The XYZ Affair: Definition, Summary & Significance

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

In 1797, France took over American ships in response to trade restrictions in what is known as the XYZ Affair. Explore a summary of the incident and the significance of the events leading up to the XYZ Affair, including the role of the Jay Treaty, failed negotiations, and the undeclared French-American Quasi-War. Updated: 10/13/2021


The XYZ Affair was a diplomatic incident that occurred between the United States and France in 1797. In an attempt to avert war with Great Britain, the U.S. signed the Jay Treaty in 1795. One of the provisions of the treaty limited the ability of nations that were hostile to Great Britain to trade in U.S. ports. Great Britain and France were at war and therefore, France was considered a hostile nation. France retaliated by seizing American ships. Attempts at negotiating a compromise with France failed when American diplomats refused to pay money to meet with French Foreign Minister Talleyrand.

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  • 0:00 Definition
  • 0:40 The Role Of The Jay Treaty
  • 1:35 Failed Negotiations…
  • 2:40 French-American Quasi War
  • 3:30 The Significance Of…
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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The Role of the Jay Treaty

George Washington signed the Jay Treaty in 1795 because he was trying to prevent another war with Great Britain. Both countries had grievances, but one of the primary issues was centered on Great Britain's war with France. Britain did not permit France to trade with neutral nations, such as the United States. Britain believed it had the right to seize American ships en route to France. U.S. ships headed to France with food were forced into British ports. Goods were taken, and American seamen were forced to serve in the British Royal Navy.

President Washington sent John Jay to England in 1794 to negotiate a compromise with British foreign secretary Lord William Grenville. The Jay Treaty, as we already learned, limited France's ability to trade in U.S. ports. It did not solve all of our country's problems with Great Britain, but it did prevent a war. Unfortunately, France did not like the terms, which created a whole new problem for the U.S.

Failed Negotiations with France

France and the U.S. had been on good terms since the Revolutionary War. In fact, without French troops and money, the U.S. probably would've lost. So, when the U.S. agreed as part of the Jay Treaty to limit France's access to American seaports, France was offended and sought revenge by seizing American ships.

President John Adams sent Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall, and Charles Pinckney to Paris in 1797 to negotiate a compromise. However, negotiations failed when three French agents met with the Americans instead of French Foreign Minister Talleyrand. They said if the Americans wanted to see Talleyrand, the U.S. had to give France a loan and add in a little extra just for Talleyrand. Without it, the French said, there could be a war. Adams read Marshall's dispatches from Paris and started preparing for war because there would be no money changing hands.

French-American Quasi War

Some members of the Democratic-Republican Party did not trust Adams, a Federalist. They wanted to see Marshall's dispatches for themselves. Adams released the documents, with X, Y, and Z inserted in place of the names of the French agents. When word spread about how France had treated the American diplomats, many Americans were so angry that they were ready to go to war.

The French-American Quasi War began, meaning there was no official declaration of war. However, French and American ships did battle in the Caribbean. Talleyrand realized the error of his ways and reopened negotiations. Congress did agree to try to renegotiate, but it was not until Napoleon took over the French government in 1799 that the fighting ended. The Treaty of Mortefontaine was signed on September 30, 1800, and the U.S. and France restored their trade and diplomatic relationships.

Significance of the XYZ Affair

The XYZ Affair had a lasting impact on the U.S., even after peace was restored. The U.S. was not at all prepared for a naval battle, so the Department of the Navy was created in 1798 to oversee all naval affairs. Negative feelings about France resulted in the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. The laws increased the residency requirement for U.S. citizenship, restricted anti-government speech, and allowed for the deportation or imprisonment of 'dangerous' immigrants.

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