The Quasi-War decision that saved the nation

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Like David to Goliath, President John Adams responded to French naval aggression by boldly stating, “America is not scared.” During the Quasi-War with France, Adams fortified the nation’s scant defenses and ordered a muscular retaliation against French hostilities. But Adams also persisted in sending envoys to negotiate peace, which historian David McCullough called the bravest act of his career. With the remarkable foresight of his carrot-and-stick approach, Adams averted a full-scale war that his fledgling country was almost sure to lose. By procuring peace with Napoleon, Adams also paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the country’s size and secured America’s future against hostile international powers.

In 1794, the French Revolutionary government objected to America’s Jay Treaty alliance with Great Britain. Tensions further escalated over loan financing disputes. After Congress ratified the Jay Treaty in 1795, France began seizing American ships. When Adams became President in 1797, simmering hostilities were boiling into war.

US frigate Constellation capturing the French frigate L’Insurgent in the first major engagement of the Quasi-War. Courtesy of Wikipedia

US frigate Constellation capturing the French frigate L’Insurgent in the first major engagement of the Quasi-War. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Adams’s correspondence during this time sheds light on the heated Quasi-War debates. Many of his letters may be viewed online in the Adams Papers Digital Edition, maintained by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Founded in 1791, the independent research library is the repository of the Adams Family Papers collection. Sara Martin, the editor-in-chief of the Adams Papers, and Amanda Norton, the assistant editor, showed me original correspondence from the Quasi-War era that brought the pivotal historical event to life. It was a first glimpse of the fascinating letters that will soon be available online.

In Adams’s March 31, 1797, letter to his son, John Quincy, shown above, the president states that he will try to reconcile with France, but not under humiliating terms. As Norton suggests, “It’s as if Adams is saying, ‘I want peace, but not peace at any price.’”

Adams appointed a special commission to France to pursue a resolution. The French foreign minister, the Marquis de Talleyrand, sent negotiators (codenamed W, X, Y, and Z) to discuss terms with the U.S. envoys. The minister stipulated that the U.S give a large, low-interest loan to the French government, pay all U.S. merchant ship claims against France, and, most notoriously, pay a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself. The Americans refused, and their indignant report reached Adams in March 1798.

News of what became known as the XYZ Affair caused a public outcry. Adams’s Federalist Party demanded a declaration of war against France. But the president refused to go along, opting to continue retaliatory moves while pursuing a peaceful resolution. He sent a second commission to France when he heard Talleyrand was open to negotiations after Napoleon assumed power.

The decision outraged politicians, who claimed that Adams would have been much tougher had his wife Abigail not been absent because of illness. In Adams’s Feb. 25, 1799, letter to “his dearest friend” Abigail, he said the protests were a backhanded compliment to the powerful first lady, and “ought to gratify your vanity enough to cure you.”

Photo by Mary McCleary

Collection of the MA Historical Society. (Photo by Mary McCleary)

Yet Adams was no pacifist. He believed peace with France was contingent on a strong military defense. He nominated George Washington as commander-in-chief of the army, and built up the navy and Marine Corps. Adams eschewed the pro-war vitriol of his opponents, especially Alexander Hamilton, considering their rhetoric to be a political ploy to gain popularity.

When Adams received word in November 1800 that the negotiations succeeded and the Treaty of Mortefontaine was signed, it was too late for the good news to spread in time for the presidential election. Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson by a small margin. Most historians agree that Adams might well have won had the news arrived sooner.

By procuring peace with Napoleon and France, Adams paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase under his successor, Jefferson. Napoleon bought the Louisiana territories from Spain, but eventually decided to sell them to the Americans. Had the U.S. and France been at war, the Louisiana Purchase would have been impossible.

The wisdom of Adams’s policy decisions was summarized by John Quincy in his Nov. 25, 1800, letter to his father:

“. . . [W]ithout the smallest sacrifice of national honour and dignity you have succeeded in settling a quarrel with France, which under any other system of conduct than that which you pursued, would at this moment have burst into a most ruinous and fatal war . . . [you were] a statesman who made the sacrifice of his own interest and influence to the real, and unquestionable benefit of his Country.”

Photo by Mary McCleary

Collection of the MA Historical Society (Photo by Mary McCleary)

The Massachusetts Historical Society is located on 1154 Boylston Street, Boston. It is an independent research library that promotes the study of Massachusetts and American history. The Adams Family Papers are among the 27,000 items in the collection, many of which may be viewed online in the Adams Papers Digital Edition.