France, Quasi-War with

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FRANCE, QUASI-WAR WITH. The Quasi-War, or naval war, with France, included a series of battles and diplomatic tensions between the U.S. government and the French as a result of attacks against American merchants shipping off the Barbary Coast and in the Caribbean. The brief undeclared war that occurred between 1798 and 1801 was one of the main catalysts for the building and support of the U.S. Navy. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress lacked the power to maintain more than a token naval force. Furthermore, American suspicion of a standing army prohibited plans for organized forces. As a result of French pillaging and the demands of American merchants for protection, Congress found an increased naval force a necessity.

In consequence of the Franco-American misunderstanding of 1798–1800, the French, with no declaration of war, began to seize and plunder American merchant vessels. Despite U.S. attempts to settle the matter diplomatically, no solution could be reached. From March through July of 1798, Congress passed acts empowering the U.S. merchant marine to "repel by force any assault," to commission privateers, and to order the navy to seize all armed French craft found along the U.S. coast or molesting trade. George Washington was recalled from retirement and appointed commander in chief of the army. The American navy, consisting of only three ships, was rapidly enlarged by construction, purchase, and gifts to fifty-five vessels. The first went to sea on 24 May 1798. France sent no heavy vessels to the western Atlantic, because it was occupied with European wars. Rather, knowing the weakness of the untrained American navy, the French relied on privateers supported by a few frigates and sloops of war.

As American vessels were commissioned, they organized into small squadrons to guard the chief trade areas in the East and West Indies. The small American navy faced few engagements and mostly guarded against numerous privateers. Despite the hasty organization of the U.S. Navy, however, each of their three engagements against French forces resulted in victory. Those battles involved the Insurgente, 40 guns, and the Constellation, 36 guns; the Vengeance, 50 guns; and the Constellation, 36 guns, the Berceau, 24 guns, and the Boston, 32 guns. Congress presented Captain Thomas Truxtun, commander of the Constellation in both engagements, with two gold medals. Two vessels, the schooners Enterprise and Experiment, had especially notable careers—the former taking thirteen prizes on one cruise. Although the United States made no attempt to seize the French islands, on 23 September 1800, Captain Henry Geddes, with the ship Patapsco, successfully dislodged the French forces that had taken possession of the Dutch island of Curaçao. About eighty-five French vessels were captured, not including recaptures of American craft and small boats. Although the French took only one American naval vessel, the schooner Retaliation, France seized several hundred American merchant vessels both abroad and in home waters. These were condemned at farcical admiralty trials, and in most instances the crews were imprisoned and brutally treated.

On 30 September 1800, France and the United States concluded a convention of peace, commerce, and navigation, and shortly thereafter, hostilities ceased.


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

Fowler, William M. Jack Tars and Commodores: The American Navy, 1783–1815. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Nash, Howard Pervear. The Forgotten Wars: The Role of the U.S. Navy in the Quasi War with France and the Barbary Wars, 1798–1805. South Brunswick, N.J.: Barnes, 1968.

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

Marion V.Brewington/h. s.

See alsoConvention of 1800 ; France, Relations with ; French Decrees .

Quasi‐War With France

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