When South Carolinian Charles Cotesworth Pinckney arrived in France in November 1796 to serve as his young country’s minister to France, he immediately found himself embroiled in controversy between the two nations. The French— angered by the 1794 Jay Treaty, which brought improved relations between the United States and Great Britain—had begun to attack American merchant ships. After Pinckney’s arrival, the French government continued to be hostile to the United States: France determined that it had no need for an American minister on its soil and demanded that Pinckney leave in January 1797.
When President John Adams learned of the troubles that Pinckney was facing, he appointed two commissioners to join Pinckney in France and attempt to defuse the situation: John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry. They met with the French minister of foreign relations, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who was initially cordial to the three men but refused to negotiate with them in any official capacity. Instead, a series of unofficial envoys met with the American representatives. These envoys soon made it clear that the French government expected to be bribed in return for improved relations with the United States. Despite being rebuffed by the Americans, the French envoys persisted, and, in response to another demand for a bribe, Pinckney is claimed to have responded “NO! NO! Not a sixpense!”
Further negotiations were fruitless, and in the United States a firestorm of anger against France broke out when the dispatches from the American negotiators were published (the names of the French envoys were replaced with the letters X, Y, and Z, thus giving the scandal its name). Tensions remained high—in what historians term the “Quasi-War”—until a settlement with France was finally concluded in the Convention of 1800.
Stinchcombe, William C. The XYZ Affair. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.