Second President of the United States
After a distinguished career during the American Revolution, John Adams continued to serve his country as minister to England (1785-1788), vice president (1789-1797), and president of the United States (1797-1801) during the early republic. His administration was most noted for the Quasi-War with France, which he prevented the dominant Federalist Party from turning into a full-scale war, and passage of the Alien and Sedition acts, which he supported and which gave him a reputation for suppressing critics of his policies. During his long retirement (1801-1826) his extensive correspondence, most notably with Thomas Jefferson, offered profound insight into the history and meaning of the American Revolution.
The son of John Adams Sr., a shoemaker and a local political and religious leader, and Susanna Boylston Adams, John Adams Jr. graduated from Harvard College in 1755 and was admitted to the Boston bar three years later. In 1764, while practicing law in Braintree, he married Abigail Smith, whose intelligence matched his own. They remained deeply in love for the rest of their lives.
Adams played a key role in Massachusetts's protest movement against British colonial policies, writing the Braintree Resolves to protest the Stamp Act of 1765, and that same year publishing A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, in which he argued that the outdated hierarchical society of Britain was trying to curtail the legitimate rights of a progressive, self-governing people by taxing them without their consent. Yet in 1770, he successfully defended the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre on the grounds that all accused were entitled to a vigorous defense.
As a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Adams emerged as the leading advocate for indepen-dence, moving the congress with his earnest insistence and thorough arguments. It was he who urged a formal declaration of independence. He then refused to write it himself, claiming Thomas Jefferson was both far more popular and a much better writer.
During the Revolutionary War, Adams served as a diplomat in France and the Netherlands, securing loans for the war effort. Along with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, he negotiated the Treaty of Paris of 1783, ending the conflict. Following independence, he became ambassador to Great Britain. Adams returned home in 1788, and he was elected vice president the following year. Interestingly, he only received 34 of the 69 electoral votes cast for George Washington. The major opposition to Adams's candidacy came from Alexander Hamilton, the founder of Adams's Federalist Party, who correctly thought Adams was too independent to do Hamilton's bidding and accept his leadership of the government.
Adams is famous for his remark that the vice presidency was "the most insignificant office ever designed by man," but he found ways to make it otherwise. During the close party divisions of the 1790s, he broke 29 tie votes in the Senate, more than any other vice president since. Two were crucial: one allowing the president to remove officials without the "advice and consent" of the Senate required to appoint them, and the second authorizing commercial retaliation against Britain if it refused to allow Americans to trade with the West Indies.
While vice president, Adams also composed his last major political work, the Discourses on Davila (1791), which followed in the wake of Edmumd Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and made much the same point. Unlike the American Revolution, the French Revolution was characterized by uncontrollable passions, which required a balanced government to check. Carried away by his own argument, Adams recommended the French adopt a president and senate for life, leading his opponents to charge he was a monarchist.
Adams was reelected vice president in 1792, receiving 77 of the 132 electoral votes. That 50 votes went to New York governor George Clinton indicated that the Democratic-Republican Party was forming, in opposition to Adams's Federalist Party.
In 1796, Adams was chosen president over the Democratic-Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson, by 71 electoral votes to 68 for Jefferson. Adams ran on a ticket with Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina for vice president, but at the time electors cast two votes without technically designating which one was for president or vice president. The Framers of the Constitution had not anticipated the rise of political parties that would designate one person as their choice for president and another as their choice for vice president. During Washington's administration, Alexander Hamilton had come to distrust Adams because he was insufficiently pro-British and a staunch independent who neither acknowledged the usefulness of political parties nor Hamilton as the leader of the Federalists. Hamilton persuaded some Federalist electors not to vote for Adams in the hopes of making Pinckney president, but the plan backfired. Adams became president, but with the Republican Jefferson as vice president.
Adams's presidency was consumed by the so-called Quasi-War with France. No sooner had Adams assumed the presidency in 1797 than the French government, angry that the Washington administration had made the Jay Treaty with Britain in 1794, began seizing American ships heading for British ports. Adams sent a special mission to France to negotiate the matter, but when the French emissaries—known as X, Y, and Z—demanded a bribe even to begin the discussion, Adams recalled his envoys. In the charged atmosphere in which the young nation's sense of national honor appeared to be at stake, many called for a declaration of war, but Adams pursued a moderate position, contenting himself with approving the buildup of the armed forces. Five frigates, the first navy of the new nation, were constructed, and the size of the army was tripled.
Adams was angered at the extremely hostile criticism he received from Jeffersonian Republicans, especially their leading newspaper, the Philadelphia Aurora, published by Benjamin Franklin Bache (Franklin's grandson), and by William Duane after Bache's death in 1798. The most serious criticisms were that Adams was a secret monarchist and was at the head of a Federalist plot to betray the nation to Britain. Although he was not a leading mover in their passage, Adams both signed and enforced the Alien and Sedition acts of 1798. The former allowed him to deport aliens without a trial (many of his fiercest opponents were newly arrived immigrants from the British Isles who strongly supported the French Revolution). The latter provided for large fines (up to $2,000) and prison sentences (up to two years) for those who criticized the government "falsely"—and of course the most important vicious attacks on the government were either false or could easily be interpreted as such by pro-administration juries at a time when public hostility toward France was at its height.
Although Adams enforced the Alien and Sedition acts, he did not do so vigorously. Indeed, he might not have signed them if his wife had not supported them so strongly. Still, 25 people—mostly leading newspaper publishers and writers—were prosecuted, and 10 of them were convicted. These trials threatened the people's right to debate public issues and silence dissent. Bache died of yellow fever while awaiting trial, and Duane had to flee over the rooftops of Philadelphia to escape a Federalist mob. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, in response to these laws, offered the theory that states could nullify federal laws they believed unconstitutional.
Paradoxically, Adams's actions also angered the pro-British Federalists who wanted war with France and hoped to use the large army not only for defense but also against their political opponents and possibly in foreign conquests. He further antagonized them by pardoning John Fries, who in 1799 had led tax resisters in northeastern Pennsylvania in what Federalists considered a "rebellion" against the new house tax Congress had passed to fund the army and navy.
Worst of all, from the Federalists' perspective, Adams sent William Vans Murray to France to negotiate an end to the naval war with France. The Federalists were hoping it would continue, and even escalate, since as long as American ships were being attacked (and the new frigates were winning naval duels against French warships), their party would remain popular as advocates of retaliation. When hostilities ended, Alexander Hamilton published his Letter … Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, which condemned his refusal to defend the nation against French depredations. Hamilton also schemed, as he had done four years earlier, to take enough electoral votes away from Adams in his bid for reelection for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to become president. Adams responded by firing his Cabinet, all of whom supported Hamilton and Pinckney.
Distancing himself from the Federalists, Adams nearly won the election of 1800, receiving 65 electoral votes to 73 for Jefferson. Had the Southern states, dominated by Democratic-Republicans, not had three-fifths additional votes for their slaves, Adams would have won. Or had Gov. John Jay of New York not turned down Hamilton's request to call a special session of the New York legislature to change the way the state cast its electoral votes, either Adams or Pinckney would have won. The state cast all its votes for Jefferson and Burr, whereas at least 5 of the 14 would have gone to Adams otherwise. The Federalists, however, and their proposed extension of the war and disregard for civil liberties, were overwhelmingly repudiated at the polls in the state and congressional elections. Adams left his successor a prosperous nation at peace, and he probably saved the Union by not using the military machine Congress had provided him with to fight a full-scale war and repress dissent at home in any systematic way.
Adams also left Jefferson a Federalist judiciary. Up until the morning before Jefferson's inauguration, Adams appointed what the Republicans derisively called "midnight judges" to every post in the federal judiciary he could. He genuinely feared Jefferson and his followers would ignore the Constitution and pass laws that might threaten property, liberty, and commerce, and he believed that only the judiciary—now that the legislature and the executive were in Republican hands—could save the nation. Adams's most important appointment was John Marshall as chief justice of the United States.
Adams lived the rest of his life in retirement in Quincy, Massachusetts, but he was by no means either silent or invisible on the political scene. He wrote in support of Jefferson's embargo of 1807 to force the warring British and French to respect American neutrality as a necessary response to both nations' blatant attacks on American shipping. He thought, however, that Jefferson should use the embargo as a prelude to the sort of measures he himself had taken against France during his administration—the use of fast-sailing frigates to attack the foreign ships that preyed upon American vessels. During the War of 1812, Adams supported President Madison and opposed most Federalists, some of whom threatened disunion.
Adams engaged in several notable correspondences in his old age. Collectively, they constitute an important body of work on the political theory and history of the Revolution. Beginning in 1807, Adams wrote a series of angry letters in response to Mercy Otis Warren's criticisms of his conduct in her history of the American Revolution. She called him a would-be aristocrat and monarchist and accused him of corruption. He replied that he had always favored a balanced government in which the people could check a potential corrupted aristocracy and monarchical tyrant. He also challenged anyone on earth or in heaven or hell to cite one instance of corruption on his part since the date of his birth. Virginia's John Taylor criticized Adams's notion of balanced government in his 1814 Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States, specifically attacking Adams's Defence of the Constitutions. Adams responded: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." He cited not only examples from classical antiquity and Renaissance Italy, but also the behavior of the American state governments under the Articles of Confederation to prove his point.
Adams's most notable correspondent was Thomas Jefferson, with whom he was reconciled in 1813. Their recollections of the events of their lifetimes and the by now gentle disagreement over whether republican America could be trusted to evolve into a moral, happy society without the traditional restraints of mixed government (Jefferson thought so, Adams did not) continued to be exchanged with decreasing frequency as they aged. The correspondence became something of a nationwide event as their friends learned from local postmasters of the exchange of letters and begged Adams and Jefferson to allow the entire country to obtain the benefit of their wisdom. Both men declined, but they preserved all the letters for posterity.
Adams retained his vigor until his late eighties—he walked three miles a day as late as 1822—but then failed. He died in Quincy 50 years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and his last words were the enigmatic, "Thomas Jefferson survives."
Adams had his flaws. "He is vain, irritable, and a bad calculator of the motives which govern men," Jefferson wrote in 1783, adding, however, "this is all the ill which can possibly be said of him." Honest, incredibly hardworking, and willing to take unpopular stands regardless of the consequences, Adams decisively shaped the fate of American history by his actions in Revolutionary Boston, at the Continental Congress, in Paris as a diplomat, and in Philadelphia as president. Historians ranking the presidents almost invariably give him a better-than-average rating, with his preservation of the Union during the Quasi-War taking precedence over his approval of the Alien and Sedition acts and unwillingness to simply trumpet the virtues of the people and the United States.
Yet Adams will never be a folk hero like Jefferson or Washington, as he well knew. His criticisms of popular government, and of the lack of moral and civic virtue among citizens in republics, still strike too close to home for him to be regarded with affection. But then he never made that a priority. The fact that both in his own time and today the American public, as well as its historians and intellectuals, regard him as highly as they do suggest that perhaps they have remained, to some extent, the educated and freedom-loving populace he praised in the Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law. In the twenty-first century, in response to Adams's rising reputation and the laudatory biography by David McCullough (and the PBS television series based on it), plans were being made for a monument in his honor on the mall in Washington, D.C.
- The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. , and ,
- Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. .
- Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. .
- John Adams: A Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992. .
- The Changing Political Thought of John Adams. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966. ,.
- John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. .
- American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993. .
- Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin, 2006. .
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