After gaining independence from Britain, the newly formed United States government had its first real test on the global stage with its former ally, France. The so-called Quasi-War with France centered on American trading rights as a neutral nation. The conflict was an offshoot of the ongoing wars between Great Britain and France, and it was primarily a limited naval engagement against French privateers that were seizing U.S. shipping. The Quasi-War was significant as the first seaborne conflict for the reestablished U.S. Navy, the first U.S. actions to protect shipping abroad, and the first time the U.S. Navy attempted to gain control over the Caribbean. Although American ships did clash with French naval warships on several occasions, these were rare and war was never formally declared on France.
On 6 February 1778, the Treaty of Alliance was signed, creating a military coalition between the United States and France against Great Britain. However, the French monarchy that forged the alliance with the United States was overthrown during the French revolution, which began in 1789. For the next decade, France swung dramatically from a traditional monarchy to a country that seemed prepared to overthrow every other monarchy in Europe. In 1792, war broke out between France and Great Britain, allied with a loose coalition of European countries who saw revolutionary France as a threat. The relationship between the United States and France also soured.
When France declared war on Great Britain and the European coalition, the United States declared its neutrality. During this time, the United States was trying to establish itself as an international trading partner. When peace with Britain had been declared through the Treaty of Paris in 1783, America enjoyed some prosperity, but the treaty still left many issues unresolved. American merchants were still unable to trade with Britain’s remaining colonies in the Caribbean, which had been a major market for merchants from throughout the North American colonies. To resolve the outstanding issues with Britain, the United States began negotiating a new agreement, known as the Jay Treaty. After the treaty was signed on 19 November 1794, relations with Britain improved, and the United States viewed itself a neutral country in the conflict between Britain and revolutionary France. However, France viewed the Jay Treaty as a negation of America’s earlier treaties with France. If American merchants were going to trade with France’s enemies, France was going to treat them like enemies. French privateers began seizing U.S. merchant ships trading with Britain and its colonies, even taking ships off of the U.S. East Coast. Between October 1796 and July 1797, more than 300 American merchant ships and their cargos were seized in the greater Caribbean. In response, the United States suspended payments of war debts to France, thus moving the two nations closer to war.
In an effort to resolve the dispute diplomatically, President John Adams established a commission of three American diplomats that was to meet with France’s minister of foreign affairs, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Over the course of several months between 1797 and 1798, the American commission struggled to even meet with the French foreign minister. Instead, it was diverted toward a group of mid-level officials who demanded excessive bribes, loans, and other concessions. The members of the American commission disagreed with each other on how to proceed, and they eventually came home without achieving their goals. Adams feared the diplomatic failure would push the United States to war, but he recognized the need for defensive measures. While reporting to Congress, Adams initially refused to turn over the original dispatches from the commission. When he eventually did, he redacted the names of the French officials, instead labeling them “W,” “X,” “Y,” and “Z.” As a result, the entire failed diplomatic mission became known as the XYZ Affair.
News of the XYZ Affair provoked the United States to act. Although highly disputed in earlier debates, support grew for funding an American navy to protect free trade and defend U.S. merchants against French privateers. In 1794, an act to provide a naval armament was signed that included the authorization for the construction of the U.S. Navy’s six original frigates. When the Quasi-War with France began, the frigates were in various stages of construction and outfitting. To meet the interim need, merchant ships and revenue cutters were converted to warships to confront French privateers. The converted ships initially patrolled the American coastline, where the French were known to seize American merchant vessels. Beginning in 1798, frigates Constellation, Constitution, and United States were deployed to the Caribbean and took up stations off the main trading ports and in the heavily travelled passages among the islands (Chesapeake joined the other ships in 1800).
Overall, the decision to send the U.S. Navy to the Caribbean was successful. With only about 16 ships in its fleet, the Navy captured 86 French privateers between 1799 and 1800. The U.S. vessels were unofficially assisted by the presence of the British Royal Navy in the region. Although the British did not capture as many privateers as the Americans, they posed a threat to French naval forces and guarded convoys of British ships in and out of the region. Despite its successes, however, the U.S. Navy did suffer from failures of organization and management during the Quasi-War. With no infrastructure in place for supplying the new ships, deployments were often delayed due to lack of men and materials. Ship captains frequently struggled to negotiate the complex laws regarding which ships could be legally seized. As a result, some of the captured ships were returned to their owners.
The Quasi-War officially ended with the Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine. The agreement negated the Treaty of Alliance and reasserted the United States’ right to free trade. News that a treaty had been signed did not reach the Caribbean until the following year. Although the treaty reopened the door to more secure American trade with both France and Great Britain in the Caribbean, the central issues of neutral American trade with warring European countries would come to the forefront again in the War of 1812.
9 February 1799: Frigate Constellation, commanded by Captain Thomas Truxtun, captured French frigate Insurgente off Saint Kitts and Nevis Island, West Indies. After a running fight of about an hour, the French warship struck its colors and was taken as a prize. It was considered the fastest frigate in the French fleet.
27 March 1799: Constitution recaptured the American sloop Neutrality from France. A few days later, Constitution captured the French ship Carteret. Constitution was one of the first Navy ships ordered to patrol for armed French ships and to free any captured American ships.
8 October 1799: After a nine-hour battle, the cutter Pickering captured French privateer L'Egypte Conquise in the West Indies. The French ship was considered the most powerful privateer in the Caribbean, with 250 men onboard. Pickering's crew numbered about 70.
1 February 1800: Constellation engaged French frigate La Vengeance off Guadeloupe, West Indies, in a five-hour battle. La Vengeance struck its colors several times, but was not observed to do so by Constellation. When Constellation's main mast was shot away, La Vengeance eluded capture, but ran aground at Curacao four days later and was completely destroyed.
1 September 1800: The schooner Experiment, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Stewart, captured French privateer Deux Amix off Barbuda in the Leeward Islands. The engagement lasted just 10 minutes and no men were lost. Later that month, Experiment also captured French schooner-of-war Diana, 14 guns. On 14 December, Experiment recaptured French prize brig Zebra off Baltimore.