The only fighting in the Quasi- War occurred at sea, and mostly in the Caribbean. But with war at a fever pitch and French interests so close by in Louisiana, there was a very real concern in Congress about a possible French invasion of the United States from the west.
In 1798, the existing United States Army comprised about 3,300 men, not nearly adequate to defend our borders. Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, called for an expansion of this force to combat the new threat. However, due to the fear of a large permanent army, Congress was hesitant to do so.
Consequently, in May 1798, Congress reluctantly agreed to create a 10,000 soldier “provisional” force.
This organization was officially designated the Provisional Army of the United States and was to exist alongside the United States Army.
Despite pressure from Federalists to nominate Hamilton to lead this unit, President Adams nominated George Washington to be its commander. This appointment surprised many including Washington himself as Adams named the former President without ever consulting with him on the matter.
Washington, whose official title was Commander in Chief of all the Armies of the United States, accepted this new command on two conditions. He wanted to remain at Mount Vernon until needed and he wanted to name his own subordinates.
Washington requested Hamilton for his second-in-command and, due to Washington’s advanced age, Hamilton became the de facto commander.
From President Adams’ perspective, Washington’s choice could not have been worse. Adams and Hamilton had never been close. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, John referred to Hamilton as the “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.” Abigail, John’s wife and chief advisor, stated Hamilton was as “ambitious as Julius Caesar… His thirst for fame is insatiable.”
Hamilton felt just as fondly about the Adams clan!
Unfortunately for both men, this appointment brought them into more frequent contact and conflict. Hamilton, suddenly a Major General and a man for whom fame was a fair lady worth courting, seized the opportunity and immediately began diverting federal resources towards this fledgling force.
As the crisis with France lessened, Adams was ready to be rid of this thorn in his side. As the army never did any fighting and the cost to maintain it was significant, Adams finally disbanded it in 1800.
Hamilton was not happy with losing his little army and intensified his behindthe- scenes efforts to put forward a Federalist Presidential candidate that would be more his puppet than the independent Adams. Hamilton’s efforts would cost Adams in his reelection bid. In November 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte took over the French government with the support of wealthy French merchants who owned lucrative plantations in the Caribbean.
Bonaparte was anxious to conclude the Quasi-War, which sapped his naval resources and harmed his supporters’ economic interests.
Consequently, when President Adams sent three envoys (Oliver Ellsworth, William Vans Murray, and William Richardson Davie) to France to open peace negotiations, Napoleon readily agreed to talks. On November 9, 1800, the two nations signed the Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine, which acknowledged American rights to the freedom of the seas.
Unfortunately for the American merchants who lost vessels and cargoes to French privateers, France refused to compensate any losses.
The determination of President Adams to stand by his principles, certainly one of his greatest traits, and not to expand the conflict with France was rewarded. Unfortunately for Adams, the news reached America too late to help him in the election of 1800, in which he faced off again with Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic- Republican party.
Despite Adams’ numerous accomplishments for America and being the incumbent, he was not able to fight both Jefferson from the outside and Hamilton from the inside. President Adams lost the election of 1800 to Jefferson 75 electoral votes to 68.
Adams’ willingness to find an acceptable peace and mend fences with France in the face of opposition from his own party would be instrumental in allowing the Louisiana Purchase to happen in 1803. This landmark agreement more than doubled the size of the United States. Ironically, then, President Adams was somewhat responsible for giving Jefferson his greatest achievement as President.
WHY IT MATTERS: So why should the Quasi-War matter to us today?
This little-known event in our nation’s history represents the first time after securing independence that America had to stand up to a foreign power. Despite being unprepared at the outset of the conflict, the United States quickly responded and acquitted itself well.
Revolutionary France found out, as the British did in the American Revolution, that America was a country to be taken seriously.
SUGGESTED READING: Stoddert’s War; Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, written by Michael Palmer is the definitive book on this important event during our nation’s formative years. It provides a detailed account of America’s first war at sea.
PLACES TO VISIT: The USS Constitution, one of the original six frigates used in the Quasi-War, is the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy. Known as Old Ironsides, is berthed in Boston Harbor and open to the public.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand americanacorner. com March 16, 2022 #86
In addition to being an American history buff, Tom Hand is a Ford resident, West Point alumnus and Army veteran. You can reach him through his website at www.americanacorner. com.