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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Directory and the United States

By Timothy Pickering (1745–1829)

[A Review of the Correspondence between the Hon. John Adams and the late Wm. Cunningham. 1824.]

EVERY American who lived in the days of the French republic, particularly in the years 1796, 7, 8 and 9, or who, by a little reading, has become acquainted with the transactions of that period, will remember the familiar use of the letters X, Y, and Z, in relation to those transactions. Those letters have often been repeated ludicrously, even as though they represented fictitious characters; whereas, in deciphering the voluminous despatches of our envoys, Pinckney, Marshall and Gerry, I substituted, for a reason to be hereinafter mentioned, those letters for the names of persons introduced to our envoys in Paris; whither they had been sent, and where they waited patiently for six months, for the purpose of effecting an amicable settlement of all differences between the United States and the French Republic; which differences, by the government of that republic, in the hands of a Five-Headed Executive, called the “Directory,” were made the pretences for a scene of piracies, in kind never surpassed, in extent never equalled, by the barbarous Mahometan Regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. On the arrival of our envoys at Paris, “cards of hospitality” were sent to them, to entitle them to stay there unmolested by the police. They delivered to Mr. Talleyrand, minister for foreign affairs, copies of their letters of credence; and rightfully expected to be soon presented to the Directory, by its minister. But they were not presented—they were never admitted to the presence of that haughty and insolent Executive. The arms of France had subjected Holland, Spain, Portugal, and the minor powers conveniently within their reach; and even Austria was compelled to make peace. All the subject nations were treated with little ceremony; and some with utter contempt; to which they submitted. The Directory expected a like humble submission from the United States. In this they were encouraged by their knowledge of a powerful party which from the beginning were opposed to the federal administration under Washington, and who persisted in their opposition during the continued federal administration of government under his successor, Mr. Adams. Few, if any, important acts of the federal administrations, prior to the year 1799, escaped opposition from that party, of which Mr. Jefferson was the reputed, and undoubtedly the actual, head and oracle. This party vehemently opposed even the building of two or three frigates, which were necessary to protect our commerce from the Algerines! those frigates which were the commencement of that navy which, in the late war having saved the administration from political perdition, has now become a favorite with the government, as well as with the people.

Instead of admitting our envoys to an audience with the Directory, their minister, Mr. Talleyrand, employed certain agents to make overtures—to inform them of the temper of the Directory towards the United States, as filled with resentment, on account of some expressions in President Adams’s speech to Congress, in which he noticed the offensive discrimination made by the French government, between the people of the United States and their government, in the last public audience given to Mr. Monroe, minister from the United States, on his taking leave of the Directory, in the year 1796.

The parts of the President’s speech, with which the Directory affected to be offended, regarded chiefly the speech of the President of the Directory to Mr. Monroe. Mr. Adams said (and most truly) that it was marked with indignities towards the government of the United States. “It evinced,” said he, “a disposition to separate the people of the United States from their government; to persuade them that they have different affections, principles and interests from those of their fellow-citizens whom they themselves had chosen to manage their common concerns; and thus to produce divisions fatal to our peace.”—But not the government only was reproached; the whole people of the United States were insulted in the speech to Mr. Monroe: “They” (said the President Barras), “always proud of their liberty, will never forget that they owe it to France.” A generous friend, who had conferred the greatest benefit, even at the hazard of life, on another, would never boast of it; much less would he tauntingly remind the latter of his obligations.

I have suggested, that the resentment of the Directory against the American government was merely affected, for the purpose now to be explained.

Had there existed in the Directory a particle of honesty or honor, and had there been any solid grounds for complaint against the United States, our envoys would have been at once admitted to an audience; commissioners would have been appointed to negotiate on all the topics of complaint; all differences would have been settled, and harmony and good-will restored. But the French government had no just ground for even one of their complaints. Such was the opinion of well-informed men at the time; and such, the reader has seen, was the deliberate opinion of the enlightened citizen, Chief-Justice Marshall, formed several years afterwards, on an examination of all the public documents, aided by his own personal knowledge relating to the subject.

Why then, was there such a loud and long-continued clamor of the French government against the United States; especially against their government? I shall not attempt to enumerate all the causes. Those who conducted the affairs of France, doubtless, wished to involve the United States in the war commenced with England in 1793. But the President (Washington) after the most mature consultation with the members of the administration, consisting of Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox and Randolph, determined that it was the right, as well as the interest, of the United States, to remain at peace; and, in pursuance of this determination, he issued his proclamation of neutrality, and enjoined upon the citizens of the United States an observance of all the duties of neutrality. The exactness with which the Executive endeavored to secure and enforce their observance offended the government of France.

Having a serious controversy with Great Britain on subjects arising out of the existing war, as well as claims of vast importance resulting from the treaty of peace of 1783, the government of the United States, instead of plunging the country into an expensive and bloody war, sought redress by an amicable negotiation. Success attended the pacific measure. By mutual stipulations, provision was made for adjusting all the matters in dispute between the two nations for which the mission was instituted. Of this treaty, the French government loudly complained, and pretended that it contravened some of the articles of our commercial treaty with France. There was no foundation for this complaint; the treaty with Great Britain (well known by the name of Jay’s treaty) containing an article, introduced by Mr. Jay, for the express purpose of securing to France and other nations, with whom we had engaged in treaties, the perfect enjoyment of every right and privilege to which those treaties entitled them. The real cause of French clamor about this treaty was, that it prevented a war between the United States and her most hated enemy, Great Britain. The French government pretended that some articles in the British treaty gave that nation advantages not secured to France by our commercial treaty with her. To remove this ground of complaint, though under no obligation to do it, we offered to change our stipulations with her which she said operated to her disadvantage—or to make an entire new treaty, to give to her every advantage which accrued to Great Britain by any article in Jay’s treaty. But the French government evaded every offer we could make: it would not negotiate—it would not receive our envoys commissioned for the sole purpose of adjusting, by an amicable negotiation, every point in dispute between France and the United States. She had for two years been carrying on a piratical war against our commerce; to which we had made no armed resistance, and which therefore she preferred to mutual peace; presuming that while so many nations, subdued by her arms, humbly submitted to their fate, the United States would be alike subservient. Threats corresponding with these expectations were thrown out, indirectly, to intimidate our envoys, to induce them to yield to her demands; a compliance with which would have furnished to her enemy, Great Britain, a just cause of war. Those threats made no impression on our envoys. They persevered in their attempts to bring on a negotiation; if with little hope of success, at least with the expectation of such a development of the character and views of the French government, as would satisfy the people of the United States, strongly prejudiced in favor of France, that no treaty with her, compatible with the interest, the honor and the independence of the United States, was practicable. This was sufficiently ascertained some time before Pinckney and Marshall quitted Paris; and at an earlier day they would have sent their final letter to the French minister, but were delayed by Mr. Gerry; on whom, in private conferences, Talleyrand had made impressions favorable to the designs of the Directory; as will be more particularly related in another place. The Directory and Talleyrand expected to engage him singly to enter on a negotiation, and to impose on him such terms of a treaty as would suit their own and the interests of France; such unequal terms as they had been accustomed to impose on the vassal nations around them, and which, once stipulated by Mr. Gerry, and favored by the whole party opposed to the federal administration, which was relied upon as partial to France, they presumed the American government would not dare to reject.