In 1797, President John Adams, in an effort to mend deteriorating relations with France and block what some believed was the road toward war with America’s “sister republic,” dispatched a three-man commission to France to negotiate outstanding differences. The commission (manned by John Marshall, Elbridge Gerry, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the latter already in Paris as the unreceived United States minister to France) was never formally received but rather was subjected to a long and drawn-out series of conversations with intermediaries of Charles M. de Talleyrand-Perigord, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. During those conversations it was suggested to the American envoys that a combination of loans and bribes would expedite proceedings considerably. Outraged, Marshall and Pinckney ultimately returned to the United States while Gerry, led to believe that he could preserve peace, stayed on. Eventually he was ordered home under a cloud.
The XYZ Affair (named for three of the four intermediaries who approached the American delegation seeking loans and bribes) has been used by historians to illustrate a number of things. Some have seen the affair as an example of French perfidy, which made an alliance with Britain not only wise but necessary. Others have viewed the incident in domestic political terms, seeing it as a temporary setback in the Jeffersonians’ rise to power. Still others use the affair as an introduction to the Federalists’ efforts to deprive their opposition of its civil rights in the form of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the repressive measures carried out under those laws.
The XYZ Affair itself, however, has not been the central focus of any study by modern historians. In The XYZ Affair, William Stinchcombe seeks to fill that important void by concentrating on the affair itself and not its political, diplomatic, or constitutional implications. In doing so, Stinchcombe has provided a clear portrait of two republics (the United States and France) who wanted peace with each other but whose pride, diplomatic language, internal politics, and diplomatic procedures seemed to thwart the efforts for peace of both nations.
Stinchcombe portrays President John Adams as a man who was more moderate and accommodating toward France than toward his own party. As Adams said prior to his inauguration, “I am more their [France’s] Friend than they are aware of.” Adams’s own vanity and lack of managerial style, however, made it almost inevitable that his own policies would fail. By trying to put together a bipartisan commission to go to France without consulting his own cabinet, the haughty President made a political blunder of the first order. The result was that the three-man delegation that was eventually appointed was neither as bipartisan nor as talented as Adams had wanted. For all their abilities, Marshall, Pinckney, and Gerry were seen by France as an unfriendly commission and were far less popular than the earlier ministership of James Monroe, a man both...
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