The Quasi-War

Apple | Spotify | Amazon | Player.FM | TuneIn
Castbox | Podurama | Podcast Republic | RSS | Patreon

Podcast Transcript

In the big scheme of things, the United States is a rather young country. Yet, during its history, it has managed to declare war on a shockingly large number of European countries, including Britain, Spain, Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. 

Yet, through all the turmoil, there is one country the US has never gone to war with….France.

Except for that time when we sort of, kind of, did. 

Learn more about Quasi-War and how the US sort of went to war with France without actually going to war with France on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In previous episodes, in particular the episode on the Battle of Yorktown, I noted how the United States owes its independence to France. 

If it weren’t for the support of France during the Revolutionary War, the American colonists probably never would have won. Granted, France wasn’t doing this out of the kindness of their heart, and it was really more of a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” but nonetheless, France’s help was vital in the cause for independence. 

However, it wasn’t generically “France” that assisted the United States. It was the King of France. All of the aid given to the colonists was done by the Ancien Régime, which is the name given to the system under the French Monarchy. 

In return, the newly independent United States, who had just broken free of their king, served as inspiration for the revolutionaries in France, who, just a few years later, started a revolution of their own. 

You would think that these two new republics would be great friends, given how much they had in common. There were French supporters of America, like the Marquis de Lafayette, who actually fought in the Continental Army. 

Likewise, there were Francophiles among the American founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. 

Both revolutions had similar intellectual roots, and there were almost no major issues of contention between the two countries, given how far apart they were from each other. 

But that isn’t what happened. Soon after the French Revolution began, tensions began to grow between the two republics. 

The first thing that caused a strain in the relationship was the American suspension of debt payments to France in 1793 after King Louis XVI was executed on January 21st of that year. 

The United States Congress reasoned that with the execution of the King and the establishment of a republic, all agreements with the Ancien Régime were null and void. 

The Americans argued that this didn’t just apply to debts but also to the treaties signed in 1778, which required the United States to provide assistance in the defense of the French West Indies in exchange for France’s support during the revolution. 

This was important because Britain joined the First Coalition and began waging war with France in 1793, and France expected the support of the United States against the British. 

In 1794, the Congress passed the Neutrality of Treaty of 1794 to ensure they didn’t get caught up in the growing European war. 

Jay Treaty of 1794 made things even worse.  

The Jay Treaty was officially called the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America.

John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, negotiated it. 

The treaty was an important one for the young American government, and it spelled out several things. 

First, the British removed forces from the Northwest Territory, what we today would call the Midwest. 

Second, it smoothed out trade and commercial relations between the two countries and gave each country most favored nation trading status with the other.

Third, it granted American farmers access to the Mississippi River, although not full navigation rights. 

Finally, it resolved many outstanding issues between the two countries, including debts incurred by American citizens to the British before the start of the war. 

The Jay Treaty and the Neutrality Act were both seen by the French as blatant violations of the treaties signed in 1778.

The Jay Treaty was also highly controversial within the United States. It was supported by Federalists like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who saw America’s future economic interests aligned with Britain.

However, opposed to the treaty were the Anti-Federalists, such as Thomas Jefferson, who thought that the United States should have a foreign policy oriented toward France.

Starting in late 1796, France began to respond to these perceived snubs by seizing American merchant ships bound for Great Britain. The French view was that these vessels were trading and abetting an enemy, so they were fair game. 

This wasn’t just a few ships, either. From October 1796 to June 1797, French privateers captured 316 ships, compromising 6% of the entire American merchant fleet, causing losses between $12 to $15 million. This was at a time when a million dollars was a whole lot of money.

The United States couldn’t do anything about it because, at that time, they had no navy. The small Continental Navy, which existed during the Revolutionary War, had been disbanded, and the last ship was sold in 1785. 

Without a navy, there was nothing the Americans could do to protect their shipping on the open seas. 

So, absent a military solution, the Americans sought a diplomatic solution. 

In July 1797, the now President John Adams sent a delegation to France to try and resolve the issue. Adams sent a high-level delegation consisting of John Marshall of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts to work with the current ambassador to France, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina.

When the men arrived in France, they were discretely contacted by individuals representing the French Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who is usually just referred to as Talleyrand. 

Talleyrand’s representatives requested substantial bribes and a loan from the men before negotiations could begin.

This sort of behavior was par for the course in Europe, and most representatives from European countries usually just paid the bribe, but the Americans were outraged. 

After getting nowhere with Talleyrand, Marshall and Pinckney left France in April 1798. Gerry stayed behind until he could be relieved by someone else with more authority because Talleyrand told him that if he left, France would declare war.

When the delegates got back to the United States, they debriefed President Adams, who then prepared a memorandum to Congress explaining what had happened, replacing the names of the men who reached out on behalf of Talleyrand with the letters X, Y, and Z. 

This became known as the XYZ Affair. 

The XYZ Affair sparked a wave of anti-French sentiment in the United States. 

It also sparked demands for improving the defensives of the young country.  Robert Goodloe Harper, a representative from South Carolina, uttered the phrase that became a rallying cry: “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.”

While the United States didn’t have a navy, there were events that transpired several years earlier in 1794. United States merchant ships were preyed upon by pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa. In response, Congress approved the creation of six large frigates. A frigate was a warship that only had one deck of guns. 

The first of these frigates, the USS United States, was launched on May 10, 1797. Later that year, the USS Constellation and the USS Constitution were launched.  The Constitution, which I did a previous episode on, is the world’s oldest commissioned naval warship still afloat.

In addition to the new navy, President Adams proposed raising a 20,000-man army and the creation of larger, multi-gun deck ships of the line. 

On June 18, Benjamin Stoddard was appointed the first Secretary of the Navy. 

On July 7, Congress approved the use of force against French ships in American territorial waters and also formally nullified the treaties with France that the government had previously argued had been nullified with the execution of the king.

This was actually a highly controversial measure. The US Constitution had only been approved a decade earlier, and it clearly gave Congress the power to declare war. 

However, this was not a declaration of war. This was authority for a limited action, and they really did not want things to spill over into a wider conflict. Over time, the Supreme Court eventually approved the legality of such policing actions, but this was the first time it became an issue. 

Because this was not a deceleration of war, it was considered a half-war or a quasi-war, which is how the conflict got its name.

In addition to the few frigates, there were also other vessels known as subscription ships, which were ships funded and built by individual US cities, as well as revenue cutters, which were light ships that enforced

By this time, the British had been able to keep most of the French navy in port or near the coast of France, leaving only lightly armed privateer ships to harass American ships in the Caribbean and off the coast of North America.

The Americans began a concerted effort to attack the privateers. They conducted raids over the next two years in the Caribbean and along the coast and the new navy performed quite well. It resulted in the capture of many French ships and the liberation of dozens of American merchant ships that had been previously captured.

There were a few notable sea battles. On February 9, 1799, the USS Constellation captured the 36-gun French frigate L’Insurgente. On February 2, 1800, the Constellation fought the larger 52-gun frigate, La Vengeance, to a draw.

Domestically, the aftermath of the XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War resulted in the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were severe restrictions on the movement of foreigners and on speech.  The Alien and Sedition Acts are worthy of their own future episode, but it was one of the first laws that tested the Constitution and the power of the Supreme Court.

What eventually changed and brought about the end of hostilities was the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The entire affair with the Americans was a distraction to Napoleon. 

After discussions with a private citizen by the name of George Logan, the French took unilateral steps to de-escalate the conflict. They lifted the embargo on the US and freed captured seamen. 

The Adams administration, angered by the actions of a private citizen, immediately passed the Logan Act, which prevents private citizens from negotiating with governments that the United States has a conflict with. The Logan Act is still law today. 

Logan aside, Adams sent a team of diplomats to France to negotiate with Napoleon’s government and agreed to end the conflict with the Treaty of Mortefontaine, also known as the Convention of 1800.

The treaty formally ended the previous treaties between the US and France and established the United States as a neutral party on the seas, thereby officially removing the United States as a possible belligerent in the Napoleonic wars. 

What the treaty did not do was address the over $20 million dollars in losses that American merchants and ship owners suffered at the hands of the French. 

While the American Navy fought well once they decided to join the fight in 1798, capturing 85 French privateers, their losses in total, including the previous years, were much greater.  Approximately 2,000 merchant ships were seized or had their cargo confiscated. 

It is widely thought that the Treaty of Mortefontaine laid the groundwork for the Louisiana Purchase a few years later. 

The Quasi-War wasn’t technically America’s first war after independence, but it was their first military conflict that wasn’t a declared war. The first of many over the next 250 years.

It also resulted in domestic changes such as the Alien and Sedition Act, which dramatically changed the direction of the young republic. 

It was also a low point in US-French relations—a point which the countries never returned to in 200 years.