In the late 1790s the French delivered a tremendous insult to the United States that nearly led to war. The historical significance of the XYZ affair lies in how the United States responded to this insult and banded together in a strong display of nationalism.
The causes of the XYZ affair are many, though they ultimately boil down to the strained relationship between the United States and France that worsened throughout the 1790s.
In an attempt to mend the two nations’ relationship, President John Adams sent a diplomatic mission consisting of three ambassadors to France to negotiate peaceful relations. The subsequent French response humiliated the United States and led to a wave of anti-French sentiment.
The two nations narrowly avoided war, but the XYZ affair proved to be significant in a variety of other areas across American politics and society.
XYZ Affair Summary
Throughout the 1790s relations between former allies France and the United States rapidly deteriorated. Events such as the French Revolution, Washington’s neutrality declaration, Jay’s Treaty of 1794, and French attacks on American merchant shipping all contributed to the state of affairs.
In order to avoid war 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.
Adams originally nominated James Madison, notable for his pro-French position, as a diplomat, but his cabinet ultimately selected John Marshall over him.1
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 diplomatic mission and stated the requirements to even formally meet with Tallyrand.
France’s demands included:1
- United States was to assume all claims of citizens against French government
- United States required to pay an indemnity to American merchantmen for French confiscations
- Grant a loan to the French government of thirty-two million dutch guilders
- Directly pay Tallyrand a 50,000 pound (about $250,000) bribe
When the Americans refused, France even threatened potential war. At an impasse, both Pinckney and Marshall left France in April 1798, while Gerry remained behind to continue negotiations until October.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic mission sent updates to President Adams regarding the French demands. 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 led to outrage across the nation.
The Significance of the XYZ Affair
The historical significance of the XYZ affair lies not in the event itself, but the reaction of Americans across the nation. The XYZ affair significantly led to the Quasi-War with France, the hated Alien and Sedition Acts, helped Federalists win widespread support, and increased nationalism.
The reaction of the United States to the XYZ affair was important, as citizens banded together to express anti-French sentiment for the insults to the nation.
At such an early stage in the nation’s history, this widespread nationalism was a strong indicator that the nation would not fracture apart at the first sign of pressure and turmoil from a foreign nation.
Led to the Quasi-War with France
One of the immediate effects of the XYZ affair was how it led directly to the so-called Quasi-War with France. Lasting from 1798-1800, the Quasi-War was named as such given that the United States never truly declared war on France.
Instead, Congress authorized limited military action against France to protect American shipping interests. The nation also prepared for a potential French land invasion by preparing coastal defenses.
Prominent leaders such as John Adams and diplomat Elbridge Gerry believed war should be a last resort. The United States was still relatively weak at this stage, there were too many risks involved, and the odds of victory were low.3
However, the general idea swept the nation that any further concession would simply be dishonorable. The United States certainly had just cause for war, which in turn led to the Congressionally-authorized military action.2
Nevertheless, a full-scale war appeared imminent given the escalation of hostilities. Many coastal states took action on their own to raise funds and build their own ships and defenses in case of a French attack.4
Southern states in particular were also wary of an invasion from Toussaint Louverture’s army consisting of former slaves during the Haitian Revolution. Southerners worried the revolution could incite slave rebellions, and they implemented lessons learned from prior events such as the Stono Rebellion of 1739.4
The Quasi-War eventually turned into a relative success. No French land invasion materialized and the conflict was primarily limited to naval engagements in the Caribbean.
President Adams never gave up on diplomacy for a peaceful resolution, and after two years the conflict ended following the Convention of 1800.
Led to Alien and Sedition Acts
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the XYZ affair was how it turned into a primary cause of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
With war with France impending, the Federalists in Congress worried about potential dissent from citizens and foreigners living within the nation. In response, Congress passed a series of four laws now collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Three laws focused on foreigners living within the United States, or “aliens,” while the final law aimed to quell war dissent from political opposition on the domestic front.
Opponents decried the laws for their limitations to constitutional liberties such as free speech and the negative impact to immigrants, though they primarily laid out their arguments on the basis of states’ rights vs federal power.
The nation reacted to the Alien and Sedition Acts with widespread discontent. However, this reaction took some time to materialize. Congress passed the acts so close to the XYZ affair that anti-French sentiment took precedence.
In fact, most Congressional elections in the 1798 midterm were held before the Alien and Sedition Acts were even an issue at all. Voters responded by giving the Federalists a large majority.4
The states that responded the quickest to the Alien and Sedition Acts were those on the frontier such as Kentucky and Tennessee. Anti-French attitude was far less severe on the frontier where the threat of imminent invasion was minuscule.
In fact, the major threat to the frontier states was the fear that if war dragged on, Spain could be brought into the conflict.4
As a result, the frontier states took an anti-war stance and aggressively opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts along with the Democratic-Republicans. This opposition directly led to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that would go on to have major implications in the future.
Helped Federalists Win Support
Another direct result of the XYZ affair was how it helped the Federalist party to gain widespread support across the nation.
The 1798 midterm elections proved to be the high water mark for the Federalists. Never again would the party hold more seats in Congress than they did in the aftermath of the 1798 Congressional elections.4
The wave of anti-French sentiment as a result of the XYZ affair crushed politicians who supported Jeffersonian ideals such as closer relations with France. Republicans who could not shed their pro-French ties and/or image were soundly defeated at the polls across the nation, even in the south.
For example, in North Carolina Congressional representation changed from 9 Republicans and 1 Federalist in 1796, to 3 Republicans and 7 Federalists after the 1798 elections. Virginia had a similar, albeit less drastic change, partially because of stronger Republican support and that their elections were held a full year after the XYZ affair.4
Southerners were faced with a no-win situation. Voting against retaliatory actions to protect American shipping hurt their chances at reelection, but France was the biggest customer for tobacco, the southern cash crop at the time before the cotton gin’s impact made cotton the dominant crop.4
The widespread swing to Federalist support helped give the Federalist-dominated Congress the confidence to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Desperate to win back the party’s following, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison orchestrated the arguments of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to give Democratic-Republicans a platform to run on in the election of 1800.
Although the Federalists gained a large majority in 1798, their political disarray and unpopular policy decisions ultimately led to their eventual downfall.
Led to Widespread Nationalistic Sentiment
Finally, the widespread nationalism experienced across the United States was a major reason for the historical significance of the XYZ affair.
Once divided along ideological lines, including whether to favor closer relations with Britain or France, the nation came together in a brief wave of nationalistic sentiment. Many ardent, once pro-French Democratic-Republicans agreed with Federalists that France should pay for its insults.4
The display of nationalism was important from a national unity standpoint. Southerners and Democratic-Republicans easily could have downplayed the insults, driving a wedge in the new nation and contributing to a potential split.
Instead, public opinion shifted rapidly against France across the nation and voters ousted politicians that still advocated for close French ties. Americans in general resented the French accusation that they were a divided people and would turn against their own government in support of France.2
Across the nation the Federalists and President John Adams in particular were praised for their response against France. Popular songs at the time shifted from French tunes to American ones and thousands of eligible males formed volunteer militia throughout their local communities.2
Local communities, militia units, and other organizations sent nearly 300 petitions against France to the federal government. Perhaps surprisingly, the number of petitions from southern states even outstripped those from New England states.2
While the Era of Good Feelings following the War of 1812 is widely remembered as a period that experienced widespread nationalism, the brief period between the XYZ affair and the election of 1800 also was a time with significant nationalism that helped the Union respond to the French threat.
To recap, the ultimate significance of the XYZ affair lies in how it:
- Led to the Quasi-War with France
- Resulted in the Alien and Sedition Acts
- Helped Federalists win support
- Led to widespread nationalistic sentiment
The XYZ affair would go on to be the defining event of the Adams presidency. His handling of the affair itself drew widespread praise and helped the Federalist party win its largest majority ever in Congress.
However, the Federalists misjudged the popular support and made a critical error with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The new laws and the one-sided enforcement of the Sedition Act gave Democratic-Republicans ammunition to win their support back.
Running on a platform outlined by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and aided by superior organization and the discontent over the Sedition Act, the Democratic-Republicans won the election of 1800, spelling doom for the Federalist party.
The Federalists never again seriously threatened at the national level and within two decades they disappeared from national politics altogether.
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) Kramer, Eugene F. “Some New Light on the XYZ Affair: Elbridge Gerry’s Reasons for Opposing War with France.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 4, 1956, pp. 509–13. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/362143.
4) 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.