Quasi War

A “Quasi War”? Exploring the young United States’ almost-conflict with France


This lesson explores one of the lesser-known military episodes from the first decades of American history: the state of heightened tensions between the young United States and France that took place between 1798 and 1800. Those tensions resulted in a series of naval confrontations between the two countries, though there was never a formal declaration of hostilities. The not-quite-a-war became known as the “Quasi War,” and it served as an important early test of the young Federal government and its Department of War under the new Constitution.

This lesson helps students practice close-reading two documents: a letter from the War Department collection related to the Quasi War episode and Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. It is suitable for:

  • history classes focused on diplomatic relations in early American history, and
  • history and civics classes studying how the Federal government described in the Constitution was put into action in the country’s first decades.

Historical Background

Almost everyone is familiar with America’s War of Independence. And most history textbooks include a section on the War of 1812, fought twenty years after the Revolution against the United States’ historical rival, Britain. But far fewer are aware that in its first years the U.S. very nearly became engaged in another war—this one against its former ally, France.

That near-conflict, which became known as the “Quasi War” because it never resulted in an official declaration of war or in full-blown conflict, unfolded in a series of naval confrontations from 1798 to 1800. It had its roots in the shifting economic realities of the late eighteenth century. France had been an important supporter of the American cause during the War of Independence. French support, in the form of loans, naval warships, and troops, was instrumental in helping the American colonists defeat the much larger and more powerful British military.

Some in France supported the American cause out of genuine sympathy with its declared causes of liberty, equality, and independence. Others in France saw support of the American cause primarily as a way to strike a blow at their oldest rival, Britain. Funneling support to the American patriots made the British task in the American War of Independence even more difficult, and limited what the British could do in their European war against the French.

Victory in their War of Independence left the Americans with their own country, and with sizable debt to the French. When the French revolution overthrew King Louis XVI and established the First French Republic in 1792, the United States stopped paying that debt. The Americans claimed that they owed the debt to a government that no longer existed. That decision, and America’s ratification of the Jay Treaty encouraging trade with Great Britain in 1795, outraged the new French government.

France, embroiled in a war of its own with Great Britain, viewed the actions as violations of America’s declared intentions of neutrality. France responded by attacking American merchant vessels, seizing more than 300 in a span of less than a year. The United States, which had only a tiny navy, was at the mercy of the French naval raiders. In July of 1798, Congress revoked its treaties with France and authorized attacks on French warships discovered in American waters. It was an open invitation to confrontation with the French.  

For a young and relatively untested nation, the stakes were high. France was a well-established European power with sizable military forces. Why did President Adams and the young United States believe they could risk a fight with a much larger and more powerful opponent? Where did the Federal government get the powers necessary to wage the fight?

Lesson Objective

To explore learn more about the early foreign relations of the young United States by examining internal appraisals of the looming standoff with France. This lesson gives students a look into a letter from the Secretary of War as the nation edged uneasily toward a potential conflict with its former ally, France. It also guides students to connect the Quasi War episode with specific language from the Constitution that enabled the new Federal government to confront rivals.

How did the small, young nation look at the possibility of a war with a larger and much more powerful opponent? Where did the powers to wage the Quasi War come from?

Students will practice close-reading historical documents by looking at two eighteenth-century documents: a letter sent from Secretary of War James McHenry contemplating the possibility of conflict with France, and Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which enumerates the powers given to Congress, including the powers necessary to defend the nation in time of war.

Lesson Materials