A decade after the Constitution was drafted, the United States faced its most serious international crisis: an undeclared naval war with France. In Jay's Treaty, France perceived an American tilt toward England, especially in the provision permitting Britain to seize French goods from American ships in exchange for financial compensation. France retaliated by launching an aggressive campaign against American shipping, particularly in the West Indies, capturing hundreds of vessels flying the U.S. flag.
Adams attempted to negotiate with France, but the French government refused to receive the American envoy and suspended commercial relations. Adams then called Congress into special session. Determined that the United States not be "humiliated," he recommended that Congress arm American merchant ships, fortify harbors, and expand the army and navy. By a single vote the House of Representatives authorized the President to arm American merchant ships but postponed consideration of the other defense measures.
Adams then sent three commissioners to France to negotiate a settlement. French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838) continually postponed official negotiations. In the meantime, three of the minister's emissaries (known simply as X, Y, and Z) said that the only way the Americans could see the minister was to pay a bribe of $250,000 and provide France with a $10 million loan! The indignant American commissioners refused. When word of the "XYZ Affair" became known in the United States, it aroused a popular demand for war. The popular slogan was "millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute."
During the winter of 1798, 14 American warships backed by 200 armed merchant ships captured 80 French vessels and forced French warships out of American waters. But the President refused to ask Congress for an official declaration of war. This is why this conflict is known as the quasi-war. In this selection, John Jay, now the Governor of New York, reflects on the country's tangled relations with France.
In 1800, after seven months of negotiations, diplomats worked out an agreement known as the Convention of 1800. The agreement freed the United States from its alliance with France; in exchange, America forgave $20 million in damages caused by France's illegal seizure of American merchant ships during the 1790s.
In my opinion it would be both just and proper to declare the treaty with France to be void--but I think it would be more advisable to direct reprisals than to declare war at present, for the public mind does not appear to me to be quite prepared for it.... The Jacobin [radical French] leaders will continue to persuade their deluded followers that the [U.S.] Government is chargeable not only with precipitation but with a desire to prevent an accommodation which they effect to believe practicable, notwithstanding the treatment of our envoys....
Whenever the mass of our people are convinced that the war would be just, necessary, and unavoidable, they will be content that it should be declared, and will support it vigorously, but I doubt whether that conviction however well founded, is as yet so prevailing and general as it ought to be, and as it would be but for the arts practiced to retard and prevent it. To me there seems to be reason to apprehend that there are characters to whom revolution and confiscation would not be disagreeable. Nothing should be omitted to frustrate their endeavors to deceive--everything should be done to inform the People and assist them to see Things as they are. Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry's remaining in France [continuing to negotiate with the French government] is an unfortunate circumstance, it tends to prolong vain hopes--and to cherish old divisions and to create new ones. He was doubtless actuated by the best intentions, but I think he committed a mistake. If both Houses [of Congress] should concur in opinion that a Declaration of War would be seasonable, I hope the minority against it, may not be so considerable as to give countenance to a contrary opinion.