Between 1797 and 1798 the United States became involved in a diplomatic scandal with its former ally, France. Just what were the causes of the so-called “XYZ Affair” and how did it impact American history?
France was the United States’ first and longest-standing ally. Without its support in the American Revolution, the United States likely would not have been able to defeat Great Britain and win independence.
How did their relationship crumble to the point where war between the two nations seemed imminent? The XYZ affair highlighted just how far apart the nations had grown and that a limited war was the only path forwards.
What Was the XYZ Affair?
The XYZ affair was a diplomatic incident between France and the United States lasting between 1797-1798. Relations between the two nations had been rocky for years and were heading towards war.
In order to avoid this scenario President John Adams selected three men for a diplomatic mission to France in an attempt to repair the relationship. These men were Elbridge Gerry, Charles Pinckney, and John Marshall.
Upon arriving in France in October 1797, the three Americans found their channels blocked to formally meet with France’s foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Tallyrand. Instead, agents of the minister informally met with the American diplomats and stated the requirements to even formally meet with Tallyrand.
French demands included that the United States was to assume all claims of citizens against French government, the US was to pay an indemnity to American merchantmen for French confiscations, grant a loan to the French government of thirty-two million dutch guilders, and directly pay Tallyrand a 50,000 pound (about $250,000) bribe.
When the Americans refused, France threatened war. At an impasse, both Pinckney and Marshall left France in April 1798, while Gerry remained behind to continue negotiations until October.
Upon hearing the news, Adams and his cabinet were shocked at the treatment, though Adams tried to hide the content of the dispatches from Congress, fearing it would ignite war.
Congressional Democratic-Republicans demanded to see the dispatches, believing Adams was exaggerating the French response. In March 1798, Adams released the dispatches, though he redacted the names of the French agents and replaced them with the codes W, X, Y, and Z.2
The demand backfired, as even pro-France Democratic-Republicans were stunned at France’s actions. They had no defense for justifying closer relations following the insults, and those that did not renounce France suffered in the subsequent midterm elections.2
The event became known as the “XYZ affair,” after the redacted names on the dispatches, and sparked widespread discontent across the nation.
4 Causes of the XYZ Affair
Four causes of the XYZ affair and the deterioration of French-US relations include Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation in 1793, Jay’s Treaty of 1794, French attacks on American shipping, and the Citizen Genet affair/French interference in the 1796 election.
In addition, the French Revolution played a large role in the strained Franco-American relationship. The political instability that resulted from the revolution made it difficult for the United States to maintain its previously strong relationship.
While the causes of the XYZ affair resulted from the breakdown of the French-American alliance, the event would hold great significance in United States history.
Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation in 1793
One of the first causes of the deteriorating Franco-American relationship and the XYZ affair was Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation in April 1793.
Just two months before, Revolutionary France had declared war on Great Britain. Washington immediately convened his cabinet, seeking a unanimous decision to keep America out of the European conflict. Washington wrote his thought at the time:
“And unwise should we be in the extreme to involve ourselves in the contests of European Nations, where our weight could be but small - though the loss to ourselves would be certain”3
Nevertheless, Washington encouraged debate amongst his divided cabinet where after heated debates between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the cabinet shockingly was able to agree to issuing a formal declaration of neutrality in relation to the European wars.
Hamilton argued that given Louis XVI’s execution just months prior, the 1778 treaties of alliance with France following the important Battle of Saratoga were no longer valid. Jefferson preferred closer French relations and argued against a formal neutrality declaration, but agreed the United States should not participate in the wars.3
The Neutrality Proclamation greatly angered Revolutionary France. Facing long military odds and mired in political instability, France was counting on support from the United States in the war.
France claimed that the 1778 treaties of alliance were still valid, and that the United States failed to support them in their time of need, as France once had.
Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation was but the first sign of the crumbling relationship between the two nations.
Jay’s Treaty in 1794
Perhaps the primary cause of the XYZ affair was Jay’s Treaty between the United States and Great Britain signed in 1794.
Ultimately ratified by the US Senate after fierce debate in 1795, the significance of Jay’s Treaty lies in how it resolved several long-standing issues with Great Britain. Although it failed to address other major issues such as the impressment of American sailors, in the eyes of the Federalists the treaty was the best the United States could hope for to improve Anglo-American relations.
Unfortunately, the treaty also had severe negative consequences for the United States’ relationship with France. The French viewed Jay’s Treaty as a betrayal and a formal violation of the 1778 treaties of alliance for aid given during the American Revolution.4
Signed and ratified while France was still at war with Great Britain, the French could not help but view the treaty as an attempt by the United States to initiate closer ties to its longtime rival.
Increased trade with the British could indirectly impede France’s war effort. If the British were to continue receiving supplies and raw materials, their odds of defeating France increased.
Americans were divided along ideological lines regarding Jay’s Treaty. Jeffersonian Democrats despised the treaty, while Federalists favored it. These opinions largely aligned with the two groups’ pro-French vs. pro-British attitudes.
Despite the animosity, both groups generally believed that the United States should remain neutral in the European conflict. Even Elbridge Gerry, one of the XYZ affair American diplomats, countered the French claim that the US had a moral obligation to help France by remarking that France only really helped during the American Revolution out of self-interest to hurt its British rival.4
The French response to the Treaty greatly escalated tensions between the two nations.
French Attacks on American Shipping
In response to Jay’s Treaty, the French began to attack neutral American merchant ships and seized their cargos. This undeclared naval war was carried out utilizing privateers to disrupt American shipping and try to forcefully deprive Britain of resources.
Leaders in the United States were alarmed at the escalation of hostilities. The attacks had the ability to rouse America to war, one which it had little hopes of winning.
At the time, France was fighting against a coalition of European nations, including Great Britain—and winning. Its eight hundred thousand man army was the largest in the world and easily dwarfed the small, roughly three thousand man American force primarily strung along its frontier.4
Despite the long odds, the United States needed to prepare for the worst. The French escalations caused President Adams to deliver a war-like speech in May 1797 asking Congress to prepare for war by raising an army, commissioning new ships, and raising funding to shore up coastal defenses.5
The dilemma around the entire episode boiled down to the fact that neither France nor Great Britain respected American neutrality in the European wars. While France attacked American merchant shipping, Great Britain did likewise, while also impressing American sailors into the Royal Navy.
Despite American overtures for peace with both France and Great Britain, hostility, particularly from France, is what the young nation received.2
The French attacks on American shipping caused large losses. Between August 1796 to June 1797, French privateers captured 316 American merchant ships, or about 6% of its entire fleet. By the end of the Quasi-War in 1800, that number ballooned to over two thousand captured merchant vessels.4
Citizen Genet Affair and French 1796 election interference
A final reason for the crumbling of the Franco-American alliance was due to French meddling in US affairs. Two primary examples of French meddling were the Citizen Genet affair as well as interference in the election of 1796.
Both incidents involved official French ambassadors to the United States, Edmond-Charles Genet in 1793-1794, and Pierre Auguste Adet from 1795-1796. The two men conspired to influence American public opinion towards supporting France in its war against Britain and Spain, often in direct opposition to the wishes of the federal government.
When the later-dubbed “Citizen Genet” arrived in the United States in 1793, pro-France southern states received him warmly. Genet immediately began to recruit Americans to form a militia to march on Spanish Florida and organized four privateering ships to disrupt British shipping in the Caribbean.
The actions threatened American neutrality in the British-French war and was in direct conflict with Washington’s recently-issued Neutrality Proclamation. After Genet refused to cease his efforts, Washington demanded France recall the minister.
Just two years later, a new French ambassador to the United States arrived, Pierre Auguste Adet. Adet immediately worked to undermine the federal government and raise opposition to Jay’s Treaty.
Adet’s methods included bribing sitting US Senators, though unfortunately given the empty French coffers, the bribes did not amount to much.6
After his failure to influence against passage of Jay’s Treaty, Adet next conspired against the Washington administration and hoped to convince the state of Pennsylvania to vote for pro-French supporter Thomas Jefferson.
Adet wrote open letters published via Pennsylvania newspapers that implied if Jefferson was not elected President, war with France was inevitable. He openly campaigned for Jefferson, proving Washington’s Farewell Address correct that the United States should be wary of insidious foreign influences.
Both instances proved to the United States that France could not be trusted to remain impartial and helped to build distrust between the two nations.
To recap, four causes of the XYZ affair and the deterioration of Franco-American relations include:
- Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation in 1793
- Jay’s Treaty of 1794
- French attacks on American shipping
- Citizen Genet affair and French 1796 election interference
The insults given by France in the XYZ affair played a major role in leading the United States into the so-called Quasi-War in 1798.
Although the war only lasted two years, the strained relations with France continued in the 1800s as France’s actions played a significant part in the Embargo Act of 1807 as well as Macon’s Bill No. 2.
On the domestic front, the XYZ affair helped lead to a marked split between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans leading up to the election of 1800. Both the Alien and Sedition Acts, as well as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, arose from the affair, two documents that drew fierce criticism.
While the legacy of the XYZ affair is one of failed to diplomacy and the official demise of relations between France and the United States, its causes were long in the making.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Stinchcombe, William. “The Diplomacy of the WXYZ Affair.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 4, 1977, pp. 590–617. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2936184.
2) Ray, Thomas M. “‘Not One Cent for Tribute’: The Public Addresses and American Popular Reaction to the XYZ Affair, 1798-1799.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 3, no. 4, 1983, pp. 389–412. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3122881.
3) Moats, Sandra. “‘Americans in Politics’: Crafting a Neutral Proclamation.” Navigating Neutrality: Early American Governance in the Turbulent Atlantic, University of Virginia Press, 2021, pp. 59–77. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1n1brtq.9.
4) Fehlings, Gregory E. “America’s First Limited War.” Naval War College Review, vol. 53, no. 3, 2000, pp. 101–43. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44638334.
5) Kuehl, John W. “SOUTHERN REACTION TO THE XYZ AFFAIR AN INCIDENT IN THE EMERGENCE OF AMERICAN NATIONALISM.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 70, no. 1, 1972, pp. 21–49. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23377328.
6) Conlin, Michael F. “The American Mission of Citizen Pierre-Auguste Adet: Revolutionary Chemistry and Diplomacy in the Early Republic.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 124, no. 4, 2000, pp. 489–520. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093399.