XYZ Affair

1797–1800

The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic scandal between the United States and France that led to an undeclared naval war known as the Quasi-War. The XYZ Affair played a significant role in shaping American foreign policy and domestic politics, and contributed to the political divide that eventually led to the Civil War.

XYZ Affair, Summary, Facts, Significance, Overview, APUSH

Founding Father John Adams was President during the XYZ Affair, which raised tensions between the United States and France. The diplomatic scandal led to the Quasi-War and the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Image Source: White House Historical Association.

What was the XYZ Affair?

XYZ Affair Summary

The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic scandal between France and the United States caused by French officials trying to bribe American diplomats in 1797. When the scandal was exposed, anti-French sentiment rose in America, and the slogan “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute” became popular. As a result, the two nations became entangled in an undeclared naval known as the Quasi-War. Peace was restored in 1800, but the XYZ Affair had serious long-term effects on the United States. The press was critical of President John Adams and Congress for how the affair was handled, which led to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Two Southern states — Virginia and Kentucky — passed resolutions that said the laws were unconstitutional and that the states had a right to “nullify” the acts. Later, the concept of Nullification became a direct cause of the Civil War.

Quasi War, Constellation v L'Insurgente, Painting
The XYZ Affair led to the Quasi-War with France. This painting by Rear Admiral John William Schmidt depicts the battle between the USS Constellation (left) and the French frigate L’Insurgente on February 9, 1799. The Constellation won the battle, marking the first victory for the U.S. Navy over a foreign warship. Image Source: Wikimedia.

XYZ Affair Quick Facts

  • Part of — The XYZ Affair was part of the French Neutrality Crisis.
  • Location — The events of the XYZ Affair took place in France, but had a significant impact in the United States.
  • PresidentJohn Adams was President during the XYZ Affair.
  • Vice President — Thomas Jefferson was Vice President during the scandal.
  • Minister to France — The American minister — or ambassador — to France was Charles C. Pinckney.
  • Result — The scandal led to anti-French sentiment in the United States, the founding of the U.S. Navy, and the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • Outcome — The outcome of the XYZ Affair was an undeclared naval war between the United States and France known as the Quasi-War.
  • Slogan – The popular slogan was: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” It was first used by Massachusetts Representative Samuel Sewell on April 8, 1798.

XYZ Affair Dates

  • Date Started — The XYZ Affair does not have an exact start date, but the American diplomats were sent to France in July 1797.
  • Date Ended — The scandal has no exact end date, but Elbridge Gerry returned to the United States in October 1798. Peace was restored between the United States and France in 1800.

XYZ Affair Significance

The XYZ Affair is important to United States history for the role it played in developing America’s foreign policy and the establishment of Nullification. The events surrounding the incident were fueled by partisan politics and outrageous speculation by newspapers and led to:

  • The undeclared Quasi-War with France.
  • The passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.
  • The increased division between political parties would contribute to the Civil War.

The events also put a hold on the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two icons of the American Revolution. They would rekindle their friendship later in life, but only through letters.

XYZ Affair Overview and History

Events Leading to the XYZ Affair

France went to war with Britain in 1793. France, who had played a major role in the American Revolution, was expecting the United States to support it against England, due to the Franco-American Alliance of 1778.

However, President George Washington did not believe the new nation could afford a war. The United States declared it was neutral.

The series of events related to the tension between the United States and France is known as the French Neutrality Crisis. The crisis started withe Citizen Genet Affair in 1793.

The Jay Treaty Damages the Relationship with France

However, the following year, the United States signed a treaty with England that was meant to keep the peace between them.

The Jay Treaty was not popular in the United States, and it was not popular with France, who viewed it as the Americans siding with the English.

France retaliated by seizing American merchant ships that were trading with Britain.

John Adams is Elected President

On September 17, 1796, President Washington published his “Farewell Address.” He announced he would not seek a third term as President.

This led to the contentious Presidential Election of 1796, which resulted in John Adams being elected as the second President, and Thomas Jefferson being elected as Vice-President.

Although Adams and Jefferson were close friends due to their service during the American Revolutionary War and the Confederation Congress, they were members of different political parties.

Adams was a member of the Federalist Party. Jefferson was a member of the rival Democratic-Republican Party.

Adams was inaugurated on Saturday, March 4, 1797, and inherited the trouble with France.

The XYZ Affair Begins

President John Adams set out right away to try to ease tensions with France. He met with Vice President Thomas Jefferson to discuss sending emissaries to France to join Charles C. Pinckney, America’s ambassador to France.

President George Washington had sent Pinckney to negotiate with the French, but the French government refused to meet with him.

President Adams suggested sending Elbridge Gerry and James Madison to join Pinckney.

However, members of Adams’s cabinet, who were Federalists, opposed sending Madison. Madison was a member of the Democratic-Republican Party and a political opponent.

When Adams decided to remove Madison from consideration, Jefferson was disappointed and viewed it as Adams giving in to party politics.

On the other side, Adams saw Jefferson’s unwillingness to accept another Federalist as the second emissary as falling in line with the Democratic-Republican Party.

From that point forward, according to Jefferson, Adams never again sought his opinion on political matters.

John Marshall, a Federalist, eventually joined Gerry as the second emissary to France.

On March 13, word reached President Adams that the French government had refused to meet with Pinckney. Pinckney had gone to Amsterdam and was waiting on instructions from the President.

American Military Buildup

Meanwhile, French ships were reported to have seized American ships in the Caribbean. Adams found himself caught in the middle of a political mess.

His own party, the Federalists, was in favor of war with France, while the Democratic-Republicans were staunchly opposed. In his inaugural address, Adams had promised to pursue peace, and the Democratic-Republicans were more than happy to remind him of it.

Adams planned to send his emissaries to France, but called a special session of Congress on May 16, 1797, and asked for a military build-up for a potential conflict. In his speech, he said:

“While we are endeavoring to adjust all our differences with France by amicable negotiation, with the progress of the war in Europe, the depredations on our commerce, the personal injuries to our citizens, and the general complexion of our affairs, render it my duty to recommend your consideration of effectual measures of defense.”

On July 1, 1797, Congress passed “An Act providing a Naval Armament.” The act provided money for crews and equipment for three frigates — the Constitution, the United States, and the Constellation. 

American Emissaries in France

The emissaries left for France in the summer. Through the fall and winter, President Adams received very little correspondence from them, and the few letters they sent were not encouraging. The emissaries were concerned the French would not see them, just as they had refused Pinckney.

French Demands in the XYZ Affair

Finally, on March 4, 1798, word was officially received that the French government had refused to see the Americans. France had also closed its seaports to ships from neutral nations and permitted its ships to capture any ship suspected of carrying British goods.

Adams then learned that the American envoys had been granted a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, the Marquis de Talleyrand, in October. The meeting was brief and was followed over the next few days, by visits from four agents, acting on behalf of Tallyrand:

  • Nicholas Hubbard
  • Jean Conrad Hottinguer
  • Pierre Bellamy
  • Lucien Hauteval

The agents delivered a simple message to the Americans — Tallyrand was willing to meet with them, but only if they met certain conditions.

  1. The United States would provide France with a low-interest loan.
  2. The United States would assume and pay all the claims made by American merchants against France.
  3. The United States would pay a substantial bribe to Marquis de Talleyrand.

The Americans refused the demands. 

On March 19, Adams notified Congress that the diplomatic mission had failed and again called for the United States to make preparations for war with France.

Adams did not want to release the letters with the details about the failed negotiations and the bribery, because he thought it would endanger the lives of Gerry, Pinckney, and Marshall.

A political cartoon depicting five Frenchmen plundering America. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The XYZ Affair is Exposed in the United States

The Democrat-Republicans, who wanted France to win its war with Britain, were adamant that Adams was withholding information from them. They refused to believe the allegations that the Foreign Minister had demanded bribes and believed they would prove France was ready to negotiate.

On Monday, April 2, the House of Representatives voted in favor of demanding the President release the full text of the dispatches from France. Adams agreed because he knew the envoys were safely out of France. He also knew the documents would support his call to arms.

In the versions Adams sent to Congress, he did not state the names of the French intermediaries.

Instead, he used the codes the American emissaries used to refer to each of them.

  • Hubbard (W)
  • Hottinguer (X)
  • Bellamy (Y)
  • Hauteval (Z)

The documents were released the next day and eventually leaked to the public. 

Although the truth was out, the Democrat-Republicans tried to make excuses and blamed Adams and his call for a military buildup as the cause of Tallyrand’s demands.

XYZ Affair Slogan — Millions for Defense but Not One Cent for Tribute

Public opinion against the French was strong. On April 8, 1798, Massachusetts Representative Samuel Sewell called on Congress to take action on the President’s call to prepare for war. The rallying cry became, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”

The XYZ Affair Triggers the Quasi-War

When the United States refused to meet his demands, Talleyrand gave in and met with the American emissaries. He dropped his demands for money but refused to stop the seizure of American merchant ships.

Congress responded by allowing American warships to attack armed French ships. War was not officially declared. Instead, this is known as the Quasi-War.

Federalists Respond to Criticism Over the XYZ Affair with the Alien and Sedition Acts

The popularity of Adams and the Federalists rose.

In the elections of 1798, the Federalists increased their majority in the House of Representatives.

This led to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, four laws that placed new restrictions on aliens living in the United States and made it illegal to make false or libelous statements about the federal government or the President.

Democratic-Republican Leaders Respond with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves

The Democrat-Republicans believed the Alien and Sedition Acts were aimed at silencing them and their supporters.

In response, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in secret, wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which challenged the Alien and Sedition Acts on the grounds that they went beyond the powers specifically granted to the federal government in the U.S. Constitution.

Such an extension of federal power was an encroachment on states’ rights. The Resolutions brought the idea of nullification into play, meaning states could nullify federal law, or declare it unenforceable within their borders.

James Madison, Painting
Founding Father James Madison was a Democrat-Republican and the author of the Virginia Resolutions against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Peace with France Restored

Fortunately, the French government rescinded its demands and Adams responded by proposing another peace mission. In 1780, the Treaty of Mortefontaine restored peace between the United States and France.

Important Facts About the XYZ Affair

Who Were X, Y, and Z?

In the versions of the letters President John Adams sent to Congress, he did not state the names of the French intermediaries. Instead, he used the codes the American emissaries used to refer to them.

  • Hubbard (W)
  • Hottinguer (X)
  • Bellamy (Y)
  • Hauteval (Z)

XYZ Affair Impact on Foreign Relations and the Establishment of the U.S. Navy

  • The scandal raised tensions between the United States and France.
  • It increased anti-French and pro-war passion in the United States.
  • Members of the Federalist Party rallied around the slogan, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.”
  • Congress re-established the United States Navy to protect American merchant ships.
  • The affair resulted in an undeclared war with France known as the Quasi-War.
  • Public criticism of the President and Congress led to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.
  • France and the United States negotiated their differences by 1800 and avoided a formal war.

Long-Term Effects of the XYZ Affair

  • Founding Fathers James Madison and Thomas Jefferson thought the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional and illegal. They were also members of the Democratic-Republican Party, which opposed the Federalists.
  • They wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.
  • The Resolutions challenged the authority of the Federal government.
  • Madison and Jefferson argued that the United States was formed as a compact between the states and that the Constitution established the rules of that compact.
  • If the federal government, afterward, passed legislation that went beyond the powers specifically delegated to it in the Constitution, then the legislation was null and void.
  • The idea that states could declare federal legislation null and void is known as “nullification.”
  • Nullification was a primary concept behind the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, which led to the Nullification Crisis (1832–1833).
  • Ultimately, Nullification proved to be a direct cause of the Civil War.

XYZ Affair Timeline

This list shows the main events before and after the XYZ Affair, and how it fits into the chronological order of the French Neutrality Crisis and the early years of the United States under the Constitution.

XYZ Affair APUSH

Use the following links and videos to study the XYZ Affair, the Federalist Era, and the John Adams Administration for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

XYZ Affair Definition

The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic scandal between the United States and France in 1797–1798. It was caused by tension between the two countries during the French Revolution. The incident involved the negotiation of a new treaty between the United States and France by American envoys to France, John Marshall, Elbridge Gerry, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. The envoys were approached by three French agents, who became known as X, Y, and Z, and were asked to pay a bribe and make a loan to the French government in exchange for negotiating a treaty. The Americans refused to pay the bribe, but the French request caused a public outcry in the United States and led to the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war with France. The crisis was eventually resolved with the Convention of 1800.

XYZ Affair Video

This video from The History Guy summarizes the XYZ Affair and its significance to U.S. history.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title XYZ Affair
  • Date 1797–1800
  • Author
  • Keywords XYZ Affair, XYZ Affair Summary, XYZ Affair Facts, XYZ Affair Significance, XYZ Affair Overview, XYZ Affair History, Who was President during the XYZ Affair, What was the XYZ Affair, When was the XYZ Affair, How did the XYZ Affair lead to the Quasi War, XYZ Affair APUSH
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 12, 2024

Taxonomies