French Diplomacy 1797-1798: The XYZ Affair
French Diplomacy 1797-1798

XYZ Affair

In a nutshell, the XYZ Affair was a major crisis in the diplomatic relations between the United States and France.

Image Above
The "French Argument" makes sure that the National Sack is filled, collecting Diplomatic Perquisites in the process.

Perquisites, by the way, are any casual emolument, fee, or profit, attached to an office or position in addition to salary or wages.

Detail from a British political cartoon, published on June 1, 1798.

Library of Congress

The situation deteriorated to such an extent that the two countries fought an undeclared naval war, mainly in the Caribbean Sea.

This military engagement is also called the Quasi War.


The Background

On February 6, 1778, the U.S. and France signed two treaties:

- a Treaty of Alliance, which agreed on a military coalition against Great Britain, and

- a Treaty of Amity and Commerce

In the United States, a pro-French / anti-Britain and an anti-French / pro-Britain sentiment emerged.

On April 22, 1793, President Washington opted for a third option — neutrality.

The Proclamation of Neutrality 1793

A Proclamation

Whereas it appears that a state of war exists between Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain, and the United Netherlands, of the one part, and France on the other; and the duty and interest of the United States require, that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers;

I have therefore thought fit by these presents to declare the disposition of the United States to observe the conduct aforesaid towards those Powers respectfully; and to exhort and warn the citizens of the United States carefully to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsoever, which may in any manner tend to contravene such disposition.

And I do hereby also make known, that whatsoever of the citizens of the United States shall render himself liable to punishment or forfeiture under the law of nations, by committing, aiding, or abetting hostilities against any of the said Powers, or by carrying to any of them those articles which are deemed contraband by the modern usage of nations, will not receive the protection of the United States, against such punishment or forfeiture; and further, that I have given instructions to those officers, to whom it belongs, to cause prosecutions to be instituted against all persons, who shall, within the cognizance of the courts of the United States, violate the law of nations, with respect to the Powers at war, or any of them.

In testimony whereof, I have caused the seal of the United States of America to be affixed to these presents, and signed the same with my hand. Done at the city of Philadelphia, the twenty-second day of April, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the seventeenth.

George Washington
April 22, 1793

Source: The Avalon Project

Check this event in the timeline of the French Revolutionary Wars

On November 19, 1794, the
Jay Treaty was signed between the U.S. and Great Britain. This treaty was formally called the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation, and the French weren't amused.

On July 2, 1796, France issued a law by which it legalized the confiscation of neutral American merchant ships.

Tension grew. The diplomatic relations between the U.S. and France declined. If war was to be avoided, something had to be done.


The Attempt to Mend Diplomatic Relations

As the President of the Unites States, John Adams was inclined to continue Washington's neutral approach.

Adam's vice president, Thomas Jefferson, was very much pro-France, however.

In 1797, President Adams sent a group of three diplomats to France, in order to negotiate maritime rights for commercial U.S. shipping as well as compensation for confiscated goods and captured vessels.

John Adams (1735-1826)

John Adams
U.S. President 1797-1801


These 3 diplomats were Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Envoys Extraordinary and Ministers Plenipotentiary from the United States of America to the French Republic.

Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814)   John Marshall (1755-1835)   Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825)
Elbridge Gerry
  John Marshall
  Charles Cotesworth Pinckney


Their goal was, of course, trying to meet with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand.

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand




The XYZ Affair Unfolds

In October 1797, the U.S. diplomats arrived at Paris, but Talleyrand refused to receive them.

Instead, they were approached by 4 French diplomats — Nicholas Hubbard, Jean Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval who in diplomatic correspondence were later referred to as W, X, Y, and Z.

Thus, to be exact, the XYZ Affair was actually the WXYZ affair.

  Jean Hottinguer    
Nicholas Hubbard (W)   Jean Hottinguer (X)   Pierre Bellamy (Y)   Lucien Hauteval (Z)


What message did the French diplomats carry?

It boiled down to this:

Talleyrand would be willing to meet and to negotiate with the Americans if

- the United States would grant France a loan

- the United States would step back from and take care of American merchant claims against France

- Talleyrand would be given a decent personal bribe



Recent Events in France

Just a quick reminder of some of the recent key events in France, to put the XYZ Affair into its proper historical context:

On July 14, 1789, a Paris mob stormed the Bastille, which was the beginning of the  French Revolution.

On September 21, 1792, France formally abolished the monarchy and became a Republic.

On January 21, 1793, the French guillotined their former King Louis XVI.

By October 1797, when the American diplomats arrived, France was led by the  Directory. (See also  Governments of France)

And on October 17, 1797, the French had just signed the Treaty of Campo Formio which declared France the victor of the War of the First Coalition.



The Response

Besides being utterly outraged, the U.S. delegation had serious doubts that any compliance with the French demands would help the original issue (French-American agreement on international commercial shipping rights) in the long run.

The American envoys did not comply.

Talleyrand, seeing that he had gotten nowhere with his stipulations, finally met with the U.S. diplomats. But for him, it was out of the question to leave American ships be.

That was it for Pinckney and Marshall, who decided to pack their bags and called a cab for their trip to the airport. Interestingly, Gerry stayed put.


Back in the States

Consequently, President Adams prepared for war. To justify his decision, he had to release documentation of this diplomatic incident, which he did in April 1798, and in which he replaced the names of the French diplomats with W, X, Y, and Z.

I will never send another minister to France without assurances that he will be received, respected, and honored as the representative of a great, free, powerful, and independent nation.

John Adams
June 21, 1798
Message to the Senate and House


An undeclared naval war ensued.


The Quasi-War

The Quasi War was fought from July 7, 1798, until September 30, 1800.

The U.S. Navy captured more than 80 French ships.


The Revenue Cutter Eagle Chases and Captures the French Sloop Bon Pere - Near Antigua, Caribbean - April 1799
The Revenue Cutter Eagle Chases and Captures the French Sloop Bon Pere
Near Antigua, Caribbean - April 1799

The Eagle, so tells us the U.S. Coast Guard, was the most successful of the
revenue cutters. It captured ten French vessels and retook four American prizes.

Painting by Wendell Minor


Talleyrand saw it fit to kiss up and let it be known that France was ready to receive U.S. diplomats. This time for real.

On September 30, 1800, the Treaty of Morfontaine, also called the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce, was concluded between the United States and France.

This was the end of the Quasi-War.


Whatever Happened to Gerry, Marshall, and Pinckney?

Gerry was criticized in abundance for staying in Paris after Marshall and Pinckney had left. In 1810, he became governor of Massachusetts. In 1812, he was elected vice president of the United States under President James Madison.

Marshall became the fourth Chief Justice of the United States on February 4, 1801, and served as such for 34 years. The Superintendent of the U.S. Government Printing Office tells us,

Under Marshall, the Supreme Court emerged as a prestigious, powerful, and equal third branch of the government. By defining the role of the Court in a number of pioneering decisions, Marshall set forth the principles by which the Constitution is still interpreted today. He emphasized national supremacy over the interests of the individual states, as well as the protection of property rights.

In 1819, Marshall wrote,

The Constitution is intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.

A former soldier, Pinckney ran for president, losing in 1804 to Thomas Jefferson, and in 1808 to James Madison. He then worked as a lawyer in his hometown Charleston, South Carolina.





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