John Adams ascended to the presidency in 1797 with a great deal of public service experience. As a lawyer in Massachusetts, he became involved in the American Revolution. He pushed for independence at a time when other delegates to the Continental Congress wavered. In the 1780s, he was a diplomat in Holland, France, and Britain. Finally, he served as the vice president for eight years. While well-respected by his peers, he lacked Washington’s prestige. Adams’s obsession with adopting the appropriate ceremonial features for the new government earned him the nick name “his Rotundity” in the Washington years. Moreover, Adams had long supported the creation of a powerful chief executive. He felt conflict between the ordinary and the elite was inevitable, and only a strong president could effectively mediate disputes and preserve the rights of the people. His Republican critics associated his ideas with a desire to reinstate a monarchy in the United States, and members of his own party did not always trust his intentions. Thus, as he took the oath of office and gave his inaugural address, Adams sought to convey his republican simplicity, his desire for political unity, and his determination to avoid war with France or Britain. Unfortunately, he realized none of his goals while in office. The growing crisis with France dominated his administration and, in turn, made partisan politics worse in the United States.
Adams, Jefferson, and Political Partisanship
With no precedent to follow, Adams opted to retain his predecessor’s cabinet officers. Therefore, he had Timothy Pickering at the state department, Oliver Wolcott at the treasury department, and James McHenry at the war department. The new president thought the decision would lend greater prestige to his administration and help develop a civil service. Unfortunately, the holdovers proved problematic for two reasons. When Jefferson and Hamilton left government service, Washington found it difficult to find qualified appointees willing to serve given the bitter political climate. Therefore, his appointments possessed less political and administrative skill than needed for their positions. Moreover, all three owed their political careers to Alexander Hamilton. On political issues, they followed his lead publically even when it countered official administration policy. To some extent, Adams also experienced problems during his presidency because he prided himself on his independent action. Although he sought the advice of his secretaries, he often failed to inform them in advance of a pending decision, further driving them into Hamilton’s camp.
Beyond the challenges posed by retaining Washington’s advisers, Adams had to deal with the fact that Thomas Jefferson, a member of the opposition party, became his vice president. After the election, Jefferson wrote to Adams, both to congratulate him and to suggest his willingness to serve the new president. The letter certainly convinced Abigail, Adams’s wife, that the two men could work successfully together to lead the nation and develop bipartisan support for their policies. She encouraged her husband’s belief that together they might just be able to fill Washington’s shoes. To accomplish this, the president-elect looked to give Jefferson a greater role in his administration—possibly having him attend cabinet meetings and having him use his diplomatic skills. According to Joseph Ellis, Adams, unlike many of his contemporaries, seemed willing to negotiate political differences. For Adams, “intimacy trumped ideology.”
Jefferson learned about Adams’s bipartisan plans through newspapers and conversations with his own supporters. The president-elect could not in the political climate of the day directly approach the vice president-elect to discuss the situation. Adams wrote letters and told his confidants his plans, knowing those plans would become public knowledge. Initially, as he learned of Adams’s suggestions, Jefferson reacted somewhat favorably. However, his response changed when he heard the most controversial aspect of the plan: Adams planned to send a special minister to France to help avert war and hoped that either Jefferson or James Madison would head the delegation. Jefferson seemed more inclined to accept the offer than Madison, but Madison convinced him that accepting would be politically unwise.
In the end, Jefferson chose leadership of the Republican Party over his friendship with Adams. The two men had dinner in early March with Washington at the presidential mansion in Philadelphia. Jefferson implied during conversations that neither he nor Madison wanted to play a role in developing the nation’s policy toward France. Politically, Jefferson made a wise decision because the public never associated him with Adams’s controversial foreign or domestic policies. Thus, Jefferson remained a viable alternative to Adams in the presidential election of 1800. Meanwhile, Adams faced an uphill battle in his administration from the start, because he had no one among his advisers whom he could really trust for advice. Adams often turned to Abigail, who was quite politically astute. However, her skills could not make up for the fact Adams came into the presidency with few people rooting for his success.
Quasi-War with France
Although Adams did not have Jefferson’s support, the new president decided he must attempt to resolve the growing problem with France. When France declared war on Britain, the United States tried to maintain a neutral stance. From the French perspective, the Americans abandoned their neutrality with Jay’s Treaty in 1795. However, the French took little action until after the presidential election in 1796. They had hoped Jefferson would prevail and reverse the pro-British stance of the Federalists. When Adams won, they turned from political subterfuge to direct confrontation. Just as the British had done before, the French began to seize American ships engaging in neutral trade.
Hoping to repair the relationship with France, Adams sent Charles Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry to Paris. The envoy, per the president’s instructions, sought to reiterate American friendship and request compensation for the attacks on American commercial vessels. Unfortunately, nothing went according to plan. French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord saw no reason to negotiate with the American delegates, as the United States posed no real threat to France. At the same time, the French government needed money to support its war against Britain. So, Talleyrand’s agents—later labeled as X, Y, and Z— outlined the steps required for negotiations to begin: Adams needed to apologize for anti-French statements he made, the United States needed to pay its outstanding debts to France, and the United States needed to arrange for a loan, akin to a bribe, of 50,000 pounds for Talleyrand’s private use. Since the Americans refused to pay the French, negotiations broke down.
When Adams learned of the attempted bribe, later labeled as the XYZ Affair, in March 1798, he informed Congress that the diplomatic mission had failed. Moreover, he proposed arming American merchant ships. At that point, however, he refrained from telling Congress about the attempted bribe. The president felt he needed some time to devise a response. Without a doubt, Talleyrand’s demands upset him. However, France’s decisions to attack any American ship carrying British goods and close their ports to any American ship that docked in a British port concerned him more. The move would put Americans at risk as well as undermine American trade. Adams then sought the advice of his cabinet. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and Attorney General Charles Lee favored a declaration of war. Pickering also suggested expanding the Anglo-American alliance. Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott and Secretary of War James McHenry (taking his cues from Alexander Hamilton) felt the Americans should pursue a moderate course by engaging in limited hostilities and seeking a negotiated settlement. The president mulled over their ideas but eventually decided against an all-out war.
After Adams announced the mission had failed, his Republican critics pounced. They said he had acted too rashly because he favored Britain. Thomas Jefferson, who had not seen the communications from the ministers in France, encouraged fellow Republicans in Congress to delay any war-like measures. Most of the opposition, including the vice president, believed the decision not to release the contents of the ministers’ dispatches was some kind of cover up. During the debates on whether to arm merchant ships, Republicans led the House of Representatives in passing a resolution to force Adams to share all the information he received from his ministers. The president complied in a restrained speech in April, much to the chagrin to the Republicans. The American people immediately expressed outrage over the XYZ Affair. War fever gripped the nation. Meanwhile, the Federalist Party, especially John Adams, became immediately popular with the public.
Public outrage spurred Congressional support for Adams’s policy of a limited, undeclared war with France—the so-called Quasi-War. In the following months, Congress approved by narrow margins measures for an embargo on all trade, increasing the size of the army and the navy, creating a Navy department, allowing naval vessels in the Atlantic to attack French ships in the act of seizing American vessels, and formally ending all previous treaties with France. Congress also approved a new tax measure, the Direct Tax, to pay for the military buildup. The government levied taxes on official documents (similar to the Stamp Act of 1765) and private residences. Few people questioned the need to support a more effective navy, since the undeclared war with France was a naval conflict. American ships like the USS Constitution and the USS Constellation, equipped with the latest naval technology, had some success in destroying French ships in the Caribbean.
The decision to provide additional funds for a standing army was more divisive. Republicans loathed the idea of a standing army, fearing the government would use it to suppress opposition. Some Federalists, led by John Adams, preferred to put money into the navy. Adams saw the navy both as important in the conflict with France and for the future of American trade. High Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, preferred to put money into the army because it would help them curb any possible domestic rebellion. In spite of Adams’s opposition, the more conservative High Federalists in Congress won support for enlarging the army. Largely because of the actions of the cabinet, Hamilton became the inspector general—making him the de facto commander of the U.S. Army. Many Republicans feared that Hamilton planned to use the newly raised 20,000 man army against them, especially since he only appointed loyal Federalists to the officer corps.
American naval victories in 1799, as well as Adams’s fear of the High Federalists’ plans, led him to send another diplomatic envoy to France. However, the cabinet encouraged fellow High Federalists in Congress to delay peace with France by preventing the diplomatic mission. In frustration, Adams retreated to his home in Massachusetts to await developments at home and abroad. Before the end of the year, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France. His government indicated it would welcome the American ministers. With some Federalists still obstructing peace, Adams threatened to resign the presidency. Most accepted the decision to seek peace because they did not want Jefferson to become president. Adams then sent a new three-person delegation to Paris to negotiate a peace settlement.
In the Treaty of Mortefontaine, also known as the Convention of 1800, the Americans and the French pledged permanent friendship. They also cancelled their prior treaties relating to trade and mutual alliances. Furthermore, they agreed to uphold the principles of free trade. The Americans did not seek damages for the loss of ships or goods during the conflict. Adams sent the treaty and all the diplomatic communications relating to the treaty to the Senate in December. Republicans favored ratification, but High Federalists opposed an agreement with the French. The first time the Senate voted, the treaty did not pass. However, Adams tried again with a slightly modified treaty in February. This time, the Senate approved the treaty by a narrow margin, officially ending the hostilities with France.
The XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War led to the increase of partisan politics in the United States. Pro-French sentiments remained high among some Republicans, and many doubted the French threat. Albert Gallatin, a leading Republican Congressman, went so far as to suggest Adams created the crisis to increase his power. Therefore, Republicans did not want to engage in a war against France, even a limited one. Throughout the debates on the war measures, Congressional Republicans attempted to block their passage. While unsuccessful, many still spoke publicly about their opposition. Federalists, meanwhile, did not just fear the French threat on the seas. They wondered what side the Republicans would support if France launched an attack on the United States. Federalists like Harrison Gray Otis believed France’s victories in Europe came because they effectively deployed French spies to other countries. Federalists saw their political opponents as the first wave of French collaborators in the United States. Their fear led to the passage of the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts—four laws that targeted immigrants and the Republican press. Although the president signed each measure into law, he was never the driving force behind their creation or their enforcement. Abigail Adams and the High Federalists drove him to accept the measures.
The three laws targeting immigrants focused on those people who had yet to become naturalized citizens. Large numbers of people arrived in the United States during the 1790s. Federalists feared French immigrants would side with their home country, and Irish immigrants would side with France because they hated Great Britain. Once naturalized, moreover, the French and the Irish tended to vote Republican.79 The Naturalization Act of 1798 extended the residency requirement for citizenship from five years to fourteen years. It also required all aliens to register upon arrival in the United States and prevented citizenship for aliens from countries at war with the United States. The Alien Enemies Act of 1798 allowed the president to deport or imprison an alien from an enemy country in times of war. The Alien Friends Act of 1798 allowed for the deportation of any alien in peacetime without a hearing if the president deemed that person a threat to the safety of the nation. The Adams administration never deported any aliens under these statutes for two reasons: many French voluntary left the country even before the measures passed, and the president adopted a strict interpretation of the statutes. Still, the immigration acts proved politically disadvantageous to the Federalists.
Federalists designed the immigration acts to target people who might pose a threat to the country and who sided against them in elections. However, the laws also affected German immigrants living in southeastern Pennsylvania who tended to vote for the Federalists. Highly insular, the German population cared most about securing their land, selling their grain, and obtaining fair tax rates. For much of 1790s, Federalists took the German voters for granted. However, the naturalization law, coupled with tax increases to pay for the Quasi-War, harmed the Germans’ pride and their finances. By the end of the decade, they grew tired of such treatment. Perhaps unintentionally, the federal government exacerbated tensions in the German community when they appointed mostly Moravians as tax assessors. Since the American Revolution, Germans in the United States had divided into two camps: “church” Germans (mostly Lutherans) and “sectarian” Germans (Moravians, Mennonites, and Quakers). The “church” Germans represented the majority of the German population. Republican leaders in Pennsylvania took advantage of the situation created by the federal government’s hiring of the tax assessors; at the state level in 1798, their party scored several decisive victories in the southeastern counties.
In early 1799, the Germans began to take up arms against the government. Although the Adams administration had attempted to assess the new taxes fairly, most Germans felt aggrieved by the increase. They held town meetings to discuss the tax laws, and they petitioned Congress to repeal them. But when armed bands of men began to intimidate the tax collectors, it prompted the local U.S. Marshals to arrest eighteen men for obstructing the law. On March 7, the marshals prepared to move the prisoners to Philadelphia for trial. The Bucks County militia, led by John Fries, surrounded the Sun Tavern in Bethlehem where the marshals held the prisoners. Fries demanded the prisoners be tried in Bucks County per the Sixth Amendment; he also demanded the marshals release the prisoners. Rather than challenge the over 140 armed men gathered outside the tavern, the chief marshal complied with Fries’s request. The militia dispersed peacefully, but the chief marshal reported how an unruly mob seized the prisoners.
In the wake of the events at the Sun Tavern, tensions cooled in southeastern Pennsylvania. The German population, including John Fries, publicly began to state they would comply with the tax laws. To the Federalist leaders in Philadelphia, however, Fries’s Rebellion spoke directly to the threat posed by immigrants. As Adams prepared to leave for Massachusetts in March, his cabinet convinced him to issue a proclamation promising to suppress the treasonous actions with force. Adams agreed to the proclamation and left his secretaries to implement it. Federal troops set out for Bucks County and the surrounding area in April. The forces scoured the countryside for men, including Fries, who participated in the rebellion. Upon their arrest, the government transported the sixty prisoners to Philadelphia for trial on treason and other offenses. When the trials began, the Federalist judges showed no mercy on the defendants. Juries convicted Fries and two others of treason, and the judges sentenced them to death. Juries also convicted most of the remaining defendants of lesser crimes.
As the date of the executions approached, Adams queried his cabinet on whether or not the events in Bucks County actually constituted treason. His advisers all argued the convicted men had engaged in an insurrection and so had committed a treasonous act. Adams, however, disagreed. He saw the action as a rebellion, not an insurrection. He decided to pardon not only Fries but all of the other defendants. As historian John Diggins suggests, “The president’s pardon was an act of courage.” Adams knew it would be unpopular with members of his own party. Politically, the response to Fries’s Rebellion also hurt the Federalists because they lost the support of much of the German population. The heavy-handed response, coupled with the immigration laws, became a political liability for Federalists, especially the president.
In the 1790s, the number of newspapers in the United States increased significantly, especially those that supported the Republican Party. For Republicans, newspapers provided a means to criticize the Federalists’ undemocratic tendencies. For Federalists, they became a means for their opponents to promote the cause of the enemy. Fearing the influence of the Republican press, Federalists in Congress supported the Sedition Act of 1798, which they set to expire on March 3, 1801. The act made it a crime “to impede the operation of any law of the United States” or to intimidate an official agent of the government from carrying out their duty. Violators of this article faced a prison term of up to five years and a fine of $5,000. The act also made it a crime to write, speak, or publish “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President.” Violators of this article faced a prison term of up to two years and a fine of $2,000.
Federalists, led by Thomas Pickering, actively pursued newspaper publishers who criticized Adams or the Fifth Congress. All told, the government arrested twenty-five people, brought charges of sedition against seventeen, and convicted ten including Matthew Lyon, a member of the House of Representatives. Lyon emigrated from Ireland in 1764 and became a successful businessman in Vermont. After years of trying, Lyon was elected to serve in the House in 1797. The following year, he became somewhat notorious after he spat on Roger Griswold of Connecticut when Griswold insulted his honor. A few days later Griswold and Lyon engaged in a tavern-like brawl on the House floor. Lyon also founded his own newspaper once he entered Congress because he could not find a publisher for his more radical ideas. Federalists, already wary of him after the confrontation with Griswold, decided to use the Sedition Act against Lyon. The government arrested him, brought him to trial, and convicted him in October 1798. He faced four months in prison and a $1,000 fine. The conviction did not end Lyon’s political career, much to the Federalists’ dismay. While in prison he continued to promote the Republican cause, successfully ran for reelection, and became a martyr for the cause of freedom.
Most Republicans found the Sedition Act extremely offensive. The act limited free speech, which some Republicans thought violated the First Amendment. Furthermore, it did not protect the vice president from abuse. Lyon’s conviction, as well as the convictions of other editors, convinced Republicans they needed to stand up against the Federalists’ excesses. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked secretly through the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures to oppose the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson wrote a series of resolutions, which he passed along to John Breckinridge to introduce in Kentucky. The vice president argued the states had the final authority to determine if acts of the federal government exceeded the limits of the Constitution. When states deemed a federal statute as excessive, they could declare it to have “no force” in their state. In other words, they could nullify federal laws. Madison drafted slightly milder resolutions of protest, which he gave to John Taylor to introduce in Virginia.
Kentucky passed the resolutions in November, and Virginia followed suit in December. Each legislature also encouraged the other states to join them in questioning the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts. None of the other state legislatures supported the measures, and several northern legislatures rejected them outright and suggested the judicial branch, not the states, should determine the constitutionality of federal laws. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 did not at the time alter the prevailing notions about the relationship between the federal government and the states. They did provide a piece of political propaganda for Republicans to use as the nation drew closer to the next presidential election. In the future, states’ rights activists would point back to the resolves when the debated the merits of nullification and secession.
Election of 1800
John Adams recognized his chances for reelection in 1800 were not good. By pursuing a moderate course, he had managed to alienate both Federalists and Republicans. His own party disliked his decision to settle with France and to pardon those involved in Fries’s Rebellion. The opposition party disliked the emergence of a standing army and the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Alexander Hamilton led the opposition to the president among the Federalists, even after the party endorsed Adams and Charles Pinckney. Hamilton suggested in a report leaked to the press that Adams did not have a talent for administration. Furthermore, he said “there are great defects to his character, which unfit him for the office of chief magistrate.”
The Republicans delighted at how the Federalists turned on one another because it made their favored candidate, Thomas Jefferson, appear as the only sensible choice. Of course, the Republicans did not remain free of controversy. They paired Jefferson with Aaron Burr—a talented New York politician who possessed a reputation for self-promotion—in hopes of picking up votes in Burr’s home state. Republicans thought they had a good chance to win the presidency given the Federalists’ antics. However, no one expected the counting of the Electoral College to play out quite like it did. Adams and Pinckney, as expected, did well in New England. Jefferson and Burr, not surprisingly, did well in the South. But in the end, the election turned on the votes of New York and Pennsylvania, which both went to the Republicans. Jefferson and Burr each took seventy-three votes, Adams took sixty-five, and Pinckney took sixty-four. The Federalists lost the election, but because the Republican candidates took the same number of votes, the House of Representatives would determine the victor.
To win, Jefferson or Burr needed the support of nine of the sixteen states within the House of Representatives. The Federalists controlled six delegations, while the Republicans controlled eight. Vermont and Maryland’s delegations split between the two parties. In essence, Federalists in Congress would have the final say on whether Jefferson or Burr would become president. Some Federalists so disliked and distrusted Jefferson that they considered throwing the election to Burr. He seemed the safer choice because for much of his political career he had promoted himself, not a political philosophy. Burr seemed less likely to dismantle the Federalists’ economic program. Once again, Alexander Hamilton stepped in to sway his fellow party members. Hamilton never trusted Burr; therefore, he encouraged the Federalists in the House to vote for Jefferson. Burr, meanwhile, knew the Republicans had intended for Jefferson to become president, but he would not step aside or defer to Jefferson.
The House voted thirty-five times in early February but neither candidate received a majority. Fears that Republicans might call for a new constitutional convention, coupled with increasing threats of mob violence, pushed Federalists to turn toward Jefferson. On February 17, 1801, Jefferson received a majority of votes when several delegates abstained from voting. Republican newspapers celebrated Jefferson’s victory as well as the party’s victories in numerous congressional elections. Many suggested the election had revolutionary undertones because it marked the first time in modern history when a popular election led to a peaceful transfer of power. Jefferson echoed those sentiments in an 1819 letter, suggesting his victory “was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 76” because it was achieved by a “rational and peaceable instrument of reform.” Moreover, it marked the dismissing of one political philosophy in favor of another.
John Adams was hardly surprised by the election’s outcome. During his final months in office, he did work to promote one more initiative. In 1799, he had encouraged Federalists in the Senate to expand the federal judiciary; however, few paid attention to his request. When Adams lost the election, Federalists in the outgoing or lame-duck Congress began to feel differently about the future of the judicial branch. If they created more positions, the president could fill those positions with loyal Federalists before he left office. Those judges could thus help preserve the Federalist agenda when Jefferson took over. In February, only days before the House chose Jefferson, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. It created twenty-three new district and circuit court positions eliminating the need for Supreme Court justices to hear district court cases. The president signed the measure and began to make appointments for the Senate to approve before their session ended. By the time he left office, Adams had made recommendations to fill all of the new positions. However, the most notable of the so-called midnight appointments went to John Marshall, who became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
On March 4, 1801, John Adams left Washington, D.C., where the federal government had moved the previous year, without attending his successor’s inauguration. Adams felt let down by his own party, abused by the opposition party, and most definitely not appreciated for the contributions he had made to the nation throughout his public career. His departure, for all practical purposes, spelled the end of the Federalists as a national party. While they retained a presence in the Northeast until 1815, they attracted few new voters to their cause. For much of their history, the Federalists had run against the tide of democracy, and their actions in the Adams years further underscored that fact. However, their program of economic development lived on as future nationally-minded leaders proposed protective tariffs, a national bank, and support for internal improvements, among others.
During his presidency, John Adams struggled to manage the growing crisis with France and handle the domestic divisions stemming from his foreign policy. Adams initially sought to negotiate a treaty with France to protect American shipping from attacks. Unfortunately, the attempt led only to the XYZ Affair in which the French attempted to bribe the American negotiators in Paris. After Adams disclosed the duplicity, the majority of the American people appeared to want to defend American honor, leading to the Quasi-War.
Republicans vocally opposed the conflict with France and even suggested Adams created the conflict to increase his power. Angered by the accusations against the president, Federalists responded with the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which curbed the rights of immigrants and the freedom of speech. Frustrated Republicans felt they needed to respond to the Federalist threat. As a result, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison secretly made an impassioned plea for states’ rights with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, arguing that states should determine the constitutionality of federal laws. While the resolutions did little to change the relationship between the federal government and the state governments, they did serve as an important piece of propaganda for the Republicans as the election of 1800 approached. Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, bringing the Federalist Era to an end.
The Federalists designed the Sedition Act of 1798 primarily to
- safeguard civil liberties.
- smother political opposition.
- ensure public safety.
- encourage the flow of European immigrants.
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions asserted that
- the Republicans had betrayed the spirit of the Constitution.
- the federal government had the right to void state laws.
- the Supreme Court had no constitutional authority to invalidate federal laws.
- states had the right to nullify federal laws.
The election of 1800 did all of the following except
- mark the first time an opposition party came to power.
- cause Federalist rioting in the streets of the capital.
- show the emergence of a more democratic politics.
- elevate Jefferson to the presidency.
Federalists passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 in order to
- deny Republicans full control of the government.
- replace the principles of English common law.
- establish the doctrine of judicial review.
- reduce the number of federal courts and judges.