The Quasi-War with France (1798 – 1801)
After winning independence, the United States’ first international conflict was with its revolutionary ally, France. Like many conflicts in the early years of the United States, this conflict centered around American neutral trading rights, and was a by-product of the ongoing wars between Great Britain and France, and the French Revolution.
Commonly referred to as the Quasi-War with France, this conflict was a limited naval war against French privateers who were seizing U.S. shipping in the Caribbean. The Quasi-War is significant as the first seaborne conflict for the newly established U.S. Navy. It was the first action by the United States to protect its shipping abroad and the first effort to exert control over the Caribbean Sea. War was never formally declared, and French naval warships directly clashed with American ships in only a few instances. It was solely intended as a war against privateers and was almost entirely waged in the Caribbean.
The Quasi-War evolved in the wake of the French Revolution, which altered the relationship between the United States and the French government. The Treaties of Alliance and Commerce with France, the first international agreements signed by the United States in 1778, were specifically intended to foster trade between the two countries. But the French monarchy that forged the alliance was overthrown in the French Revolution. Over the next 10 years, France swung dramatically from a traditional monarchy to a republic that seemed prepared to overthrow every other monarchy in Europe as well. In the process, war reignited between France and Great Britain, and the former was joined by a loose coalition of European nations that saw revolutionary France as a threat.
The Jay Treaty
When the Republic of France went to war with Great Britain and the European coalition in 1792, the United States declared its neutrality. During this time, the United States was continuing to establish itself as a trading partner on the global stage. Peace with Britain had meant some prosperity, but the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution left many issues unresolved. American merchants were still unable to trade with Britain’s remaining colonies in the Caribbean, which had been a major market for merchants throughout the North American colonies before the revolution. To resolve the outstanding issues with Britain, the United States began negotiating a new treaty, known as the Jay Treaty, in 1794.
Though the Jay Treaty smoothed over relations with Britain, the United States still saw itself as neutral when it came to the war between Britain and revolutionary France. The U.S. government argued that the overthrow of the French monarchy negated America’s obligation to side with France and defend it against Britain.
At the time, the United States was fiercely divided between two political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. The two parties had different ideas about the role of the federal government and how that manifested itself on the world stage. Although there was general support for the French Revolution in the beginning, that support began to erode as France went to war with Great Britain and Europe. The parties were divided over how to respond and whether it would mean America returning to war with Britain.
The revolutionary government of France saw the Jay Treaty as a repudiation of America’s earlier treaties with France. If American merchants were going to trade with France’s enemies, France was going to treat them like enemies. French privateers began seizing U.S. merchant ships trading with Britain and its colonies, even boldly taking ships in American waters along the Eastern Seaboard. Between October 1796 and July 1797, more than 300 American merchant ships and their cargos were seized in the greater Caribbean. In response, the United States suspended repayments of war debts to France, thus moving the two nations closer to war.
The XYZ Affair
In an effort to diplomatically resolve the dispute, President John Adams established a bi-partisan commission of three American diplomats to meet with France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Over the course of several months between 1797 and 1798, the Americans struggled to even meet with Talleyrand, instead being put off to a group of intermediaries who demanded excessive bribes, loans, and other concessions in unofficial negotiations. The politically divided group of American diplomats disagreed with each other on how to proceed, and they eventually all came home empty handed.
President Adams feared the diplomatic failure would push the United States to war, but he recognized the need for defensive measures. In reporting to Congress, Adams initially refused to turn over the original dispatches from the diplomats. When he eventually did, he redacted the names of the French officials the Americans had encountered, instead labeling them “W,” “X,” “Y,” and “Z”. As a result, the entire diplomatic episode became known as the XYZ Affair.
The U.S. Navy Gets Underway
News of the XYZ Affair spurred America to action. Support grew for funding naval forces to protect against French privateers. The first six American frigates, which had been authorized by the Naval Armament Act of 1794, were still in various stages of construction and outfitting. To meet the interim need, merchant ships and revenue cutters were converted to warships to take on the French.
The converted ships initially patrolled the American coastline, where French privateers were known to stop American merchant vessels. Beginning in 1798, when USS Constitution and other frigates were ready for action, the U.S. Navy deployed to the Caribbean and took up stations off the main trading ports and in the heavily travelled passages among the islands.
The conflict with France was a complicated affair. War was not officially declared, and American naval ships were ordered to not take offensive action against French naval vessels. Nevertheless, engagements with French naval ships did occur. On November 22, 1798, USS Retaliation, under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, became the first U.S. Navy ship to surrender when it succumbed to two French ships without firing a shot. Bainbridge apparently believed the ships were British until Retaliation was too close to escape and unable to engage.
Three months later, on February 9, 1799, off the island of Nevis, USS Constellation, under the command of Captain Thomas Truxton, encountered L’Insurgente, one of the French ships that had captured Retaliation. A heavy squall blew through as the two ships approached each other. The squall took down L’Insurgente’s main topmast, giving Constellation the upper hand as the ships exchanged several broadsides, L’Insurgente surrendered to the Americans and was taken as a prize to the island of Saint Kitts
Successes and Failures
Overall, the decision to send the new United States Navy to the Caribbean was successful. With only about 16 ships, the untested U.S. Navy captured 86 French privateers between 1799 and 1800. The Americans were assisted by the presence of the British Royal Navy in the region. While the British did not capture as many privateers as the Americans, they posed a threat to French naval forces and guarded convoys of British ships in and out of the region.
Despite its successes, however, the U.S. Navy did suffer from failures of organization and management during the Quasi-War. With no infrastructure in place for supplying the new ships, deployments were often delayed for lack of men and materials. Captains frequently struggled to negotiate the complex laws regarding which ships could be legally seized and from where. As a result, the courts returned some captured ships to their owners.
The Quasi-War officially ended with the Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine, negotiated between France and the United States in September 1800. The agreement ended the Treaties of Alliance and Commerce and re-asserted the United States’ right to free trade. In March 1801, the USS Herald was dispatched to the Caribbean to distribute orders to the American Navy ships to cease hostilities against the French privateers and return to the United States.
Congress did not formally ratify the agreement until December 1801, due to disputes over whether and how American ship owners and merchants would be compensated for their losses during the conflict. Initially, some in Congress argued that the new treaty should have included reparations paid by France for American merchant losses. In the end, however, the United States decided to forego efforts to force France into paying for losses, which would have prolonged the negotiated settlement even further.
Although the treaty reopened the door to more secure American trade with both France and Great Britain in the Caribbean, the central issues of neutral American trade with warring European countries would come to a head again in the War of 1812.
Image credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.