When the United States won its independence it no longer had the protection of Britain, it was pitted with the task of protecting its own ships and interests at sea. There were few American ships capable of defending the American coastline, while trying to protect its merchant ships at sea and abroad. The Kingdom of France, a crucial ally of the United States in the American Revolutionary War after early 1776, had loaned the U.S. large amounts of money, and in 1778 it signed a treaty of alliance against Great Britain. However, Louis XVI of France was overthrown in 1792 during the French Revolution, and the French monarchy was abolished.
In 1794 the U.S. government reached an agreement with Great Britain in the Jay Treaty, which was ratified the following year. It resolved several points of contention between the United States and Britain that had lingered since the end of the American Revolution. The treaty encouraged bilateral trade, and enabled expanded trade between the United States and Britain, stimulating the American economy. From 1794 to 1801, the value of American exports nearly tripled, from $33 million USD to $94 million USD. But the Jeffersonian Democrat Republicans, who were pro-France, always denigrated the Jay Treaty.
The United States declared neutrality in the conflict between Great Britain and revolutionary France, and U.S. legislation was being passed for a trade deal with Great Britain. When the U.S. refused to continue repaying its debt, saying that the debt was owed to the previous government, not to the French First Republic, French outrage led to a series of responses. First, France authorized privateers to seize U.S. ships trading with Great Britain, and taking them back to port as prizes to be sold. Next, the French government refused to receive Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the new U.S. Minister, when he arrived in Paris in December 1796, severing diplomatic relations. In President John Adams's annual message to Congress at the close of 1797, he reported on France's refusal to negotiate a settlement and spoke of the need "to place our country in a suitable posture of defense." Adams offered Washington a commission as lieutenant general on July 4, 1798, and as commander-in-chief of the armies raised for service in that conflict. In April 1798, President Adams informed Congress of the "XYZ Affair", in which French agents demanded a large bribe before engaging in substantive negotiations with United States diplomats.
Meanwhile, French privateers inflicted substantial losses on U.S. shipping. On 21 February 1797, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering told Congress that during the previous eleven months, France had seized 316 U.S. merchant ships. French marauders cruised the length of the Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed. The United States government had nothing to combat them, as it had abolished the navy at the end of the Revolutionary War and its last warship sold in 1785. The United States had only a flotilla of small revenue cutters and a few neglected coastal forts.
Increased depredations by French privateers led to the government in 1798 to establish the Department of Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps to defend the expanding U.S. merchant fleet. Benjamin Stoddert was appointed as Secretary of Navy. Congress authorized the president to acquire, arm, and man not more than twelve ships of up to twenty-two guns each. Several merchantmen were immediately purchased and refitted as ships of war,
Congress rescinded the treaties with France on 7 July 1798. That date is now considered the beginning of the Quasi-War. Two days later Congress passed authorization for the U.S. to attack French warships in U.S. waters.
On 16 July Congress appropriated funds "to build and equip the three remaining frigates begun under the Act of 1794":
The USS Congress, was launched at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 15 August 1799; the USS Chesapeake, launched at Gosport Shipyard, Virginia,[a] on 2 December 1799; the USS President, launched at New York, New York, on 10 April 1800. To make the most effective use of his limited resources, Secretary Stoddert established a policy that U.S. forces would be concentrated on attacks against French forces in the Caribbean, where France still had colonies. At times he had to concede to merchant ships requests for escorts for defense.