The Naval Quasi-War
Considering all the attention that has been given to the troubles with France in the 1790s, most general accounts have had surprisingly little to say about the actual hostilities that ensued from them, or the theater of action in which they occurred, or for that matter the general military, political, economic, and social setting out of which the conflict originated and which gave it the character it had. Exactly what kind of "war" was it, and how had it come about? The Jay Treaty with England -- customarily taken as the starting point for explaining this course of events -- actually did not have a great deal to do with it. More broadly, the official relations between the United States and metropolitan France were no more than a marginal factor in bringing matters to the crisis point. The real key has to be looked for in the French West Indies. There, conditions of social upheaval and revolution, together with invasion by British military forces, had created a dynamic of its own, one which the Directory in Paris showed itself either unable or disinclined to control, except in the most intermittent and desultory way. The consequences for American merchant shipping, as has already been seen, were little short of catastrophic. The main variables of this exceedingly complex situation have their own bearing on the full import of the pending Ellsworth-Murray- Davie mission to France.
If there were any single undertaking by the American government in the closing years of the eighteenth century that could be rated as something close to a full practical success -- in the relation of means to ends, of intentions to outcome, and in obstacles surmounted -- it was that of bringing the United States Navy into being and shaping the manner of its employment during the first two and a half years of its existence. The source of the effort -- and its leading intelligence -- was neither a fleet commander nor a naval careerist of any kind, but a civilian official: the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert. By the nature of the case it fell upon Stoddert, fortunately a man of great energy and resourcefulness, to superintend everything. Unlike the army, which had at least survived in nominal