The XYZ affair is a name given to a series of events involving French and U.S. relations during the latter half of the 1790s. In an attempt to settle disputes between the two countries arising from French raids on U.S. shipping and outstanding debts owed by the United States to France from the American Revolution, newly elected President John Adams sent a committee of three men—Charles Cotesworth Pinkney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry—to negotiate a peaceful settlement with France.
Once there, however, the American emissaries found that the French minister of foreign relations, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, would not meet with them directly. Instead he sent John Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy, and Lucien Hauteval as his agents to negotiate what amounted to a bribe before any formal negotiations could begin.
Rather than agree to pay almost $250,000 just to meet with Talleyrand, the commission wrote back to Adams describing their reception. When Adams made these dispatches public, he replaced the names of Talleyrand’s agents with the code names of X, Y, and Z.
The Federalist Party, in moves largely orchestrated by Alexander Hamilton, was able to use these events to turn a majority of U.S. citizens against the French and the francophile Jeffersonian Republicans at home.
In fact, most of the real impact of the XYZ affair was seen in the domestic politics back in the United States, as it provided an excellent tool for the pro-British Federalists to articulate and support their anxiety about France and cast it as a specific threat to the United States through tales of French intrigue and internal spies conspiring to topple the U.S. government.
The Republicans also saw the XYZ affair through the lens of conspiracy theory as they interpreted the actions of Adams and other Federalists in response to these events as a subterfuge to reinforce U.S. ties, both political and economic, to Britain.
Whatever international repercussions followed from the XYZ affair, they paled in comparison to the significance of the domestic struggles between the Republicans and Federalists as conspiracy theory followed counterconspiracy theory.
As the commission broke up over internal disagreement—Gerry remaining to attempt an amicable settlement, Marshall returning to the United States to a hero’s welcome, and Pinckney taking a sick daughter to the south of France to recuperateinternal disagreements back in the United States began to boil over.
The Federalists demanded that Adams declare war immediately and passed legislation readying the country for that war by setting up a new cabinet position of the secretary of the navy and establishing funds for a new naval force. The Jeffersonian Republicans instead insisted on peaceful negotiation and saw the Federalist activities as francophobic warmongering.
In order to support their side, Federalists such as Robert Goodloe Harper from South Carolina and Timothy Dwight from Boston promoted anti-France political paranoia by detailing various French-supported conspiracies against the United States.
Harper suggested that the French and “internal agents” sympathetic to the Jacobin cause—read Republicans—were fostering an uprising of southern blacks by spreading French revolutionary ideas among slaves and that France itself would launch an attack on the southern states from Saint Domingue in the Caribbean.
Dwight, a vehement Federalist minister, on 9 May 1798 gave a sermon about a secret offshoot of Freemasonry—the Society of the Illuminati—that had already invaded the United States secretly and whose agents were hiding among the U.S. populace, waiting for a chance to attack from within.
These are only two examples of many such conspiracy theories deployed by Federalists in an attempt to convince Americans of the danger of France. Their tactics worked well enough to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 as an attempt to regulate and control “enemies” to the United States, both internal and external.
Republicans also attempted to point out conspiratorial threats in order to win political points for their agenda. Republican newspaper editors such as Benjamin Franklin Bache and Albert Gallatin used their papers to promote conspiracy theories that cast the Federalists in power as warmongers who wanted to go to war with France only in order to strengthen political and trade ties with Britain.
They even went so far as to suggest that Federalists wanted to reunify with England and were using this diplomatic crisis as an excuse to open the door for a British invasion.
The political crisis brought on by the XYZ affair was not settled until 1800 when the United States and France signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine that reestablished the grounds for commercial trade between the two nations. Through the excesses of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Federalists finally lost favor with the American public and Adams lost his second bid for the White House to Thomas Jefferson.