The XYZ affair

The dust-up over releasing the Devin Nunes memo reminds me of the XYZ affair. Readers, at least those of a certain age, likely remember studying this affair in school, but some may not recall what it was about.

X, Y, and Z were code names for three French agents who, in 1797, approached three emissaries of the U.S. government in Paris. The three emissaries were Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Elbridge Gerry, and John Marshall (whom President John Adams would later place on the Supreme Court).

The American emissaries had been sent by Adams to meet with Charles Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, about resolving issues pertaining to aggressive French behavior that threatened to lead to war with the U.S. After being kept waiting for a few days, they were granted an audience with Talleyrand, but only for 15 minutes.

In the days that followed, the American emissaries cooled their heels. Perhaps Talleyrand was following the advice of Thomas Jefferson who had suggested that they be kept at arms length. Jefferson was Adams’ vice president, but by then also Adams’ political adversary and, always, a Francophile.

Eventually, X, Y, and Z approached the emissaries with an offer. Talleyrand would be happy to meet with them, but only if the U.S. paid him $250,000 and loaned France $10,000,000. The Americans’ answer was delivered by Pinckney: “No! No! Not a sixpence.”

The emissaries reported these events to President Adams in a series of dispatches. All but one was in code.

The one message not in code reported that the mission had failed. France had refused to meet the envoys. Moreover, the French government (the Directory) had closed all French ports to neutral shipping and declared that any ship carrying products from England would be subject to seizure.

Adams informed Congress only that the diplomatic approach had failed and that the U.S. must prepare to defend itself in the event of an attack. He said nothing about X, Y, and Z or, indeed, about any content in the coded messages. Instead, he stated that these messages had been examined and “maturely considered.”

The Republicans, the pro-France Jeffersonian party, assumed that Adams was mute about the coded messages because they included information favorable to the French. They insisted that the documents be made available to Congress immediately.

Adams did not release the documents until he was satisfied that the emissaries were safely out of France. He then released them to Congress in private session.

The Republicans were dismayed. They understood that if news of France’s behavior became public knowledge, it would inflame public opinion and create war fever. Thus, they urged that the documents not be published, which had been Adams’ preference all along.

The High Federalists, on the other hand, wanted publication, and in a few days news of the affair became public knowledge. The Republican propaganda machine tried to blame the XYZ affair on Adams for allegedly having insulted the French (this was the position Jefferson took in private). However, public opinion was such that the main Republican newspaper peddling this line lost subscriptions and advertisers to the point that it nearly went under.

War with France was averted only because of Adams’ restraint. It turned out that one of the three envoys — Elbridge Gerry, a Republican — had remained in France at Talleyrand’s insistence, and was able to negotiate with the French. When John Marshall arrived back the U.S., he told Adams that France did not want war, that negotiations were likely to be fruitful, and that Adams should proceed with caution and moderation — as Adams had been doing.

Adams thus resisted the pressure to go to war. Doing so earned him no credit with the Republicans, but brought him increased enmity from the pro-Alexander Hamilton faction of his own party.

Hamilton’s enmity may have cost Adams reelection in 1800. However, earlier that year, the U.S. and France finally reached an agreement. The two nations gave each other most favored nation trade status. In addition, American ships captured by France were to be returned.

There are clear differences between the “release the memo” campaigns of 1797 and 2018. The most obvious is that this time the party that sought release knew what the memo said.

David French argues, however, that by releasing the memo Republicans confirmed the New York Times’ claim that the Russia interference investigation began not because of the Steele dossier but because George Papadopoulos had popped up on the FBI’s radar. He also argues that the memo does nothing to undercut the case for having a special counsel investigate issues relating to Russian interference.

Be that as it may, the release of Nunes’ memo is still a net plus for President Trump and his party for reasons explained by Andy McCarthy. This incarnation of Republicans, unlike the 1797 variety, knew what it was doing in wanting the memo released, and the Democrats knew what they were doing in opposing release.


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