The Scandal That Led America and France to War

Ryan Fan British political cartoon about the XYZ Affair — by SW Fores on Public Domain

It’s quite an understatement that France was quite a hectic place in the 1790s. Not only did it deal with the chaos of the French Revolution, but in 1793, France declared war on Great Britain. The new country of the United States, which wanted to stay out of European conflict, remained neutral. However, the tension between America and France grew significantly during the 1790s.

According to Elizabeth Nix at History, American and Great Britain signed Jay’s Treaty in 1794. France, believing that America violated several earlier treaties, started to seize many American merchant ships. According to the U.S. State Department, France caught American ships by surprise. President George Washington sent Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as the U.S. minister to France in 1796, but the French government refused to have him. The United States also refused to make debt payments to the French government from debts in the American Revolution, arguing that they made the deal with a different government.

Once John Adams was president, he sent an envoy of three ambassadors, Elbridge Gerry, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and John Marshall. The three of them found it very difficult to meet with the Foreign Minister, the Marquis de Talleyrand. Instead, they met with three French intermediaries, named Jean Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval. Other parties, including a French playwright, Pierre Beaumarchais, who provided aid to the U.S. during the American Revolution, also came to the meeting.

These intermediaries said that Talleyrand would be willing to meet with the American ambassadors — if certain agreements were met. They wanted America to give France a low-interest loan, pay American merchant claims against France, and, most egregiously, give a large bribe to Talleyrand.

“The U.S. envoys were shocked, and also skeptical that any concessions would bring about substantial changes in French policy,” The State Department wrote.

Talleyrand wanted the bribe to increase his personal wealth and strengthen his position in the French government. And he wanted to only deal with Elbridge Gerry, the ambassador who was the most friendly to the French interests. He intended to stop attacks on U.S. ships eventually, but as France gained military victories throughout Europe, just before Napoleon took power, the French changed the terms of the loan, and said they would invade the U.S. if the U.S. ambassadors didn’t agree to the terms.

According to C. James Taylor at the University of Virginia Miller Center, Talleyrand demanded $10 million for a loan and a $250,000 personal bribe. The U.S. ambassadors saw the event, rightfully so, as an insult. The Americans previously saw Talleyrand as a good choice for foreign minister, since he had lived in the United States from 1794 to. 1796. However, Talleyrand wanted either Aaron Burr or James Madison, leaders who had professed friendship to France.

The American envoys and Hottinguer, Bellamy, and Hauteval, would come to an impasse over the negotiations. The Americans wanted the French to stop attacking American ships — but the French refused since they had just broken off peace talks with Britain.

According to William Stinchcombe, a historian at Syracuse University, Hottinguer, Bellamy, and Hauteval would later be called X, Y, and Z respectively. In a report Adams gave about the scandal, he referred to them by letters. Hauteval was a wealthy West Indian sugar planter who had met Gerry before, and Hauteval met with Gerry to reassure him that Talleyrand wanted peace. Every time he talked with Gerry, Hauteval touted Talleyrand’s sincerity and reiterated that a loan and bribe were necessary. Hauteval’s responsibilities were not to speak for Talleyrand, as Stinchcombe refers to Hauteval as “a high-level errand boy without responsibility in the negotiations.”

A week later, Hottinguer and Bellamy appeared to up the demands on America. France had just signed a settlement with Austria at Campo Formio, and Austria also gave France Venice. France was also soon launching an attack on Great Britain. The two French diplomats went as far as to threaten to provoke civil war in the United States “by encouraging the partisans of France against the Federalists.” The Americans refused to pay any part of the bribe or loan.

Details then got sent to the American public to read in April 1798. Both sides were incredibly frustrated, but especially the Americans.

Gerry wrote:

“The fact is, As I conceive it, that a small cargo of Mexican dollars would be more efficient in a negotiation at present than two Cargoes of Ambassadors.”

Pinckney, even more upset, said:

“We experience a haughtiness which is unexampled in the history and practice of nations…and feel ourselves under the necessity of submitting to circumstances which make an impression to be worn out, you may be assured, only with life.”

However, the American envoys would stay in France for five more months. Talleyrand changed his agents so the Americans would not have to meet with Hottinguer and Bellamy. The new agents continued to put pressure on the Americans, and Talleyrand got involved too, chastising the envoys at a dinner party. He said the envoys were three thousand miles from home and should make the right decision to “preserve peace,” and that the problem needed a quick solution.

Although it was not uncommon at all for Talleyrand to accept bribes from diplomats, Stinchcombe notes that the Americans saw the event in a different way: “their interpretation of Talleyrand’s tactics focused only on the foreign minister’s corruption.”

Meanwhile, at home, America prepared for war. John Adams and pro-war Federalists pushed for Congress to support measures, but Democratic-Republicans like Jefferson and Madison were suspicious of Adams and his motives. They wanted Adams to release correspondence of the meetings in France, and Adams did. While it was called the XYZ affair, there were four French intermediaries whose names were replaced with W, X, Y, and Z.

Adams would continue to prepare for war, but he never declared war on France. It would be called the “Quasi-War.” Talleyrand tried to restore relations with the United States, and behind the scenes, the U.S. Navy ought the French in the Caribbean and offered support to Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture, who was trying to win Haitian independence from the French. The U.S. raised an army of 20,000 men. In 1799, a pacifist Quaker, George Logan, privately conducted negotiations with Talleyrand and returned to the U.S. saying he had peaceful intentions. That year, Congress passed the Logan Act, which criminalized unauthorized diplomatic negotiations.

While peace negotiations were occurring between the two countries, Napoleon came to power and wanted to take the Louisiana Territory from Spain. The British relished in the anti-French sentiment the scandal provoked against a common enemy.

What helped avoid war was John Adams. Adams noticed that France did not respond to American attacks on French ships. After all, once Napoleon was in power, he was obsessed with conquering Europe, evidenced by giving away Louisiana for only $3 million in 1803. The two countries avoided a full-scale war.

At home, however, fear of war with France led to mass hysteria. Adams and the Federalist Congress then passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of four laws that restricted the activities of foreign residents and limited freedom of speech and the press. According to History, Federalists accused Democratic-Republicans of being in league with France, and Alexander Hamilton called Jeffersonians “more Frenchmen than Americans” and accused Jefferson of being in love with France. Fear of a war with France was at an all-time high, evidenced by preparing an army of 20,000 and building up a navy.

But Adams and the Federalists also feared French spies in American society — the acts would be composed of the Naturalization Act, which increased residency requirements for U.S. citizenship to 14 years from five, the Alien Enemies Act, which permitted the government to arrest and deport all male citizens of an enemy country during war, the Alien Friends Act, which let the president deport any non-citizen suspected of plotting against the government, and the Sedition Act, which persecuted anyone who spoke out against the government or the president. The Sedition Act particularly outlawed anything that would “oppose any measure or measures of the government.”

The Alien and Sedition Acts led to at least 26 individuals being prosecuted, including many editors of Republican newspapers. Jordan Newport at the Lincoln Memorial University Law Review says the Sedition Act was unconstitutional. Widespread anger would result, leading to Adams’s defeat in the Election of 1800.

In the Convention of 1800, America and France ended the Quasi-War, and terminated a treaty of alliance between the United States and France. America wouldn’t enter another alliance for 150 years, helping keep itself out of war.


What if America and France had gone to war? What if it wasn’t just a naval war? No one knows what an alternative history would have entailed, but America lucked out with France’s priority being war in Europe.

I once heard, on the day after the 2020 Election while anxiously awaiting results, that John Adams was far worse than Donald Trump in suspending civil liberties. In the words of Ronald G. Shafer at the Washington Post,

“Though Adams was a Founding Father of the United States’ democracy, he couldn’t abide personal scorn. In July 1798, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts that, among other things, made it illegal to “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings” against the president and other executive branch officials.”

Glenn Greenwald mentions Adams as one of the worst presidents for civil liberties in America, comparing him to Bush’s actions in the War on Terror, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, and even Roosevelt’s interment of Japanese-Americans.

Is it easy to judge Adams and the Federalists in hindsight? Probably. But the suspension of civil liberties undoubtedly set a precedent for future presidents, including Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Bush — that in times of war, constitutional rights are optional.

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