The Quasi War with France

Research Subjects: Government & Politics

 

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The Quasi War with France

By Matthew Zarzeczny, FINS

                                                                             

After the alliance between France and the fledgling United States of America crumbled during the French Revolution, tensions brought about by the scheming of various French and American politicians finally ended when France’s pro-American Consular government under Napoleon Bonaparte took over the reigns of power.  Napoleon went on to meaningfully influence the United States for nearly two hundred years after his regime restored the Franco-American friendship begun during the difficult years when the Americans battled the British from 1775 to 1783.  The American victory at Saratoga in their struggle for independence from Great Britain, showed the world that the mother country could be defeated by her thirteen daughter colonies and inspired France and Spain, both still desirous for revenge for the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which cost both France and Spain substantial amounts of territory, to aid the rebel army.  French contributions were more far-reaching than simply sending over Lafayette and basset hounds, while besieging Gibraltar near Spain.  During the American War of Independence, a French fleet along with a French force helped Americans under General George Washington take Yorktown in 1781 from Lord Cornwallis and seven thousand British soldiers.  The victory at Yorktown was the decisive battle of the war, practically ending the Revolution and thus securing American independence from Britain.  Ironically, however, while the American Revolution created an alliance between France and America, the French Revolution destroyed this friendship and eventually led to a Quasi-War that soon threatened to become a full-scale conflict. [1]

The French Revolution, beginning with the July 14, 1789 seizure of the Bastille by Parisian insurgents, was a time of chaos.  As the French monarchy ended and was replaced by the First Republic in 1792, terror reigned and several coups transpired, including the creation of the National Convention and the infamous Committee of Public Safety.  Most of Europe turned on France, hoping to restore the monarchy, but the French general Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez halted the allied invasion at Valmy on September 20, 1792.  After this battle, France took on an expansionistic policy by conquering new territory and creating satellite republics, all in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  Relations between America and France began to deteriorate early on during this troubled time.  These tensions were initially the result of the naval conflict among the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish fleets operating in the West Indies and disrupting American trade.  During the early stages of the naval aspect of the French Revolutionary Wars, Acts by the United States Congress moving the nation towards war.  These included an act imposing duties on tonnage on July 20, 1789 and an act imposing duties on the tonnage of ships on July 2, 1790.  On September 11, 1790, during Louis XVI’s fall from power, the King wrote to American President George Washington, who wanted America to avoid being entangled in European conflicts:

“It is with the most sincere pleasure that we embrace this opportunity of renewing these assurances of regard and friendship which we feel for the United States in general and for each of them in particular.  Under their influence we pray to God that He will keep you, very dear friends and allies, under His holy and beneficial protection.”

The “assurances” Louis mentioned likely referred to the treaty of 1778, which required the United States to defend France’s possessions in the Caribbean.  Americans, including Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, wanted peace.  Acknowledging the lack of desire for war, Washington disregarded the treaty by declaring American neutrality, but other factors soon roused American passions in the opposite direction.[2]

With the French monarchy in a shambles, the National Convention, dominated by Georges-Jacques Danton, Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximillien-François-Marie-Isidore de Robespierre, further plunged France into a bloodbath of execution, including beheading the king who had made the alliance with America, and war that spread beyond France’s borders and even across the Atlantic.  This new republican government in France sent Edmund Charles Genêt to the United States in 1793 as its official ambassador.  Genêt’s audacious activities, including plans for attacks on Spain’s possessions in Florida and Louisiana, resulted in his recall, which was in turn followed by British vessels seizing American cargoes on ships trading with the French West Indies.  These events resulted in a polarization of Americans with Republicans favoring France and Federalists favoring Britain.  Jay’s Treaty, which was passed by the Senate on June 24, 1795, favored the British and Pinckney’s Treaty of 1795 ended Spain’s claims on territory north of the thirty-first parallel.  Two years later, in a special message to the Senate and the House of Representatives, John Adams urged for the renewal of treaties with Prussia and Sweden, two other European nations that opposed the French Revolution.  America had made peace with France’s enemies, something that only enticed the manipulative and chameleonic French Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to send his agents, known as X, Y, and Z, to negotiate with America with outlandish demands.  The French had terminated diplomatic relations with America and robbed around three hundred American ships in the years before John Adams became the President of the United States.  Concerning one French privateer, in a message to the Senate and the House of Representatives on February 5, 1798, John Adams explained,

“I have received a letter from His Excellency Charles Pinckney, esq., governor of the State of South Carolina, dated the 22d of October, 1797, inclosing a number of depositions of witnesses to several captures and outrages committed within and near the limits of the United States by a French privateer belonging to Cape Francois, or Monte Christo, called the Vertitude or Fortitude, and commanded by a person of the name of Jordan or Jourdain, and particularly upon an English merchant ship named the Oracabissa, which he first plundered and then burned, with the rest of her cargo, of great value, within the territory of the United States, in the harbor of Charleston, on the 17th day of October last, copies of which letter and depositions, and also of several other depositions relative to the same subject, received from the collector of Charleston, are herewith communicated.”

Despite the French actions against the United States, Talleyrand’s diplomats would not even negotiate with America unless the United States loaned France twelve million dollars, bribed the five directors of France’s government with an additional two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and apologized for Adam’s recent remarks to Congress.   Adams summed up his attitude towards the actions of Republican France in a message to Congress regarding the icy treatment of American representatives in France, when Adams stated,

“The refusal on the part of France to receive our minister is, then, the denial of a right; but the refusal to receive him until we have acceded to their demands without discussion and without investigation is to treat us neither as allies nor as friends, nor as a sovereign state . . . Such attempts ought to be repelled with a decision which shall convince France and the world that we are not a degraded people, humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and sense of inferiority, fitted to be the miserable instruments of foreign influence, and regardless of national honor, character, and interest.”

The statement, perhaps from American minister Charles Pinckney, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute,” effectively exemplified the angry sentiments of Americans in general.  In short, the XYZ Affair had stirred the American public and Congress into open animosity towards France, which culminated in undeclared hostilities, commonly referred to as the Quasi War.[3]

The Quasi War with France lasted from 1798 to 1800.  By summer of 1798, the threat of war had become a reality after the United States took formal steps of military preparation that were soon followed by fighting on the high seas.  On May 3, 1798, Washington was called back to command the army and a navy department was established.  Acts passed by the United States Congress during the Quasi War included “An Act to Suspend the Commercial Intercourse between the United States and France, and the Dependencies Thereof” on June 13, 1798, “An Act to Authorize the Defense of the Merchant Vessels of the United States against French Depredations” on June 25, 1798, “An Act to Declare the Treaties Heretofore Concluded with France, no Longer Obligatory on the United States” on July 7, 1798, An Act Further to Protect the Commerce of the United States on July 9, 1798, and An Act to Amend the Act Entitled "An Act to suspend the Commercial Intercourse between the United States and France, and the Dependencies Thereof." on July 16, 1798.  These Acts of 1798 represent the legalistic aspect of the conflict.  The formal military engagements began in the Fall of that year. 

On November 20, 1798, a French warship off Guadeloupe captured an American schooner.  On February 9, 1799, Captain Thomas Trexton in USS Constellation, which had thirty-six guns, met and captured the French frigate Insurgente, which had forty guns, after an hour’s engagement off of the island of Nevis.  On February 9, 1799, the same day of the fight between the Constellation and Insurgente, came An Act Further to Suspend the Commercial Intercourse between the United States and France, and the Dependencies Thereof.  On February 1, 1800, Trexton met the French Vengeance, which had fifty-two guns, off of the French held island of Guadeloupe in a five-hour night battle.  Soon after this fight on February 27, 1800, there was An Act Further to Suspend the Commercial Intercourse Between the United States and France, and the Dependencies Thereof.  By this time, France’s Directory, having been overextended by campaigns in the Atlantic, in Egypt, and in Europe, fell victim to yet another one of France’s revolutionary coups.  This transition in French political history had a serious detrimental impact on the aspirations of one of America’s principle politicians.[4]

While the ineffective Directory ruled France, with war looming over a still maturing American nation, Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide-de-camp and secretary during the American Revolutionary War and later Secretary of the Treasury had grown ever more ambitious.  Hamilton dreamed of military glory by commanding an army to defeat a possible French invasion.  Instead, President Adams, under Washington’s influence, made Hamilton a major general who ranked second to Washington.  In the event of a land war, Hamilton’s plan included the seizure of Louisiana and Florida.  Abigail Adams called Hamilton “a man ambitious as Julius Caesar,” but Hamilton had no idea that France was about to begin an era under a man who may have even surpassed Caesar’s achievements and designs.[5]

Napoleon Bonaparte, seized power from Paul-François-Jean-Nicolas Barras’ feeble Directory on November 11, 1799 with a new government composed of three consuls, including Bonaparte, Roger Ducos, and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès.  Jean-Jacques Cambacérès and Charles-François Lebrun replaced Ducos and Sieyès on December 12, 1799.  The Consulate under Napoleon Bonaparte was more effective than the Directory, creating the Bank of France, the Concordat with the Papacy, and the Legion of Honor.  The Napoleonic Consulate also proved to be very ambitious.  Aside from his European dream of creating a Grand Empire that would foreshadow a United States of Europe, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte had a wide range of interests in North America centering on Louisiana and the Caribbean, but also included the former area known as New France.[6]

New France was first proclaimed by Jacques Cartier in 1534 and flourished during the Age of France during the Seventeenth Century.  After the fall of Quebec and the death of the French general Montcalm in 1759, the British secured control of the territory and won it officially with the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763.  The French character of the area that would become the Canadian province of Quebec did not die with the end of the Seven Years' War.  During the early days of the French Empire, a decent sized portion of the population of Lower Canada still hoped to be reunited with France.  South of Montreal, a petition of the villagers of Saint-Constant was addressed to Emperor Napoleon I on March 1, 1805 requesting that Napoleon make it possible for French-Canadians to again bear "the glorious name of Frenchmen," but Napoleon's government never made any open moves towards this.  Admiral Horatio Nelson, later dashed Napoleon’s plans to invade Britain, had destroyed Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet on October 21, 1805 in the epic battle of Trafalgar.  As long as Britain ruled the seas, Napoleon was confined to the European continent and was unable to undertake an invasion of Canada.[7]

In addition to the area known as New France, the largest other French colony in the new world had been Louisiana, named for Louis XIV the Great and lost at the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763.  Napoleon had reacquired the territory in a secret treaty with Spain known as the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso early on during the Consular period on October 7, 1800, while Napoleon’s army wasted away in Egypt.  Napoleon had dreams of creating a Caribbean Empire extending from the Caribbean through central North America.  His wife, Josephine, had been born on Martinique, and his army was attempting to reassert control over Haiti, but it eventually won independence in 1804.  Unfortunately for Napoleon, the British admiral Nelson had destroyed the French fleet at the Nile in 1798, making it impossible for Napoleon to supply his troops in Egypt and General Leclerc's twenty-thousand man force in Haiti, which was to be used as a potential springboard into Louisiana.  Napoleon had planned a military occupation of the Louisiana Territory, but without sea power, this was logistically impossible and General Leclerc’s army suffered severe losses in unforgiving Santo Domingo.  So, a couple of years after the Convention with France on September 30, 1800, which terminated the 1778 Treaty of Alliance and ended the Quasi War, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803, ending all hostilities with the United States.  As it turned out, the United States had wanted twenty million dollars in reparations to pay for American ships seized by the French during the Quasi War before agreeing to the Convention of 1800, but instead wound up with no financial compensation from Napoleonic France and the United States in turn paid France about fifteen million dollars for the Louisiana Territory, just pennies per acre.  Another fascinating aspect of the Louisiana Purchase is the fact that the mammoth territorial acquisition occurred under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the agrarian-minded political opponent of Alexander Hamilton.  While Hamilton had wanted to militarily invade the territory, Jefferson had acquired Louisiana with the pen instead of the sword.  Soon afterwards, the storied rivalry between the two legendary political figures ended with Hamilton’s death from a gunshot wound suffered during his famous duel with Aaron Burr.[8]

During this developmental period in American history, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe significantly affected the political and military aspects of the United States’ history from 1789 to 1815.  Despite the rocky beginning with the Quasi War and Napoleon’s initial plans for a military occupation of the Louisiana Territory, Napoleon’s regime eventually negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with Thomas Jefferson’s government, thus doubling the size of the ever-expanding United States.  During the War of 1812, the United States battled the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in North America winning important victories at Lake Erie in 1813 and New Orleans in 1815 while France fought against the British in the Iberian Peninsula and Belgium.  The War of 1812 was spurred on by war hawks who hoped to conquer Canada and justified because of Britain’s impressment of American sailors.  This war had rather inconclusive results, because despite the aforementioned American victories, the British succeeded in the sack of Washington, D.C. and the Treaty of Ghent simply restored the status quo with no territorial gains for either belligerent.  Meanwhile, Napoleon's empire collapsed in Europe after his defeats at Leipzig in 1813 and Waterloo in 1815, but the Napoleonic influence on the former French colonies of North America has not died.  In both Montreal and Quebec City, on the Grande Allée, there are Restaurant Bonapartes and even in Parma, Ohio there is a Napoleon's Pizza.  There was recently a Napoleonic exhibit at the Stewart Museum in Montreal and various Napoleonic organizations exist in North America including the Napoleonic Society of America and the Napoleonic Alliance.  These organizations have conferences in places like Montreal, New Orleans, and Quebec City.  In addition, the legal systems of the province of Quebec and of the state of Louisiana contain adaptations of the Napoleonic Law Code.  Irregardless of these later examples of Napoleon’s influence on North America, his role in ending the Quasi War clearly dashed away the intrigues of men like Hamilton and Talleyrand and rekindled the fire of friendship between two nations that while flickering at times, has nevertheless persisted into the twenty-first century.[9]



[1] David Emory Shi and George Brown Tindall.  America  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997.  Pp.151-186.

[2] George Washington, “Message to the Senate of January 17, 1791 Transmitting a Letter from the King of France.”  The Avalon Project: Quasi War with France 1791-1800.  <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/quasi.htm> (31 December 1969); Ariel and Will Durant.  The Age of Napoleon New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975. Pp. 3-87; Shi and Tindall.  P. 226-227.

[3] John Adams, “Message to the Senate and House of Representatives, February 5, 1798, Regarding a French Privateer.”  The Avalon Project: Quasi War with France 1791-1800.  <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/quasi.htm> (31 December 1969); John Adams, “Special Message to the Senate an the House of Representatives, May 16, 1797.”  The Avalon Project: Quasi War with France 1791-1800.  <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/quasi.htm> 31 December 1969; Durant.  P. 47-123; Shi; P. 227-238.

[4] The Avalon Project: Quasi War with France 1791-1800.  <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/quasi.htm> (31 December 1969); R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy.  The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History  New York: HarperCollins;1993. P. 792.

[5] Bongard; P. 309; Shi;  Pp. 234-238.

[6] Durant.

[7] Bernard Chevallier.  Napoleon  Montreal: David M. Stewart Museum, 1999; Dupuy; Pp. 770-773, 819; Durant.  The Age of Napoleon, 521-525; Felix Markham.  Napoleon  New York: Penguin Books; 1963. Pp.  103-119.

[8] “Convention of 1800.”  The Avalon Project: Quasi War with France 1791-1800. <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/quasi.htm> (31 December 1969); Durant.  The Age of Napoleon, 159-196; Markham; Pp. 88-102; Shi; Pp. 236-238, 249-250.

[9] Philip J. Haythornthwaite.  The Napoleonic Sourcebook London: Arms and Armour Press; 1990. P. 308; Shi; Pp. 256-271.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series December 2002

 

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