Charles W Akers. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
John Adams became the second president of the United States when he took the oath of office in the packed House of Representatives on 4 March 1797. As he described this moving scene to his wife, there was “scarcely a dry eye but Washington’s” at “the sight of the sun setting full orbed, and another rising, though less splendid.” The new president understood well that no one could fill the role of the godlike father of the nation whose eight years in the presidency had ensured respect for the newly created federal government. The true test of the Constitution was at hand: Could the office be transferred by the first contested presidential election to another from whom there emanated no aura of superhuman greatness? Adams hoped that at least some of the tears had come from the “pleasure of exchanging Presidents without tumult.” But he also knew that Washington’s successor faced unresolved problems that could quickly tear the young republic apart.
Born on 19 October 1735, Adams was sixty-one when he took office. He had behind him thirty years of distinguished public service. His father, a respected farmer and artisan of Braintree, Massachusetts, had pointed him toward Harvard College and a career in the Congregational ministry. He took his degree in 1755, but by then theological uncertainty had turned him toward a secular vocation. He taught school briefly, then read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1758. Within a dozen years he became the colony’s preeminent and busiest lawyer.
In defending such clients as John Hancock and other merchants accused of smuggling and sailors charged with rioting against press gangs of the Royal Navy, he was drawn into the local resistance movement. The Stamp Act of 1765 provoked him to argue in speech and in print against this parliamentary statute, which he termed an unconstitutional violation of colonial liberty. In 1770 he masterfully defended the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. He secured their acquittal while protecting the town’s reputation against the charge that the soldiers had been unmercifully harassed. He held several local offices and served a term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In retaliation for Adams’ opposition to royal government, the governor twice vetoed his election to the Massachusetts Council. His law practice ended in 1774 when the colony and the developing nation began to demand all of his talents and energy.
In 1764, Adams had married Abigail Smith of neighboring Weymouth, Massachusetts, who was to make a major contribution to his public career. Without attending school, she had mastered the literature of the day and developed a remarkably perceptive intellect and an unquenchable spirit. As John Adams became absorbed in politics and diplomacy, he increasingly left to her the responsibility of raising their four surviving children and managing the family’s finances. At first impatient with the limitations of the private sphere to which women were confined, she in time accepted her husband’s successes as her own and gladly took her place as his confidante and defender. Theirs was a marriage of equals as far as the roles society assigned men and women would permit. But his services for their country kept them apart during most of the ten years after 1774.
Revolution and Confederation
His participation in the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia in the fall of 1774 marked the beginning of John Adams’ career as an American statesman. He spent much of the next three years as a member of the Second Continental Congress, where his influence was apparent in such important developments as the election of George Washington to be commander in chief, the recommendation that the colonies establish state governments, the decision for independence, and the establishment of the diplomatic service. His hurried visits home from Philadelphia brought urgent demands on his time from the revolutionary government of Massachusetts. When Congress appointed him one of the commissioners to France, he abandoned thoughts of reopening his law practice and set sail in February 1778. Returning home after eighteen months abroad, he became the principal draftsman of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was to be an important model for the United States Constitution. But before the Massachusetts convention had completed its work, Congress sent him back to Europe to negotiate peace with Great Britain.
Congress appointed additional peace commissioners in 1781, but only Benjamin Franklin and John Jay arrived in time to join Adams in negotiating the Treaty of Paris (1783), by which Great Britain acknowledged American independence and awarded generous boundaries to the new nation. Adams’ wife then joined him, and he remained in Europe until 1788, serving as the first American minister to the British court and saving the credit of the United States by negotiating loans from the Netherlands. He returned home the year after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 uncertain of how, if at all, the country would use his unequaled experience in diplomacy and republican government.
Knowing that Washington was certain to be president, Adams believed himself entitled to the second office as a reward for his services. But he considered his election with only thirty-four out of sixty-nine electoral votes to be a humiliation, for Washington had been chosen unanimously. With some anguish of mind he swallowed his pride and took his place in the government being formed. His eight years as vice president provided few opportunities for executive leadership. He conscientiously carried out the tedious duty of presiding over the Senate, in which role he broke several tie votes in favor of the administration. Despite being consulted only rarely on major decisions, he maintained cordial relations with the president. But Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s secretary of the treasury, had been wary from the beginning of Adams’ well-deserved reputation for independence. After his resignation in January 1795, Hamilton sought to continue and extend his political influence from his New York law office. Unable to deny Adams the vice presidency, Hamilton had succeeded in reducing his vote in the first election and then unsuccessfully sought to replace him in Washington’s second term. By 1796, only John Adams stood in the way of Hamilton’s domination of the Federalist party, as the supporters of the administration were now known.
Election of 1796
The European war resulting from the French Revolution led many Federalists and other citizens to plead for Washington to accept a third term. He finally refused and announced his retirement on 17 September 1796 in the farewell address. As vice president for eight years and the man who had twice received the second-highest electoral vote, Adams was obviously the heir apparent. But unlike the elections of Washington, this time there was a contest. James Madison, leader of the opposition party in Congress—the Republicans—pushed the candidacy of Thomas Jefferson, to save, so he believed, the country from the aristocratic principles of the Federalists. Although increasingly fearful of Hamilton, Jefferson proved to be such a reluctant candidate that he advised Madison to favor Adams in case of a tie, for the vice president had always been, in Jefferson’s words, “my senior.” As much as he craved elevation to the first position, Adams’ principles would not let him campaign for the office; electioneering was left to others.
As usual, Hamilton sought to play kingmaker. He understood that Adams was too popular in New England to be openly pushed aside, and he regarded Jefferson as the greater evil of the two candidates. But he saw in the electoral college the possibility of electing a Federalist president, who would be more likely to follow his leadership than Adams. Each elector was required to cast two ballots without designating which was for president and which for vice president. Hamilton advanced the vice presidential candidacy of Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, who had concluded the popular Pinckney Treaty of 1795 with Spain. If New England divided its votes between the two and the South cast a solid vote for Pinckney while scattering its second ballots, the southerner might come in ahead of Adams.
Hamilton’s strategy backfired. It produced confusion among Federalist leaders and resentment in New England, whose electors withheld some votes from Pinckney. When the ballots were opened in the Senate on 8 February 1797, John Adams performed his vice presidential duty of announcing his own election. He had received seventy-one votes, Jefferson sixty-eight, and Pinckney fifty-nine. The nation had chosen a president and vice president of opposite parties. More ominous was the sectional nature of the results. Adams had won only thirteen votes south of New Jersey, and seven of these had come from the single state of Maryland. Jefferson had received none north of Pennsylvania.
By the time he took office, no American had read or written more about government than John Adams. It is difficult to discover an important volume on law, political theory, moral philosophy, or economy from classical Greece and Rome to Enlightenment Europe that had escaped his critical eye. He was not an abstract political thinker; rather, he read and wrote to understand and solve the problems of society in his own day. At the outset of the Revolution he believed that the superior virtue of the American people would prove sufficient to maintain a balance between liberty and order in the new republics being formed by the states. In his Thoughts on Government, written early in 1776, and in his draft of the Massachusetts Constitution three years later, he advocated popular governments with checks on the abuse of power adequate to maintain their republican purity.
As he viewed the American experiments in government from Europe during the 1780s, Adams lost faith in the political virtue of his countrymen. He saw them repeating the mistakes of Europe, especially in the feverish pursuit of luxury, with its inevitable social and political corruption and its nurturing of class antagonisms. More controls and authority were now needed to govern a society dividing into the aristocratic few and the democratic many. In his last two years abroad he hastily wrote the three volumes of A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. This cumbersome work declared that a strong, independent executive was essential to mediate between opposing interests. The continued growth of corruption would in the distant future make free elections impossible and a hereditary executive preferable. This concept in the Defence would plague the remainder of Adams’ career with the charge of being a monarchist, even though he never advocated hereditary succession for his own day. The French Revolution further strengthened his belief that political freedom could be preserved only by a balanced government effectively controlling the natural rivalry of men for wealth and distinction. The quest for equality, he predicted, would inevitably bring chaos and the loss of the freedom that the French revolutionaries sought.
By the time he returned home in 1788, Adams had transferred his hope for the future of American republicanism from the states to the national government. He readily approved the new federal Constitution, which so much resembled his handiwork in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, but he wanted an even stronger executive than provided for by the Philadelphia convention. The president, he thought, should be freed from the shackles of the Senate in making appointments and approving treaties. He wrote to Jefferson of his fear that Congress was certain to encroach on the powers of the president in these and other areas where executive independence was essential; the president needed an absolute veto over acts of the legislature if he was to mediate effectively between opposing interests. Vice President Adams argued in the Senate that the president should be addressed by some such title as “His Highness” or “His Majesty, the President,” in keeping with the near-monarchical office to which he had been elected.
Conception of the Presidency
His two terms under Washington appear to have eased somewhat Adams’ concern over the weakness of the presidential office, and he took pains in his inaugural address to deny that he advocated radical changes in the Constitution. Yet his view of the president as an independent mediator between contending factions left him largely incapable of bridging the constitutional separation of powers by working closely with Congress to enact his program. His constitutional duty as he construed it was to alert Congress to the nation’s problems and to judge its solutions but not to intervene otherwise in the legislative process.
Even had Adams’ concept of the presidency permitted him to use the powers of his office to influence Congress, the lack of a Federalist party structure would have thwarted him. Like Washington, Adams had deplored the rise of parties in the first two administrations. In his inaugural address he pronounced the “spirit of party” to be one of the “natural enemies” of the Constitution. Refusing to recognize that he was the leader of a party, he could not command a loyal following. Under Adams the Federalist majorities in Congress were a loose combination of three groups: moderates with whom Adams was popular; independents, or “half-Federalists,” who ran under the party banner but voted according to local interests; and the Hamiltonians, who took their lead from the former secretary of the treasury. Insofar as the Federalist party had a vigorous center, it was in the New York City law office of Alexander Hamilton.
At the outset of the new government in 1789, Adams had given full support to Hamilton’s plan to establish the credit of the United States, but he soon developed serious doubts concerning the secretary’s sponsorship of the Bank of the United States and other measures favoring commercial and manufacturing interests. He preferred a federal government that through frugality kept its credit high and its taxes low. In economic philosophy he stood between the commercialism of Hamilton and the agrarianism of Jefferson. Here, as on other issues, President Adams attempted to balance clashing interests. He retained a faint hope that he might be able to draw the moderate men of both parties toward a nonpartisan center and thus return the Republic to the course on which it had been launched by the framers of the Constitution.
By retaining Washington’s cabinet, Adams made what some historians have considered to be the major mistake of his administration, but to him, the reasons for doing so were compelling. He believed that government officials should not be removed except for cause. To dismiss the cabinet he inherited might appear to be an affront to Washington and further split the Federalists. The salaries and prestige of these offices were so low that even Washington had experienced great difficulty in filling them during his second term. Though he lamented the decline in the quality of the secretaries since the resignations of Hamilton and Jefferson, Adams appears not to have considered forming his own cabinet.
Three of the four cabinet members proved dis-loyal to the president they served. Of these, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering caused Adams the most trouble. An unsuccessful lawyer turned zealous but honest bureaucrat, Pickering held this president in low esteem and did not hesitate to oppose him openly when they differed on domestic and foreign issues. The secretary of the treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., of Connecticut, ably administered his office and refused to oppose his chief openly but remained an intimate of Hamilton. As secretary of war, James McHenry was acknowledged to be incompetent even by Hamilton, whom he subserviently followed. Of the original cabinet, only the attorney general, Charles Lee, demonstrated any loyalty to the president. But this office was still only a part-time position, held by a lawyer who also engaged in private practice. With the creation of the Navy Department in 1798, Adams at last appointed a secretary of his own choosing. The lack of cabinet solidarity weakened the Adams administration, especially since the president was absent from the capital for long periods. It was typical of John Adams that he saw his duty in working with cabinet officers whose loyalty he suspected from the outset of his presidency.
The Crisis with France
In an era of peace, a president with Adams’ view of the office might have enjoyed a tranquil four years. He did not regard his election by a margin of three votes as a mandate from the American people but only as a duty to be performed. He had no program for the nation other than the “continuance in all its energy” of the government under the Constitution. “What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?” he queried in his short inaugural address, which stressed his dedication to the principles upon which the American governments were founded. But the presidency of John Adams was dominated not by tranquillity but by a single issue that threatened to destroy the Union before the end of its first decade. It was fortunate for the nation—and for Adams’ claim to presidential great-ness—that this single issue concerned foreign policy, the area in which the president had the most independent authority and the one for which Adams was best prepared by experience.
The course of the French Revolution since 1789 had plunged Europe into war. Despite President Washington’s policy of official neutrality, Americans increasingly divided over whether to remain loyal to their ally in the War of Independence or to support the British effort to prevent French domination of all Europe. The leaders of republican France saw in the treaty that John Jay had negotiated with Great Britain in 1794 not only shameful ingratitude for their country’s aid to the struggling colonies during the American Revolution but also a de facto alliance with Great Britain that repudiated the Franco-American alliance of 1778. The treaty became the main issue in the election of 1796 as the Republicans generally denounced it. On the eve of the election, the French minister to the United States, Pierre Auguste Adet, openly acknowledged his government’s support for Jefferson. At his inauguration Adams declared his “personal esteem for the French nation” and his determination to maintain “neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe.” But already the Directory, the five-man executive of the French republic, had interpreted Adams’ succession to the presidency as another act of hostility toward France.
Since 1795, French armed ships preying on American shipping, particularly in the West Indies, had captured hundreds of vessels flying the flag of the United States. On 2 March 1797, two days before the inauguration, the Directory stepped up the maritime war by a decree that legitimized nearly any seizure of an American ship and fell just short of a declaration of war. Furthermore, the Directory had in effect broken off diplomatic relations with the United States by refusing to accept Charles Cotes-worth Pinckney as the replacement for James Monroe, the American minister to France recalled by Washington for his opposition to Jay’s Treaty.
As Adams took office, he had to pick up the pieces of Washington’s shattered neutrality policy. The first president was fortunate, thought Jefferson, to have retired “just as the bubble is bursting.” Following three weeks of deliberation, Adams called a special session of Congress for the middle of May. In a message to Congress on 16 May, he denounced the Directory’s slighting of Pinckney and honoring of the departing Monroe as an attempt to “separate the people of the United States” from their freely elected government. It was time to convince France and the world that Americans could not be “humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and inferiority.” He pledged a “fresh attempt at negotiations” and a willingness to correct any real wrong done France. But in the meantime the nation must look to “effectual measures of defense.” He recommended the building of a navy as the first line of defense and the expansion of the armed forces to protect the long coastline against French raiding parties.
This address ended the brief period of political peace enjoyed by the president. His inaugural address had been praised by even some Republican leaders and editors, but now Jefferson concluded that Adams had been captured by a circle of Federalists pushing for a war against France and close ties with Great Britain. The Republican press generally denounced the “gasconading speech” for exaggerating the danger of war in order to achieve such sinister goals as deceiving the nation into accepting a standing army that could be used to institute an American monarchy. Yet even Hamilton favored another attempt at reconciliation and so instructed his followers in the cabinet. Pickering, Wolcott, and McHenry, more inclined to war than negotiation, gave way to Hamilton on the sending of a peace commission but rejected his advice that it should include a friend of France.
Adams, too, wanted to send a bipartisan commission to France. Ideally, he thought, it should include either Jefferson or Madison. But both refused, and there was growing opposition in the cabinet and among other Federalists to sending any Republican. Finally, on 31 May 1797, the president nominated a geographically balanced commission of Pinckney, Francis Dana, and John Marshall. When Dana declined because of health, Adams defied his cabinet by replacing Dana with Elbridge Gerry, a close Massachusetts friend and a political independent. Following weeks of heated debate, the special session adjourned on 8 July, after approving the commission and passing some feeble defense measures.
Marshall and Gerry soon sailed to join Pinckney and attempted to open negotiations, but no word could be expected from them for many months. The president and Mrs. Adams left the capital in July for their home in Quincy, Massachusetts, and did not return until November. Meanwhile the debate raged in the press. Republican publications described in detail a conspiracy of warmongers, while Federalist editors attacked the cowardly American Jacobins for quivering in fear before insults to the nation’s honor by French atheists. The president’s annual message to Congress on 23 November added fuel to the flames. He held out little hope of an immediate peace. Defense measures, he insisted, were now more essential than before and should be supported as much as possible by taxation rather than by loans.
With instructions that asked for much and gave little, the commissioners had feeble bargaining power in France. They faced the new French foreign minister, the wily Talleyrand, who, although more inclined to peace than the Directory, saw the negotiations as an opportunity for personal gain. Working through confidential agents, Talleyrand demanded, as preconditions for negotiating, a bribe of £50,000 for himself and the assumption by the United States of all American claims against France. Pinckney answered the demand for a bribe with an emphatic “No, no, not a sixpence.” Meanwhile, Adams’ speech of 16 May 1797 had increased the Directory’s anger over Jay’s Treaty, and an apology was demanded.
The commissioners continued in unofficial negotiations for another five months. Their first report reached Adams on 4 March 1798. A shocked president sent the one uncoded letter to Congress the next day, and his anger rose as the others were deciphered. He asked his cabinet if he should lay all the dispatches before Congress and then request a declaration of war. Deciding not to go that far, on the nineteenth he informed the legislature that the mission was hopeless and called for strong defense measures.
Skeptical of the president’s “warmongering,” Republicans demanded to see the dispatches and in so doing fell into a trap of their own making. After a formal request from the House, the president released the papers on 3 April, substituting the letters W, X, Y, Z for the names of the agents who had delivered the request for a bribe. News of the XYZ affair, as it became known, quickly spread throughout the nation and aroused patriots to turn Pinckney’s “No, no, not a sixpence” into the toast “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!” Suddenly John Adams became, as his wife proudly noticed, “wonderfully popular.” She wrote her son John Quincy Adams, the American minister to the court of Berlin, that the supporters of France had received a “death wound.”
President Adams judged that a declaration of war was inevitable, but he was in no hurry to ask Congress for it. While some extreme, or High, Federalists pressed for an immediate declaration, the majority in Congress preferred to wait until further provocation from France united an overwhelming majority of Americans behind a declared war. For several months addresses and resolutions of support from communities and societies all over the nation poured into the president’s house. He gave much of his time to answering each address in fervid language, calling for patriotic sacrifice and reproaching the American friends of France. Published in the newspapers and in part as A Selection of the Patriotic Addresses, to the President of the United States, these addresses and replies inflamed the passion for war. Federalists now flaunted the black cockade of the American Revolution to shame those Republicans who sometimes wore the tricolor cockade of the French revolutionaries. From pulpit and press, rabid Federalists spread the fear of a worldwide conspiracy, hatched in France, against Christianity and political freedom. Rumors of impending French raids and even a full-scale invasion alarmed the unprotected coastal towns.
Preparations for War
Even without a declaration of war, the XYZ crisis moved Congress in the spring and early summer of 1798 to pass a long series of defense measures. Since 1789, protracted debate over the need for a navy had pitted legislators from the commercial and agrarian sections against each other. In 1794, Congress had authorized the building of six frigates, only three of which had been started, and they were still unfinished when Washington retired. At the request of President Adams, Congress in 1797 had voted to complete the three frigates. Then, in his 19 March 1798 message, Adams announced that he had authorized the arming of private merchantmen. The Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to curb the president’s power to take such offensive measures against France by introducing three resolutions, known as the Sprigg Resolutions. After Republican opposition was crushed by the XYZ revelations, Congress promptly voted to procure additional vessels, to arm private merchant ships, to establish the Marine Corps, and to permit the seizure of French armed vessels in any ocean. To take naval affairs out of the overburdened and inefficient hands of the secretary of war, the Department of the Navy was created on 30 April. Adams appointed a capable secretary of the navy, Benjamin Stoddert of Maryland, who quickly became the president’s chief ally in the cabinet.
By the end of 1798, the United States Navy had undertaken the protection of American shipping on its side of the Atlantic. In his messages to Congress and his replies to the patriotic addresses, Adams had consistently urged that the “wooden walls” of the navy be the nation’s first line of defense. Mrs. Adams fondly thought of her husband as the father of the American navy. He perhaps deserved the honor as much as any single individual, although other major voices had also been raised in the long naval debate and the actual policy had been worked out by the Federalist majority in Congress. More important than any attribution of credit, the United States for the first time had a navy.
This momentous second session of the Fifth Congress also created a large paper army. Late in May a bill was passed giving the president temporary authority to raise a provisional army in case France declared war or threatened invasion. In June he was directed to appoint officers for the eighty thousand militiamen requested of the states the previous year. Before Congress adjourned in July, it passed legislation to bring the regular army up to full strength and to add ten thousand men to it. These forces appeared to fulfill Adams’ request for land defenses made in his 16 May 1797 message. It took him only a few weeks, however, to realize that Congress had presented him with a political rather than a military force.
The crisis intensified Adams’ conviction that the president should hold himself above party politics. He had in mind a nonpartisan army headed by Washington and staffed by high-ranking officers drawn from both parties. The former president reluctantly agreed to assume nominal command, provided that he did not have to take the field until the fighting started. In accepting this condition, Adams did not seem at first to understand that Washington would have the choice of his second in command, the general given the responsibility for organizing and training the army. With the full support of Hamilton’s followers in the cabinet, Washington not only refused to have any “Jacobin” generals from the ranks of the Republicans but made as a condition of his service Hamilton’s appointment as second in command.
In asking Washington to emerge from retirement, Adams had placed himself in the hands of the one public figure in the United States of whom he stood in awe. Never fully able to suppress his jealousy of Washington’s primacy in war and peace, Adams had nevertheless understood perfectly the symbolic importance to the Republic of its revered revolutionary hero and first president. He was so troubled by being commander in chief without any military experience that he seems briefly to have regretted that there was no constitutional way to let Washington resume the presidency. Thus, once Washington had stated his terms, Adams could do nothing but surrender on the question of military appointments. As a result, when the issue was finally resolved in October 1798, the president had to place the enlarging army under the de facto command of his Federalist rival, a man whose ambition he had come to fear. Mrs. Adams likely expressed her husband’s thoughts when she wrote that Hamilton would “make an able and active officer” but was capable of turning into the American Bonaparte. At the head of the army, he, like Napoleon, could use military force to overpower the government and launch an invasion of neighboring lands to establish an empire. The president’s already slight enthusiasm for land defenses began to weaken rapidly.
The Alien and Sedition Acts
The Federalist majority in Congress also erected defenses against domestic enemies and thereby hoped to cripple the Republican party. It became Federalist doctrine that the spread of French radicalism in the United States was largely the work of revolutionaries from Great Britain and the Continent. To many, the most conspicuous symbol of this pernicious influence was Albert Gallatin, a Swiss immigrant who now headed the opposition in the House. But in the “democratic societies” or “Jacobin clubs,” which had mysteriously sprung up around 1794, and in the unrestrained opposition press, it was believed, were concentrated less respectable foreigners. These undesirables had fled their inhospitable native lands only to corrupt the foundations of the free republic that had given them asylum. During five weeks in June and July 1798, Congress extended the naturalization period to fourteen years, provided for the control of enemy aliens in a declared war, and gave the president for two years the power to deport any foreigner he suspected of being engaged in subversive activity.
Without being enforced, the Alien Acts intimidated a few foreigners but otherwise had slight consequences. Infinitely more serious was the Sedition Act, passed on 14 July. Since the beginning of party warfare under Washington, the Federalist and Republican newspapers had increased their levels of vituperation. Even after the XYZ revelations, Republican editors had continued the abusive attack on Adams, Hamilton, and their party as tools of England seeking to drag the United States into an unnecessary and destructive war against a loyal ally to whom gratitude for past aid was due. They asserted that the president had repeatedly deceived the people into supporting a war for commerce that would harm the farmers, who formed the heart of the country. How, they asked, could a party that in 1794 had sold the nation’s soul to Britain in the shameful Jay’s Treaty now appeal to national honor as an excuse for a war against France?
Such language, interspersed with personal vilification, was treason to many Federalists. When it proved impossible to define treason as words alone, they turned to the English common-law doctrine of seditious libel. After the bitterest debate of this heated session, a sedition act was passed by a narrow majority formed almost entirely of northern legislators. The act, to remain in force until the end of the current presidential term, included a provision for a fine of as much as $2,000 and imprisonment not exceeding two years for “writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing” with unlawful intent against the president or Congress.
President Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. His attitude toward them at the moment of signing went unrecorded. He had not recommended such measures to Congress, although some of his replies to the addresses had condemned foreign influences and the “thousand tongues of calumny” that threatened the country. Thus, he could be charged with having helped to create the climate in which the bills were written. In July 1798 he had not yet seen clearly his duty in this national crisis. He had set as his life’s goal the achievement of fame, which in the eighteenth-century concept meant acting through disinterested public service to shape history in such a way as to win the approbation of future generations. He lost a great opportunity to increase that fame by not vetoing the most severe restrictions on freedom of expression ever passed by Congress.
The Retreat from War
Before Congress adjourned in July, President Adams also signed an act abrogating the 1778 treaties of alliance with France. To pay for the defense measures, Congress levied a direct property tax on houses and slaves and authorized the president to borrow in anticipation of these tax revenues. In this session Adams suffered an embarrassing personal defeat when the Senate refused to confirm his nomination of his son-in-law, Colonel William S. Smith, as adjutant general of the army. Smith’s commendable record in the War of Independence had been clouded by his current reputation as a speculator and political opportunist. Even so, he might have been confirmed had not the Hamiltonians in the cabinet warned the senators of Smith’s recent troubles.
Late in July 1798, President and Mrs. Adams left the oppressive heat of Philadelphia and headed for Quincy. Along the way he learned the full extent of his newfound popularity. Demonstrations of support repeatedly delayed their journey as town after town turned out to display for the president and First Lady the patriotism of its citizens. A popular new patriotic song, “Adams and Liberty,” celebrated the president as the living symbol of the nation’s determination to resist foreign intrigues against its liberty.
By the time they reached Quincy on 8 August, Abigail Adams had taken so seriously ill that for weeks she appeared near death. The president remained close to her bedside and conducted the business of his office by mail. His protracted absence from the capital gave the disloyal members of the cabinet a free hand but also afforded Adams time to reflect on the crisis with France. In September the British ambassador, Robert Liston, came to Quincy to offer an alliance against their common enemy. Adams expressed interest without making a commitment. He then learned from his son and from El-bridge Gerry, who had remained in France after the other commissioners had returned home, that the Directory did not desire war with the United States and was making conciliatory gestures. On 22 October he wrote to the secretary of war that “at present there is no more prospect of seeing a French army here, than there is in heaven.”
Adams welcomed the softening of France’s position. He knew that Hamilton no longer waited for French action to bring on a full-scale war; instead, the general now proposed that Great Britain and the United States join in stripping France’s ally, Spain, of its American possessions. As additional reports of Talleyrand’s peace overtures reached Quincy, it became apparent that the need for the enlarged army headed by Hamilton was rapidly vanishing. But in Trenton, New Jersey, where the federal capital was temporarily located to escape the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Hamilton and Pickering attempted to rally Federalists to support an enlargement of the conflict by maintaining that the news from France had been merely Talleyrand’s scheme to deceive the United States into letting down its guard. Adams’ friends urged him to return to the capital without delay.
Mrs. Adams had sufficiently recovered that the president could return to Philadelphia in late November.
In preparing his annual message to Congress, he solicited the opinion of the cabinet but rejected its judgment, on which Hamilton had exerted a strong influence, that the nation should continue to prepare for war without making any gesture of peace toward France. Instead, in the message of 8 December, Adams called for “vigorous preparations for war,” especially the strengthening of the navy, as the way to avoid war: “An efficient preparation for war can alone insure peace. It is peace that we have uniformly and perseveringly cultivated, and harmony between us and France may be restored at her option.” But it must be peace with honor. He would not send another minister to France without firm assurances that he would be well received.
In the next two months reports of France’s peaceful intentions continued to reach the president. He received Washington’s private endorsement of an honorable peace. In the middle of February he was handed solid evidence that France had repealed its decrees authorizing the seizure of American ships. This information came just as Congress empowered the president to raise an additional army of thirty thousand men. Meanwhile, the British navy so thoroughly enforced its government’s policy of capturing American vessels trading with the French West Indies that doubts were raised as to which country was the more dangerous enemy.
Always in the background of the Franco-American crisis remained the unsettled points of contention with Great Britain. The former colonies had enjoyed friendlier relations with the mother country since Jay’s Treaty, but irritations remained on questions of the impressment of American seamen, citizenship, and neutral rights in time of war. Republicans charged Federalists with sacrificing American interests out of favoritism for England with the same vigor that Federalists asserted the Republicans to be the advocates of French revolutionary radicalism.
When, in 1799, Adams turned over to the Royal Navy a mutineer who falsely claimed American citizenship, a Republican effort to censure the president failed in Congress. Preoccupied with the threat from France, Adams followed a middle-of-the-road policy that took advantage of Anglo-American friendship without subservience to British might. American privateers fitted out in English ports, the Royal Navy sometimes convoyed American merchantmen out of danger zones, and the ministry headed by William Pitt permitted the United States to purchase large quantities of naval and military equipment and supplies. At the same time, the ministry refused to recognize the right of neutral nations to trade with Britain’s enemy. With a quarter century of diplomatic experience, Adams understood the limits of Great Britain’s professed friendship in this struggle. He knew that a declared war with France would of necessity increase his country’s dependence on English aid, with a resulting loss of American freedom of action.
On 18 February 1799, Adams notified the Senate that Talleyrand appeared willing to receive an envoy from the United States. Consequently, he nominated William Vans Murray, American minister at The Hague, to be minister plenipotentiary to France, with the provision that he not undertake the mission until the French government gave additional assurances of its readiness to enter serious negotiations. The High Federalists responded to this provisional nomination with shock and anger. Pickering was furious that he, the secretary of state, had not been consulted. Adams held out against strong pressure from several leading members of his party to withdraw the nomination, but he quickly accepted a compromise proposal by which two negotiators were joined with Murray. Refusing to add Hamiltonians, he named Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth and Patrick Henry, and they, along with Murray, were confirmed by the Senate before Congress adjourned on 3 March. The president soon left for Quincy to rejoin his wife and to await the reaction of both France and his own countrymen to his “master stroke of policy,” as Abigail Adams described her husband’s nomination of a peace commission.
Adams had correctly interpreted the mood of the country. A declaration of war soon after the XYZ revelations might have rallied a majority of citizens to the flag. Now only the High Federalists wanted military action against France. The direct tax, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the recruitment of soldiers proved more and more irritating in all sections. Before leaving the capital, Adams had issued a proclamation against a tax rebellion among the German communities of eastern Pennsylvania and ordered federal troops to assist the militia in restoring order and seizing the ringleaders. The rebellion was easily suppressed, with twenty-nine persons arrested and brought to trial. Of these, the major leader, John Fries, and his two principal subordinates were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged. Adams would eventually pardon this trio and recommend clemency for the others. Nonetheless, the Fries Rebellion publicized the burden of the “window tax,” as the direct tax was popularly known because it was in part based on the number and size of the windows in a house. The suppression of this minor uprising by federal troops struck fear into the hearts of many at the prospect of an army led by Hamilton wiping out all opposition to the policies of the High Federalists.
Despite his tacit approval of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams only halfheartedly carried out his duty to enforce these measures. He signed a few alien warrants that were never executed, but he refused to give Pickering signed blank warrants to be used in the president’s absence or to apply the acts against French consuls still on American soil. And he overruled Pickering’s desire to deport Joseph Priestley, the English scientist and political radical, of whom the Adamses had been fond during their stay in England.
The Sedition Act was of more consequence to the Adams administration. By accepting it as a temporary war measure, the president appeared to side with those Federalist newspaper editors whose vitriolic language denounced in every issue the Republican papers as instruments of foreign subversion. Adams approved of at least two prosecutions of opposition editors, and he made no effort to halt the trials or to grant the petitions for pardon of the convicted. Particularly conspicuous was his rejection of the petition of several thousand Vermonters asking a pardon for Congressman Matthew Lyon, who had been convicted of sedition but reelected to Congress while in jail.
In keeping with his independence, Adams expressed a desire to charge some of the most outrageous Federalist editors with sedition. His main culpability lay in turning over enforcement of the Sedition Act to Pickering and permitting him to interpret the law as broadly as possible. Pickering’s zeal resulted in at least fourteen indictments under the act in addition to three under common law. The secretary’s attempt to wipe out criticism of the Federalist regime ensured that the Sedition Act would be a major issue in the next presidential election and actually increased the number of opposition newspapers. Criticism of the government could not be suppressed among a people who had fought for freedom of speech and press for a century before the First Amendment was written into the Constitution.
The Republican response to the Alien and Sedition Acts included the Kentucky Resolutions (drafted by Jefferson) and the Virginia Resolutions (drafted by Madison). Challenging the constitutionality of the Sedition Act, these resolutions implied the natural right of a state to nullify the enforcement of such an act within its boundaries. In reply the High Federalists raised the specter of disunion, and Hamilton expressed his willingness to march his army south to test Virginia’s resistance. In the middle stood John Adams, increasingly more trusted by some Republicans than by the anti-French element in his own party.
Recovered from his defeat on the question of Hamilton’s military rank, Adams by 1799 was using his power as commander in chief in the interests of peace. The provisional army, intended only as a temporary emergency measure, had not been brought into existence by the time its authorization expired in December 1798. The president was left with authority to increase the regular army, raise militia forces, and accept the services of voluntary military companies. While deliberately slowing the recruitment of enlisted men, Adams saw political advantage in appointing moderate men from both parties to be officers in an army that he never expected to take the field. High Federalists charged him with obstructing preparedness for war, while Republicans pointed to the slowly growing army as a threat to civil liberties. Once again Adams stood in the middle and attempted to draw others to him.
In Adams’ mind the navy remained the first line of defense, but the army was now necessary only to exert diplomatic pressure on France. Following the president’s orders, the navy since early in 1799 had been assisting Toussaint L’Ouverture in extending his control over St. Domingue (Hispaniola) after the slaves on that West Indian island had driven out most of their French masters and repelled a British invasion. The continued success of the Constellation, one of the recently completed frigates, against French naval vessels in the West Indies confirmed the president’s faith in the “wooden walls” of the navy.
In October 1799, John Adams rode out of Quincy and headed back to Trenton, which was again the temporary capital. During the seven months the president had been away, the three cabinet members loyal to Hamilton would have welcomed the creation of a ministerial government to wrest power from the absent and, in their opinion, incompetent chief executive. But there was no constitutional way to turn the president into a figurehead. Adams knew it and rejected several pleas that he return to the seat of government. In August he had received the additional assurances he sought from France that the American envoys would be well received. Consequently, he ordered Pickering to prepare the instructions for the peace commission. The secretary reluctantly obeyed without ceasing his efforts to block the mission. A change in the French government appeared to strengthen Pickering’s hand. Stoddert and Lee finally convinced the president that he must hasten to the capital to take personal charge of dispatching the commissioners.
When Adams reached Trenton, he found Hamilton there to join Pickering, McHenry, and Wolcott in demanding that he not send the peace mission. They argued that a treaty with France would bring retaliation from Great Britain and would stain America’s national honor. But Adams stood his ground. On 16 October 1799, without advance notice to the cabinet, he ordered Ellsworth and William Richardson Davie to join Murray in Europe. The following March the three met in Paris and opened negotiations with the French government, now headed by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte.
Adams’ peaceful gestures had temporarily revived the popularity of the Federalist party and enabled it to make significant gains in the House and Senate elections of 1799. Then the dispatch of the commissioners irreparably split the party between the aggressive minority headed by Hamilton and the more politically obscure majority supporting Adams. The president’s third annual message to Congress on 3 December struck hard at the program of the High Federalists. He called for a “just execution of the laws” to ensure that “individuals should be guarded from oppression,” for peace with honor, and for economy in government without inordinate expenditures for defense. The death of Washington on 14 December further weakened the Hamiltonians, who had hoped to secure his endorsement of their military objectives. This great man’s death, Hamilton wrote, had removed a “control” on the “perverseness and capriciousness” of the president.
Election of 1800
The presidential election of 1800 brought the Federalist split into the open. Adams wanted the second term for which he had been nominated by congressional caucus; thus, he appeared willing to endure the enemies in his party as long as he had a hope of reelection. That hope was considerably lessened on 1 May when the Republicans captured the New York legislature, which would cast the state’s electoral vote. Adams then moved quickly. He confronted McHenry with the charge of disloyalty and accepted his resignation on 6 May. The following week Adams demanded Pickering’s resignation and dismissed him when he refused to resign. John Marshall, a Virginia Federalist loyal to Adams, was immediately confirmed as secretary of state. Apparently fond of Wolcott despite his disloyalty, Adams permitted the secretary of the treasury to remain in office until the end of 1800. The president had refused to raise Hamilton to the top command of the army after Washington’s death, and in May he gladly signed the congressional acts that provided for a drastic reduction in the army.
By now Hamilton was determined to end Adams’ political career, regardless of the consequences to the Federalist party. He wrote, “If we must have an enemy at the head of Government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.” He urged Pickering to gather as he left office any material in the archives that could be used against Adams. From Wolcott he also sought “the facts which denote unfitness in Mr. Adams.”
In July, Hamilton abandoned his plans for military conquest and returned to his law practice. He advised his followers to manipulate the electoral votes in their states so that the Federalist vice presidential candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, would receive more votes than Adams and thus be elected president. His final stroke in this campaign marked the conclusion of his decline from brilliant statesman to bungling, vindictive politician. Against the advice of his closest supporters, he wrote and printed the Letter … Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams. Ostensibly prepared only for private circulation, the Letter somehow reached the press, and Hamilton then published it as a pamphlet. For nearly fifty pages, he reviewed the “great and intrinsic defects” in Adams that rendered him “unfit” for the presidency. The Letter had little apparent effect on the outcome of the election, and numerous replies from men of both parties applauded Adams’ refusal to bend to the will of the former secretary.
The division among Federalists left Adams annoyed and discouraged but undaunted. In May 1800, after Congress had adjourned and Mrs. Adams had set out for Quincy, he traveled by a circuitous route to inspect the capital being built at Washington. The enthusiastic receptions he received along the way buoyed his spirits and led him to regard more highly his chance of reelection. As he journeyed from Philadelphia to Washington and then to Quincy, he defended his administration and himself with such vigor that one historian of his presidency has concluded that Adams was “the first presidential candidate in history to carry his appeal directly to the people.” Then he spent the summer at home, conducting the nation’s business by mail and addressing only those delegations that called on him at Quincy.
By 1 November he was in Washington, where he took up residence in the President’s House, later known as the White House. In this unfinished but habitable building, he felt at once a sense of destiny as he prayed, “May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.” Mrs. Adams joined him after two weeks and endeavored to preserve the dignity of the presidential household while living in a house with still damp plaster walls and lacking stairways, firewood, and bells to summon the inadequate number of servants. This remarkable woman, on whose strength her husband had constantly depended, would perhaps be pleased to know that posterity did not forget that the First Lady had hung her laundry to dry in the “great unfinished audience room”—later the East Room—of the White House.
The president’s fourth annual message to Congress on 22 November radiated pride in the results of his administration. The nation had a permanent seat of government, the provisional army had been disbanded, the victories of the navy had increased the self-esteem of Americans, a treaty of amity and commerce had been concluded with Prussia, negotiations were under way to settle the remaining issues with Great Britain, and a peaceful accommodation with France was expected. But this message proved to be his valedictory. By the second week in December, Adams knew that he would not have another term. News had arrived that South Carolina had deserted its favorite son, Pinckney, to choose electors favoring the Republicans. Although the electoral ballots would not be formally counted until February, the unofficial tally revealed the Republican victory.
The bitterness of defeat mingled with elation in the Adams household, for at about the same time as the news from South Carolina, Commissioner Davie arrived in Washington bearing the treaty concluded with France at the end of September. In the exalted language of diplomacy, this Convention of Môrtefontaine called for “a firm, inviolable, and universal peace, and a true and sincere Friendship between” the two nations. It provided for the restoration of commercial relations on the most-favored-nation principle and the ending of the Quasi-War. The president promptly submitted the treaty to the Senate, where the High Federalists delayed its ratification until 3 February. But the country as a whole, especially the merchants, welcomed peace. The necessary two-thirds vote for ratification was finally obtained when the Senate accepted reservations on the most objectionable points. Unhappy with the reservations, Adams nevertheless approved the ratification and ordered the navy to cease hostilities against French ships.
When the electoral votes were counted in the Senate on 11 February 1801, Adams had sixty-five, Pinckney sixty-four, and Burr and Jefferson seventy-three each. Despite the split of the Federalists, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Fries Rebellion, the gall of the opposition press, and above all the heavy taxes for defense, the president had run remarkably strongly. A shift of a few hundred votes in the New York legislative election would have given a second term to the president from Massachusetts, who had received all of New England’s electoral vote and had improved his vote of 1796 in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
President Adams took no public part in the political crisis created by the inadvertent tie in the Republican electoral vote for Jefferson and Burr. When Burr, the vice presidential candidate, refused to step aside, the decision fell to the lame-duck House of Representatives, with its Federalist majority. In keeping with his view of his office, Adams let the House fulfill its constitutional responsibility without the influence of the chief executive.
Both the Adamses much preferred Jefferson to Burr. Mrs. Adams likely spoke her husband’s mind when she wrote that “neither party can tolerate Burr.” The Republican leadership counted on a presidential veto of any congressional bill that attempted to take advantage of the tie to thwart the Republican victory. Adams could hardly have failed to learn that Virginia and Pennsylvania threatened civil war if the Federalists used the deadlock to remain in power. Yet he refused to commit himself in his one recorded meeting with Jefferson. He feared not so much Jefferson, whose integrity he had come to respect while they had been together in France during the Revolution, as he feared the horde of radicals who, he believed, would come into office on Jefferson’s coattails. Nonetheless, when the House finally ended the crisis on 17 February by selecting Jefferson, Adams was relieved that he could leave office with the nation intact.
Reform of the Judiciary
John Adams’ last three months in office were largely taken up with the reform of the federal judiciary. The country had soon outgrown the judicial structure created in 1789. That system provided for a Supreme Court of six justices, regional circuit courts, and district courts, with a Supreme Court justice required to preside over each session of a circuit court. The result was a nearly impossible schedule of travel for the justices, and one might be called upon to hear an appeal of a case he had helped to decide at a lower level. Frequent petitions from the justices had brought only minor relief, and it had become difficult to get able lawyers to accept appointment to the highest court.
In his annual messages of 1799 and 1800, the president had recommended judicial reform, but Congress proved unable to agree on a bill until after the results of the presidential election were known. Then the Judiciary Act of 1801 moved rapidly through Congress and was signed by Adams on 13 February. It reduced the Supreme Court from six to five at the next vacancy and created six new circuit courts presided over by sixteen new circuit judges, thus relieving the Supreme Court justices of circuit duty. A related act in the last week of February provided for an additional district court with three judges for the District of Columbia.
While Congress debated the Judiciary Act, Adams hurried to appoint a new chief justice of the Supreme Court. After serving on the peace mission, Chief Justice Ellsworth had remained in Europe to recover his health, and his resignation had reached the president in December. Unless a replacement could be confirmed before the Judiciary Act became law, there would be no vacancy and one of the associate justices would have to become chief justice. By appointing a Federalist and thus keeping the Court at six, Adams could make it unlikely that the incoming Republican president would be able to place a member of his own party on the bench for many years.
The favorite of many Federalists, Associate Justice William Paterson, was too close to Hamilton to please Adams. Instead, he nominated, and the Senate confirmed, John Jay, the first chief justice, who had left the Court to be governor of New York. Not in the best of health and regarding the judicial system as seriously “defective,” Jay declined. It then dawned on Adams that his secretary of state, John Marshall, possessed the ideal qualities of age, diligence, and legal talent. He appointed Marshall on 20 January. The Senate delayed his confirmation a week while supporters of Paterson sought to change the president’s mind. In February 1801 the chief justice whom history would acknowledge as the nation’s greatest presided over his first session of the Supreme Court.
Altogether in the last ten weeks of his term, Adams appointed more than two hundred new judges, clerks, marshals, attorneys, and justices of the peace. He filled nearly all of these positions with Federalists of various shades, but most were moderate men of considerable ability. Thus he made one last great effort to put into practice his view of the presidency. On Tuesday evening, 3 March 1801, he signed the final three commissions. At four the next morning he left for Quincy, not waiting to witness the inauguration of Jefferson. Grieving over the recent death of his wayward son Charles and believing his duty finished, he headed into a retirement that would last until 4 July 1826, when both he and Jefferson died on the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of the nation in whose creation they had played such a major part.
Coming between the administrations of two presidents of immortal fame, the presidency of John Adams has been difficult for historians to evaluate and for posterity to appreciate. He had neither Washington’s ability to inspire reverence nor Jefferson’s understanding of democratic ideas. In his own view, his greatest achievement had been to make peace with France, but modern research has emphasized that Talleyrand and Napoleon neither wanted nor expected a military encounter with the United States and, therefore, that a stronger settlement with France might have been possible. He also took great pride in his elevation of John Marshall to the Supreme Court; yet in 1801 he could not have foreseen the strength that Marshall would infuse into the federal judiciary for the next three decades.
The contribution of the Adams presidency lay not so much in its specific accomplishments as in its strengthening the office at a critical time when it might easily have veered off the course set by Washington. Adams’ conception of a strong, independent president who mediated between contending interests enabled him to withstand the violent political passions of the time, which threatened to tear apart the young republic.
Adams’ view of the office and his detestation of parties and factions rendered him incapable of bridging the constitutional separation of powers through party leadership. But had he tried, he could not have succeeded, for the Federalists were not a party in the modern sense. As Adams expressed it, his party was “composed of the most heterogeneous ingredients that ever were put together.” Only such an independent president as Adams could have prevented the various Federalist factions from further splintering the party and possibly the nation itself during the four years after the retirement of Washington. No one can be entirely certain of Hamilton’s intentions in this period, but the available evidence strongly suggests that any president following his lead would have provoked civil war. Or had Jefferson been elected in 1796, when he fell short by only three electoral votes, he could scarcely have convinced the northern states that he was not a tool of France. In this respect, Jefferson owed far more to Adams than he seems to have realized. As Joseph Charles has pointed out, the four years under Adams provided the correct balance of motivation and time for Jeffersonian democracy to develop as a political movement and for the Republicans to gain experience, clarify their principles, and perfect the organization with which they were to govern the nation for the next twenty-eight years.
When, seven years after leaving Washington, John Adams expressed approval of his son John Quincy Adams’ switching parties from Federalist to Republican, he provided testimony to the success of his own administration.