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X Y Z letters,

Popular designation of a correspondence, made public in 1798, which nearly resulted in the United States declaring war against France. Louis XVI. had been overthrown in France, and a republic established in charge of the Directory and Council. The French envoys to America, Genet, Adet, and Fouchet, annoyed Presidents Washington and Adams exceedingly by their arrogance. Then the French Directory authorized French war-vessels to seize American merchantmen and “detain them for examination.” Fully 1,000 vessels, carrying the United States flag, had been thus stopped in their course when Adams appointed Pinckney, Marshall, and Gerry as a commission to visit France and negotiate a treaty that would save American vessels from further annoyance. The commission was met in France by three unofficial agents, who told the Americans that the Directory would not listen to them unless suitable bribes, amounting to $240,000, were given; and that, if the commission were received, France would expect a loan from the United States, as French finances were then at a very low ebb. The American envoys indignantly rejected these proposals and were ordered out of France. They at once published their report in the United States, but, instead of giving the names of the three French agents, they were styled X, Y, and Z, and the correspondence took its name from this fact. The disgraceful action of France aroused the whole country. “Millions for defence, not one cent for tribute” became a proverbial phrase, having been originally used by Charles C. Pinckney, who, after being expelled from France, was sent back as one of the three envoys. Congress at once ordered an increase in the army and navy. Before the new ships were ready hostilities had actually begun. Commodore Truxton, in the United States frigate Constellation, captured a French frigate, the Insurgente, in West Indian waters, Feb. 9, 1799, and fought the French frigate Vengeance, which, however, escaped during the night. Over 300 American merchant vessels were authorized as privateers. The result was that France yielded. Talleyrand, the very minister who had dictated the insults, and whose secretary had demanded the bribe of 1,200,000 francs, now disavowed any connection with the French agents, X, Y, Z, and by order of Napoleon, who had assumed the charge of French affairs, pledged his government to receive any minister the United States might send. Without consulting his cabinet, Adams took the responsibility of again sending ambassadors. These men were well received, and orders were at once issued to French cruisers to refrain from molesting vessels of the United States, and a cordial understanding between the two countries began, which terminated in the cession of Louisiana two years later.

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