American-French Quasi-War (1798–1800)
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: United States vs. France
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Atlantic waters off New Jersey
coast and the Caribbean
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The United States sought
to defend its rights as a neutral in the war between
France and Britain.
OUTCOME: Franco-American amity restored; U.S. freedom
of navigation ensured
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:
U.S. Navy, about 1,000; U.S. privateers, about 7,000;
French strength unknown.
CASUALTIES: Official U.S. losses, 22 killed, 36 wounded;
French, 113 killed, 169 wounded.
TREATIES: Convention between the French Republic and
the United States of America, September 30, 1800
Friction between France and the United States, close allies
during the AMERICAN REVOLUTION (1775–83), developed
during the course of the peace negotiations ending the
Revolution, as it became clear that France was more interested
in opposing Britain and furthering the North American
territorial ambitions of its ally Spain than in truly
upholding the cause of U.S. independence. With the fall of
the Bourbon monarchy in the FRENCH REVOLUTION and
renewed warfare between France and Britain in 1793, relations
deteriorated further as U.S. policy was perceived to
favor the British over the French. In particular, the French
now regarded Jay’s Treaty of 1794, between the United
States and Britain, as an outright betrayal of the 1778
treaty of alliance between the United States and France.
Seeking to heal the growing rift, President John Adams
(1735–1826) sent a special mission to Paris in 1797.
French prime minister Talleyrand (1754–1838) responded
by demanding a bribe before he would even grant the
American commissioners an audience. It was an outrage
that came to light as the infamous XYZ Affair and nearly
brought France and the United States to outright war.
Already, French naval operations against the British in
the West Indies had begun to interfere with American shipping,
as French warships intercepted and turned back U.S.
merchantmen. In response, Congress authorized the rapid
completion of three great frigates, the United States, Constellation,
and Constitution, as well as the arming and training
of some 80,000 militiamen. Furthermore, Congress
commissioned 1,000 privateers to capture or repel French
vessels, George Washington (1732–99) was recalled to
command the army, and, on May 3, 1798, a U.S. Navy
department was created.
In July 1798 Stephen Decatur (1774–1820) on the
sloop Delaware captured the French schooner Croyable off
the New Jersey coast. Renamed the Retaliation, it was
retaken by the French in November 1798 off Guadaloupe.
On February 9, 1799, the brand-new USS Constellation captured
the French frigate Insurgente. Additional exchanges
took place sporadically through 1800, mainly in the
Caribbean. Of 10 important engagements, the French recapture
of Croyable / Retaliation was the only American loss.
Despite the aggressiveness of the fledgling U.S. Navy
and American support for the newly begun anti-French
Haitian independence movement led by former slave
Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803; see HAITIAN-FRENCH
WAR), war between France and the United States was
never declared. When Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821)
assumed the leadership of the French government by his
coup d’état of November 9, 1799, he caused word to be
sent that France sought reconciliation. The truth was that
Napoleon needed the support of neutral Denmark and
Sweden to lend legitimacy to his new government, and he
was therefore eager to be seen as a supporter of the rights
of neutrals. The result of the change in French attitude
was the Convention between the French Republic and the
United States of America of 1800, which officially brought
an end to what had been an unofficial war. The treaty not
only restored amity between the two former allies but
secured France’s guarantee to respect the rights of a neutral
United States to sail the high seas.
Further reading: Michael A. Palmer, Stoddert’s War:
Naval Operations during the Quasi War with France, 1798–
1801 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987);
Joseph Wheelan, Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror
1801–1805 (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003).