An Unlikely Hero: John Adams Versus the French Directory


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Despite being one of the best-known figures of the American Revolution, few people genuinely liked John Adams when he became the second president of the United States. However, that changed in the early years of his presidency.

A painting of the Treaty of Paris showing the American delegates, including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.
John Adams (sitting on the left) was an integral part of the American Revolution. (Image: Benjamin West/Public domain)

The Compromise Candidate

Few people in the 1790s had a more distinguished record than John Adams. He was the seconder of Richard Henry Lee’s famous ‘Resolution for Independence’. He was the first American ambassador to Great Britain, and for eight years, he served as George Washington’s Vice President.

Yet, for all of that, few people in the American republic genuinely liked John Adams. He was 61 years old at the time of his election to the presidency in 1796. He was short, he was paunchy, he was temperamental, and he was not a little vain.

In Alexander Hamilton’s mind, Adams was at best a lukewarm Federalist who deserved careful watching. In fact, the Federalists backed Adams for the presidency only because they had no real alternative, as Hamilton was too busy as a lawyer.

Thus, it was more by default than by decision that Adams became the Federalist nominee in 1796. Adams barely scraped into office, with lackluster Federalist support.

It was therefore politically fortunate for John Adams that the first major challenge of his administration involved a foreign policy problem—his area of expertise. It was also even more politically fortunate that this crisis was provoked by the idol of the Jeffersonian Republicans, France.

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The Collapse of the French Revolution

By 1796, the Reign of Terror that had so appalled sympathetic Americans in 1794 had collapsed in the reaction of Thermidor. France was now governed by a five-man French Directory struggling to put the French Republic back on its feet.

France was still embroiled in a major war against Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Great Britain. The French expected, at the very least, the sympathy of the American republic, and at best, the trade and financial support of the Americans.

It got neither. The American republic was not unanimous in its admiration for the French Directory, and American trade on the high seas was vulnerable to the naval power of the British.

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The Naval Attack on American Ships

In December 1794, the British began seizing American ships caught trading in the French West Indies, assuming that they were there to aid the French.

President Washington, who preferred restraint to a suicidal renewal of war with the British, chose to negotiate with the British, and the result was the humiliation of the Jay Treaty.

The French responded by attacking American shipping in the war zones, hoping that a display of force from the French Navy would pressure the Americans into renouncing the Jay Treaty and resuming trade with the French.

Image showing two sail ships engaged in combat, one French and one American.
American sea trade was vulnerable to attacks from the powerful navies of both Britain and France. (Image: William Bainbridge Hoff/Public domain)

By the end of 1796, French seizures of American shipping in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean had reached almost the same proportions as the earlier British seizures of American shipping in the Caribbean.

The Mission to France

This was the situation that greeted John Adams as soon as he had taken the Oath of Office in March of 1797. He immediately called for a special session of Congress to deal with it. Adams was ready for war, but like Washington he resolved to try negotiation first.

In the July of 1797, Adams dispatched a three-man commission: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and the Massachusetts Republican Elbridge Gerry. They were to meet in France with the French Directory.

Kept waiting for weeks to see the French Directors, the commissioners were at last admitted to an ultimately fruitless interview with the wily French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.

Afterwards, three of Talleyrand’s agents approached the American commissioners. They suggested an immediate payment of about 240,000 dollars to Talleyrand, as well as guaranteed loans of 10 million dollars to the French Directory. This was to be a bribe!

“It is no, no, not a sixpence,” Commissioner Pinckney erupted in rage. After six weeks of further waiting, the commissioners announced their departure and demanded their passports.

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The XYZ Affair

Detail from a British satirical pamphlet about the XYZ Affair, showing 5 Frenchmen plundering female 'America'.
The ‘XYZ Affair’, as it was called, caused an uproar in the United States, and was the subject of debate and satire in Europe, too. (Image: Published by SW Fores/Public domain)

President Adams sent a summary of the fruitless negotiations to Congress, but he deliberately left out the most inflammatory parts. When Adams was sure that the commissioners were safely out of France, he revealed the whole story—naming Talleyrand’s agents as only X, Y and Z—in a closed-door session of Congress.

Three days later, Adams released the full dispatches concerning what became known as the ‘XYZ Affair’ to the Federalist newspapers, and the public uproar was awesome. Adams, for the first time in his life, was hailed in song. Pinckney’s defiant words were re-published as even more defiant slogan, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute”.

The Quasi War with France

Congress abrogated all treaties with France, dating all the way back to the French Alliance during the Revolution. In July, Congress authorized the seizure of any French ships that appeared to endanger American commerce, and authorized a national direct tax on property to raise two million dollars for bulking up the army and the navy.

Now, an undeclared naval war, referred to as the Quasi War, broke out on the high seas. Nearly 80 French ships were gobbled up by the American Navy. The frigate Constellation fought and captured the French frigate L’Insurgent, and beat another one, the Vengeance, into a helpless hulk.

Meanwhile, an additional army of 12 regiments of infantry and six troops of dragoons were authorized, and Washington was given command of them as Lieutenant General.

Federalist Highs and Republican Woes

While this war fever was sending Federalist loyalty and enthusiasm to all-time highs, it sent the reputation of Jefferson’s Republicans into near fatal arrest.

Republicans were now attacked as French sympathizers, as ‘Jacobeans’, after the title of the most dreaded and radical revolutionaries of the Reign of Terror. They were denounced as Democrats, ‘mobocrats’, and all other kinds of rats.

Thus, Adams began his tenure as President on a positive note, belying the lukewarm support he had during his election.

Common Questions about John Adams Versus the French Directory

Q. How did John Adams became the Federalist candidate for President?

Alexander Hamilton could not spare time from his legal career, and without any other real alternative available, John Adams, the then Vice President was selected as the Federalist candidate.

Q. Why did the French begin attacking American shipping in the late 1700s?

The United States had to sign the Jay Treaty with Britain to protect its trade. The French saw this as a betrayal and began to attack American shipping. They hoped that this would force the United States to resume trade with France.

Q. Why did the American commission to the French Directory fail?

The American commission to France was met by agents of the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. The commissioners were told that the only way they could secure a treaty would be to pay about 240,000 dollars to Talleyrand, as well as guarantee loans of 10 million dollars to the French Directory. The commissioners refused to pay and returned.

Q. What was the Quasi War between the United States and France?

The Quasi-War was an undeclared naval war that broke out between the United States and France. In this war, American ships attacked French ships in the Caribbean to avenge the perceived insult of the demanded bribe.

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