History Timeline 1790s

Image above: America builds its Navy. Image right: Independence Hall, Philadelphia. Engravings courtesy Library of Congress.


U.S. Timeline - The 1790s

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  • Timeline

  • 1798 Detail

    July 7, 1798 - Congress voids all treaties with France due to French raids on U.S. ships and a rejection of its diplomats, and orders the Navy to capture French armed ships. Eighty-four French ships are captured by the U.S. Navy (with 45 ships) and private ships (365).

    Quasi War
    There was an XYZ Affair. There were attacks on U.S. ships. There was the voiding of treaties between the two nations that had fought together for American freedom from the British. There was an undeclared war known as Quasi, where the United States fought the French on the high seas with a new ally, the British. Whew! There's a lot of little known history to swallow.

    Yes, the French had been in an alliance with the United States since 1778 and the winter encampment at Valley Forge, loaning them money, coming to their rescue, but this was a new France. The French Revolution had removed King Louis XVI from power in 1792, and since this French government was not the same French government from the days of revolution, the United States decided to stop repayment of their debts to France. This did not go over well. Add in the Jay Treaty and new trade alliances with Great Britain, and the United States had a new dance partner, even though that partnership would not last either.

    In 1796, the new French government had had enough. Despite an avowed neutrality in the war between France and Great Britain, French privateers began to capture U.S. ships trading with England and sell them to recover their debts and the French government refused to receive U.S. diplomats. By July 1797, the John Adams administration, wanting to negotiate peace, sent a delegation of three diplomats to France. Agents of the French Republic demanded bribes and a loan before negotiations would begin. This offended the United States. The brink of war would follow.

    How the Quasi War Starts

    Even before the commission failed, President Adams called for an increase in the United States military, including a twenty thousand man Army and ships for the Navy. When word arrived of the French call for bribes in March 1798, and disagreements over the reaction by the President and less hawkish members of Congress ensued, Adams released proof of the bribes with redacted names, substituting XYZ for them. Even though Adams had not wanted a war reaction, it followed. Congress authorized the building of twelve frigates, cancelled the 1778 Treaty of Alliance on July 7, and two days later authorized attacks on French warships when the President signed the bill the Senate had passed 18 to 4. There was no formal declaration of war; Adams had not asked for one. So the Quasi War began.

    Full Text - An Act further to protect the Commerce of the United States.

    Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized to instruct the commanders of the public armed vessels which are, or which vessels to shall be employed in the service of the United States, to subdue, seize and take any armed French vessel, which shall be found within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, or elsewhere, on the high seas, and such captured vessel, with her apparel, guns and appurtenances, and the goods or effects which shall be found on board the same, being French property, shall be brought within some port of the United States, and shall be duly proceeded against and condemned as forfeited; and shall accrue and be distributed, as by law is or shall be provided respecting the captures which shall be made by the public armed vessels of the United States.

    Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized to grant to the owners of private armed ships and vessels of the United States, who shall make application therefor, special commissions in the form which he shall direct, and under the seal of the United States; and such private armed vessels, when duly commissioned, as aforesaid, shall have the same license and authority for the subduing, seizing and capturing any armed French vessel, and for the recapture of the vessels, goods and effects of the people of the United States, as the public armed vessels of the United States may by law have; and shall be, in like manner, subject to such instructions as shall be ordered by the President of the United States, for the regulation of their conduct. And the commissions which shall be granted, as aforesaid, shall be revocable at the pleasure of the President of the United States.

    Sec. 3. Provided, and be it further enacted, That every person intending to set forth and employ an armed vessel, and applying for a commission, as aforesaid, shall produce in writing the name, and a suitable description of the tonnage and force of the vessel, and the name and place of residence of each owner concerned therein, the number of the crew and the name of the commander, and the two officers next in rank, appointed for such vessel; which writing shall be signed by the person or persons making such application, and filed with the Secretary of State, or shall be delivered to any other officer or person who shall be employed to deliver out such commissions, to be by him transmitted to the Secretary of State.

    Sec. 4. And provided, and be it further enacted, That before any commission, as aforesaid, shall be issued, the owner or owners of the ship or vessel for which the same shall be requested, and the commander thereof, for the time being, shall give bond to the United States, with at least two responsible sureties, not interested in such vessel, in the penal sum of seven thousand dollars; or if such vessel be provided with more than one hundred and fifty men, then in the penal sum of fourteen thousand dollars; with condition that the owners, and officers, and crews who shall be employed on board of such commissioned vessel, shall and will observe the treaties and laws of the United States, and the instructions which shall be given them for the regulation of their conduct: And will satisfy all damages and injuries which shall be done or committed contrary to the tenor thereof, by such vessel, during her commission, and to deliver up the same when revoked by the President of the United States.

    Sec. 5. And be it further enacted, That all armed French vessels, together with their apparel, guns and appurtenances, and any goods or effects which shall be found on board the same, being French property, and which shall be captured by any private armed vessel or vessels of the United States, duly commissioned, as aforesaid, shall be forfeited, and shall accrue to the owners thereof, and the officers and crews by whom such captures shall be made; and on due condemnation had, shall be distributed according to any agreement which shall be between them; or in failure of such agreement, then by the discretion of the court before whom such condemnation shall be.

    Sec. 6. And be it further enacted, That all vessels, goods and effects, the property of any citizen of the United States, or person resident therein, which shall be recaptured, as aforesaid, shall be restored to the lawful owners, upon payment by them, respectively, of a just and reasonable salvage, to be determined by the mutual agreement of the parties concerned, or by the decree of any court of the United States having maritime jurisdiction according to the nature of each case: Provided, that such allowance shall not be less than one eighth, or exceeding one half of the full value of such recapture, without any deduction. And such salvage shall be distributed to and among the owners, officers and crews of the private armed vessel or vessels entitled thereto, according to any agreement which shall be between them; or in case of no agreement, then by the decree of the court who shall determine upon such salvage.

    Sec. 7. And be it further enacted, That before breaking bulk of any vessel which shall be captured, as aforesaid, or other disposal or conversion thereof, or of any articles which shall be found on board the same, such capture shall be brought into some port of the United States, and shall be libelled and proceeded against before the district court of the same district; and if after a due course of proceedings, such capture shall be decreed as forfeited in the district court, or in the circuit court of the same district, in the case of any appeal duly allowed, the same shall be delivered to the owners and captors concerned therein, or shall be publicly sold by the marshal of the same court, as shall be finally decreed and ordered by the court. And the same court, who shall have final jurisdiction of any libel or complaint of any capture, as aforesaid, shall and may decree restitution, in whole or in part, when the capture and restraint shall have been made without just cause, as aforesaid; and if made without probable cause, or otherwise unreasonably, may order and decree damages and costs to the party injured, and for which the owners, officers and crews of the private armed vessel or vessels by which such unjust capture shall have been made, and also such vessel or vessels shall be answerable and liable.

    Sec. 8. And be it further enacted, That all French persons and others, who shall be found acting on board any French armed vessel, which shall be captured, or on board of any vessel of the United States, which shall be recaptured, as aforesaid, shall be reported to the collector of the port in which they shall first arrive, and shall be delivered to the custody of the marshal, or of some civil or military officer of the United States, or of any state in or near such port; who shall take charge for their safe keeping and support, at the expense of the United States.

    Approved, July 9, 1798.

    The Quasi War

    With authorization to act, the U.S. Navy and over three hundred privateers began patrolling the southern coast of the United States. Prior to their engagement, the French had captured over two thousand merchant ships. After the authorization, only one ship was captured, and later recovered. The United States and their allies, the British with some cooperation, but no coordination, did much better. The USS Frigate Enterprise captured eight privateers and freed eleven American merchant ships. The USS Constitution, Constellation, and Boston were successful in subdueing French privateers from Delaware to the Caribbean. Hostilities ended on September 30, 1800, with the signing of the Convention of 1800, between the French government of Napolean Bonaparte and the United States.

    One quick note about the Quasi War. George Washington, past President, was reinstated as Commander in Chief during the war by President John Adams.

    Photo above: Battle between the USS Constellation and the French Frigate L'Insurgente on February 9, 1799, in the Quasi War, 1981, Rear Admiral John William Schmidt, Navy History and Heritage Command via Wikipedia Commons. Photo below: Capture of the French privateer Sandwich by Marines on the Sloop Sally from the USS Constitution, May 11, 1800. Department of Defense via National Archives, Wikipedia Commons. Info source: United States Congressional Serial Set, Issue 2516, Miscellaneous Documents of the Senate of the United States, 1888; Wikipedia Commons; Wikisource; Acts of the Fifth Congress of the United States; MountVernon.org.

    Quasi War

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