XYZ Affair for APUSH®
About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.
The XYZ Affair
The XYZ Affair was a 1798 diplomatic scandal involving three U.S. diplomats and three French diplomats (referred to as X, Y, and Z) who had a major impact on subsequent U.S. history. It served as a catalyst for the development of sectional factions, restrictions on civil liberties during wartime, and conflicting interpretations of the nature of the Union.
The Beginning (Contextualization)
The XYZ Affair really began when France declared war on England in 1793 during the French Revolution. The United States was bound by the 1778 French Alliance to come to the aid of France just as the French had come to the aid of the colonists during the American Revolution. However, the United States declared neutrality in the conflict, not wishing to get involved in a European conflict. As a result, France joined Britain in attacking American shipping which resulted in deteriorating U.S. relations with both countries. Alexander Hamilton’s supporters strongly favored England in the fight while Jefferson’s supporters strongly favored the French. Washington remained neutral believing the country was not yet ready to go to war. To ease tensions and restore goodwill, the French sent the diplomat Citizen Genêt to the United States in 1793. Prior to being formally received by the Washington administration, he made the trek north from Charleston to Washington, encouraging privateers to prey on English shipping. Americans in the southern states received Genet as a popular hero, but his attempts to enlist support for the French cause put the United States in a position that compromised its neutrality. Ultimately Genêt was sent packing, but French agents in America continued the attempt to enlist the support of private U.S. citizens and to influence the U.S. political system to elect pro-French candidates. At first well-received, these efforts by the French soon wore thin as the French made a clear attempt to interfere with the political system of the United States.
Jay’s Treaty irritated France because the treaty was perceived as a prelude to a U.S. British alliance and thus a clear violation of the French-American Alliance.
In 1795 the United States drew up the Jay Treaty with England which eased tensions between America and England. This treaty irritated France because the treaty was perceived as a prelude to a U.S. British alliance and thus a clear violation of the French-American Alliance. Thus, relations between the United States and France deteriorated further, which resulted in increased French seizures of American ships further worsening relations between the two countries. Following the election of 1796, John Adams, anxious to avoid war, sent three diplomats to France in an attempt to improve relations between the two countries. Talleyrand, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, dispatched three diplomats (later referred to as X, Y, and Z) to meet with the Americans. These delegates insisted that the United States pay a $250,000 bribe and grant France a $10 million dollar loan before the U.S. delegates could gain access to Talleyrand and begin negotiations. The requirement was rejected by the American delegates and they ultimately returned home without having initiated talks with the French government.
The un-named (X, Y, and Z) French delegates insisted that the United States pay a $250,000 bribe and grant France a $10 million dollar loan before the U.S. delegates could gain access to Talleyrand and begin negotiations.
The Backlash Begins
When Adams released the demands publicly (at the insistence of the Jeffersonians), the American public was outraged at the perceived insult; public opinion turned strongly against the French. There was strong pressure on John Adams to seek a declaration of war against France (particularly from Federalists, but also from many Jeffersonians). The slogan of “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” became an American rallying cry. The size of the Navy was significantly increased and Congress, in 1798, authorized the Navy to attack armed French ships. What subsequently transpired was the “undeclared naval war” or “Quasi-War” with France. During the Quasi-War, ships from both countries attacked their adversaries on the high seas. Despite this, John Adams resisted popular clamors for war by believing that the young nation was inadequately prepared for a full-scale war. It was not long before Adams came under heavy criticism from both his own party and the Republican press heavily influenced by French agents who wished to see Adams defeated and Jefferson elected in 1796.
The slogan of “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” became an American rallying cry.
A Seditious Act
To curb this criticism and the attempts by the French to interfere in the American political system, Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. These acts restricted personal liberty, curtailed free speech, and allowed the president to deport aliens. Set in motion by the XYZ Affair, the enactment of these laws established the precedent that the federal government could restrict personal liberties during wartime, declared or undeclared. The repercussions of the Alien and Sedition Acts had a significant impact on the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and even the War on Terror’s attempts to suppress criticism. Additionally the XYZ Affair and the Alien and Sedition Acts stimulated a response from Jeffersonian Republicans that would have a major impact on the future history of the United States.
The Alien and Sedition Acts restricted personal liberty, curtailed free speech, and allowed the president to deport aliens. Set in motion by the XYZ Affair, the enactment of these laws established the precedent that the federal government could restrict personal liberties during wartime, declared or undeclared.
The XYZ Affair’s Legacy (Interpretation and Synthesis)
The U.S. Constitution established a federal system in which power was divided between the states and the national government. However, largely because of the necessary and proper clause, debates arose over what legitimately the strength of the federal government should be. This was first manifested in the fight over the constitutionality of the first Bank of the United States, supported by Alexander Hamilton’s loose interpretation of the Constitution that would grant the federal government more power and opposed by Thomas Jefferson’s strict constructionism that would limit federal power. The question of the “nature of the Union” also arose. Was the Union a “perpetual Union” from which states could not withdraw or was it a “voluntary association” of states from which states could withdraw at will?
Well, what does all of this have to do with the XYZ Affair? The XYZ Affair set in motion a chain of events that led to the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts were enforced in an arbitrary way which specifically targeted supporters of Jefferson, particularly newspaper editors. In response to the acts, Jefferson and James Madison penned the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, denying the right of the federal government to impose its will on state government. These resolutions led to the emergence of the “compact theory” of government which held that the Union was a voluntary association of states. According to this theory, states could “interpose” themselves between the federal government and the citizens of the state to protect the state’s citizens from unfair federal legislation. If the government failed to abolish the law in question, states could “nullify” the law or declare it unenforceable within its boundaries. If the federal government continued enacting unfair legislation, states could secede, or withdraw, from the Union.
The XYZ Affair catalyzed the nullification question- can states nullify federal laws? – as states pushed to declare the Alien and Sedition Acts null and void.
The Nullification Question
Needless to say, subsequent events reiterated this position when suited a section’s political interests. Thus, the Federalists considered it during the War of 1812 at the Hartford Convention and it provided the cornerstone for John C. Calhoun’s South Carolina Exposition and the nullification crisis of the 1830s. Ultimately, it provided the rationale for the secession of the southern states just prior to the Civil War. The issue of the nature of the Union was finally resolved with the Union victory and the perpetual union theory enshrined as the legitimate interpretation of the Constitution. To this day, arguments continue over the power of the federal government versus the power of the states, but the notions of nullification and secession have been permanently discredited.
The XYZ Affair and the Two-Party System
The XYZ Affair also reinforced the already growing sectional factions which ultimately led to the development of the First American Party System. While a chasm was intensifying over the power of the federal government versus the power of the states as early as the war over the constitutionality of the bank, the XYZ Affair exacerbated these differences with Jeffersonian Republicans favoring states’ rights and Hamiltonian Federalists favoring increased power for the federal government. As time went on, these sectional differences would divide the nation and plunge it into the Civil War.
The XYZ Affair initially provided a huge change in American public opinion from a pro-France to a pro-England stance. More importantly, it served as a direct or indirect catalyst for increased sectional tension leading to the Civil War, consistent suppression of civil liberties during wartime, and the development of a two-party system.
The XYZ Affair also reinforced the already growing sectional factions which ultimately led to the development of the First American Party System.