The Quasi-War was an undeclared war
Undeclared war
An undeclared war is a conflict that is fought between two or more nations without a formal declaration of war being issued.Since United Nations action in Korea, a number of democratic governments have pursued usually limited warfare by characterizing them as something else, such as a "military...

 fought mostly at sea between the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 and French Republic from 1798 to 1800. In the United States, the conflict was sometimes also referred to as the Franco-American War, the Pirate Wars, or the Half-War.


The Kingdom of France
Ancien Régime in France
The Ancien Régime refers primarily to the aristocratic, social and political system established in France from the 15th century to the 18th century under the late Valois and Bourbon dynasties...

 had been a critical ally
France in the American Revolutionary War
France entered the American Revolutionary War in 1778, and assisted in the victory of the Americans seeking independence from Britain ....

 of the United States in the American Revolutionary War
American Revolutionary War
The American Revolutionary War , the American War of Independence, or simply the Revolutionary War, began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies in North America, and ended in a global war between several European great powers.The war was the result of the...

 from the spring of 1776, and had signed in 1778 a Treaty of Alliance with the United States. But in 1794, after the French Revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

 toppled that country's monarchy, the American government came to an agreement with the Kingdom of Great Britain
Kingdom of Great Britain
The former Kingdom of Great Britain, sometimes described as the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain', That the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, shall upon the 1st May next ensuing the date hereof, and forever after, be United into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN. was a sovereign...

, the Jay Treaty
Jay Treaty
Jay's Treaty, , also known as Jay's Treaty, The British Treaty, and the Treaty of London of 1794, was a treaty between the United States and Great Britain that is credited with averting war,, resolving issues remaining since the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the American Revolution,, and...

, that resolved several points of contention between the United States and Great Britain that had lingered since the end of the Revolutionary War. It also contained economic clauses.

The fact that the United States had already declared neutrality in the conflict between Great Britain and (now revolutionary) France, and that American legislation was being passed for a trade deal with their British enemy, led to French outrage. The French government was also furious over the U.S. refusal to continue repaying its debt
Sovereign default
A sovereign default is the failure or refusal of the government of a sovereign state to pay back its debt in full. It may be accompanied by a formal declaration of a government not to pay or only partially pay its debts , or the de facto cessation of due payments...

 to France on the grounds that the debt had been owed to the French Crown, not to Republican France.

The French navy began seizing American ships trading with Britain and refused to receive the new United States minister Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Charles Cotesworth “C. C.” Pinckney , was an early American statesman of South Carolina, Revolutionary War veteran, and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was twice nominated by the Federalist Party as their presidential candidate, but he did not win either election.-Early life and...

 when he arrived in Paris in December 1796. In his annual message to Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 at the close of 1797, President
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 John Adams
John Adams
John Adams was an American lawyer, statesman, diplomat and political theorist. A leading champion of independence in 1776, he was the second President of the United States...

 reported on France’s refusal to negotiate and spoke of the need "to place our country in a suitable posture of defense." In April 1798, President Adams informed Congress of the "XYZ Affair
XYZ Affair
The XYZ Affair was a 1798 diplomatic episode during the administration of John Adams that Americans interpreted as an insult from France. It led to an undeclared naval war called the Quasi-War, which raged at sea from 1798 to 1800...

", in which French agents demanded a large bribe for the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States.

The French navy inflicted substantial losses on American shipping. Secretary of State
United States Secretary of State
The United States Secretary of State is the head of the United States Department of State, concerned with foreign affairs. The Secretary is a member of the Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in line of succession and order of precedence...

 Timothy Pickering
Timothy Pickering
Timothy Pickering was a politician from Massachusetts who served in a variety of roles, most notably as the third United States Secretary of State, serving in that office from 1795 to 1800 under Presidents George Washington and John Adams.-Early years:Pickering was born in Salem, Massachusetts to...

 reported to Congress on June 21, 1797 that the French had seized 316 American merchant ships in the previous eleven months. The hostilities caused insurance rates on American shipping to increase at least 500 percent, since French marauders cruised the length of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed. The administration had no warships to combat them; the last had been sold in 1785. The United States possessed only a flotilla of small revenue cutters and some neglected coastal forts.

Increased depredations by privateer
A privateer is a private person or ship authorized by a government by letters of marque to attack foreign shipping during wartime. Privateering was a way of mobilizing armed ships and sailors without having to spend public money or commit naval officers...

s from Revolutionary France required the rebirth of the United States Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...

 to protect the expanding American merchant shipping. Congress authorized the president to acquire, arm, and man not more than 12 vessels, of up to 22 guns each. Several vessels were immediately purchased and converted into ships of war.

July 7, 1798, the date that Congress rescinded treaties with France, is considered the beginning of the Quasi-War. This was followed two days later with the passage of the Congressional authorization
Act Further to Protect the Commerce of the United States
An Act further to protect the commerce of the United States, is an act of Congress approved July 9, 1798, authorizing the President of the United States to use military force in the Quasi-War with France.-Legislative history:...

 to attack French warships.

Naval engagements

The U.S. Navy operated with a battle fleet of about 25 vessels. These patrolled the southern coast of the United States and throughout the Caribbean
The Caribbean is a crescent-shaped group of islands more than 2,000 miles long separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, to the west and south, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the east and north...

, seeking French privateers. Captain Thomas Truxtun
Thomas Truxtun
Thomas Truxtun was an American naval officer who rose to the rank of commodore.Born near Hempstead, New York on Long Island, Truxtun had little formal education before joining the crew of the British merchant ship Pitt at the age of twelve...

's insistence on the highest standards of crew training paid dividends as the frigate USS Constellation
USS Constellation (1797)
USS Constellation was a 38-gun frigate, one of the six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794. She was distinguished as the first U.S. Navy vessel to put to sea and the first U.S. Navy vessel to engage and defeat an enemy vessel...

 captured the L'Insurgente
USS Insurgent (1799)
The Insurgente was a 32-gun Sémillante class frigate of the French Navy. She was captured during the Quasi-War and then purchased by the United States Navy as USS Insurgent....

and severely damaged La Vengeance
HMS Vengeance (1800)
The Vengeance was a Résistance class frigate of the French Navy, noted for her fight with during the Quasi-War, an inconclusive engagement that left both ships heavily damaged. During the French Revolutionary Wars, hunted Vengeance down and captured her after a sharp action...

. French privateers usually resisted, as did La Croyable, which was captured on July 7, 1798, by the USS Delaware
USS Delaware (1798)
The second USS Delaware was a ship which served in the United States Navy during Quasi-War with France.Delaware was built in 1794 as the merchant ship Hamburgh Packet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and purchased by the Navy 5 May 1798...

 outside of Egg Harbor, New Jersey
Egg Harbor, New Jersey
Egg Harbor, New Jersey can refer to:* Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey* Egg Harbor City, New Jersey* Little Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey...

. The USS Enterprise
USS Enterprise (1799)
The third USS Enterprise, a schooner, was built by Henry Spencer at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1799, and placed under the command of Lieutenant John Shaw...

 captured eight privateers and freed 11 American merchant ships from captivity. The USS Experiment
USS Experiment (1799)
The first USS Experiment was a schooner in the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France.Experiment was built in 1799 at Baltimore, Maryland; and first put to sea late in November 1799, Lieutenant W...

 captured the French privateers Deux Amis and Diane. Numerous American merchantmen were recaptured by the Experiment. The USS Boston
USS Boston (1799)
The third USS Boston was a 32-gun wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate of the United States Navy. Boston was built by public subscription in Boston under the Act of 30 June 1798. Boston was active during the Quasi-War with France, the First Barbary War and the War of 1812. On 12 October 1800, Boston...

 forced Le Berceau into submission. Silas Talbot
Silas Talbot
Silas Talbot was an officer in the Continental Army and in the Continental Navy. Talbot is most famous for commanding the USS Constitution from 1798 to 1801.-Biography:...

 engineered an expedition to Puerto Plata harbor in the Colony of Santo Domingo
Colony of Santo Domingo
The Captaincy General of Santo Domingo was the first Spanish colony in the New World, and later became the Dominican Republic. Originally known as "La Española", the colony was organized as the Royal Audiencia of Santo Domingo in 1511. After years of struggles with the French, the Spanish remained...

, a possession of France's ally Spain, on May 11, 1800; sailors and marines from the USS Constitution
USS Constitution
USS Constitution is a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy. Named by President George Washington after the Constitution of the United States of America, she is the world's oldest floating commissioned naval vessel...

 under Lieutenant Isaac Hull
Isaac Hull
-External links:* *...

 captured the French privateer Sandwich in the harbor and spiked the guns
Touch hole
A touch hole is a small hole, through which the propellant charge of a cannon or muzzleloading gun is ignited. In small arms, the flash from a charge of priming held in the flash pan is enough to ignite the charge within...

 in the Spanish fort.
Only one U.S Navy vessel was captured by — and later recaptured from — French forces, the USS Retaliation
USS Retaliation (1798)
The first USS Retaliation was a French privateer captured and then served in the United States Navy during Quasi-War with France.-Service history:...

. She was the captured privateer La Croyable, recently purchased by the U.S. Navy. Retaliation departed Norfolk on October 28, 1798, with Montezuma
USS Montezuma (1798)
The first USS Montezuma was a ship in the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France. Her merchant name was retained.Montezuma was built in Virginia in 1795 for transatlantic voyages; acquired by the Navy 26 June 1798 from William Taylor at Baltimore, Maryland, for service against French...

 and Norfolk
USS Norfolk (1798)
The first USS Norfolk was a brig in the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France.Norfolk was built by the city of Norfolk, Virginia for the public service at the beginning of the Quasi-War with France in 1798...

, and cruised in the West Indies protecting American commerce. On November 20, 1798, the French frigates L’Insurgente and Volontaire overtook Retaliation while her consorts were away and forced commanding officer Lieutenant William Bainbridge
William Bainbridge
William Bainbridge was a Commodore in the United States Navy, notable for his victory over HMS Java during the War of 1812.-Early life:...

 to surrender the out-gunned schooner. Montezuma and Norfolk escaped after Bainbridge convinced the senior French commander that those American warships were too powerful for his frigates and persuaded him to abandon the chase. Renamed Magicienne by the French, the schooner again came into American hands on June 28, when a broadside from USS Merrimack
USS Merrimack (1798)
The first USS Merrimack, was a ship launched by an Association of Newburyport Shipwrights and presented to the Navy in 1798. She was the first ship of the Navy to be named for the Merrimack River. She saw action in the Quasi-War.-Service history:...

 forced her to haul down her colors.

Revenue cutters in the service of the Revenue-Marine, the predecessor to the Coast Guard
United States Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard is a branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven U.S. uniformed services. The Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission and a federal regulatory agency...

, also took part in the conflict. The cutter USRC Pickering, commanded by Edward Preble
Edward Preble
Edward Preble was a United States naval officer.-Early life and Revolutionary War:Preble was born at Falmouth, Eastern Massachusetts, now Portland, Maine, 15 August 1761, the son of Gen. Jedidiah Preble. As a boy, his home was destroyed in the burning of Falmouth by British Naval Commander Henry...

, made two cruises to the West Indies and captured several prizes. Preble turned command of the Pickering over to Benjamin Hillar, and she captured the much larger and more heavily armed French privateer l’Egypte Conquise after a nine-hour battle. In September 1800, Hillar, the Pickering, and her entire crew were lost at sea in a storm. Preble commanded the frigate Essex, which he sailed around Cape Horn
Cape Horn
Cape Horn is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile, and is located on the small Hornos Island...

 into the Pacific to protect American merchantmen in the East Indies
East Indies
East Indies is a term used by Europeans from the 16th century onwards to identify what is now known as Indian subcontinent or South Asia, Southeastern Asia, and the islands of Oceania, including the Malay Archipelago and the Philippines...

; he recaptured several ships that had been seized by French privateers.

American naval losses for the war were light, with only one armed U.S. Navy vessel lost to enemy action. However, one source contends that by the war's end in 1800, the French had seized over two thousand American merchant ships.

Although they were fighting the same enemy, the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

 and the United States Navy did not cooperate operationally, nor did they share operational plans or come to mutual understandings about deployment of their forces. The British did sell the American government naval stores and munitions. In addition, the two navies shared a system of signals by which each could recognize the other’s warships at sea and allowed merchantmen of their respective nations to join each other's convoys.

Conclusion of hostilities

By the autumn of 1800, the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, combined with a more conciliatory diplomatic stance by the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, had reduced the activity of the French privateers and warships. The Convention of 1800, signed on September 30, ended the Franco-American War. Unfortunately for President Adams, the news did not arrive in time to help him secure a second term in the United States presidential election, 1800
United States presidential election, 1800
In the United States Presidential election of 1800, sometimes referred to as the "Revolution of 1800," Vice-President Thomas Jefferson defeated President John Adams. The election was a realigning election that ushered in a generation of Democratic-Republican Party rule and the eventual demise of...


Modern significance

The Quasi War has taken on a significant role in modern debates over the distribution of war powers
War Powers Clause
Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution, sometimes referred to as the War Powers Clause, vests in the Congress the power to declare war, in the following wording:...

 between the Executive and Legislative branches. According to historian Thomas Woods
Thomas Woods
Thomas E. "Tom" Woods, Jr. is an American historian, economist, political analyst, and New York Times-bestselling author. He has written extensively on the subjects of American history, contemporary politics, and economic theory...


Supporters of a broad executive war power
Unitary executive theory
The unitary executive theory is a theory of American constitutional law holding that the President controls the entire executive branch. The doctrine is based upon Article Two of the United States Constitution, which vests "the executive power" of the United States in the President.Although that...

 have sometimes appealed to the Quasi War with France, in the closing years of the eighteenth century, as an example of unilateral warmaking on the part of the president. Francis Wormuth, an authority on war powers and the Constitution, describes that contention as "altogether false." John Adams "took absolutely no independent action. Congress passed a series of acts that amounted, so the Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 said, to a declaration of imperfect war; and Adams complied with these statutes."

Consider an interesting and revealing incident that occurred during the Quasi War. Congress authorized the president to seize vessels sailing to French ports. But President Adams, acting on his own authority and without the sanction of Congress, instructed American ships to capture vessels sailing either to or from French ports. Captain George Little

George Little (naval officer)
George Little was a United States Navy officer. He served in the Massachusetts State Navy during the Revolutionary War and in the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France.At age 25, Little was appointed first lieutenant of Massachusetts ship Protector in 1779, and was aboard in 1781 when...

, acting under the authority of Adams' order, seized a Danish ship sailing from a French port. When Little was sued for damages, the case
Little v. Barreme
Little v. Barreme, 6 U.S. 170 was an 1804 decision of the United States Supreme Court which found that the President of the United States does not have "inherent authority" or "inherent powers" which allow him to ignore a law passed by the United States Congress.-Summary:Pro DN, Pres order...

 made its way to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice
Chief Justice of the United States
The Chief Justice of the United States is the head of the United States federal court system and the chief judge of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Chief Justice is one of nine Supreme Court justices; the other eight are the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States...

 John Marshall
John Marshall
John Marshall was the Chief Justice of the United States whose court opinions helped lay the basis for American constitutional law and made the Supreme Court of the United States a coequal branch of government along with the legislative and executive branches...

 ruled that Captain Little could indeed be sued for damages in the case. "In short," writes Louis Fisher in summary, "congressional policy announced in a statute necessarily prevails over inconsistent presidential orders and military actions. Presidential orders, even those issued as Commander in Chief, are subject to restrictions imposed by Congress."

See also

  • Captured ships of the Quasi-War
  • French Revolutionary Wars
    French Revolutionary Wars
    The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of major conflicts, from 1792 until 1802, fought between the French Revolutionary government and several European states...

  • Barbary Wars
    Barbary Wars
    The Barbary Wars were a series of wars between the United States of America and the Barbary States of North Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At issue was the Barbary pirates' demand of tribute from American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. If ships failed to pay, pirates...

  • Louisa (Quasi-War privateer)
  • Oliver Hazard Perry
    Oliver Hazard Perry
    United States Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was born in South Kingstown, Rhode Island , the son of USN Captain Christopher Raymond Perry and Sarah Wallace Alexander, a direct descendant of William Wallace...

External links

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