Portrait of John Adams.

John Adams was President during the XYZ Affair.

XYZ Affair

1797–1798

The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic incident between France and the United States that resulted in a limited, undeclared naval war with France known as the Quasi-War.

The XYZ Affair was a political incident between France and the United States that resulted in a limited, undeclared war known as the Quasi-War (1798-1800). The indecent also played a pivotal role in the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

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 Treaty of 1778. However, President George Washington did not believe the new nation could afford a war. The United States declared it was neutral.

Impact of the Jay Treaty on Franco-American Relations

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 ships that were trading with Britain.

Adams Wins the Presidency

On September 17, 1796, President Washington published his “Farewell Address,” announcing that 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 elected as Vice-President. Adams was inaugurated on Saturday, March 4, 1797, and inherited the trouble with France.

Political Bickering Sets the Stage for War

Adams set out right away to try to ease tensions with France. Adams met with Jefferson to discuss sending emissaries to France to join the ambassador to France, Charles C. Pinckney. Washington had sent Pinckney, but the French 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, were 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.

“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, and Congress passed the Act Providing 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. They were concerned the French would not see them, just as they had rebuffed Pinckney before.

Talleyrand’s Outrageous Demands

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.

Political cartoon depicting five Frenchmen plundering America. Source: Library of Congress.

The Plot 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 excuse and blamed Adams and his call for a military buildup as the cause of Tallyrand’s demands.

Millions for Defense but Not One Cent for Tribute

However, public opinion against the French was strong. In response, 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.” American warships were given 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 its borders.

Peace is Achieved

Fortunately, the French government rescinded its demands.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

A Pivotal Moment in American History

The XYZ Affair is an important piece of a volatile time in American history. The events surrounding the incident were fueled by partisan politics and outrageous speculation by newspapers and led to:

  • Quasi-War
  • Alien and Sedition Acts
  • Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
  • Further division between political parties that would ultimately lead 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.

More Information on the XYZ Affair

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title XYZ Affair
  • Coverage 1797–1798
  • Author
  • Keywords xyz affair, john adams, quasi-war
  • Website Name American History Central
  • URL
  • Access Date May 29, 2020
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 12, 2020

Study Guides for the 2020 AP Exam

Get the study guides for history and U.S. politics from Amazon.com and get ready for your 2020 AP exams!

GET THE BEST OF AMERICAN HISTORY CENTRAL DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX!
SIGN UP
By signing up for this email, you are agreeing to receive news, offers, updates, and additional information from R.Squared Communications, LLC and American History Central. Easy unsubscribe links are included in every email.
CLOSE [X]