XYZ Affair

Disagreements between the United States and France over the import of Jay’s Treaty and an attempt by French agents to extort a bribe from American negotiators led to an undeclared war between France and the United States.

Summary of Event

The presidency of John Adams of Massachusetts was not a happy one. Adams inherited all the problems of George Washington but none of his prestige. French-American Half-War (1796-1800)[French American Half War] French-American relations with the French First Republic progressively worsened. Adams also faced dissension within his own party. Not all Federalists were satisfied when he was chosen as Washington’s successor. Alexander Hamilton was known to have opposed Adams and would do so again in 1800. Adams did not help himself by retaining the Washington cabinet, composed of men with no particular loyalty to the new president. The overriding issue was the question of war or peace with France, but hardly less critical was the question of Adams’s ability to control his own administration. [kw]XYZ Affair (Oct. 4, 1797-Sept. 30, 1800)
[kw]Affair, XYZ (Oct. 4, 1797-Sept. 30, 1800)
American-French conflicts[American French conflicts]
French-American conflicts[French American conflicts]
XYZ affair
[g]United States;Oct. 4, 1797-Sept. 30, 1800: XYZ Affair[3300]
[g]France;Oct. 4, 1797-Sept. 30, 1800: XYZ Affair[3300]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 4, 1797-Sept. 30, 1800: XYZ Affair[3300]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 4, 1797-Sept. 30, 1800: XYZ Affair[3300]
Adams, John (1735-1826)
Hamilton, Alexander
Gerry, Elbridge
Marshall, John
Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth
Pickering, Timothy

In the eyes of the French government, the United States, in signing Jay’s Treaty (1794)[Jays Treaty] Jay’s Treaty (1794), had repudiated the Franco-American Treaties (1778)[Franco American Treaties] Franco-American Alliance of 1778. The French charged that the acceptance of the treaty was a non-neutral act, inasmuch as the United States had obviously accepted the British definition of neutral rights at sea. The French decided to break off normal relations with the United States. To give force to this action, the French subjected American vessels on the high seas to the same indignities so recently experienced at the hands of the British. In the year following July, 1796, the secretary of state, Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, reported that the French had seized 316 U.S. vessels.

In an effort to forestall a complete break between the two nations, President Adams sent a three-man delegation to negotiate with the French. At the time of the mission there was no recognized American representative in France because the French had refused to receive Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (brother of Thomas), whom Washington had sent to France as the successor to James Monroe. Adams chose two distinguished Americans—Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts Republican, and John Marshall, a Virginia Federalist—to join with Pinckney in presenting the U.S. position to the French government. The three Americans were in Paris by October 4, 1797.

While Adams and the Federalist Party Federalists were determined to avoid war if at all possible, Military;American Adams called upon Congress to look to the defenses of the nation. Bills were introduced calling for the enlargement of the regular army, the creation of a provisional army of Taxation;United States fifteen thousand men, the construction of three new frigates for the navy, and tax measures to pay for the preparedness program. The program ran into stiff opposition. The Republicans accused Adams and his party of warmongering and succeeded in defeating the army and tax bills.

“Property Protected à la Françoise”: A 1798 British cartoon representing Franco-American relations during the XYZ affair portrays a group of Frenchmen robbing a woman symbolizing America.

(Library of Congress)

The three Americans in Paris made no progress in their negotiations during several weeks in the city. When they were convinced that their mission was a failure, three representatives (the notorious Messrs. X, Y, and Z) from Talleyrand, the French minister of foreign affairs, approached them with certain demands as prerequisites to negotiation: President Adams was to apologize for certain statements in his last message to Congress, and the United States was to pay a sum of 1.2 million livres and make a loan of 32 million florins to the French, which was simply a demand for a bribe. The Americans, with no instructions relative to the payment of such a hugh sum of money, could do nothing but refuse. Pinckney and Marshall, convinced of the futility of remaining in France, took their departure. Gerry lingered in Paris in the hope of achieving something, but was soon recalled.

When news of this attempt by the French to dishonor the name of the United States was made public, Americans of virtually all political persuasions were united in condemning the insolence of the French. There were demands that the United States take immediate steps to defend its integrity. Some called for war; most shouted the slogan, “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” Congress declared that the treaties of alliance and friendship of 1778 with France were void and authorized public and private vessels of the United States to capture French armed ships on the high seas. The United States and France were dangerously close to war.

In the spring of 1798, Congress created a Department of the Navy, U.S. Navy and appropriated funds to build warships. Preparations were made to raise an army of fifteen thousand men. During the next two years an undeclared war, or Half-War, as Adams called it, was waged against France. By 1800, the United States Navy, with the aid of hundreds of privateers, Privateers had successfully cleared U.S. waters of French cruisers and had even carried the naval warfare into the seas surrounding the French West Indies.

President Adams soon found himself in a difficult position. He was rapidly losing control of his own administration. Alexander Hamilton seemed to have more influence with Congress and the cabinet than did the president. Adams, a good New Englander, was basically opposed to the creation of a large standing army. He emphasized the navy as the United States’ Army, U.S.[Army, US] first line of defense. Hamilton and his supporters pushed army legislation through Congress. The army was to be commanded by Washington, but until he actually took the field, Hamilton was to be in charge.

Adams opposed Hamilton but could do nothing, since Washington made it clear that he would accept command only on his own terms. Adams, finally recognizing that his cabinet was disloyal, ultimately forced the resignations of Pickering and McHenry, James[MacHenry, James] James McHenry, secretary of war. Adams also learned that the French government was then willing to negotiate seriously. With war fever high among certain Federalists, Adams opted for peace. Without consultation with his cabinet or the Federalist leadership, Adams submitted the name of an envoy to France.

This action precipitated a split in the Federalist Party Federalist Party. Adams did succeed in reopening negotiations with the French, although he was forced to accept a commission of three Federalists rather than the one individual he had nominated. By the time that the three commissioners reached France, Napoleon was First Consul. The settlement reached on September 30, 1800, in the Treaty of Morfontaine Morfontaine, Treaty of (1800) (signed the same day as the Convention of 1800) provided for the mutual abrogation of the Franco-American Treaties of 1778, but it also provided that the United States was to receive no indemnity for the French seizures of U.S. merchant shipping. Although not entirely satisfactory to the United States, the agreement did end the undeclared war. The peace was popular with most Americans, but the rift that it caused between the supporters of the president and those of Hamilton seriously injured Adams’s chances of reelection in 1800.


The XYZ affair would not have achieved the prominence it did had it not become enmeshed in U.S. party politics. Although the XYZ affair is often presented as a case study of U.S. virtue as opposed to Old World corruption, there is evidence that the Americans contributed to the sordidness of the affair. After having supported the Americans in their struggle for independence, the French had reason to be offended by Jay’s Treaty, which favored the British in the war against France. The Federalist Party of President Adams was the party of property. The party as a whole despised and feared revolutionary France. Therefore, some Federalists saw an advantage to keeping the animosity toward France alive, even to the extent of war.

There is reason to question how serious the delegates, all Federalist appointees, were in seeking an accommodation with the French Directory. Were the Americans really surprised by the bribes? Some historians maintain that they were prepared to pay handsomely and that it was merely the greediness of the Directory’s agents that offended them. Did the delegates, as Talleyrand later maintained, shut themselves in their hotel rooms and leave before they could be officially received? Were the dispatches written by Federalist John Marshall, released to Congress and the press in April of 1798, deliberately intended to inflame public opinion?

If the Federalists wanted war, Talleyrand was not willing to oblige. The last thing France needed, he warned the Directory, was another enemy. By the fall of 1798, the bribes had been forgotten and French vessels were ordered to respect American neutrality. The relieved Republicans saw the whole affair as a Federalist hoax. Adams was swept from power in the “Revolution of 1800”; the French Directory had suffered the same fate the year before at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte. The XYZ affair was relegated to history, remembered only by a ringing slogan.

Further Reading

  • Chinard, Gilbert. Honest John Adams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1933. A detailed short biography of the second U.S. president, discussing his efforts to deal with an almost treasonable cabinet and the support he received from his wife, Abigail.
  • DeConde, Alexander. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966. Summarizes the war in the light of efforts of both the Americans and French to save face.
  • Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A thorough, understandable treatment of the XYZ affair.
  • McCullogh, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. This highly acclaimed, meticulously researched biography of Adams includes an explanation of the XYZ affair in chapter 9.
  • Morison, S. E., H. S. Commager, and W. E. Leuchtenburg. “John Adams’ Administration.” In The Growth of the American Republic. 2 vols. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. The authors, considered authorities on U.S. history, place the affair in historic perspective and offer some fresh insights.
  • Palmer, Michael A. Stoddert’s War: Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, 1798-1801. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Describes how Benjamin Stoddert, first secretary of the navy, led the United States’ attack on the French during the undeclared war. Places the war in a European context. Updated edition of a book originally published in 1987.
  • Rudko, Frances Howell. John Marshall and International Law: Statesman and Chief Justice. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. Examines Marshall’s twenty years of experience in international law before his appointment as Chief Justice of the United States. Includes a detailed examination of his negotiations with the French during Adams’s administration.
  • Stinchcombe, William. The XYZ Affair. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. A detailed, documented, standard account of the affair.

Franco-American Treaties

Treaty of Paris

Publication of The Federalist

First U.S. Political Parties

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Execution of Louis XVI

Fall of Robespierre

Jay’s Treaty

Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns

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XYZ affair