From March of 1797 to 1800, a diplomatic scandal occurred where Americans were outraged by demands from the French for a bribe as a condition for negotiating with American diplomats that became known as the XYZ Affair. John Adams took presidency in 1797 and inherited several problems from George Washington’s administration, including hostilities between the United States and France that began to escalate in the 1790s. The signing of Jay’s Treaty, which violated of the Treaty of Paris yet averted the threat of war with England, induced angry reactions from both American and European politicians.
Democratic-Republicans believed the treaty was a humiliating surrender to the British. French leaders, meanwhile, viewed it as a union with their enemy, and the violation of the Franco-American Treaty of 1778. In response to the John Jay’s agreement, the French used forces to plunder more than 300 American ships. To stop the attacks on American shipping and settle on an agreement with France, Adams appointed three commissioners: Charles Pinckney, United States minister to France; John Marshall, a Virginia lawyer; and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.
Upon arriving in Paris in October 1797, the three men experienced a hostile environment. They requested a meeting with the French government. The envoys met three secret agents to relay Talleyrand’s terms of negotiations. The three agents were labeled as X, Y and Z, but later revealed as Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval respectfully. The agents insisted that before any negotiate could begin, they demanded 50,000 pounds of sterling, a $12 million loan from America, a $250,000 personal bribe to the French minister, and a formal apology to the French minister for a comment made by President John Adams.
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Though bribery was extremely common in the eighteenth-century politics, Talleyrands demands were too high for merely a pledge to negotiate. Pinckney rejected the terms and told the French agents “no, no, not a sixpence. ” The incident became known as “The XYZ Affair. ” Once the commissioners’ report to Congress became public, citizens were furious about the French behavior. Even the most loyal Democratic-Republicans, who supported a strong relationship with France, felt a sense of betrayal and many joined a call for war.
Pinckney’s response to the demands sparked a rallying that spread throughout the colonies: “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute. ” Federalist politicians were eager for a fight and the war campaign gained more support. Adams refused to declare war but advocated the build-up of American armed forces and raised taxes. Adams also accepted new laws that tried to limit protests against the government and its actions. These laws were the Alien and Sedition Acts.
They made it difficult for immigrants to become a United States citizen and people from certain countries, such as France, could not become a citizen at all. The laws also restricted free speech and freedom of the press. Many citizens saw the Alien and Sedition Acts as harsh and undemocratic laws. Congress stopped commercial trade with France, renounced the alliance of 1778, tripled the size of the army, and created a Navy Department with an order for the contraction of 40 warships.
By the fall of 1798, American ships were waging an undeclared war against the French in the Caribbean waters, a conflict that is known as the Quasi-War. The French seized over 300 American ships. The United States retaliated by capturing 22 French ships off the American coast and in the West Indies. Hamilton led the Federalist charge for war, but Adams remained steadfast in his refusal to sign a formal declaration of war. He believed that war with France would divide the colonies and lead to a civil war.
This could be Adams’ finest hour because his of his decision to put the interests of his nation ahead of those of his party. 5 In 1799, Tallyrand, who did not want to deplete the French military with a fight outside of Europe, let it be known that he was willing to talk. Adams sent another delegation to negotiate a peaceful end to the quasi-war with France. But by the time the envoy arrived in Paris, Napolean Bonaparte was in power and looking to cut ties with America.
The two sides finally produced an agreement called “The Convention of 1800,” that annulled the 1778 treaty of alliance and excused the French from damage claims of American shippers. Had Adams chosen war, it may have jeopardized the American purchase of Louisiana in 1803. The threat of war with France was eliminated. President Adams showed Europe that the new American nation was ready to defend itself and would not be bullied anymore. The naval program Adams helped to stimulate would also help the United States defeat the Barbay pirates in the First and Second Barbay war as well as aiding in the War of 1812.
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