Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: The United States, France, and the Problem of Neutrality, 1796–1801

Created January 11, 2012


The Lesson


Execution of Louis XVI

Execution of Louis XVI

Credit: Museum of the French Revolution 83.319

Matters of foreign policy dominated American political concerns between 1790 and 1800. In 1793 war broke out between Revolutionary France and Great Britain, and American commercial interests became a target for both countries.

This lesson will examine the ways in which France challenged American sovereignty between 1796 and 1801. By looking at government documents students will explore American interpretations of French actions, as well as some ways in which the John Adams administration chose to respond.

Guiding Questions

  • How did French foreign policy decisions challenge American sovereignty in the late 1790s?
  • How did the Adams administration respond to this challenge?

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to

  • recognize the impact of the French Revolution upon American diplomacy
  • identify French attacks on American neutrality
  • articulate American responses to French depredations


In response to the 1793 outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars President George Washington chose to take a position of neutrality. It proved to be difficult to maintain, however, because both Britain and France interfered with American affairs. Between 1793 and 1796 the British were particularly aggressive, seizing American vessels and impressing American citizens into service on behalf of the Royal Navy. Hoping to ease tensions, in 1794 President George Washington sent John Jay as an envoy to London. His subsequent Treaty put the United States on firmer diplomatic footing with Britain. The French, however, were less than pleased. When they learned of it they grew convinced that the U.S. and Britain had allied, and that the Franco-American alliance of 1778 had been destroyed. Since 1793 they had been intermittently meddling with American commercial vessels, but in 1796 they stepped up their campaign of seizures and recalled their American envoy. In 1797 France expelled the American minister and refused to carry on diplomatic relations until its grievances were addressed.

President Adams saw some legitimacy in French claims, and, hoping to negotiate a settlement, sent John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry to Paris. French officials (labeled ministers X, Y, and Z by Adams in a subsequent communication to Congress) refused to treat, however, and insisted that negotiations could only begin upon the receipt of bribes of $250,000, a loan of $12 million, and apologies for unpleasant remarks that President Adams had earlier made about France. The American delegation responded that they would not pay a “sixpence” and returned home (in the United States the statement was publicized as “millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute”). This exchange between the American delegation and their French counterpart subsequently became known as the XYZ Affair. In conjunction with the stepped-up French program of vessel seizure, it became the catalyst for an undeclared naval “Quasi-War” between the two countries.

In 1797 President Adams asked Congress to prepare for hostilities, and in 1798 Congress responded in two ways. On the military side, new laws were enacted which ended American treaty obligations to France, authorized privateers to attack French vessels, allowed for the raising of an army, and established a Department of the Navy. Popular opinion favored these legislative initiatives, but it drew the line when Congress moved beyond military preparation. Concerned over the impact of foreigners in America as well as the increasingly vocal Democratic-Republican political opposition, the Federalist-dominated Congress passed what have become known as the Alien and Sedition laws. They led to a significant domestic backlash. Far from being silenced, the Republican opposition used distaste for these laws to secure its political base and launch a campaign to take control of government. This tense political moment was compounded by serious conflicts among various factions of the Federalist Party, both within and outside the Adams administration. While Adams signed the measures passed by Congress in relation to the Quasi-War, he was keen to hold off measures advocated by other Federalist factions, especially those under the influence of Alexander Hamilton and with regard to the creation of additional armies.

When combined with his belief that France desired peace as well, these domestic political disputes led Adams to initiate a new round of negotiations in 1799. Among other things, the subsequent Convention of 1800 restored all seized vessels (although no indemnification was offered), released the U.S. from commitment to the 1778 Franco-American treaties pending further negotiation, and gave to each nation the designation of “most favored nation.” Congress ratified the Convention in 1801.

The Quasi-War illustrates how hard it was for the United States to separate its foreign policy from its domestic political situation. Given its interrelated nature, this lesson is best employed in conjunction with the EDSITEment unit "The Sedition Act: Certain Crimes Against the U.S."

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDFs in the activities.

Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Quasi-war

The Quasi-War was fought entirely at sea between the United States and France from 1798 to 1800. This “undeclared war” was a result of difficulties in diplomacy between the Adam’s administration and the French Republic. The XYZ affair caused an already bad situation to grow worse, leading Congress to enact a series of measures to raise an army and authorize a Naval Department. It also unilaterally canceled treaties with France, and authorized privateers and public vessels to attack French ships found competing with American commerce. Between 1798 and 1800 the U.S. Navy captured more than 80 French ships, although neither country officially declared war.

In this activity, students will investigate the response of the United States to French behavior. Students should begin by reviewing the following documents, which are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed websites of the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress and the Avalon Project at Yale Law School. Excerpts are included in the Worksheet PDF. As they read they should answer the questions that accompany each document. To conserve class time, the readings could be assigned as homework.

Report of the Secretary of State respecting the depredations committed on the commerce of the United States, since October 1, 1796:

  • What new “rules” did the French government create to deal with American shipping?
  • How does the Decree of December 24, 1796 deal with neutral shipping?
  • How were the agents at Cape Francois ordered to deal with American shipping?
  • Were these events reported in U.S. newspapers? Where?
  • What would happen to Americans who tried to “swear falsely” of their intentions?
  • If you were Secretary of State how would you react to this document?

An Act to Suspend the Commercial Intercourse between the United States and France, and the Dependencies Thereof, 1798:

  • Summarize in your own words where and when American vessels can trade as a result of this act.

John Adams’s Special Message to Congress, May 16, 1797:

  • List several of the reasons argued by President Adams that suggests the need to create a Navy.

After they have completed the readings and answered the questions, students should, as a class, create a list of “pros” and “cons” of a potential war with France. A chart can be found on page 11 of the Text Document. Students conclude the activity by using the list to write a letter to a member of Congress expressing and defending their opinions as to whether or not support a war with France. The suggested length for letters is 250 words.

Activity 2. Negotiating with the French

Hoping to ease tensions with Great Britain, in 1794 President George Washington sent John Jay as an envoy to London. His subsequent Treaty put the United States on firmer diplomatic footing with Britain, but it undermined the Franco-American relationship. When the French learned of it they grew convinced that an alliance had come to exist between the U.S. and Britain. They recalled their American envoy in 1796 and launched their own campaign of seizures of American vessels. When Adams won the election, France expelled the American minister and refused to carry on diplomatic relations until French grievances were addressed.

Because of these French actions the United States prepared for war. However, as Congress and the President acted, American public opinion was becoming divided. Because of this President Adams initiated a new round of negotiations with France in 1799 to settle these issues.

In this activity, students will begin by reading excerpts of John Adams’s Special Message to Congress, May 16, 1797 and John Adams’s Second Annual Message to Congress. Both are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed site the Avalon Project, but excerpts may be found on pages 1-4 of the Worksheet PDF. To help guide their reading, students should answer the following questions, which are available in worksheet form on page 4 of the Worksheet:

  • List some of the grievances committed by the French against the United States as cited by President Adams.
  • What orders did President Adams give to the new U.S. minister to France?
  • How was this minister treated by the French?
  • Explain President Adams’s reaction to this treatment.
  • What actions does President Adams ask from Congress?

After discussing the answers to these questions the teacher will then lead a discussion to create two lists. The first will consist of what the United States wants from France, while the second will include what the French want from the United States. Some possible points might be as follows:

United States:

  • Termination of the 1778 alliance with France.
  • A promise from France to respect U.S. Neutrality
  • French recognition of wide-ranging U.S. trading rights.

And for France:

  • An apology from President Adams for open criticism of France.
  • A large loan from the United States to the French Republic.
  • Aid from the United States in France’s war with Great Britain.

A chart for use in making these lists can be found on page 13 of the Text Document. Next, students should be paired off, with each pair of students flipping a coin to decide which of the two countries each student will represent. Then after looking at each other’s key points for negotiation, decide upon a possible compromise or resolution to the disagreement using the chart found on page 14 of the Text Document. Students should then create their own treaty from their findings.

After students have completed their treaties, they should then review the actual Convention between the United States and France of 1801, available on pages 7-10 of the Worksheets. A t-chart has been provided on page 10 to help students compare their group’s treaty with the original Convention. Lastly, for homework students should write an essay that details how their group’s treaty was similar to and different from the original Convention. Suggested length for this essay is 250 words.


All questions for each set of documents can be graded, as well as whole class participation. However, a majority of the assessment for this lesson will come from the student’s letter to Congress from activity one and the compare and contrast essay from activity two.

A final essay prompt to tie this lesson together might be given to students upon completion of activity three.

  • Assess the various ways that the United States dealt with French transgressions during the Quasi-War. Do you think these measures were successful? Why or why not? Justify your conclusions with specific evidence from this lesson.

The responses to this prompt could be between 300-500 words.

Extending The Lesson

There are a many potential activities to be discovered at the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the Naval Historical Center. One potential activity would ask students to investigate the creation of the first U.S. navy. Using the documents and articles at this site, such as; “Quasi-War with France 1798-1801,” Uniform Regulations, 1797, as well as the documents found at the Mariner’s Museum, such as; An Act to Provide a Naval Armament, March 18, 1794; The First Frigates — Technology and Philosophy; and Act Establishing the Department of the Navy, students could work with a partner to create their own U.S. Navy or perform further research into the first U.S. Navy.

Students would need to research the various types of ships at the time as well as the appropriation from Congress to produce this navy. Students could present their idea to the class and let that body vote on which idea the like best. Students could also write a compare and contrast essay that discusses their navy with the original.

Another activity would ask students to study documents that deal with the XYZ affair. Students can access the communications between Eldridge Gerry, Timothy Pickering, and President John Adams at the site of the American Memory Project. Students could divide themselves into groups and create a reenactment of the sentiments conveyed in these letters. The whole class would then decide which reenactment they think to be the best.


Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Using primary sources
  • Kris Ray, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Tucker Bacquet, Lexington High School (Lexington, OH)