into summer. By this point France was in a much stronger position: French military victories in Europe and the continued ascendancy of Bonaparte complicated the American mission.

Finally, a compromise was reached, all talk of compensation was tabled and both sides agreed to recognize the alliance was dissolved. The United States government would pay the claimed losses of its citizens and in return, France returned to its former policy of free trade between the American and French Republics. The new treaty, called the Convention of 1800, was signed at the chateau of Mortefontaine to the north of Paris. This settling of issues between the United States and France paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase only three years later. The Quasi-War was over.


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Michiganma on June 01, 2020:

Very informative article JR Gilbert.

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