The Quasi-War (1798-1801): Diplomatic Treasures from a Long Forgotten Dispute

Quasi-War, 1798-1801, USS Constellation vs. l'Insurgente - 9, February 1799, Reproduction of oil painting by John W. Schmidt, Print Collection, MdHS.

Quasi-War, 1798-1801, USS Constellation vs. l’Insurgente – 9, February 1799, Reproduction of oil painting by John W. Schmidt, Print Collection, MdHS.

MdHS cataloger Kristi Thomas recently pulled together all of the institution’s holdings on the French Spoliation Claims, a little-known group of pamphlets and documents on a long-forgotten episode during which thousands of citizens sought compensation from the federal government for ships and cargoes captured and destroyed during the Quasi-War with France, 1797–1801. This international drama offers another look at Baltimore’s merchant history, through diplomatic relations and, as many of the cases took more than a century to resolve, provides additional information on some of the city’s oldest families and their descendants.*

The events of the Quasi-War paint a stark contrast to the well-known history of friendly diplomatic relations between the United States and France. A Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette,  fought alongside General George Washington, and French forces catapulted  the Americans to victory over the British during the Revolutionary War.  The country sought a formal alliance with the new United States after the British defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Benjamin Franklin negotiated the 1778 Treaty of Alliance in Paris, guaranteeing American support if the British should break the current peace between the two countries, “either by direct hostilities, or by (hindering) her commerce and navigation.” In exchange, France gave full financial and military support to the American Revolution—at a final cost of $280,000,000 and thousands of lives. Twenty years later, the young country reneged on its promise to France .  Britain engaged the newly-formed French Republic in war,  but the United States  chose to remain neutral. This inaction roused  French indignation on “breach of faith and gross ingratitude.” Other diplomatic mishaps ratcheted the tension between the two countries, and soon they were fighting an official undeclared war from 1787 to 1801. France retaliated to the American hostilities by capturing and condemning ships and confiscating cargoes. The naval skirmishes never escalated into a full-scale war, but both countries lost numerous ships and precious cargoes.

American merchants suffered tremendously and sought compensation from the federal government. The United States later sought indemnity from France whose agents pressed counter claims. The new nation had broken the treaty by which it had been bound to give faithful help to its ally. Ultimately, after multiple negotiations, France released the U.S. from the counter claims and the guarantees in the 1778 Treaty of Alliance. Though America assumed responsibility for its citizen’s claims, the process of compensation for these so-called French Spoliation claims was anything but swift.

James H. Causten, a Baltimore lawyer,  not only fought for decades for his own compensation, but  diligently served  as an agent for the French spoliation claims. In 1874, shortly before his death, he compiled a list of 1,815 French captures, “vessels and cargoes (generally laden with breadstuffs and provisions) of light tonnage adjusted for duplication to 1,700, estimated at $9,000 each.” Five thousand petitions rested in Congress’s files, their authors and families, he wrote, “praying for relief” for seventy-one years.

Of that number, 191 ships belonged to Baltimore owners, among them Samuel Purviance (Ann), William Patterson (Betsey), James Jaffray (Brothers), and Philip Rogers (Bee). Others included Jacob Myer, Heth and Company, Robert Gilmore & Company, Thomas Tenant, and Robert and Alex McKim. The Maryland Insurance Company, Baltimore Insurance Company, and Chesapeake Insurance Company claimed reimbursement for monies paid to policy holders.

By 1885, the Baltimore Sun reported that legislators of the thirteen original states had repeatedly passed resolutions requesting their senators and members to “urge favorable action” and more than forty reports recommending payment of the claims had been made to Congress. In 1833, Senator Daniel Webster supported the claims, “a debt of justice to our own citizens.” The resolution passed both houses several times but went down to presidential veto at the pens of James Polk and Franklin Pierce. Finally, in 1885, President Chester Arthur approved the measure and referred the cases to the U.S. Court of Claims. It is in these records that final disposition of the claims is found.

The heirs of several Baltimore merchants fared well, such as David Stewart, administrator of Henry Messonnier for the schooner Unity. In 1794 the ship sailed from Baltimore for Monte Christo, was seized by the French ship Ambuscade, and carried to Port de Prix where a tribunal condemned vessel and cargo as a “good prize” and ordered the sale. Stewart clearly provided unquestionable evidence of the incident and the value of the loss and on December 2, 1907, one hundred thirteen years after the Unity left Baltimore, the court awarded compensation of $4,467.08. Curiously, joint owner John McFadden’s administrator Antoinette Williams “proved no valid claim” and the court dismissed the petition.

Cargo invoice from the ship "America," Alexander Mactier, June 1, 1812, MS 1758, MdHS.

Cargo invoice from the ship “America,” Alexander Mactier, June 1, 1812, MS 1758, MdHS.

Others did not fare as well as Stewart. William Patterson, David Payson Jr., and David Murray jointly owned the Betsey. In 1797 the schooner left Wiscasset Maine for Barbados. The British captured the ship and twice lost it to the French, a loss to the owners of a ship and cargo valued at $2,790.34. Eighty-eight years later administrators William M. Patterson, Richard H.T. Taylor, Lavinia Murray respectively, filed the meticulously detailed claim. Ultimately, after another eighteen years, the US Court of Claims decided the case on June 1, 1903, “Conclusion of the law [is] that the alleged illegal captures by French privateers are not established and therefore the claimants are not entitled to indemnity from the United States.”

Alexander Mactier, whose daughter Mary Tenant Mactier Latrobe left detailed files in the MdHS library, petitioned for compensation of $2,800 for the ship America. The collection includes cargo invoices, insurance policies, and newspaper clippings. Mactier is also on record as joint owner of the sloop Nancy. The Safe Deposit and Trust Company of Baltimore, as Mactier’s administrator, filed the petition stating that in June 1796 the Nancy had sailed on a commercial voyage from Baltimore to the West Indies, Port of Petit Trou, island of San Domingo and sold its cargo for 23, 026£. The agent received an ordinance (draft) on the French government that was never paid. On December 11, 1909, the court denied the claim as it did “not constitute a claim for indemnity upon the French Government per the Treaty of 1800. The United States government did not settle the last spoliation claim until 1915, more than a century after France released the new nation from the claims and guarantees of the 1778 Treaty of Alliance. (Patricia Dockman Anderson)

Dr. Patricia Dockman Anderson specializes in U.S and Maryland History, Nineteenth Century; Social and Cultural History; Catholic History; and Civil War Civilians. She has served as a member of the History Advisory Council for the Women’s Industrial Exchange, the Baltimore History Writers Group, and the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. Dr. Anderson is the Director of Publications and Library Services for the Maryland Historical Society, editor of the Maryland Historical Magazine, and a professor at Towson University.

*Spoliation claims referred to the court did not include those already settled or dismissed through past treaties. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty, 1803, for example, stated that the U.S. would pay spoliation claims to a total amount of twenty million francs. For specific information on French Spoliation documents in the National Archives, see Angie Spicer Vandereedt, “Do we have any records relating to the French Spoliation Claims?,” Prologue (Spring 1991).



One Response to “The Quasi-War (1798-1801): Diplomatic Treasures from a Long Forgotten Dispute”

  1. Thank you so much for this detailed article. I had never heard of French Spoliation Claims until they were mentioned in an ancestors will. Now I’m trying to figure out how to access them (I’m out of state) to see if they can give me any more information on this ancestors mother, Harriet Tuck Ward Murray.

    Posted by Summer | 11. Mar, 2018, 11:34 am

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