American Portraits

No! No! Not a Sixpence! The XYZ Affair and Integrity

In this lesson, students will learn about how the diplomats in the XYZ Affair maintained their integrity. They will also learn about how they can act with integrity in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.


On July 18, 1797, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgard won appointment as the French foreign minister. He is reported to have said, “I’ll hold the job. I have to make an immense fortune out of it, a really immense fortune.” Talleyrand faced a difficult task as the French government continued to fight much of Europe in a war that was initiated by the outbreak of the French Revolution. In October, he learned that three American commissioners had recently landed and were seeking an audience with him. He had neither the time nor inclination to deal with the Americans and was irritated by their request….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you promote freedom by having integrity?

Virtue Defined

Integrity is personal consistency in moral goodness.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about how the diplomats in the XYZ Affair maintained their integrity. They will also learn about how they can act with integrity in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze the integrity of the diplomats involved in the XYZ Affair.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of integrity to their own lives.
  • Students will make decisions that demonstrate integrity.


In 1789, the United States government, designed by the Constitution, began operating as President George Washington was inaugurated into office and the First Congress and Supreme Court met. The Revolutionary War consensus around principles of liberty and self-government broke down in debate over specific political policies in the new republic. Foreign policy was one such area of contention, as Great Britain and other European nations went to war with France during the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. President George Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793, and the controversial French minister to the U.S., Citizen Genet, was recalled after he tried to inflame passions and persuade the American people and government to join the French side. During the wars, the British initially perpetrated attacks against American shipping and free trade when they seized American vessels and sailors. American diplomat John Jay attempted to resolve the dispute with the British with the 1795 Jay Treaty, but it failed to address the fundamental issue.

As the European wars dragged on in the mid-1790s, John Adams was elected president. Weeks after assuming office, Adams had to deal with French violations of American neutral rights. Adams called a special session of Congress that met in May, 1797. He urged a build-up of the American military, especially the navy. Congress authorized the president to call up 80,000 militiamen, funded harbor fortifications, and approved the completion of three frigates. Adams stated, “We are not a degraded people, humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and sense of inferiority, fitted to be the miserable instruments of foreign influence.” He subsequently dispatched envoys John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry to go to France to secure an agreement protecting American neutral rights and to end the French destruction of American shipping.


  • Inaugurated
  • Consensus
  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793
  • Controversial
  • Inflame
  • Diplomat
  • Fundamental
  • Militiamen
  • Fortifications
  • Frigates
  • Degrade
  • Inferiority
  • Dispatched
  • Initiated
  • Commissioners
  • Inclination
  • Delegation
  • Credentials
  • Incensed
  • Subsequently
  • Negotiations
  • Confiscations
  • Affront
  • Explicitly
  • Traversed
  • Dumbfounded
  • Sine qua non
  • Proposition
  • Revelation
  • Tribute

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who were John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry? What was their role in the XYZ Affair?
  • How did John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry advance freedom for themselves and others during the XYZ Affair?
  • What was the diplomats’ purpose in traveling to France?
  • What did the diplomats do while they were in France that showed their integrity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Wood, Gordon. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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