By 1792, three years after the French Revolution began, Europe was again at war and President George Washington declared that the United States would remain neutral. Our position of neutrality strained our relations with France and right after John Adams was inaugurated, French/American relations became a crisis when in 1797 the French refused to recognize our ambassador Charles Pinckney. Already French privateers and Navy ships were seizing U.S. flagged vessels in the Caribbean and the Atlantic.
The United States was defenseless because at the end of the American Revolution, we disbanded the Army and the Navy. Even though the Navy Act of 1794 established a Navy, ships had to be built and crews had to be recruited and trained. It would take time before it would become and effective fighting force.
Adams faced a divided Congress. The Democratic-Republicans identified with the espoused ideals of the French revolutionaries and favored closer relations with France. Jefferson and his fellow Democratic Republicans saw any ties to Great Britain as bad for the country even though it was again our latest trading partner. They thought Adams and the Federalists were ‘monarchists.’
President Adams responded to the attacks by calling for a “stronger national defense and an expansion of the Navy” and gained approval to send a commission to France bring the crisis to an end. Three men were appointed. Two – Pinckney who was already in France and John Marshall, another staunch Federalist – distrusted the French. The third – Elbridge Gerry – was thought by Adams to be neutral on the issue.
Nicholas Hubbard (later known as W), was a Brit working for a bank in the Netherlands notified the Americans that a member of the French Foreign Minister’s inner circle, a royal by the name of Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer (later revealed as X), would meet with them. Through him, they learned the Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord demanded that the crisis would end if the U.S. paid him £50,000!
To see if he could move the negotiations along because Talleyrand’s demands were not received favorably by the Ameircans, Hottinguer introduced Pierre Bellamy (a.k.a. Mr. Y). Again, an agreement couldn’t be reached. Talleyrand sent Lucien Hauteval (the Mr. Z) to see if he could split Elbridge Gerry away from Pinckney and Marshall. He failed.
The Democratic-Republicans and some conservative Federalists hypothesized that the two attempts to negotiate a solution failed because of Adams’ hardline stance. Jefferson and his followers believed that Adams was using the crisis as an excuse to expand the Army and the Navy. They demanded to see all the correspondence notes from the discussions.
In March 1797, Adams complied. Except for Pinckney, Marshall and Gerry, the names of names of the other players were carefully blotted out to protect their identity. Unfortunately, someone in the Congress leaked the identities of W, X, Y and Z.
With the truth now on the table, the Democratic-Republicans were left without any facts to support their position. Many Federalists pointed to the continuing seizures of U.S. merchant ships and called for a war against France. Adams refused to ask Congress for a declaration of war against France. The Congress voted to repeal the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France, contracted for 12 more frigates and authorized Adams to order the U.S. Navy to attack French ships setting the stage for the Quasi War of 1798 – 1800 in which the new Navy starts to come of age.