The XYZ Affair: A Dispute Between France and the U.S.

with caption 'Cinque-tetes, Or The Paris Monster' And Lengthy Subtitles, circa 1797
Cartoon satirising 'The XYZ Affair' between France and the United States that lead to the Quasi War. Fotosearch / Getty Images

The XYZ Affair was a dispute between diplomats from France and the United States in 1797 and 1798, during the early days of the presidential administration of John Adams that resulted in a limited, undeclared war known as the Quasi-War. Peace was quickly restored when the U.S. and France agreed on the Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine. The dispute’s name comes from the letters used by President Adams to refer to the French diplomats: Jean Hottinguer (X), Pierre Bellamy (Y), and Lucien Hauteval (Z).

Key Takeaways: The XYZ Affair

  • The XYZ Affair was a serious diplomatic dispute between France and the United States in 1797 and 1798 that led to the undeclared war between the nations known as the Quasi-War.
  • The name of the affair comes from the letters X, Y, and Z used by U.S. President John Adams to refer to the names of three of the French diplomats involved.
  • The dispute and Quasi-War were resolved by the Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine.

Background

In 1792, France went to war with Britain, Austria, and several other European monarchies. U.S. President George Washington had directed America to remain neutral. However, France, angered by the United States’ conclusion of Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain in 1795, began seizing American ships transporting goods to their enemies. In response, President John Adams sent U.S diplomats Elbridge Gerry, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and John Marshall to France in July 1797 with orders to restore harmony. Far from brokering peace, the U.S. envoys soon found themselves embroiled in the XYZ Affair.

Jay's Treaty Had Angered France

Ratified in 1795, Jay’s Treaty between the United States and Great Britain peacefully resolved issues lingering after the Treaty of Paris of 1783 had ended the American Revolutionary War. The treaty also facilitated a decade of peaceful trade between the United States and Britain during the height of the bloody French Revolutionary Wars. Having just helped the U.S. defeat the British in its own revolution, France was deeply angered by Jay’s Treaty. In the United States, the treaty divided Americans, contributing to the creation of America’s first political parties, the pro-Treaty Federalists and the anti-Treaty Anti-Federalists or Democratic Republicans.

The XYZ Negotiations: A Bad Time Was Had by All

Even before they sailed for Paris, American diplomats Gerry, Pinckney, and Marshall were not optimistic. Like others in the Adams administration, they viewed the French government—the Directory—as a source of such extreme decadence and intrigue that it would stand in the way of accomplishing their mission. Sure enough, as soon as they arrived, the American trio was told they would not be allowed to meet face-to-face with the French Foreign Minister and chief diplomat, the flamboyant and unpredictable Maurice de Talleyrand. Instead, they were met by Talleyrand’s intermediaries, Hottinguer (X), Bellamy (Y), and Hauteval (Z). Also stirring the pot was French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, who had helped funnel much-needed French money to the United States during the American Revolution.

X, Y, and Z told the Americans that Talleyrand would meet with them only if they agreed to satisfy three conditions:

  1. The United States had to agree to provide France with a substantial low-interest loan.
  2. The United States had to agree to pay all claims of damages filed against France by owners of American merchant ships seized or sunk by the French Navy.
  3. The United States had to pay a bribe of 50,000 British pounds directly to Talleyrand, himself.

While the U.S. envoy was aware that diplomats from other nations had paid bribes in order to deal with Talleyrand, they were shocked and doubted that any such concessions on their part would result in substantial changes in French policy.

In reality, Talleyrand had intended to end the French attacks on U.S. merchant shipping all along, but only after increasing his personal wealth and political influence within the French Directory government. In addition, Talleyrand’s intermediaries, X, Y, and Z, having invested heavily in U.S. businesses themselves, wanted to preserve peace. However, emboldened by France’s victories in its ongoing war with Britain, X, Y, and Z increased the amount of the requested U.S. loan and even threatened a military invasion of America if the U.S. diplomats refused to agree.

When the U.S. diplomats held their ground and refused to agree to the French demands, Talleyrand finally met with them. While he dropped his demands for a loan and a bribe, he refused to put an end to French seizures of American merchant ships. While Americans Pinckney and Marshall prepared to leave France, Elbridge Gerry decided to remain, hoping to avert an outright war.

President John Adams Reaction to the XYZ Affair

As he read the disheartening reports from Gerry, Pinckney, and Marshall, President Adams prepared for war with France. While pro-war Federalists urged Congress to support him, Democratic-Republican leaders distrusted his motives and demanded that he make the diplomatic correspondence from Paris public. Adams agreed, but knowing the sensitivity of the contents, he redacted the names of Talleyrand’s intermediaries, replacing them with the letters X, Y, and Z. He also used the letter W to refer to Nicholas Hubbard, an Englishman employed by a Dutch bank who took part in the latter stages of the negotiations.

Though Adams prepared for war, he never officially declared it. In France, Talleyrand, realizing the risks of his actions, sought to restore diplomatic relations with America and the U.S. Congress agreed to negotiate directly with the French Directorate. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, the U.S. Navy had started fighting French forces commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte attempting to defeat Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian independence movement.

The Convention of 1800

By 1799, Napoleon had come to power in France and was focused on recovering the North American Louisiana territory from Spain. Talleyrand, retained by Napoleon as Foreign Minister, was trying to prevent further hostilities with the U.S. The British, still at war with France, were thrilled with the growing anti-French sentiment in the U.S. and offered to help the Americans fight their common foe. However, President Adams was convinced that if France had really wanted an all-out war it would have responded to America’s attacks on French ships in the Caribbean. For his part, Talleyrand, also fearing the costs of a full-scale war, hinted that he would meet with a new American diplomat. Despite the public’s and the Federalists’ desire for war, Adams sent not one, but three peace negotiators—William Vans Murray, Oliver Ellsworth, and William Richardson Davie—to France.

In March 1800, American and French diplomats finally convened in Paris to hammer out a peace agreement. After first annulling the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, they reached a new agreement based on the original Model Treaty of 1776 that would become known as the Convention of 1800.  

The agreement peacefully ended the 1778 alliance between the United States and France while releasing France from any financial responsibility for damages to U.S. shipping and commerce since the start of the French Revolution. The specific terms of the Convention of 1800 included:

  1. The Quasi-War was to end.
  2. France agreed to return captured American ships.
  3. U.S. agreed to compensate its citizens for damages inflicted by France on American shipping (damages totaled $20 million; U.S. paid $3.9 million to heirs of original claimants in 1915).
  4. The Franco-American Alliance was terminated.
  5. U.S. and France granted each other most-favored-nation status.
  6. U.S. and France reestablished commercial relations on terms similar to those outlined in Franco-American Alliance.

It would not be for nearly 150 more years that the United States would enter into another formal alliance with a foreign country: the Montevideo Convention was ratified in 1934.

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