France, Undeclared Naval War with
President John Adams wanted to send either Vice President Thomas Jefferson or Congressman James Madison to France. Both were Republicans, more favorably disposed to France than Federalists like Washington and Adams, but neither man would go, and Adams's Federalist cabinet refused to grant the opposition so prominent a role. When Adams learned in May that France had authorized seaborne privateering to seize neutral American ships carrying British goods, he called Congress into special session. To start negotiations, he dispatched two Federalists, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and John Marshall, and a moderate Republican, Elbridge Gerry, to France, but he also started military preparations. Three frigates begun in 1793—the United States, the Constellation, and the Constitution—were to be completed as quickly as possible; 80,000 militiamen were to be armed and trained; harbor defenses built; and $800,000 borrowed to pay for an undeclared “Quasi‐War” with France.
France's foreign minister, the comte de Talleyrand, declined to receive the U.S. commissioners formally, but made subsequent contact through agents who insisted that the United States loan France $6 million and provide $250,000 in presents. Pinckney's famous response—“[N]o; no; not a sixpence”—came just as Napoleon Bonaparte's army defeated the Austrians in Italy. Contemplating France's control of Western Europe, John Marshall commented that “the Atlantic only can save us.”
In March 1798, President Adams reported to Congress, substituting “W, X, Y, and Z” for the names of the French agents (hence the “XYZ Affair”). He vowed never to send another minister to France unless he would be “received, respected, and honored” as representing “a great, free, powerful, and independent nation.” Congress commissioned 1,000 privateers to capture or repel French vessels, established the Department of the Navy (30 April), levied $2 million in taxes, and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to restrict domestic dissent. Pinckney and Marshall returned as heroes (Gerry, less obnoxious to the French, stayed in Paris), and “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” became a Federalist slogan.
By May 1798, the U.S. war sloop Ganges was guarding the coast between Long Island and the Chesapeake, joined in June by the Constellation and the United States. In July 1798, Stephen Decatur, on the sloop Delaware, captured the French schooner Croyable off New Jersey. After the British navy defeated French forces in the Battle of the Nile (1 August 1798), the U.S. Navy drove the French away from the U.S. coast to the Caribbean. Ten important naval engagements ensued, six of them in February and March 1799. The Americans lost only once: the Retaliation (formerly the Croyable) was captured in November 1798. In February 1799, the Constellation captured the frigate L’Insurgente. The French captain blamed U.S. Capt. Thomas Truxtun for provoking war between the United States and France.
Despite ship‐to‐ship actions and U.S. support for former slave Toussaint Louverture's independence movement on Haiti, neither side declared war. Adams resisted Federalist pressure for war; while congressional Federalists created a provisional army with Washington as commander in chief and Alexander Hamilton as second in command, Adams favored a strong navy to make the United States independent of both England and France. The French Army, he told Hamilton, was more likely to invade heaven than the United States.
Napoleon's coup d’ état on 9 November 1799 changed French politics and policy. Needing the support of neutral Denmark and Sweden, he returned in December 1799 to the principle that neutral ships make neutral goods. American diplomats at the Hague ( William Vans Murray) and Berlin ( John Quincy Adams) sent word that France wanted to negotiate. In November 1799, Adams dispatched official envoys to France.
On 7 March 1800, the American diplomats—William Vans Murray, Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, and Governor William Davie of North Carolina—met with Napoleon. In September, the Americans and French completed a convention that restored amity and deferred to future consideration the vexing issues of indemnities for seized property and the status of the 1778 treaty. The peace mission cost Adams much Federalist support. In 1800, Hamilton backed Pinckney instead of Adams for president, a split that resulted in Jefferson's election.
Alexander DeConde , The Quasi‐War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France 1797–1801, 1966.
Robert J. Allison
Thomas Truxtun, 1755–1822, American naval officer, b. near Hempstead, L.I., N.Y. In the American Revolution he won a name as a privateer, seizing many British prizes. Later he was a sea captain in merchant trade until the U.S. navy was organized. In the
with France (1798–1800), he commanded the Constellation and earned an outstanding reputation. He captured the French frigate L'Insurgente (1799) and then later defeated La Vengeance (1800), although he was prevented by a storm from taking the latter ship as a prize. Shortly afterward he retired from the navy. His name also appears as Truxton.
See E. S. Ferguson, Truxtun of the Constellation (1956).