Quasi-War with France

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The first foreign war fought by the United States under the Constitution was an undeclared naval conflict with France known as the Quasi-War (1798–1801). The young Republic was nominally allied to France under a 1778 treaty negotiated during the American Revolution. Although French leaders did not expect the United States to enter the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1801), they did expect the new nation to pursue a pro-French foreign policy. When the United States in 1794 signed the Jay Treaty, a commercial agreement with Great Britain, France felt betrayed. When the young Republic ratified the treaty the following year, France severed diplomatic (although not consular) relations and unleashed its warships and privateers on American commerce around the globe. France's aims were to bully the United States into repudiating the Jay Treaty and to loot American commerce.

In 1797 President John Adams sought to negotiate an end to the depredations by dispatching a diplomatic mission to Paris. But as a price for talking to the American delegation, the French government demanded an apology, a $220,000 bribe, and a $12 million loan. The American envoys rejected these demands. Because the secret agents who delivered the French demands were designated X, Y, and Z in the diplomatic report sent back to the United States, this matter was ever thereafter known as the XYZ affair. Many Americans responded with the defiant slogan "millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute."

Outraged by the French shakedown attempt as well as the continued depredations at sea, Congress in 1798 authorized limited hostilities. American warships were authorized to attack armed French vessels, and American merchant vessels were permitted to arm for defense. This response proved remarkably effective. Under the direction of the newly created Navy Department, American warships, operating mainly in the Caribbean (where most of the French depredations had occurred), captured or defeated eighty-six armed French ships and recaptured seventy American merchantmen while losing only one warship. Armed merchantmen took eight additional armed French vessels and recaptured six prizes. More important, they fought off or scared off countless French cruisers that threatened them.

France had no interest in waging a war that might undermine its war effort against Great Britain. Hence, in 1799 France's new leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, indicated an interest in peace. Against the wishes of many fellow Federalists, Adams responded by sending a diplomatic mission to Paris. The result was the Convention of 1800, which called for the United States to waive millions of dollars in claims for the French depredations that had occurred since 1795. In exchange for this concession, France agreed to suspend the treaty of alliance (as well as a companion treaty of commerce) that had bound the two nations together since 1778. The ratification of the Convention of 1800 the following year brought the Quasi-War to an end.

This limited war was soon forgotten, although it demonstrated how, given just the right circumstances, a second-rate power might work its will on a great power. Not only was France preoccupied with its British war, but the Royal Navy kept the French navy in check. This allowed the U.S. Navy to conduct a successful campaign in the Caribbean, shutting down the French war on American commerce there and driving down marine insurance rates. The navy also showed the flag in European waters as well as the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In addition, American merchantmen demonstrated that with a few naval guns and the will to use them, it was possible to scare off the small French privateers that were looking for easy prey. All in all, the war was a remarkable vindication of sea power for the fledgling Republic and served notice on Europe of a rising naval power in the West.

See alsoAdams, John .


Allen, Gardner W. Our Naval War with France. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909.

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

Palmer, Michael A. Stoddert's War: Naval Operations during the Quasi-War with France, 1798–1801. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Donald R. Hickey