Convention of 1800

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The Convention of 1800
The Signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine, 30th September 1800 by Victor-Jean Adam.jpg
The signing of the Convention at Mortefontaine, September 30, 1800
ContextUS and France end the 1798–1800 Quasi-War and terminate the 1778 Treaty of Alliance
Signed30 September 1800 (1800-09-30)
LocationMortefontaine, France
Effective21 December 1801 (1801-12-21)
Parties France  United States

The Convention of 1800, also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine, was signed on September 30, 1800 by the United States of America and France.

The Convention terminated the 1778 Treaty of Alliance between the two countries, and ended the 1798–1800 Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war waged primarily in the Caribbean. By removing these areas of friction, it re-established Franco-American relations, and ultimately facilitated the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.


Under the Treaty of Alliance (1778), in return for support in the American Revolutionary War, the United States agreed to defend French interests in the Caribbean. As the treaty had no termination date, this included protecting them from Great Britain and the Dutch Republic during the 1792–1797 War of the First Coalition. Despite popular enthusiasm for the French Revolution, there was little support for this in Congress; neutrality allowed Northern shipowners to earn huge profits evading the British blockade, and Southern plantation-owners feared the example set by France's abolition of slavery in 1794.[1]

North America ca 1800; Louisiana (white), and Spanish Florida (green)

Arguing the 1793 execution of Louis XVI voided existing agreements, the Neutrality Act of 1794 unilaterally cancelled the military obligations of the 1778 treaty. France accepted, on the basis of "benevolent neutrality:" this meant allowing French privateers access to US ports, and the right to sell captured British ships in American prize courts, but not vice versa.[2]

It was soon apparent the US interpreted "neutrality" differently, while the 1794 Jay Treaty with Britain directly contradicted the 1778 Treaty of Amity and Commerce. When France retaliated by seizing American ships trading with the British, an effective response was hampered by Jeffersonian resistance to a permanent military force. Instead, the US suspended repayment of loans made by France during the Revolutionary War; efforts to resolve this through diplomacy ended in the 1797 dispute known as the XYZ Affair, which worsened the situation.[3]

French Foreign Minister Talleyrand 1754–1838

The US was also concerned by French ambitions in North America, especially in its former territory of Louisiana, acquired by Spain in 1762. For decades, American settlers had been moving into this area, despite diplomatic efforts to manage it, including the 1795 Pinckney's Treaty. By 1800, nearly 400,000 or 7.3% of Americans lived in trans-Appalachian territories, including the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee.[4]

Western economic development required access to the Mississippi River, particularly the vital port of New Orleans, and the US much preferred a weak Spain to an aggressive and powerful France on their western and southern borders.[5] The discovery French agents were conducting military surveys to determine how best to defend Louisiana led to the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.[6]

With most of their fleet blockaded in French ports by the Royal Navy, the French relied on privateers operating off the US coastline, and in the Carribean. On July 7, 1798, Congress cancelled the 1778 Treaties and authorised attacks on French warships in American waters, resulting in the Quasi-War of 1798–1800. By arming 200 merchant ships, expanding the USN, and informal co-operation with the British, the US re-established control over its home waters.[7]

However, President John Adams remained keen to reach a diplomatic solution, and in early 1799, a diplomatic commission was approved, consisting of William Vans Murray, Oliver Ellsworth, and William Richardson Davie. Their objectives were to formally terminate the 1778 treaties, confirm American neutrality, agree compensation for shipping losses and end the Quasi-War, but disputes with Jeffersonians over objectives delayed their arrival in Paris until early 1800.[8]

This ultimately benefitted the Commission, since the French Directory was overthrown in November 1799, and replaced by the Consulate, headed by Napoleon. An important part of his support base were wealthy merchants, who wanted to re-establish French control over sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean, such as Saint-Domingue; as a result, both sides were interested in ending hostilities.[9]


Oliver Ellsworth, a member of the US Commission

Even then, formal discussions did not begin until April and proceeded slowly; Napoleon's deputy and Foreign Minister Talleyrand was in no hurry because the Convention was just one part in a complex network of negotiations, including the transfer of Louisiana from Spain.

The main problem was the US demand of $20 million in compensation for shipping losses, which the French argued applied only if the 1778 Treaties remained in force. Since the US had abrogated both, their position was either the US confirmed the existing treaties and received compensation or insisted on new ones and received none.

By July 1800, France's strategic position was much stronger than when the Commission was first authorised in mid-1799. Napoleon was in firm control of government while Russia, with informal French support, had established the League of Armed Neutrality for active resistance to the British policy of searching neutral ships for contraband. Napoleon's victory over Austria at Marengo in June turned the War of the Second Coalition decisively in favour of France. Another victory at Hohenlinden in December forced Austria to make peace in the February 1801 Treaty of Lunéville.

With the commission aware of the increasing urgency of making a deal, Clause II of the Convention compromised by 'postponing discussions' on compensation but suspending the Treaties of 1778 and 1788 until this was resolved, and the US agreed to compensate its own citizens for the claimed damages of $20 million, although it was not until 1915 that the heirs received $3.9 million in settlement.[10] In return, Talleyrand reversed previous policy by confirming the principle of "free trade, free goods, freedom of convoy;" while connected to French backing for the League of Armed Neutrality, it was an unexpected bonus for the Commission.[8] The Convention was dated September 30, 1800 but arguments in Congress over the inclusion of Clause II meant that it was not fully ratified until December 21, 1801.[11]


Caribbean sugar plantation, 1823; French economic objectives in North America were a key motive in negotiating the Convention

At the time, the Convention was generally viewed unfavourably in the US, especially the issue of compensation, which was not finally settled until 1915.[12] It also did little to address concerns over French objectives in North America; Charles Pinckney, US Ambassador to Spain,[a] was instructed to acquire Louisiana and the Floridas from Spain but without success. However, modern historians argue that by ending the dispute with France, it facilitated the Louisiana Purchase while the US was not yet powerful enough to enforce its commercial independence.[13]

Negotiations between France and Britain to end the War of the Second Coalition began in late 1801, resulting in the March 1802 Treaty of Amiens, which brought temporary peace to Europe. In December 1801, a French expeditionary force landed on Saint-Domingue; shortly afterwards, the Americans finally obtained details of the 1801 Treaty of Aranjuez in which Spain agreed to transfer Louisiana to France.[14]

French ambitions were clear and the presence of 20,000–30,000 veteran troops in Saint-Domingue gave them the ability to implement that policy.[b] However, by October 1802, it was clear the expedition had been a catastrophic failure. Napoleon's brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc died of yellow fever along with many of his men.[c] Without the sugar islands, Louisiana was irrelevant, and France and Britain were once again on the verge of hostilities. In the Louisiana Purchase of April 1803, the US obtained the territory for $15 million, including 18 million francs or $3,750,000 as compensation for US shipping losses in 1796–1800. The Convention reflected the American policy against foreign entanglements and alliances.


  1. ^ Not to be confused with his cousin, CC Pinckney, Ambassador to France during the XYZ Affair.
  2. ^ In 1802, apart from militia the US had no standing army, and the Navy consisted of 5,400 sailors and marines.
  3. ^ An estimated 15,000–22,000 out of 30,000, many of whom experienced veterans.


  1. ^ Young 2011, pp. 436-466.
  2. ^ Hyneman 1930, pp. 279–283.
  3. ^ Coleman 2008, p. 189.
  4. ^ Irwin, Sylla 2010, p. 287.
  5. ^ Kemp 2010, p. 160.
  6. ^ Smith 1956, p. 168.
  7. ^ Eclov 2013, pp. 2-4.
  8. ^ a b Lyon 1940, pp. 309–310.
  9. ^ Rodriquez 2002, pp. 23-24.
  10. ^ Rodriquez 2002, p. 236.
  11. ^ Rohrs 1988, pp. 237–260.
  12. ^ Cox 1970.
  13. ^ Hastedt 2004, p. 173.
  14. ^ King.


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  • Cox, Henry Bartholomew (1970). "A Nineteenth-Century Archival Search: The History of the French Spoliation Claims Papers". National Historical Publications Commission. doi:10.17723/aarc.33.4.j1p8086n15k65716.
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