XYZ Affair and North Carolina

Written By Richard Carney

During the American Revolution, a Franco-American alliance united France and the United States against Great Britain, but by the late 1790s, the two countries almost declared war.  The terms of Jay’s Treaty (1795) led to this state of affairs.  Although the treaty opened and fostered trade between the U.S. and the West Indies, the treaty’s namesake, John Jay, never secured neutral shipping rights for America.  The treaty’s terms especially angered the French government, which depended on the U.S. for trade. So when the United States refused to offer aide during the French Revolution, an incensed French government initiated an undeclared naval war, known as the “Quasi-War with France,” in which between the summers of 1797 and 1798 the French navy seized approximately three hundred American ships.

As a result of the undeclared war, President Adams in 1797 created the Navy Department.  In North Carolina, Governor Samuel Ashe appointed William Richardson Davie, the commander of the state militia and state legislator, as the commander of the state’s naval division.  Although he was preparing for the next gubernatorial election, Davie reluctantly accepted his new position.

France and the United States meanwhile continued feuding and dismissing the others’ attempts (genuine or not) to lessen diplomatic tensions. To settle the feud, President George Washington sent French Minister Charles Pickney to negotiate with French officials.  The French government refused to talk to the American diplomat.  In 1797, newly elected President John Adams sent Congressman Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Chief Justice John Marshall of Virginia to assist Pickney.  The three American commissioners were unofficially received by three French agents, known as X, Y, and Z.  Negotiations with the French agents went poorly, and French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand proposed the U.S. pay a sum of $250,000 and a $12 million loan to France simply to secure a meeting with French officials.  The Americans considered this offer preposterous.   

When negotiations failed with X, Y, and Z, French and American leaders prepared for the worst.  Fearing war, President Adams called for a buildup of the navy.  In a final attempt at reconciliation, Adams sent Congressman William Vans Murray of Maryland, Connecticut Senator Oliver Ellsworth, and North Carolina native William Richardson Davie to negotiate.

During the entire XYZ Affair, North Carolina’s Congressmen and Senators played a key role, and for the most part rejected increasing the army’s size, creating a navy, and increasing government spending.  Federalist Representative William Barry Grove was the only exception.  During the Fifth Congress (1798), in particular, three of North Carolina’s most prominent Congressmen, Nathaniel Macon, Joseph McDowell, and Robert Williams, opposed the Adams’ administration and its proposals.  Congressmen Macon and McDowell believed X, Y, and Z did not speak for all of France.  During the second session in May 1798, Macon asked his colleagues, “Is there a man in the country, who is not blinded by party spirit, who can believe that the French Government knew any thing of the unauthorized conversations held with our Commissioners in Paris?”  When it was his turn to address his fellow statesmen, McDowell said that he had “relied little upon that unofficial information” and warned that it should not be taken as “coming from the French nation.”  While standing in the halls of Congress, both representatives questioned that the French government authorized X, Y, and Z to negotiate terms.  For Williams, his “opinions, had not been at all changed” by X, Y, and Z.   Although many jingoistic Americans wanted to declare war, all three North Carolinians argued that there was no legitimate reason to do so, and any increased government spending based on the actions of X, Y, and Z, therefore, misused taxpayer’s money.

After three years of conflict, war was ultimately avoided.  France and America eventually signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine, also known as the French Convention of 1800.  The French agreed to stop seizing American ships, and consequently Franco-American relations unsurprisingly improved.