The Quasi-War, which at the time was also known as "The Undeclared War with France," the "Pirate Wars," and the "Half War," was an undeclared naval war between the United States and France. The conflict lasted between 1798 and 1800, and was a formative moment for the United States. Although it occurred during John Adams' presidency, the Quasi War involved George Washington in two significant ways.
The Quasi War was the first time that American neutrality, which had been championed by Washington as president, found itself under attack. In addition, once the conflict began John Adams sought George Washington's military expertise, reinstating him as Commander-in-Chief.
During Washington's presidency, Great Britain and revolutionary France entered into a war with each other. Seeking American support, France sent an emissary, Citizen Genet, to the United States. Genet was undermining a neutrality agreement that Washington had signed earlier that year, and he attempted to circumvent the American government by landing in South Carolina rather than the then-capitol at Philadelphia.
Instead of meeting immediately with the president, Genet recruited privateers, exploited political divisions between supporters and detractors of revolutionary France, and slowly made his way to the capitol. Once in Philadelphia, Genet was denounced by Washington. Ultimately, the United States refused support to France and signed the controversial Jay Treaty with England, which settled residual issues from the Revolutionary War and declared friendly diplomatic and trade relations with Great Britain.
The Jay Treaty angered the French, who responded by harassing American vessels at sea. The new president, John Adams, sent ambassadors to France where they encountered an unstable French government that sent its own officials (referred to as "X" "Y" and "Z" in the published papers) to meet the Americans. The French officials, on behalf of foreign minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord sought a bribe, a loan, and an apology from the Americans. Talleyrand hoped to reinforce his own political power while also gaining American support for France.
The negotiations angered Adams, who asked Congress to support defense measures. Congress was skeptical of Adams and demanded that he publish the correspondence that he had received from the American diplomats. Adams complied and Congress was angered, viewing the French as insulting America. A two-year undeclared war followed. French ships harassed and captured American vessels and tried to hinder American trade with Britain. The United States engaged in a military buildup, with George Washington brought out of retirement to serve again as Commander-in-Chief.
The Quasi War pushed the United States into a serious debate about the nature and extent of neutrality, the limits of presidential power, and the role of the military in America. In 1800, Napoleon gained control of France and ushered in a more hospitable diplomatic atmosphere between the two countries. The British and the Americans, while not explicitly working together, had reduced the actions of the French Navy. With the Convention of 1800, the United States and France officially ended hostilities.
Historian Ron Chernow discusses George Washington and his role in the Quasi War.
The Graduate Center of the City University of New York
De Conde, Alexander. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801. New York: Scribner's, 1966.
Estes, Todd. The Jay Treaty Debate, Public Opinion, and the Evolution of Early American Political Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.
Lengel, Edward G. A Companion to George Washington. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.