Quasi-War and the Rise of Political Parties

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France was the United States' first friend. The 1778 Treaty of Alliance between the two nations secured French military support in the American War for Independence. Yet just two decades later, the nations stood at the brink of a formal war, battling each other in the halls of diplomacy and on the high seas. The Quasi-War (1797–1800) was America's first major international crisis and it precipitated a domestic political struggle that threatened to tear apart the new republic.

international conflict

The first years of the new national government brought a rift among Americans over foreign policy, which corresponded to their divergent visions of political economy. These differences emerged in Congress between protoparties, factions with similar voting records but lacking the formal organization of parties. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and fellow Federalists promoted a strong national commercial agenda, focused on extensive trade with England. Their opponents, most prominently Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, wanted to preserve an American economy centered on smaller agrarian interests. These Democratic-Republicans looked toward France, fearing that economic development on the English model could corrupt the fragile American republic. The Federalists took their name from the supporters of the federal Constitution in the ratification debates of the late 1780s; the term refers to the idea that the states and the new national government shared sovereignty. The name of the Democratic-Republicans, on the other hand, represented their more populist political philosophy.

Americans of both parties, grateful for France's earlier support, at first embraced the republican French Revolution of 1789. Yet its violent turn in 1792, and the renewal of the war between France and England for European hegemony, brought new urgency to the foreign policy debate in America. When the British refused to accept President George Washington's 1793 proclamation of neutrality, Washington dispatched John Jay to negotiate a treaty to avoid war with England. Controversy over the Jay Treaty highlighted the disagreement about foreign policy between the parties. Whereas Federalists supported the trade relationship with England that the new treaty heralded, Democratic-Republicans were outraged at England's refusal to accept the United States' rights of neutrality.

The French government was equally upset by the Jay Treaty. In 1797, France declared it would seize American ships carrying British goods and treat Americans serving on British ships as pirates. The French foreign minister refused to meet with American diplomats, and the unofficial French representatives who conducted the negotiations attempted to extort a $250,000 bribe and a $10 million loan from the Americans to prevent war. By March 1798, news of what became known as the XYZ Affair reached the United States, where it was met with popular outrage spurred on by the anti-French Federalists.

In 1798, President John Adams, a Federalist, considered a formal declaration of war against France but instead opted to pursue a sweeping legislative program to prepare the nation for war. Congress formally abrogated the 1778 Treaties of Alliance, the formal mechanism by which France and the United States had allied during the Revolutionary War, which stipulated that France would recognize the United States and provide military and economic assistance in that war. It established a Navy Department, increased the size of the navy, armed merchant ships, authorized vessels to seize French ships intending to capture American prizes, strengthened the defenses of American ports, and increased the manufacture of arms and munitions. Following these actions, the navy captured more than eighty French ships between 1798 and 1800. Federalists also enlarged the regular army and created a provisional army. Hamilton, named second-in-command of the army (behind only Washington), screened officers to ensure their political reliability.

domestic conflict

In the summer of 1798, Federalists were not content to merely purge dissent from the army; they wanted it removed from the nation. Capitalizing on war fever, the Federalist Congress passed a series of four laws, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were intended to crush the Democratic-Republican political opposition. Three dealt with aliens—immigrants who had yet to become naturalized American citizens and who overwhelmingly voted Democratic-Republican. The Act Concerning Aliens and the Alien Enemies Act established a registration and surveillance system for foreign nationals and allowed President Adams to arrest and deport aliens who might endanger the nation's security. The Naturalization Act increased the period of residence required to become a citizen, and thus to vote, from five to fourteen years.

The Sedition Act stifled the possibility and practice of opposition politics by prohibiting "scandalous and malicious" writing or speaking against the United States government, the president, or either house of Congress. Under a fiercely partisan application of the act, Federalist judges indicted fourteen Democratic-Republican editors and convicted and imprisoned ten of them. In an era when newspapers and their editors connected political leaders to their popular base, this constituted a major attack on the viability of the Democratic-Republican Party.

Democratic-Republicans looked to the states themselves to protect basic rights. Madison and Jefferson authored the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which held that the states could declare null and void new federal laws they believed to be unconstitutional. Southerners would use similar arguments in the nineteenth century to defend secession. In 1798, Democratic-Republicans went so far as to suggest that Virginia prepare to defend itself militarily against the Federalist-controlled federal government's enforcement of the Alien and Sedition laws.

Some extreme Federalists were ready for a fight, but President Adams disappointed them, refusing to press war against Virginia or France. He reopened negotiations with France in 1799. Although the negotiations were initially deadlocked, in the final Convention of 1800 France agreed to allow the United States to break the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 in exchange for dropping $20 million in claims for France's seizures of American shipping. With the success of the negotiations, the Federalist program from the summer of 1798 began to collapse, mired by infighting between the moderate Adams and Hamilton's more extreme wing of the party. Adams dismantled Hamilton's army, the Alien and Sedition Acts began to expire and were not renewed, and Democratic-Republicans fared well in the national election of 1800.

The turmoil surrounding the Quasi-War has had long-lasting repercussions on American political life. The Quasi-War marked the high point of the decade-long conflict over foreign policy that solidified the first national party system. In that era of extreme political polarization, partisans on both sides denied the opposition's legitimacy, believing that their party alone could protect America's republican experiment. In an ironic encore to the Federalists' attempt to destroy the French-sympathizing Democratic-Republicans during the Quasi-War, the Federalists themselves were eliminated as a political force because of their support for England during the War of 1812. In spite of, or perhaps because of, these political battles to the death, the first parties democratized American politics by using print culture and public gatherings to connect ordinary citizens to leaders in the government. Most fundamentally, the Quasi-War introduced the nation to the difficulty of protecting civil liberties and open political debate during wartime. These issues would continue to challenge America in times of national emergency into the twenty-first century.


Deconde, Alexander. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797–1801. New York: Scribner, 1966.

Elkins, Stanley, and McKitrick, Eric. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

McCoy, Drew. The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Sharpe, James Rogers. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Internet Resource

"The Quasi War with France, 1791–1800." Yale Law School Avalon Project. Available from <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/quasi.htm>.

Justin Florence

See also:Adams, John; Embargo; Fourth of July; Jefferson, Thomas; Pirates and the Barbary War.