The XYZ Affair (1797-1798) involved an American peace delegation in France, three agents of the French Foreign Minister (labeled as X, Y, and Z in President John Adams’ initial communications with Congress), and the French Foreign Minister’s demand for a bribe from the American delegation. The Affair played a major role in the adoption of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
After the French Revolution of 1789, Britain and France were in almost constant conflict until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Unfortunately, the new American republic became embroiled in the French/British struggle with enormous implications for domestic politics in the United States.
When France and Britain went to war in 1793, France – the U.S. ally in the American Revolution – hoped for U.S. support. But President Washington believed that the fragile new nation could not afford a war and declared U.S. neutrality. When Britain and the United States signed the Jay Treaty (1794) to maintain the peace between the two nations, France saw that treaty as deeply unfair. (For example, Britain could seize goods from U.S. ships sailing to France if it paid compensation.) By 1796, outraged at U.S. actions, France started seizing American ships trading with Britain (seizing well over 300 by the end of 1798), and the French government refused to receive the new U.S. ambassador to France, Charles C. Pinckney. In response, President Adams called a special session of Congress on May 16, 1797 and asked Congress to support a military build-up for a possible conflict with France. This period is referred to as the Quasi-War with France.
At the same time, Adams decided to send a delegation to France in an effort to maintain the peace. Adams chose Charles C. Pinckney (who was already in Europe), Elbridge Gerry, and John Marshall as the U.S. envoys. Their instructions were to seek to maintain neutrality and commercial relations while not committing the United States to financial support of France.
In late 1797, the American envoys in France found themselves trying to work through three intermediaries – Jean Conrad Hottinguer (labeled X in initial coded communications), Pierre Bellamy (Y), and Lucien Hauteval (Z) – to start negotiations with the French Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. The intermediaries told the U.S. envoys that certain conditions must be met in order for France officially to receive the American diplomats: first, the diplomats needed to apologize for anti-French sentiment in Adams’ May 16 speech to Congress. Second, they must give Talleyrand 1,200,000 livres (£50,000 or $250,000); such personal “payments” were seen as a common practice in French diplomacy. Third, the United States must make a large loan to France and pay claims by U.S. merchants against France for ships that France had seized after the Jay Treaty. When news reached Paris of more French victories in the ongoing war in Europe, Talleyrand and the French government began to threaten the U.S. envoys.
On October 22 and November 8, Marshall wrote long dispatches to U.S. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering explaining the situation - dispatches which would play an important role in the coming political explosion. Informal talks continued throughout the winter of 1797-1798, but were fruitless. After repeated efforts to start negotiations without paying a bribe or providing a loan, on April 24, 1798, Marshall sailed for home while Pinckney went to the south of France for personal reasons. Gerry, against the advice of his colleagues, remained in Paris in an effort to engage negotiations, a decision for which he was later heavily criticized.
Across the Atlantic, Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ vice-president, believed that the U.S. had dealt unfairly with France. As a result, Jefferson and his allies did not support Adams’ actions, particularly preparations for a possible war with France. Jefferson was also skeptical of the peace mission, writing that "The nomination of the envoys to France does not prove a thorough conversion to the pacific system." In November 1797, before news of France’s demands for a bribe reached America, Adams asked Congress to take a firm hand with France and to fund stronger military defense, but those plans met considerable resistance from Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans in Congress.
The coded dispatches from Marshall arrived on March 4, 1798, and by March 5, Adams announced to Congress that the mission had failed. As more of the dispatches were deciphered, Adams and his Cabinet were outraged by French actions, but Adams did not want to make the dispatches public because he thought that releasing them would endanger the lives of the American ministers.
On March 19, 1798, Adams asked Congress to arm American vessels, shore up coastal defenses, and manufacture arms. While Jefferson privately criticized Talleyrand’s actions, he believed that Adams and the Federalists were over-reacting to the dispatches and conveniently using the incident to encourage a war with France. Jefferson called Adams' message to Congress "insane." In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson indicated that he hoped to stall congressional action for as long as possible. (At the time, Madison was living in retirement at Montpelier while supporting the formation of the new Democratic-Republican Party.) The vice-president explained "if we could but gain this season, we should be saved. the affairs of Europe would of themselves relieve us."
Some Republican members of Congress believed that the full dispatches would show that France was ready to negotiate. The Republican press (including James Callender) also wanted full disclosure of the dispatches. On April 2, the House passed a resolution for Adams to publish the dispatches in their entirety. Adams immediately agreed to make them available to Congress since he knew the dispatches would support his calls for a strong defense, and the American ministers were safely out of France. On April 3, he released the correspondence, using X, Y, Z in place of the names of the French agents. He asked Congress to examine the documents behind closed doors. When the dispatches were read in Congress, even many Republicans were appalled by French actions. The Senate quickly voted in favor of publication of the dispatches, and they were soon printed in the newspapers.
This disclosure inflamed public opinion against France, and John Adams' popularity rose. “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute” became a popular Federalist slogan, and the Federalists increased their majority in the House of Representatives in the 1798 elections, directly contributing to the adoption of the Alien & Sedition Acts (and the Jeffersonian response with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions).
Although the incident helped drive the military build-up, war was never declared. The French government reversed itself and dropped the demands, and Adams, over considerable opposition from his own party, proposed another peace mission. By late 1800, Adams had forged the Treaty of Mortefontaine with France to restore peace (although word of the treaty arrived in the United States too late to help Adams in the bitterly-contested election of 1800).
As for Jefferson, while he wrote to Madison that the actions of the French "were very unworthy of a great nation...," he insisted that "these papers [the dispatches] do not offer one motive the more for our going to war...." Jefferson was not sure if the French Directory knew of Talleyrand's plot and never liked how the XYZ affair was used for political gain. As late as 1799 he wrote a friend that "you know what a wicked use has been made of the French negociation: and particularly of the XYZ dish cooked up by Marshall, where the swindlers are made to appear as the French government." For Jefferson, it was not easy to shake his romantic notions of his time in France and the early ideals of the French Revolution.
Berkin, Carol. A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism. New York: Basic Books, 2017.
DeConde, Alexander. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966.
Kuehl, John W. “Southern Reaction to the XYZ Affair: An Incident in the Emergence of American Nationalism.” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 70, no. 1 (1972): 21-49.
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