The Quasi-war Between the United States and France 1797 - 1800 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Quasi-war Between the United States and France 1797 - 1800

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On 14 February, 1778 the United States ship Ranger sailed into Quiberon bay1 and as the ship fired her salute of thirteen guns to the French flag, Admiral La Motte-Picquet returned the salute with nine guns, which was the common salute for a republic at that time. For the first time the United States had been recognised as an independent nation by a foreign government. For the remainder of the Revolutionary War, France's help and eventual active entry into the war was instrumental in achieving independence.

On 7 July, 1798 the American Congress cancelled all existing treaties with France and the ships of these two countries began firing into each other on sight. Although no official state of war existed, men died and ships were lost. History records these events as the 'Quasi2-War'. This is an attempt to explain how these events came to be.

The Treaty of Amity and Commerce

On 6 February, 1778 a treaty was drawn up between 'the most Christian King' (Louis XVI) and 'the thirteen United States of North America' which pledged mutual support and protection of trade and forbade either side from entering any treaty that would not be to the benefit of both countries. In September, 1781 this coalition was to achieve its finest moment when the combined French and American armies made a surprise march from New York City to Yorketown on the Virginia capes and the French West Indies fleet defeated the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay leaving British General Cornwallis without hope of re-supply or escape.

The Treaty of Paris

This document, signed on 3 September, 1783, marked the official end of the Revolutionary War, even though the fighting had ended about two years earlier. With a huge debt from many years of fighting, the young United States could not afford to maintain a large peacetime force and it was determined that the entire maritime defence would be the sole responsibility of the Revenue Service (the original name for the modern Coast Guard). With the sale of the frigate Alliance in 1785, the US Navy ceased to exist. The young nation would soon learn that her merchant ships were no longer protected by the mighty Royal Navy, or the British treaties that had protected them as colonies. Events in France would soon limit the promised protection of that country.

The French Revolution

For the first time in 175 years, the French Estates-General met on 5 May, 1789. In June the third estate (the commoners) met separately at the Louvre and declared themselves to be the National Assembly. Although Louis XVI closed their meeting-place, the assembly resolved not to disband until a constitution had been finalised. By the end of the month Louis finally allowed the three estates to meet and vote together. The seeds of revolution had already been sown - not only had the American colonies thrown off their King, but Louis XVI had openly supported them and the French people were paying high taxes for someone else's freedom. By October, the King and Queen were virtual prisoners and the National Assembly appointed a directorate to govern France. Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded on 21 January, 1793. Before the end of the year the monarchies of Europe, including Britain, Spain, Holland, Austria, Prussia and Sardinia, alarmed by both the success of the French army and the radical ideas of revolutionary France, had declared war.

In 1793 the French directorate sent Edmond Genet to the US as their minister. Citizen Genet began by outfitting a captured British ship into a privateer3 in a US port and he actively campaigned for an invasion of Spanish Florida. President Washington, with the support of Alexander Hamilton, reminded Genet that the US was a neutral country in the European wars and would not allow such activities. When citizen Genet threatened to stir public opinion to his cause, Washington asked for his recall from office. In the months of his service the political winds in France had shifted and it was feared that, should Genet return to his home country, he would be seized and executed. He was given asylum in the US where he spent the remainder of his life.

Jay's Treaty

The rights of navigation for American ships were further defined and protected by treaty on 19 November, 1794. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was appointed as a special envoy to develop a new treaty that further defined the rights of the US and included trading rights with the British islands in the Caribbean. To the new French government this was seen as an alliance with one of the countries with which they were at war.

Breakdown of Relations

With Europe at war, the safety of neutral shipping was becoming very uncertain. Not only might a ship be boarded for inspection at any time by the ships of the fighting countries, but the states of North Africa, led by Algiers, had returned to their old custom of capturing ships and crews and holding them for ransom. The US Congress finally authorised a bill for the construction of six large frigates which President Washington signed on 27 March, 1794. A peace was negotiated with Algiers by the spring of 1796, agreeing that the US would pay almost a million dollars in ransom and protection money. Congress removed the funding for three of the frigates, the other three, United States, Constellation and Constitution would be launched in 1797.

The French government insisted that the United States was required by the Treaty of Amity and Commerce - signed in 1778 - to join actively in their wars. The US replied that the treaty had been between the US and Louis XVI and that any such treaty had been rendered void with the fall of the crown. By mid-1796 French privateers began seizing American ships on the high seas. In the next 12 months over 300 merchant ships were captured. As one of his final acts as President, Washington sent Charles C Pinckney to Paris to negotiate with the revolutionary assembly. The French not only refused to negotiate, they threatened to arrest Pinckney if he did not immediately leave the country. Pinckney fled to the Netherlands.

Adams's inauguration on 4 March, 1797 marked the first time an administration had changed under the rules of the US Constitution. The situation with France, however, did not improve - in fact, if anything, the resentment in France had increased due to Adams's remarks supporting American neutrality. Adams determined to try once more to negotiate with France, sending Pickney once more, this time accompanied by John Marshall and Elbrige Gerry. They arrived in the autumn of 1797.

The XYZ Affair

The delegation met, unofficially, with the French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, on 4 October, 1797. After this hopeful start the Americans waited many weeks for a formal reception. Behind the scene, Tallyrand sent three representatives to meet secretly with the delegation. They were Jean Conrad Hottinguer, a Swiss national, Mr Bellamy, an American living in Germany, and Lucien Hauteval, another Swiss national. In his report to Congress, Adams decided not to reveal the names of these men and they are known in history by the letters X, Y and Z. The basic offer from Tallyrand through these men was that the US make a loan of 12 million dollars to the French government and publicly apologize for anti-French statements that Adams had made, and that a 250,000 dollar 'fee' be paid directly to Talleyrand. Only after these terms had been met would Talleyrand consider meeting officially with the American delegation. When it became clear that the French Directorate would not waver from their demand, Pickney and Marshall returned to the US while Gerry remained in France hoping that he might still avoid a declaration of war.

President Adams, a Federalist who favoured trade with Britain, called a special session of Congress and made a report to them, presenting the facts of the meetings in the most unflattering light. Thomas Jefferson and the Democrat-Republicans (an offshoot of the Anti-Federalists) tried to defuse the situation, but to no avail. On 28 May, 1798 Adams issued the following instruction to the armed vessels of the United States:

you are instructed and directed, to seize, take and bring into any Port of the United States, to be proceeded against according to the Laws of Nations, any armed Vessel sailing under Authority, or Pretense of Authority, from the Republic of France, which shall have committed, or which shall be found hovering on the Coasts of the United States for the purpose of committing, Depredations on the Vessels belonging to Citizens thereof; and also to retake any Ship or Vessel of any Citizen or Citizens of the United States, which may have been captured by any such armed Vessel.
By 7 July, 1798 the US Congress formally cancelled the previous treaties with France and the fight had begun in earnest.


Although the nearest French forces were in the Louisiana territory, Congress insisted that an army be raised. George Washington agreed to once more assume titular command of the force, but the actual day-to-day operations were delegated to Alexander Hamilton. There was to be no land action in the conflict.

The infant US Navy knew that they would not have any chance to stand against the French fleets of battleships, but instead they decided to concentrate on driving the French privateers from the American coast and attacking shipping in the West Indies. Unlike other more conventional conflicts, the action of the Quasi-war are scattered and concern individual ships rather than great pitched battles. Many of the actions were fought by privately-owned vessels and the only record may be a mere mention of a ship's name, if any record survives at all. Below are a few of the more significant actions. It should be remembered that while this fighting involved almost all of the US naval forces, to the French it was only a small annoyance while they were fighting a much larger war in Europe.

USS Delaware vs La Croyable

The Delaware was originally built as a merchant ship in 1794. She was purchased by the US Navy on 5 May, 1798 and placed under the command of Stephen Decatur Sr, whose son would become one of the most famous commanders of the American Navy. She was fitted with 16 cannons that could fire nine pound balls and four others that fired six pound balls. On 7 July, 1798 the Delaware set sail to cruise off the coast of New Jersey looking for French ships. She soon encountered an American merchant schooner who had been boarded by an armed schooner only a few hours earlier. After removing the most valuable part of her cargo to other vessels the French had let her go. Decatur set sail to the last known position of the enemy ship where he sighted four ships in that area. Instead of attacking the other ships, as would be expected of a warship he acted as though he wanted to avoid them - as any unarmed vessel would. Soon the La Croyable set full sail - leaving her prizes behind - and bore down on the stranger. After they came within range of each other, the French Captain soon realised that his 12 cannons were outnumbered considerably by the 20 of the Delaware After a short fight the US Navy had its first prize. The La Croyable was taken to Philadelphia and entered into the US Navy as the Retaliation.

L'Insurgente and Volontaire vs Retaliation

The newly-transformed Retaliation was officially entered into the Navy list on 30 July, 1798. She sailed with two other ships - the Norfolk and the Montezuma - to the West Indies, on a mission to protect American shipping and harass the French whenever practical. On 20 November, 1798, the three vessels were sailing separately when the French frigates L'Insurgente and Volontaire sighted the lone American ship. After a short chase it became clear the small schooner could not escape and was hopelessly outgunned. The Retaliation struck her colours and her crew became prisoners of war. Her captain, William Bainbridge, managed to convince the French captain not to seek out the other American ships by convincing him that they were more powerful than they actually were.

USS Constellation versus L'Insurgente

While cruising through the Lesser Antilles4 the frigate Constellation, armed with 36 cannons and commanded by Thomas Truxton, sighted a large ship sailing south of her. The strange ship hoisted American colours as the frigate bore down on her, but did not reply to either the American or British secret identification signals. At 3.15 pm on 9 February, 1799, the L'Insurgente replaced the stars and stripes with her French national ensign and fired one of her 40 guns to windward, identifying herself as an enemy warship as was the custom of the day. As the two ships approached each other they were hit by a sudden squall which cost the French ship her main top mast. Truxton held his fire until he was confident that all his guns were in range and then he let loose a deadly broadside into the French ship. The two ships fought for over an hour cutting up each other's rigging. By careful manoeuvring, and the loss of the Frenchman's top mast, the American frigate managed to cross the front and rear ends of the french frigate in a position referred to as 'crossing the T'. The advantage of this position is not only that the enemy's guns cannot bear on your ship, but also that cannonballs can pass through the entire length of the enemy ship, wreaking swathes of devastation. By 4.30 pm, with the Constellation once more in a position to rake her decks, the L'Insurgente's captain Monsieur Barreaut struck his colours and surrendered his ship. The cost of this action was 70 French dead and wounded while the Americans suffered only one man killed and three wounded. After repairing the two ships as well as possible they sailed together to Philadelphia where Truxton reported his victory. At this time a most disturbing rumour began to spread across the waterfront that the one man killed had been shot by his own officer Lieutenant Andrew Sterett. When asked about this by the press Sterett replied 'We put men to death for even looking pale on this ship.' The public outcry supported by Jefferson and the anti-Federalists was heard throughout the country, but the Navy took no action on the incident. Thus was formed one of the first traditions of the American sailing Navy, 'no man will abandon his post under fire'.

L'Insurgente was taken into the US Navy where her name was anglicised to Insurgent. She had a successful cruise to European waters and the West Indies from August, 1799 to May, 1800. Under the command of Patrick Fletcher, she headed once more to the West Indies. On 8 August, 1800 she sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, and was never to be seen again. It is believed that she was lost in a hurricane on 20 September.

USS Constellation versus Vengeance

After a short cruise under the command of Captain S Barron the Constellation was once more under the command of Truxton when she spotted a huge French frigate that carried 52 cannons in the late afternoon of 1 February, 1800. Both ships began firing into each other with Truxton again causing much destruction on the French decks, while his own ship's rigging was cut to ribbons. According to the American's reports the French frigate Vengeance tried twice to surrender, the Constellation had by that time lost her main mast and the others were so damaged that she could not reach her opponent before nightfall and the French ship managed to escape in the darkness.

USS Constitution versus Sandwich

In early May, 1800 the frigate Constitution was cruising off the island of Hispaniola searching for French prizes when her captain, Silas Talbot, spotted a French Corvette anchored near the mouth of the harbour. As her rigging had all - except for the lower masts - been lowered to the deck, she was obviously being used to supplement the small fort at Purto Plate near Cape Haitien. Commodore Talbot identified this ship as the Sandwich, which had been a British packet that was captured by the French and had spent several years sailing as a very successful French privateer. Realising that the Constitution, a heavy 44-gun frigate5, was too large to enter the small port, Talbot decided to commandeer a small merchant-ship named the Sally which had been trading between the islands and was expected to return to the port. With 90 men hidden in her hold and under the command of Talbot's first lieutenant Isaac Hull, the Sally entered the port at noon. Suddenly she turned and struck the bow of the French ship. In a flash, her hatches opened and the American sailors and marines swarmed across the decks of the Sandwich Without any loss of life, the ship was captured and the marines headed ashore to spike the three large cannons mounted on the fortress, making it impossible for them to be fired.

Knowing that it would be several hours before it would be possible to leave the harbour due to the winds, the Americans carefully went about the business of setting up the rigging and getting the ship ready for sea. Several boats came out under a flag of truce to try and argue about capturing a ship from a harbour without a clear declaration of war. Hull answered that he was only following his Commodore's orders. By midnight, the Sandwich was ready and the land breeze began to blow, so the anchor was hoisted and she sailed out to meet the Constitution.

The Sandwich was eventually returned to the French due to her being in harbour at the time of her capture.

The Treaty of Mortefontaine

As the Quasi-war continued it became clear that it was a great expense for the US without any hope of reward. As Napoleon rose to power, the French government began to stabilise and President Adams again sent a peace delegation to Paris in April, 1800. On 30 September, 1800 the treaty was signed and hostilities ceased. Although the French refused to pay reparations for the ships and goods lost during the war, they consented to void the treaty of 1778, and agreed to a new alliance which would allow the US to remain neutral in the European wars. That fall Adams lost his bid for re-election and the Presidency fell to Thomas Jefferson, who had opposed the war from the start.

1In Brittany, France.2'Quasi' is defined as 'resembling in some degree' by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.3A private vessel licenced by a country to capture enemy shipping.4 The chain of islands that separate the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. 5Later, after defeating two British frigates in the war of 1812 they would complain that she was actually a ship of the Line with a single gun-deck.

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