The Long-Forgotten ‘Quasi War’ Between U.S. and France

The conflict occurred between 1798 and 1800, and involved George Washington.

July 11, 2017 5:00 am
The Long-Forgotten 'Quasi War' Between France and the U.S.
Battle Between U.S. Frigate Constellation and French Frigate L'Insurgente, in West Indies, February 9, 1799. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Twenty-plus years after the United States declared independence from Great Britain, our Navy was embroiled in another conflict.

With a former ally, no less.

As historian Katy Uva notes in a blog post published on Mount Vernon’s website, the Quasi War—also known as the “Undeclared War with France,” “Pirate Wars,” and “Half War”—was a series of naval battle that broke out between the U.S. and France between 1798 to 1800. Although the conflict occurred during President John Adams’ term, former president George Washington was pulled into the affair.

While Washington had still been president, the French were at war with Great Britain, and France sent an emissary to meet with Washington to gain American support for their cause. But given Washington’s feelings about America military neutrality—and the fact that the emissary tried to go around this—the president balked. He would later sign the Jay Treaty, a trade agreement with England, which incensed the French.

So the French started capturing and “harassing” American ships in retaliation, attempting to make the U.S.-British pact more difficult. At the time, Adams was president, and to counteract France’s naval aggression, he coaxed Washington out of retirement, installing him as Commander-in-Chief and having him oversee a U.S. arms buildup.

(Smithsonian goes into greater detail about the causes and effects of the conflict.)

For more on the Quasi War, listen to Pulitzer Prize–winning George Washington biographer Ron Chernow speak below.

The Quasi War from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.

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