The people in favor of helping France had wished for some time to drag the United States into war with Great Britain, so Congress now passed two laws to prevent anything of that sort. These laws were called the Alien and Sedition acts. The first said that the President might send any foreigner, or alien, out of the country, if he thought the man was trying to harm it, and that a stranger could become an American citizen only after living in the United States nine years.
The Sedition Act decreed that if any newspaper editor or other man publicly spoke ill of Congress or President, he should be fined or imprisoned.
This law roused the anger of the people, for they said that as all Americans were free and equal, they had a right to say whatever they pleased.
Still, in spite of objections, both laws were passed, for just then trouble with France was worse than ever. In fact, the French were so angry with the United States for not helping them, that they captured more than a hundred American vessels, refused to show due respect to our flag, and said that they would not receive our envoys unless they were paid a large sum of money as a bribe.
The American envoys were too good patriots, and too noble men, to listen to such talk. It is said that one of them, Charles C. Pinckney, proudly answered that his country would give “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.” When John Adams, the “Colossus of Independence,” heard of this answer he declared that Pinckney was right, and, to show the people how unjustly the French were acting, he published the letters Pinckney had received. They were called the “X. Y. Z. Letters,” for the writers, being too ashamed to use their own names, had signed them by those initials.
Although the Americans knew they were not strong enough to fight France then, they nevertheless echoed Pinckney’s answer, for they felt ready to give every cent they had to uphold the nation’s honor. As it now seemed as if the United States would soon be engaged in war, Congress asked Washington to resume his old place as general in chief. However anxious to rest, Washington could not refuse, but he begged permission to choose the generals he wished to help him, and to remain quietly at home until actual war began. Still, although he staid at Mount Vernon, Washington was now very active in getting ready, for he well knew and wisely said that “to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
War had already begun on the sea, however, and our small navy was doing wonders, when a sudden change of government in France put an end to all hostilities. The United States had no cause to quarrel with the new government, so the war between our country and France ceased before it reached our shores. It was during this war scare that Joseph Hopkinson wrote the words of “Hail Columbia,” setting them to the famous “President’s March,” composed for Washington’s inauguration. Since then this song has been sung by millions of our countrymen, for it is one of our national airs.