This war is one of the least known, and least written about, wars in our history. It has some modern significance as it was a war waged when most of the Founding Fathers were still alive and it was waged without a declaration of war. The war was waged at sea between 1798 and 1800
To a great extent the roots of the Quasi War lie in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce negotiated between the Continental Congress and Louis XVI in February 1778. While the prime American motivation was to create a coalition to help it win its independence, the treaty forbade either side from entering into treaties which were not to the benefit of both countries.
Though the United States was feeling secure enough behind the Atlantic to disband its navy and nearly disband its army, trouble was brewing in Europe. The French Revolution and the beheading of Louis XVI precipitated the War of the First Coalition which pitted Britain and its allies against Revolutionary France. The ruling body of Revolutionary France, the Directorate, decided to try to bring the United States into the war as a way of relieving pressure on France in Europe. To this end they dispatched a diplomat, Edmond Genet, to the United States to try to stir up public sympathy for an invasion of Spanish Florida. President George Washington demanded Genet’s recall. Genet, however, decided that his prospects for a long life would be greater in the United States. He asked for, and received, political asylum.
In 1794, John Jay negotiated a treaty with Britain settling many issues left over from the Treaty of Paris. In addition it guaranteed certain trading priveleges for US flagged ships in British possessions in the Caribbean. The French saw this as a treaty with their enemy. They demanded that the United States be bound by the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which in their view included an obligation to wage war on France’s enemies. As this was happening, United States ships were becoming the prey of choice for muslim corsairs in the Mediterranean. In response to this and to the spreading war in Europe, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates, the United States, Constitution, Constellation, Congress, Chesapeake, and President, bringing the US Navy back into existence
In mid 1796, French privateers began seizing American merchantmen. In June 1797, Secretary of State Thomas Pickering reported to Congress that 316 American vessels had been taken in the past 11 months. Efforts were made to negotiate with France via two missions by Charles Pinckney but they were rebuffed. Seizures by privateers continued unabated and the last straw was the XYZ Affair.
Long story short, John Adams had dispatched Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall, and Charles Pinckney to France to try to negotiate an end to the raids on American merchant ships. They were approached by several emissaries from Talleyrand saying he would reach an agreement with them if several conditions were met. The French demanded that the United States provide France with a low-interest loan, assume and pay American merchant claims against the French, and lastly pay a substantial bribe to Talleyrand. As talks proceded, French demands increased. More advantageous loan terms were demanded and the US threatened with military invasion if the negotiators did not agree. As the negotators prepared to leave their dispatches arrived in the US.
War loomed but Adams’s politcal opponents were suspicious of him and demanded he release the diplomatic correspondence. He agreed and the resulting furor made a declaration of war seem inevitable. Adams did not declare war but his Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert did unleash the infant US Navy on French naval forces in the Caribbean to maximize protection to the US merchant fleet.
Several sharp actions were fought and the US Navy established a tradition of excellence in gunnery and seamanship that would prove invaluable in the future.
The war sputtered to an end with the inconclusive Treaty of Mortefontaine.