XYZ Affair

XYZ Affair, name usually given to an incident (1797–98) in Franco-American diplomatic relations. The United States had in 1778 entered into an alliance with France, but after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars was both unable and unwilling to lend aid. The anti-French Federalists gained the upper hand in the United States, and there was considerable antagonism toward France, particularly after the Genet (see Genet, Edmond Charles Édouard) affair. The conclusion (1795) of Jay's Treaty with England, which partially vitiated the agreements with France, aroused French anger. Numerous American ships were seized by French privateers, and the countries drifted into a mutually hostile attitude. President Washington sent Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as minister to France, but the French government refused to receive him. Shortly afterward John Adams, the new President, sent (1797) John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry to join Pinckney on a peace mission to France. This three-man commission was immediately confronted by the refusal of French foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand to receive it officially. Indirect suggestions of loans and bribes to France were made to the commissioners through Mme de Villette, a friend of Talleyrand. Negotiations were carried on through her with Jean Conrad Hottinguer and Lucien Hauteval, both Swiss, and a Mr. Bellamy, an American banker in Hamburg; the three were designated X, Y, and Z in the mission's dispatches to the United States. The proposal that the Americans pay Talleyrand about $250,000 before the French government would even deal with them created an uproar when it was released in the United States, where the pro-British party welcomed the chance to worsen Franco-American relations. The U.S. representatives made no progress and the mission broke up, Marshall coming home, Pinckney taking a sick daughter to S France, and Gerry, a Republican and Francophile, remaining in France temporarily. Meanwhile, an undeclared naval war ensued between France and the United States. Both Talleyrand and President Adams wished to avoid a declaration of war. In 1799 Adams, to the intense disgust of the Federalist leader, Alexander Hamilton, named William Vans Murray the U.S. minister to France and assigned Oliver Ellsworth and William Richardson Davie to accompany him. The result was the Treaty of Mortefontaine (Sept. 30, 1800), known as the Convention of 1800, a commercial agreement that improved relations between the two nations. The XYZ Affair contributed to American patriotic legend in the reply Pinckney is supposed to have made to a French request for money, “Millions for defense, sir, but not one cent for tribute.” This reply was certainly not made, but a better case can be made for the alternate version, “No, no, not a sixpence.”

See W. Stinchcombe, The XYZ Affair (1980).

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