Wednesday, February 8, 2017

U.S. versus France "Quasi-War"

The Quasi-War (French: Quasi-guerre) was an undeclared war fought almost entirely at sea between the United States of America and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800. After the toppling of the French crown during the French Revolutionary Wars, the United States refused to continue repaying its debt to France on the grounds that it had been owed to a previous regime. French outrage led to a series of attacks on American shipping, ultimately leading to retaliation from the Americans and the end of hostilities with the signing of the Convention of 1800 shortly thereafter.


The Kingdom of France, a crucial ally of the United States in the American Revolutionary War since the spring of 1776, had loaned the US large sums of money, and had signed in 1778 a treaty of alliance with the United States of America against Great Britain. But in 1794, after the French Revolution toppled that country's monarchy, the American government came to an agreement with the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Jay Treaty, that resolved several points of contention between the United States and Great Britain that had lingered after the end of the American Revolutionary War. It also contained economic clauses.

The United States had already declared neutrality in the conflict between Great Britain and revolutionary France, and American legislation was being passed for a trade deal with Britain. When the U.S. refused to continue repaying its debt using the argument that the debt was owed to the previous government, not to the French First Republic, French outrage led to a series of responses. First, French privateers began seizing American ships trading with Britain and bringing them in as prizes to be sold. Next, the French government refused to receive Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the new U.S. Minister, when he arrived in Paris in December 1796. In his annual message to Congress at the close of 1797, President John Adams reported on France's refusal to negotiate a settlement and spoke of the need "to place our country in a suitable posture of defense." In April 1798, President Adams informed Congress of the "XYZ Affair", in which French agents demanded a large bribe before engaging in substantive negotiations with United States diplomats.

Meanwhile, the French Navy was inflicting substantial losses on American shipping. On 21 February 1797, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering told Congress that during the previous eleven months, France had seized three hundred and sixteen American merchant ships. French marauders now cruised the length of the Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed. The United States government had nothing to combat them, as the Navy had been abolished at the end of the Revolutionary War and its last warship was sold in 1785. The United States had only a flotilla of small revenue cutters and a few somewhat neglected coastal forts.

Increased depredations by French privateers led to the rebirth of the United States Navy and the creation of the United States Marine Corps to defend the expanding American merchant fleet. Congress authorized the president to acquire, arm, and man not more than twelve ships of up to twenty two guns each. Several merchantmen were immediately purchased and refitted as ships of war, and construction of the frigate Congress resumed.

Congress rescinded the treaties with France on 7 July 1798; that date is now considered as the beginning of the Quasi-War. This was followed two days later with the passage of the Congressional authorization of attacks on French warships in American waters.

                                                  USS Constellation versus L'Insurgente
Conclusion of Hostilities

By the autumn of 1800, the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, combined with a more conciliatory diplomatic stance by the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, had reduced the activity of the French privateers and warships. The Convention of 1800, signed on 30 September, ended the Quasi-War. However, the news did not arrive in time to help John Adams secure a second term in the 1800 U.S. presidential election.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.