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“Nothing Material Occurred”: The Maritime Captures That Caused Then Outlasted the United States’ Quasi War with France

This thesis examines the French maritime seizures during the eighteenth-century US Quasi War with France (also called the half war, or the United States’ undeclared war with France), encompassing events on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in France, the United States, and the Caribbean, particularly Haiti. The analysis focuses on the captured ships, telling the stories of seamen who feared for their lives and merchants who lost their ships. This point of view allows the thesis to explore an area of the Quasi War that are less documented in other histories: how civilian participants experienced violence and the indifference of governments that valued property over people. The Law of Nations had a certain amount of ambiguity when it came to captured crews. However, the questionable legality of French seizures and the system of decrees created to sustain them fostered an environment designed create situations where those in the maritime trade lacked credibility when they documented their dangerous situations. By examining seizures that chiefly took place before the more commonly considered date of the conflict (1798). This thesis will attempt to show how extending the timeline of the war allows for a narrative centering the experience of the seizures, and focusing on more than just the political class. Drawing on newspaper articles, legislative records, court records and other judicial records, as well as letters, and family papers, the thesis argues that while no single seizure was a defining event for the country, many were defining events for the individuals involved, and as a whole they constituted the foundation to the conflict. Concentrating on the seizures will not only reveal new perspectives on the Quasi War, but also providing context to other scholarship on the war, where the seizures are less fully explored. Humanizing the Quasi War is important, both because these seizures are an infrequently explored area of scholarship, and because understanding what the conflict meant to everyday Americans makes it easier to understand why it had meaning on a larger scale.
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