John Marshall: A Biography (1755- 1835)

The XYZ Affair (1797-1798)

A cartoon describing the XYZ Affair.

Prince Charles Maurice de  Talleyrand.

General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney


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  The XYZ Affair was a controversial exchange of diplomatic proposals between France and United States in 1797. The incident almost led to an outbreak of war between the two countries.
      The events that led up to the XYZ Affair began several years earlier. During that time, France was at war with Great Britain and many French ships had been captured or damaged. France now depended on America's ships to continue trade. Then, in 1796, the Jay Treaty between Great Britain and the United States took effect.  The French were angered by this treaty because didn’t it guarantee American trade rights with France and made the United States neutral to the French Revolution.
   In response to this, France began to seize American ships. President Washington sent General Charles  Cotesworth Pinckney to France to resolve the issue. However, France refused to receive Pinckney. This led to  growing tensions between the United States and France. Then, in 1797, President John Adams sent John Marshall along with Eldridge Gerry to aid Pinckney and help ease the tensions between the two countries.
    However, Prince Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, had other plans. Talleyrand thought the he could exploit the division between  the pro-French Republicans and the pro-British Federalists in America to his advantage. To do this, Talleyrand sent three of his agents to meet with the Americans. These agents said the France would only engage in diplomatic talks if they were given bribes. The agents demanded $10 million for the French government and $250,000 for Prince Talleyrand himself.
      Marshall, Gerry, and Pinckney were all incensed by the demands. The diplomats refused to pay France the bribes. Instead, Marshall wrote a letter to President Adams about the France's outrageous demands. Adams  the informed Congress about the incident and made it public. When Marshall's letter was shown to Congress,  the names of the three agents were substituted with the letters 'X', 'Y', and 'Z', hence the name of the incident. The XYZ Affair resulted in an outcry of rage from the American public. Congress even cut ties with France and began to build up its armed forces.
     France and the United States did fight at sea for two years, but war was never formally declared between the two countries. The fighting ended when President Adams sent another envoy to make peace with the French. By this time, Napoleon had come to power and the French government declared agents 'X', 'Y', and 'Z' as rouges who did not speak for France. So, the fighting stopped and France and the United States were once again on friendly terms.  
    In the end, John Marshall turned out to profit greatly from the XYZ Affair. While in France, Marshall showed great composure and patriotism by not paying the bribe and informing the President of France's demands. For his actions, he gained much popularity in America. This popularity was probably a key factor in his election to the House of Representatives and his eventual appointment as Chief Justice.