The Undeclared Shooting War Against France

Three unrelated events led to a war with France 15 years after the American Revolution ended. First, in September 1794, Louis XVI was deposed, ending the French monarchy.

Second, in November 1794, the U.S. signed the Jay Treaty with Great Britain that clarified some of the clauses in the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution. The Jay Treaty, opposed by Thomas Jefferson and his pro-French allies in Congress, gave the United States most favored nation status for trade. The result was dramatic and in four years, U.S. sales to England tripled. This did not go unnoticed by France.

Third, the Congress refused to pay off the loans France made to help pay for our revolution. The government’s reasoning was that the money was owed to a government that no longer existed.

By 1792, the First French Republic was at war with Great Britain in the War of the First Coalition which lasted until 1797. The conflict pitted France against Britain, Prussia, plus others. Peace lasted a year before the War of the Second Coalition began in1798 and continued to 1802. In this scrap, the British, Dutch, Portugal, the Ottoman Empire and Russians fought France, Spain and Denmark.

The United States declared neutrality and in December 1796, the French refused the credentials of a new U.S. ambassador thus severing diplomatic relations. Talleyrand, the French Foreign Minister ordered the French Navy to seize American ships and issued letters of marque to privateers who wanted to do the same.

The effect was devastating to U.S. trade and in 1796, the French Navy and French privateers seized 316 U.S. merchant ships. To help the Americans, the British government allowed U.S. merchant ships to sail in convoys escorted by the Royal Navy.

War raging in Europe, the Congress passed the Navy Act of 1794 authorizing six frigates – four with 44 guns (Constitution, Constellation, United States and President) and two with 36 (Chesapeake and Congress). Unfortunately, construction was delayed because the Congress failed to appropriate enough money to finish the ships. Finally, on April 26th, 1796 the Congress authorized the funds to finish Constitution, Constellation and United States which were the farthest along. After the XYZ Affair (see blog post published 8/2/2020) blew up in Jefferson’s face, he and his Democratic-Republicans, agreed to fund the remaining three ships President, Congress and Chesapeake.

Still, men had to be found to man the ships and trained before they could put to sea. The fighting took place primarily in the Caribbean and the new U.S. Navy’s performance was a nasty surprise to the French. The U.S. Navy captured or sunk 118 French privateers, a frigate, a brig and a corvette against one loss that was recaptured.

The Convention of 1800 signed between the U.S. and the France ended the Quasi War during which approximately 2,000 U.S. merchant ships were seized by the French. The U.S. wanted compensation and France refused but forgave our debts. As part of the deal, U.S. agreed to compensate the owners of the ships taken by the French. The last of these claims were not settled until 1915!

The newly formed U.S. Navy proved its mettle in the Quasi War and ended the war much larger and better equipped. In 1800, it had 18 frigates plus other smaller ships. More important, it now had a cadre of experienced officers who would lead the Navy to victories against the Barbary Pirates and the British in the War of 1812.

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