The XYZ Affair: Diplomatic Intrigue and a Quasi-War with France

| | February 22, 2021

The United States was formally born in 1776 when it declared itself independent from Great Britain. But when dealing with international diplomacy, there is no time for a learning curve — it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. 

This was something the United States learned early in its infancy when its friendly relationship with France was rocked by the United States government’s public airing of the French government’s political dirty laundry.  

What Was the XYZ Affair?

The XY and Z Affair was a diplomatic incident that occurred when attempts by the French foreign minister to secure a loan to France — as well as a personal bribe in exchange for a meeting — were rejected by American diplomats and made public in the United States. This incident led to an undeclared war at sea between the two countries.

The event was largely interpreted as a provocation, and so led to the Quasi-War between the United States and France fought between 1797 and 1799.

The Background

Once upon a time, France and the United States had been allies during the American Revolution, when France greatly contributed to America’s victory for independence against France’s own centuries-long arch-nemesis, Great Britain. 

But this relationship had grown distant and strained after the French Revolution — which was only a few years after America thwarted their overbearing monarchy — and as the United States started taking its first steps as a country. France’s costly wars in Europe made them hard to rely on for trade and diplomacy, and the British actually seemed to be more aligned with the path of the newly-born United States. 

But relations between the United States and France were deep, especially among “Jeffersonians” (the title of those who followed the political ideals put forth by Thomas Jefferson — limited government, an agricultural economy, and close relations with France, among other things). 

Yet at the end of the 18th century, French government apparently didn’t see things that way, and the once healthy relationship between the two quickly became toxic.

The Beginning of the End

It all started in 1797, when French ships began attacking American merchant ships on the open seas. John Adams, who had recently been elected president (and who was also the first person not named “George Washington” to hold office), could not tolerate this. 

But he also didn’t want war, much to the chagrin of his Federalist pals. So, he agreed to send a special diplomatic delegation to Paris to meet the French foreign minister Charles-Marquis de Talleyrand, negotiate an end to this problem and, hopefully, avoid war between the two nations. 

The delegation was made up of Elbridge Gerry, a prominent politician from Massachusetts, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and a member of the Electoral College; Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the ambassador to France at the time; and John Marshall, a lawyer who would later serve as a Congressman, Secretary of State, and eventually as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. All together, they formed a diplomatic dream team.

The Affair

The affair itself refers to the attempts made by the French to solicit a bribe from the Americans. Essentially, Talleyrand, upon hearing of the delegation’s arrival in France, refused to meet formally and said he would only do so if the Americans provided the French government with a loan, as well as a payment directly to him — you know, for all the trouble he went through putting this shindig together. 

But Talleyrand did not make these requests himself. Instead, he sent three French diplomats to do his bidding, specifically Jean-Conrad Hottinguer (X), Pierre Bellamy (Y), and Lucien Hauteval (Z).

The Americans refused to negotiate in this way and demanded to meet with Talleyrand formally, and although they managed to do so in the end, they failed to get him to agree to stop attacking American ships. Two of the diplomats were then asked to leave France, with one, Elbridge Gerry, staying behind to try and continue negotiations.

De Talleyrand began maneuvering to separate Gerry from the other commissioners. He extended a “social” dinner invitation to Gerry, which the latter, seeking to maintain communications, planned to attend. The matter heightened distrust of Gerry by Marshall and Pinckney, who sought guarantees that Gerry would limit any representations and agreements he might consider. Despite seeking to refuse informal negotiations, all of the commissioners ended up having private meetings with some of De Talleyrand’s negotiators.

Elbridge Gerry was placed in a difficult position upon his return to the United States. Federalists, spurred by John Marshall’s accounts of their disagreements, criticized him for abetting the breakdown of the negotiations.

Why Is it Called the XYZ affair?

When the two diplomats who had been forced to leave France returned to the United States, there was an uproar in Congress over the affair. 

On the one hand, hawkish (meaning they had an appetite for war, not some kind of hawk-like appearance) Federalists — the first political party that had emerged in the United States and that favored strong central government as well as close ties with Great Britain — felt this was a purposeful provocation from the French government, and they wanted to immediately begin preparing for war. 

President John Adams, also a Federalist, agreed with this perspective and acted on it by ordering the expansion of both the federal army and navy. But he didn’t want to go so far as to actually declare war — an attempt to appease the parts of American society still connected to France.

These Francophiles, the Democratic-Republicans, who saw Federalists as far too buddy-buddy to the British Crown and who had compassion for the cause of the new French Republic, staunchly opposed any whiff of war, suspecting and even going so far as to accuse Adams’ administration of exaggerating the events to encourage conflict. 

This butting-of-heads caused the two parties to actually band together, with both demanding the release of the debriefs associated with the diplomatic meeting in Paris. 

Their motivations for doing so were quite different, though — the Federalists wanted proof war was necessary, and the Democratic-Republicans wanted evidence Adams was a warmongering liar. 

With Congress insisting on the release of these documents, Adams’ administration had no choice but to make them public. But knowing their contents, and the scandal they would surely cause, Adams chose to remove the names of the French diplomats involved and replaced them with the letters W, X, Y, and Z. 

When the press got ahold of the reports, they jumped on this obviously deliberate omission and turned the story into an 18th century sensation. It was dubbed the “XYZ Affair” in papers all over the country, making these the three most famous alphabetical mystery men in all of history. 

Poor W got left out of the headline, probably because the “WXYZ Affair” is a mouthful. Too bad for him.

Federalists used the dispatches to question the loyalty of pro-French Democratic-Republicans; this attitude contributed to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, restricting the movements and actions of foreigners, and limiting speech critical of the government.

There were a couple of prominent individuals who were prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts. Chief among them was Matthew Lyon, a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont. He was the first individual to be placed on trial under the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was indicted in 1800 for an essay he had written in the Vermont Journal accusing the administration of “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.”

While awaiting trial, Lyon commenced publication of Lyon’s Republican Magazine, subtitled “The Scourge of Aristocracy”. At trial, he was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four months in jail. After his release, he returned to Congress.

After the passage of the highly unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts, protests occurred across the country, with some of the largest being seen in Kentucky, where the crowds were so large they filled the streets and the entire town square. Noting the outrage among the populace, the Democratic-Republicans made the Alien and Sedition Acts an important issue in the 1800 election campaign. 

READ MORE: How 18th Century France Made The Modern Media Circus

The Quasi-War with France

The XYZ Affair inflamed American sentiment towards France, as the Federalists took supreme offense to the demand made for a bribe by the French agents. They even went so far as to see it as a declaration of war, seemingly proving what they had already believed when the American delegation returned to the United States. 

Some Democratic-Republicans also saw things this way, but many still weren’t keen on a conflict with France. But, at this time, they didn’t have much argument against it. Some even believed Adams had told his diplomats to refuse to pay the bribe on purpose, so that this exact scenario they found themselves in would happen and the belligerent Federalists (whom they mistrusted greatly) could have their excuse for war. 

Many Democratic-Republicans, though, were saying this issue wasn’t a big deal. At the time, paying bribes to diplomats in Europe was par for the course. That the Federalists all of a sudden had some moral objection to this, and that this objection was strong enough to send the nation to war, seemed a little fishy to Thomas Jefferson and his small-government cronies. They therefore still opposed military action, but were very much in the minority.

So, caution thrown to the wind, the Federalists — who controlled the House and the Senate, as well as the presidency — began making preparations for war. 

But President John Adams never asked Congress for a formal declaration. He didn’t want to go that far. No one did, really. Hence why it was called a “Quasi-War” — the two sides fought, but it was never made official.

Fighting on the High Seas

In the wake of the 1789 French Revolution, relations between the new French Republic and U.S. federal government, originally friendly, became strained. In 1792, France and the rest of Europe went to war, a conflict in which President George Washington declared American neutrality.

However, both France and Great Britain, the major naval powers in the war, seized ships of neutral powers (including those of the United States) that traded with their enemies. With the Jay Treaty, ratified in 1795, the United States reached an agreement on the matter with Britain that angered members of the Directory that governed France.

Jay’s Treaty, was a 1794 treaty between the United States and Great Britain that averted war, resolved issues remaining since the Treaty of Paris of 1783 (which ended the American Revolutionary War).

The French Navy consequently stepped up its efforts to interdict American trade with Britain.

Throughout 1798 and 1799, the French and the Americans fought a series of naval battles in the Caribbean, which, when strung together, are called the Pseudo-War with France. But at the same time, the diplomats in Paris were talking again — the Americans had called Talleyrand’s bluff by not paying his bribe and then proceeding to prepare for war. 

And France, which was in the nascent stage of its republic, had neither the time nor the money to fight a costly transatlantic war with the United States. Of course, the United States didn’t really want war either. They just wanted French ships to leave the American ships alone — like, let them sail in peace. It’s a big ocean, you know? Plenty of room for everyone. But since the French didn’t want to see things this way, the United States needed to act.

This mutual desire to avoid spending a ton of money killing each other eventually got the two sides talking once again. They wound up nullifying the Alliance of 1778, which was signed during the American Revolution, and coming to new terms during the Convention of 1800. 

The Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine, was signed on September 30, 1800, by the United States of America and France. The difference in name was due to Congressional sensitivity at entering into treaties, due to disputes over the 1778 treaties of Alliance and Commerce between France and the US.

It brought the fighting to an end, but it also left the United States with no formal allies moving forward.

Understanding the XYZ Affair

Leading up to the XYZ Affair, the United States had worked hard to establish a neutral stance in the conflicts going on in Europe at the time, which were mainly France vs. Everybody Else. But as the United States would learn throughout its history, true neutrality is almost impossible. 

As a result, the friendship between the two countries sputtered in the years after the American Revolution. French imperial ambitions clashed with America’s desire to assert itself as an independent nation capable of defending itself in the chaotic, relentless world of international relations.

Such differing ambitions meant that conflict of some sort was inevitable. And when French ministers insisted on bribes and other preconditions in order to even begin negotiating a resolution of the two nations’ differences, and then when that affair was made public for the consumption of American citizens, there was no avoiding the fight. 

Yet, the two sides surprisingly managed to sort out their differences (how many times has that actually happened throughout history?), and they were able to restore peace between them while only ever engaging in minor naval conflicts.

This was an important thing to happen, as it showed that the United States could stand up to its more powerful European counterparts while also helping to begin the repair of the relationship between the two countries. 

And this rediscovered goodwill would end up paying off when Thomas Jefferson, seeking new lands to add to the young American republic, approached France’s leader — some guy by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte — about acquiring the vast lands of the Louisiana Territory, a deal that would eventually be known as “The Louisiana Purchase.” 

This exchange ended up dramatically altering the course of the nation’s history and helped to set the stage for the turbulent Antebellum Era — a time which saw the nation radically divide itself over the issue of slavery before descending into a civil war that would cost more Americans their lives than any other war in history.

So, while the XYZ Affair may have led to tensions and very nearly an unforgiving war with a powerful former-ally, we can easily say that is also helped propel US history in a new direction, defining its story and the nation it would become.  

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