America’s Long Journey: Facing the French

For 20 years, while England and France fought to the death, small neutral countries did their best to stay out of the way, lest they be crushed by accident or design. The United States, chief among those smaller countries, received some protection by its position on the far side of the broad Atlantic (think what our position would have been if we had been located in Europe somewhere), but our Achilles heel was our merchant navy. Both the naval powers seized neutral ships that traded with their enemies, and we couldn’t very well cease to trade. (A dozen years later, after the French had been driven from the seas by Trafalgar and British attacks had become intolerable, Jefferson finally did try that tactic, as we have seen, but with indifferent success.)

President Washington, steering a careful course, had placated England to some extent with Jay’s Treaty, as we shall see. But anything that pleased England could only anger France (and vice versa), and so Jay’s Treaty brought us, in the first year of the Adams presidency, to the very brink of war with France, and in fact a little over the brink.

In March 1797, just after assuming office, President Adams learned that France had seized American merchant ships in the Caribbean, and that Paris had refused to accept Charles Pinckney as minister. Federalists took a hard line on France, as always, and, as always, Republicans expressed solidarity with the ideals of the French revolutionaries. In late May Adams told Congress that he had decided to send a special commission to France, to try to adjust relations, consisting of Pinckney, John Marshall and independent Elbridge Gerry. Adams also called for expansion of the Navy to protect our interests. (By June, 1797, French ships had seized 316 American merchant ships, and cruised the Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed, because the last American warship had been sold in 1785, leaving only revenue cutters.) Once the commissioners were approved, Adams instructed them to negotiate similar terms to those that had been granted to Britain in the Jay Treaty.

But dealing with the English and dealing with the French were two very different things. The English never varied: The king (or, during the king’s periods of insanity, his son as regent) worked with the small number of aristocrats who maintained control of parliament. Whigs or Tories, what you had to deal with was predictable and understandable. Not so the French after the Revolution. In the years since the Revolution in 1789, the form of government had changed repeatedly, and with every change of regime, the rules, the attitudes, and the expectations changed.

In 1797, France’s executive was not one man, but a five-man Directory. Two years later, it would be Napoleon as consul, then a few years on, Napoleon as Emperor of the French. Running through all these regimes, a crooked man pursuing a crooked path, was Foreign Minister Talleyrand, the man foreigners had to deal with before they could deal with the ostensible authorities. Unhappy the envoys from a relatively straightforward republic trying to come to honorable agreement by straightforward means.

Case in point: As soon as the three American envoys arrived in Paris, three of Talleyrand’s secret agents (named X Y and Z in the official report that was later issued), issued a series of demands, including a large official loan to the French government and a £50,000 unofficial bribe to Talleyrand. This, before formal negotiations could begin. This was accustomed practice by then, and the Americans knew it, but they didn’t like it, and they said so. Then, when a peace treaty ended the War of the First Coalition, and France was temporarily at peace with most of Europe (though not England), the agents returned. Now they were threatening war. Pinckney responded in words that became famous: “No, no, not a sixpence!”

The commissioners met with Talleyrand informally in March, and he agreed to forget about a loan, but he would talk only with Gerry. Marshall and Pinckney left in April, but Talleyrand told Gerry that if he left France the Directory would declare war. So he said he would remain, but only until someone could replace him. He refused to engage in further substantive negotiations. His exchanges with Talleyrand laid groundwork for the eventual end to diplomatic and military hostilities, but the Federalists suspected him of disloyalty, and did their best to make him a scapegoat.

In March 1798, Adams received the first dispatches from the commissioners. He told Congress of their apparent failure, but held the dispatches themselves secret, fearing a Congressional and popular backlash. But Federalist hawks demanded the release of the commissioners’ dispatches, and when he turned them over in March, the public learned of XYZ, and the Federalists howled for war.

And the Republicans? They had joined in the demand to have the dispatches published, because they had thought that Adams had exaggerated the situation. Now they learned better, and it put them on the defensive.

The Federalist-dominated Congress authorized the president to acquire, arm, and man as many as 12 vessels of up to 22 guns each. It was the rebirth of the American Navy, which turned out to be just as well, a few years later. In July, Congress annulled the 20-year-old alliance with France, and authorized attacks on French warships. But Adams refused to let them stampede him into asking for a declaration of war.

The consequences kept on showing up. Because the affair discredited the French, it could be made to discredit the Democratic Republicans, who were pro-French. Hence, the Alien and Sedition Acts.

In France, publication of the dispatches led the Directory to try to get the truth out of Talleyrand, which was more than mortal man could do, but did put him on the defensive, and led him to confess to Gerry that the men had been his agents, and that, regardless what he had just testified to the Directory, he was interested in reconciliation between the two countries. Gerry told Adams, and Adams bore it in mind. When Talleyrand made diplomatic overtures to U.S. minister William Vans Murray in The Hague, Adams sent negotiators to France who eventually negotiated an end to hostilities. And so what is sometimes called the Quasi-War did not become a real war, which might have left the Alien and Sedition Laws in effect, might have prevented Jefferson’s revolution, therefore might have prevented the Louisiana Purchase…. It might have changed everything incalculably, as wars are in the habit of doing.


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