The Quasi-War: America's First Conflict

USS Constellation during the Quasi-War with France
USS Constellation (1797) engaged L'Insurgente. US Naval History and Heritage Command

An undeclared war between the United States and France, the Quasi-War was the result of disagreements over treaties and America's status as a neutral in the Wars of the French Revolution. Fought entirely at sea, the Quasi-War was largely a success for the fledgling US Navy as its vessels captured numerous French privateers and warships, while only losing one of its vessels. By late 1800, attitudes in France shifted and hostilities were concluded by the Treaty of Mortefontaine.

Dates

The Quasi-War was officially fought from July 7, 1798, until the signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine on September 30, 1800. French privateers had been preying on American shipping for several years prior to the beginning of the conflict.

Causes

Principle among the causes of the Quasi-War was the signing of the Jay Treaty between the United States and Great Britain in 1794. Largely designed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the treaty sought to resolve outstanding issues between the United States and Great Britain some of which had roots in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that had ended the American Revolution. Among the treaty's provisions was a call for British troops to depart from frontier forts in the Northwest Territory which had remained occupied when state courts in the United States interfered the repayment of debts to Great Britain. Additionally, the treaty called for the two nations to seek arbitration regarding arguments over other outstanding debts as well as the American-Canadian border.

The Jay Treaty also provided the United States limited trading rights with British colonies in the Caribbean in exchange for restrictions on the American export of cotton.   

While largely a commercial agreement, the French viewed the treaty as a violation of 1778 Treaty of Alliance with the American colonists.

This feeling was enhanced by the perception that the United States was favoring Britain, despite having declared neutrality in the ongoing conflict between the two nations. Shortly after the Jay Treaty took effect, the French began seizing American ships trading with Britain and, in 1796, refused to accept the new US minister in Paris. Another contributing factor was the United States refusing to continue repaying debts accrued during the American Revolution. This action was defended with the argument that the loans had been taken from the French monarchy and not the new French First Republic. As Louis XVI had been deposed and then executed in 1793, the United States argued that the loans were effectively null and void.

The XYZ Affair

Tensions heightened in April 1798, when President John Adams reported to Congress on the XYZ Affair. The previous year, in an attempt to prevent war, Adams sent a delegation consisting of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Elbridge Gerry, and John Marshall to Paris to negotiate peace between the two nations. Upon arriving in France, the delegation was told by three French agents, referred to in reports as X (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer), Y (Pierre Bellamy), and Z (Lucien Hauteval), that in order to speak to Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, they would have to pay a large bribe, provide a loan for the French war effort, and Adams would have to apologize for anti-French statements.

Though such demands were common in European diplomacy, the Americans found them offensive and refused to comply.  Informal communications continued but failed to alter the situation as the Americans refused to pay with Pinckney exclaiming "No, no, not a sixpence!" Unable to further advance their cause, Pinckney and Marshall departed France in April 1798 while Gerry followed a short time later.

Active Operations Begin

Announcement of the XYZ Affair unleashed a wave of anti-French sentiment across the country. Though Adams had hoped to contain the response, he was soon faced with loud calls from the Federalists for a declaration of war. Across the aisle, the Democratic-Republicans, led by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, who had generally favored closer relations with France, were left without an effective counter-argument.

Though Adams resisted calls for war, he was authorized by Congress to expand the Navy as French privateers continued to capture American merchant ships. On July 7, 1798, Congress rescinded all treaties with France and the US Navy was ordered to seek out and destroy French warships and privateers operating against American commerce. Consisting of approximately thirty ships, the US Navy began patrols along the southern coast and throughout the Caribbean. Success came quickly, with USS Delaware (20 guns) capturing the privateer La Croyable (14) off New Jersey on July 7.

The War at Sea

As over 300 American merchantmen had been captured by the French in the previous two years, the US Navy protected convoys and searched for the French. Over the next two years, American vessels posted an incredible record against enemy privateers and warships. During the conflict, USS Enterprise (12) captured eight privateers and liberated eleven American merchant ships, while USS Experiment (12) had similar success. On May 11, 1800, Commodore Silas Talbot, aboard USS Constitution (44), ordered his men to cut out a privateer from Puerto Plata. Led by Lt. Isaac Hull, the sailors took the ship and spiked the guns in the fort.  That October, USS Boston (32) defeated and captured the corvette Berceau (22) off Guadeloupe.  Unknown to the ships' commanders, the conflict had already ended.  Due to this fact, Berceau was later returned to the French.

Truxtun & the Frigate USS Constellation

The two most noteworthy battles of the conflict involved the 38-gun frigate USS Constellation (38).

Commanded by Thomas Truxtun, Constellation sighted the 36-gun French frigate L'Insurgente (40) on February 9, 1799. The French ship closed to board, but Truxtun used Constellation's superior speed to maneuver away, raking L'Insurgente with fire. After a brief fight, Captain M. Barreaut surrendered his ship to Truxtun. Almost a year later, on February 2, 1800, Constellation encountered the 52-gun frigate La Vengeance. Fighting a five-hour battle at night, the French ship was pummeled but was able to escape in the darkness.

The One American Loss

During the entire conflict, the US Navy only lost one warship to enemy action. This was the captured privateer schooner La Croyable which had been purchased into the service and renamed USS Retaliation. Sailing with USS Montezuma (20) and USS Norfolk (18), Retaliation was ordered to patrol the West Indies. On November 20, 1798, while its consorts were away on a chase, Retaliation was overtaken by the French frigates L'Insurgente and Volontaire (40). Badly outgunned, the schooner's commander, Lieutenant William Bainbridge, had no choice but to surrender. After being captured, Bainbridge aided in Montezuma and Norfolk's escape by convincing the enemy that the two American ships were too powerful for the French frigates. The ship was recaptured the following June by USS Merrimack (28).

Peace

In late 1800, the independent operations of the US Navy and the British Royal Navy were able to force a reduction in the activities of French privateers and warships.

This coupled with changing attitudes in the French revolutionary government, opened the door for renewed negotiations. This soon saw Adams dispatch William Vans Murray, Oliver Ellsworth, and William Richardson Davie to France with orders to commence talks. Signed on September 30, 1800, the resulting Treaty of Mortefontaine ended hostilities between the US and France, as well as terminated all previous agreements and established trade ties between the nations. During the course of the fighting, the new US Navy captured 85 French privateers, while losing approximately 2,000 merchant vessels.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "The Quasi-War: America's First Conflict." ThoughtCo, Jul. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-quasi-war-americas-first-conflict-2361170. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, July 8). The Quasi-War: America's First Conflict. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-quasi-war-americas-first-conflict-2361170 Hickman, Kennedy. "The Quasi-War: America's First Conflict." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-quasi-war-americas-first-conflict-2361170 (accessed November 22, 2017).