The decade of the 1790s was a perilous era for the new federal government of the United States. The economy only slowly emerged from the Revolutionary War slump, international commerce flagged, and the nation faced a crushing foreign and domestic debt. In addition, France—its former ally—had launched its own democratic revolution that slid into a bloodbath and led to resumed naval warfare with Britain in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. The American army and navy were woefully unready to protect their own vessels, rendering the nation's illprepared ports and harbors virtually defenseless. In 1793 the Federalist administration of George Washington sought to navigate these treacherous waters by proclaiming American neutrality in the Anglo-French War, seeking trade with both sides. Instead, however, it succeeded only in incurring the wrath of both and also of its emerging domestic opponent, the Democratic Republicans.
Then, in 1794 Washington sent John Jay to London to negotiate with Britain for the settlement of issues unresolved since the Treaty of Paris (1783) and to broker a trade agreement that would open British ports in the Caribbean to American commerce. Jay's Treaty (1794) outraged the French, who claimed that the Franco-American Treaties of Amity and Commerce (1778) still bound the Revolutionary Xallies. A French minister to the United States, Jean Fauchet, was so outraged he demanded that Americans be made to hear "the voice of France thundering against the treaty and demanding justice." When trade resumed with Britain in the Caribbean and beyond in 1796, the French began attacking and confiscating American merchant vessels in a conflict that became known as the Quasi-War. Hundreds of thousands of tons of American merchant vessels were lost and all-out war with France seemed imminent.
In May 1797 President John Adams, another Federalist, determined to stave off disaster by sending a bipartisam Extraordinary Commission to France consisting of three ministers: Federalists John Marshall and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Democratic Republican Elbridge Gerry. The commission arrived in France by the fall to discuss settlement for American commercial losses and to pursue an agreement that would secure neutral trading rights for the United States and preclude further French attacks. After they had waited a considerable time to be received by the French Directory, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the French minister of foreign affairs, sent three lesser, anonymous officials to receive the American delegation. However, the operatives, identified only as X, Y, and Z, refused officially to receive the Americans without payment of tribute to the French government. When Marshall and Pinckney returned to the United States and reported the slight, the Democratic Republicans suspected a Federalist plot to instigate war with France and challenged the Federalist Adams administration to prove the allegations. With that, Adams released the XYZ dispatches in March 1798, to general American outrage. Letters, memorials, petitions, and declarations of support poured into the capital at Philadelphia vowing "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!" Citizens pledged to stand behind the president, even in the case of war, to protect the honor and security of the Republic. Many wore black ribbons or cockades on their hats to exhibit support for the president and their disapproval of France. Republicans, however, took to wearing red, white, and blue cockades, opposing war with their ally from the American Revolution.
Federalists manipulated the popular attitude of the "black cockade fever" to draft defense legislation fortifying ports and harbors, creating a Department of the Navy (1798), authorizing the construction of three new warships, and augmenting the army with a provisional force of ten thousand troops. The administration also secured passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) to stifle domestic dissent and remove suspected foreign agitators. The Fifth Congress in 1797 and 1798 appropriated more than $10 million for defense, $4 million more than the normal expenditure would have been for the entire nonmilitary federal budget. As a result, Congress also used the XYZ affair and fear of French invasion to levy the first federal direct tax (1798), a rate collected from the value of lands, dwelling houses, and slaves. Many in Congress demanded a declaration of war against France, but Democratic Republicans and moderate Federalists following the lead of President Adams refused to go that far. In 1799 the president sent another delegation, the Ellsworth Commission, to France to seek a peaceful solution. By the autumn of 1800, the French had received the American commission and reached a peaceful settlement at the Convention at Mortefontaine, just before President Adams's loss to Democratic Republican Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election.
Partisan intrigue, the Anglo-French War, and popular hysteria over the XYZ affair cost the American people their civil liberties and millions in tax dollars in 1798. But cooler diplomatic heads among moderate Federalists forestalled a potentially disastrous war and bought the young nation another decade of growth and stability until a similar crisis led to a Democratic Republican declaration of war against Britain in 1812.
Ray, Thomas M. "'Not One Cent for Tribute!': The Public Addresses and American Popular Reaction to the XYZ Affair." Journal of the Early Republic 3 (Winter 1983): 389–412.
Stinchcombe, William. The XYZ Affair. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Paul Douglas Newman
The XYZ Affair was a foreign relations crisis with France in 1797 and 1798. The United States was a young nation trying to remain neutral with France and Great Britain, who were at war. Naval conflict ensued with both foreign powers, but President John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801) eventually negotiated solutions that averted full-scale war.
In 1778 amidst the American Revolution (1775–83), the United States signed two treaties with France in exchange for France's wartime assistance. The Treaty of Commerce promised that French warships would have free access to American ports for selling goods captured during war. The Treaty of Alliance promised that neither country would separately make peace with Great Britain.
In 1783 the United States officially ended the American Revolution by signing the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain. John Adams negotiated the treaty along with Americans John Jay (1745–1829) and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). France considered the treaty to be a breach of the American-French Treaty of Alliance from 1778.
War between France and Great Britain
In 1789 France overthrew its monarchy and formed a republican government. Four years later France declared war on Great Britain. The source of their conflict was commerce and trade issues.
France sought assistance from the United States under the Treaty of Alliance. President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) announced that the United States would remain officially neutral. Republicans, however, the opposition party at the time, believed that the policies of Washington and the Federalist-controlled government were designed to favor Great Britain.
At the same time relations between the United States and Great Britain were faltering. Americans refused to pay Great Britain on debts owed from before the Revolution. Great Britain refused to abandon military forts in North America and was blocking U.S. ships from British ports. When war erupted with France, Great Britain began to capture American vessels, forcing the sailors to serve in the British navy, a practice called impressments.
Washington sent John Jay to London, England, to negotiate a solution with Great Britain. The result was Jay's Treaty of 1795. The treaty did very little to fix relations with Great Britain, but the very existence of the treaty angered France. The French considered it another breach of the Treaty of Alliance and a taking of sides in the ongoing war.
The XYZ Affair
Shortly before Washington's second term ended in 1797, he sent politician Charles C. Pinckney (1757–1824) to France as the American minister. France rejected Pinckney and ordered him to leave. When France learned that John Adams would succeed Washington as president, it can-celled the 1778 Treaty of Alliance and ordered its navy to begin capturing American vessels.
Soon after taking office Adams addressed a special session of Congress in May 1797. Adams spoke harshly toward France and asked Congress for money to build the army and navy. At the same time he planned to send a commission to France for negotiations. Consisting of Pinckney, John Marshall (1755–1835), and Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), the commission sailed in July 1797 and arrived in Paris, France, in October.
The French Directory, or official government of France, assigned foreign relations minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838) to negotiate with the Americans. Talleyrand sent three secret agents to speak with the American commissioners ahead of official negotiations. The secret agents said that to get an official reception from France, the Americans would have to apologize for Adams's harsh words, make a payment of 1.2 million livres (an old French monetary unit), and loan France thirty-two million florins (another form of currency previously used in Europe) for its war with Great Britain. The Americans refused the demand and were threatened in the ensuing months while negotiations with France made no progress.
Dispatches from the commissioners reached the Adams administration in March 1798. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering (1745–1829) was angered to read that secret agents had bribed and then threatened the Americans. While such bribes were common in European diplomacy, the amount demanded had been high.
Adams was angered by the news, too. Congress asked to see the message from the commissioners. At first Adams tried to use executive privilege to hide the message from Congress. Eventually he shared it, but he replaced the names of the secret French agents with the letters X, Y, and Z. He feared the commissioners would be harmed if he revealed the names of the secret agents.
Americans reacted angrily to the news. Many called for war with France. A popular slogan arose, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” The United States increased spending for its army and navy. Naval conflicts with France escalated to the level of what Adams called a “half war.” The countries never declared war, though, and they finally negotiated peace in the Convention of 1800.
XYZ AFFAIR of 1797–1798 led to an undeclared naval war between France and the United States. This diplomatic crisis had its beginnings in 1778, when the United States entered into a military alliance with the French; however, when the French were unable to completely fulfill the terms of the alliance, anti-French sentiments erupted in the United States. The 1794 Jay's Treaty, concluded between the United States and Britain, angered the French, who retaliated by seizing American ships at sea. In 1796, President George Washington attempted to replace the American minister to France, James Monroe, who had been friendly to the causes of the French Revolution, with Charles Pinckney, whom the French refused to accept. As a result, in 1797 Pinckney returned to France accompanied by John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry, to try to repair relations and to negotiate a new treaty. Bolstered by military victories, the French government asked for a $250,000 loan from the United States before agreeing to meet with the American representatives. Conveyed through three negotiators, a Swiss banker, Jean Hottinguer, known as "Mr. X" in correspondence from John Adams; an American banker in Hamburg, Germany, Mr. Bellamy, "Mr. Y"; and Lucien Hauteval, also Swiss, "Mr. Z," these requests met with outrage in the United States. Consequently, the mission failed, and the undeclared naval war ensued until the Convention of 1800 improved commercial relations between France and the United States.
Stinchcombe, William. The XYZ Affair. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.