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Lessons From The United States First Foreign War!

By Matthew Clark

In 1798 the government of the United States embarked on the nation's first Foreign military conflict in the young Republic's history. While the country's soldiers had engaged in a number of military campaigns against native Americans, as well as quelling Shay's Rebellion, it's political leaders were disinclined to embroil the nation in foreign quarrels.

That all changed in 1798! Angry over perceived disrespect Revolutionary French political leaders displayed towards United States citizens, and their government leaders, members of Congress authorized punitive actions against French maritime interests. Sailors of the diminutive United States Navy were to engage French Privateers (Privateers sailed under the flag of their nation but in a private capacity. They differed from pirates in that they carried "Letters of Marque," from their country's government. This letter(s) authorized combat status for the vessel, and it's sailors). Congressional representatives avoided a declaration of war on France. They also stipulated that United States naval ships were not to engage with vessels of the French navy. Only French privateers were to be assaulted. This stipulation was disregarded on a number of occasions.

To bolster the home front during the war(?) congressional lawmakers passed the 'Alien and Sedition Acts,' which targeted foreign nationals, making it a criminal offense to criticize the federal government. It has been observed that the 'Alien and Sedition Acts,' were four bills, intending to keep foreigners living in America from influencing American opinion. (Randal Rust author,

Another law passed by the members of congress was the Logan Act, which made it illegal for private citizens to correspond with foreign governments to influence affairs in areas of dispute with the United States, or take measures to defeat the United States.

Over the years the Logan Act has resulted in two, yes two, indictments against U.S. citizens. One was in 1802, the other in 1852. On both occasions the person charged was found 'Not Guilty' in a court of law! The Logan Act is still on the books today, rarely used, yet constantly threatened, as a means of legal intimidation.

Americans came to call their maritime conflict with France the Quasi-War. Lasting two years, 1798-1800, the bulk of the fighting occurred in the Caribbean. Most of the victories went to the United States sailors, with 16 warships capturing 86 French Privateer sailing vessels. Despite this impressive total the French Revolutionary Political, and Military hierarchy, were disinclined to gratify the Americans desire for respect. The "Treaty of Mortefontaine" ended fighting between the two combatants, without resolving, in any meaningful way, why the conflict had occurred in the first place.

In conclusion it can be observed that, as a result of the Quasi-War,

1) Congress passed laws suppressing individual rights which are enforced to this day!

2) American military personnel participated in a military conflict in which no declaration of war was proclaimed!

3)Most of the battles took place outside of American waters!

4)The war cost a lot of money!

5)The United States military won, by far, most of the battles, without, in any conclusive way, effecting the outcome of the war!

Looking at these points it seems there are some striking similarities between what United States citizens experienced in 1800, and contemporary America!

References for this article

Nathaniel Conley, copyright 2015, Rutgers University,

U.S. Constitutional Museum.

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