XYZ Affair — the Foreign Relations Scandal that Shook the Adams Presidency


The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic scandal between France and the United States that resulted in a limited, undeclared naval war with France known as the Quasi-War. The scandal also contributed to sectionalism and the concept of Nullification, which were direct causes of the American Civil War.

John Adams, Portrait, Stuart

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.

XYZ Affair Summary

The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic scandal between France and the United States that happened when French officials tried to bribe American diplomats. When the plot was exposed, anti-French sentiment rose in America, and the slogan “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute” became popular. Congress re-established the United States Navy and American ships battled with French ships on the high seas in an undeclared naval war known as the Quasi-War. Although peace was finally restored with France, the XYZ Affair had serious long-term effects on the United States. The press was extremely critical of President John Adams and Congress for how the affair was handled. Congress responded by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and one of the acts made it a crime to criticize the government in the press. 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. The concept of Nullification would go on to be a direct cause of the American 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, the first victory for the U.S. Navy over a foreign warship. Image Source: Wikipedia.

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 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 those two nations. 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. In retaliation, France started 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 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 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

Adams set out right away to try to ease tensions with France. He met with Jefferson to discuss sending emissaries to France to join the ambassador to France, Charles C. Pinckney.

Washington had sent Pinckney to negotiate with the French, but the government refused to receive him. Adams suggested sending Elbridge Gerry and James Madison. However, members of Adams’s cabinet, who were Federalists, were staunchly opposed to Madison, a Democratic-Republican.

When Adams decided he needed to send someone else instead of Madison, Jefferson saw it as giving in to party politics. On the other side, Adams saw Jefferson’s unwillingness to accept another Federalist as the second emissary as following his party’s line. From that point forward, according to Jefferson, Adams never again sought his opinion on political matters. John Marshall would eventually join Gerry as an envoy 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.

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.

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.”

The emissaries left for France in the summer. 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. 

Through the fall and winter, there was little correspondence from the emissaries, and the few letters they sent were not encouraging. The emissaries were concerned the French would not see them, just as they had rebuffed Pinckney before.

French Demands in the XYZ Affair

Finally, on March 4, 1798 word was officially received that the French government had refused to see the American envoys. The French government had also closed all French ports to ships from neutral nations and gave permission to French ships to capture any ship they suspected of carrying British goods.

Adams learned that the American envoys had been granted a meeting with Foreign Minister Tallyrand in October. The meeting was brief. Over the next few days, the Americans were visited by agents on behalf of Tallyrand — Nicholas Hubbard, Jean Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval. The message delivered by the French visitors was simple — Tallyrand was willing to meet with the Americans, but only if they met certain conditions.

  • The United States would provide France with a low-interest loan.
  • The United States would assume and pay all the claims made by American merchants against France.
  • The United States would pay a substantial bribe to Foreign Minister Talleyrand.

The American envoys refused. 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, because he thought doing so would put the lives of Gerry, Pinckney, and Marshall in danger.

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

The XYZ Affair Exposed

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 that the American envoys had 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.”

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

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.

Virginia and Kentucky Respond

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 Restored with France

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.

XYZ Affair Significance

The XYZ Affair is significant because it is an important event in a volatile time in American history. 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 APUSH Notes and Study Guide

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

XYZ Affair APUSH Definition

XYZ Affair was a diplomatic crisis between the United States and France in 1797–1798 that was caused by the tensions between the two countries during the French Revolution. It 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 envoys refused, and the incident 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 through the agreement to a new treaty, the Convention of 1800.

XYZ Affair Video for APUSH Notes

This video from The History Guy provides a summary of the XYZ Affair and discusses its significance to U.S. history.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title XYZ Affair — the Foreign Relations Scandal that Shook the Adams Presidency
  • Date 1797–1798
  • Author
  • Keywords XYZ Affair, John Adams, Quasi-War, Alien and Sedition Acts, Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date December 3, 2023
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update September 13, 2023

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