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In 1798, the U.S. went to war with France—sort of

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This week’s entry: Quasi-War

What it’s about: After helping America win its freedom in the Revolutionary War, France immediately became the fledgling nation’s staunchest ally. But only for about 15 years. History books tend to skip over the second war in our nation’s history, an undeclared, largely naval “quasi-war” between the U.S. and France during the presidency of John Adams.

Biggest controversy: Besides military assistance, the French monarchy also loaned a ton of money to the Revolutionary cause, putting France into debt, and contributing to the economic crisis that sparked the French Revolution. The U.S. stopped payments on the debt, arguing that it was owed to the monarchy, not to their fellow newly formed democracy. To make things worse, the U.S. was in the process of normalizing relations with Britain, still at war with France. While France had given the U.S. a massive amount of support in our war against Britain, we remained neutral in theirs.


Outraged, France began sending privateers (privately owned ships a country hires to fight when they’re not prepared to send their actual navy) to seize American ships trading with Britain, and severing diplomatic relations with the U.S. The privateers were virtually unopposed, seizing over 300 ships, as the U.S. had disbanded its navy after the Revolution, hoping to stay out of foreign affairs. President Adams had to build a navy from scratch.

Strangest fact: Adams got an assist from on high. George Washington had magnanimously stepped down as president after two terms because he was eager to get away from the stresses of office, but found himself bored with retirement. Seeing the rising tensions with France, Washington wrote to Adams’ secretary of war, offering to organize the armed forces. The former president resumed his duties as military commander-in-chief from July of 1798 until his death at the end of the following year. According to Wikipedia, he largely delegated to Hamilton (Hamilton’s page says Washington refused to leave Mount Vernon unless it was to lead troops into battle, so Hamilton was effectively in charge).


Thing we were happiest to learn: The Quasi-War is the reason two branches of the armed forces exist. Both the Department Of The Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps were founded in response to the French privateers’ attacks on American shipping. Benjamin Stoddert, a Revolutionary War vet who had previously, at the request of Washington, purchased the land on the Potomac that would become Washington, D.C., had to organize both concerns as the first secretary of the Navy. He wisely realized that the Navy didn’t have enough ships to engage the French all over the Atlantic, so he massed his forces in the Caribbean, attacking France at its strongest point.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: A second straight U.S.-over-Europe upset has been largely forgotten. Stoddert’s plan was a smashing success, as the new 25-ship Navy (largely commercial vessels purchased and armed by Stoddert) captured or damaged several French frigates, and captured eight privateers while losing only one American ship, Retaliation, which was itself a captured and refitted privateer. Even then, Retaliation’s commanding officer managed to convince the French that nearby American ships were overpowered and not worth tangling with (in fact, they were fleeing, to escape Retaliation’s fate). The French only held its prize for seven months, as the Merrimack (not the Civil War ironclad, but the first ship to bear that name) fired on and recaptured Retaliation the following year. By late 1800, the U.S. and British navies, working separately, had disrupted French naval activity, and by that point France had another new government—that of Napoleon, who agreed to the Convention Of 1800, ending quasi-hostilities, and assuring American neutrality through the Napoleonic Wars.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: After France broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S., three French diplomats demanded a bribe in order to begin peace negotiations. Adams was so outraged, he refused to even call the crooked diplomats by name, referring to them as “X, Y, and Z.” Thus was born the XYZ Affair, the best-named scandal in American history (at least until the Teapot Dome Scandal came along).

Further down the Wormhole: While Adams disagreed with his chief rival, Thomas Jefferson, on Federalism (i.e., how much power should be centralized vs. left to the states), both men were advocates of republicanism. In the early days of this country, being a lowercase “r” republican meant you believed in a virtuous, well-informed citizenry, and despised aristocracy and corruption. Like-minded republicans were behind 1911’s Xinhai Revolution, which overthrew the Qing dynasty and installed a republic in its place. (The Republic Of China was in turn overthrown by Mao and the Communists on the Chinese mainland, but still governs Taiwan.) One of the Xinhai revolutionaries’ inspirations was Qiu Jin, a poet, teacher, and early feminist who tried to lead her own revolution. We’ll hear her story next week.