What Was the XYZ Affair?
It is certainly one of the stranger named events in history. No, the XYZ Affair is not a romantic novel. It is not the title of a pop song. Nor is it a schoolyard abbreviation for “examine your zipper”. What was the XYZ Affair? The XYZ Affair was actually an incident between France and the United States in the late 1700s that led both countries to an undeclared Quasi-War.
The Jay Treaty
When the United States declared their independence in 1776, France proved to be a crucial ally for the new country, helping the Americans in their war effort against Great Britain. Starting around 1789, in the wake of the French Revolution, relations between the new French Republic and the administration of George Washington would become strained. In 1792, Louis XVI of France fell from power, and the monarchy was abolished. France would go to war with the rest of Europe, though America would remain neutral.
With Europe at war, tensions between the US and France would only worsen with the ratification of the Jay Treaty in 1795. This agreement between the US and Great Britain resolved many conflicts and issues that had lingered since the end of the American Revolution. The treaty also encouraged trade between the two nations.
France saw the Jay Treaty as indication that the US was siding with Britain. In retaliation, the French Navy began to disrupt efforts for American/British trade. France seized several merchant ships, which caught America by surprise.
When John Adams became President in 1797, this matter was reaching a boiling point. To try and restore harmony between the countries and show France that America wanted to remain neutral, President Adams sent three diplomats to France: Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
The Meeting in France
The three Americans were prepared to meet with French leaders, and hoped to come to an agreement similar to that of the Jay Treaty. The meeting, just like France’s attacks on merchant ships, was not what they expected.
They could not meet with the Foreign Minister Marquis de Talleyrand. Instead, they met with Jean Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval. These men told the Americans that there were several conditions that must be met if they hoped to stop any further attacks. One condition was America must pay Talleyrand a large personal bribe. Pinckney, of the American delegation, supposedly responded, “No! No! Not a sixpence!”
Preparation For War
When President Adams and other leaders in the United States heard of these outrageous conditions and how Talleyrand simply wanted money for personal gain, it caused an uproar. The United States began making preparations for war. However, not everyone in the US was excited about the prospect of another war. Individuals in the Democratic-Republican party wanted to know the exact conditions of Talleyrand’s demands, and wanted further clarity about what exactly happened in France. President Adams agreed, but when the conditions were released, none of the names of the individuals they met with were listed. Instead, they were listed as letters: X, Y, and Z. Hence the name, XYZ Affair.
Following the release of XYZ report, Congress began to authorize many defense measures. The Department of the Navy was formed, and construction of more warships began. In July 1798, Congress went so far as to allow American ships to attack French vessels. This led to an undeclared naval war known today as the Quasi-War.
By late 1800, both sides wanted this incident to be done with. Hostilities between the two nations would come to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine, which was ratified in 1801. America agreed to remain neutral toward France in the wars of Napoleon, and France would respect this American neutrality at sea.
While not often talked about today, the XYZ Affair and subsequent Quasi-War proved to be important events in shaping American foreign policy, especially toward what was a growing conflict in Europe. John Adams was credited for avoiding all out war, but his actions would ultimately cause a deeper rift between Federalists, and the pro-France leaning Democratic-Republicans.
A few years prior, George Washington had warned us of the dangers of sharply divided political parties.