John Adams: The Second Retrospective (1797-1801)
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
He signed the Declaration of Independence, was a member of the Continental Congress, minister to both France and England, and America’s first Vice President. None of these things protected him from bitching by D.C. politicos, the press, and the people. Unfortunately for Adams, most of his problems stemmed from Washington’s inability or unwillingness to deal with the war between France and England.
To his everlasting credit, John Adams abhorred the practice of slavery and never owned a slave. At the same time, he defended the right of Southerners to preserve the institution of slavery until they themselves chose to abolish it.
In a February 3, 1821, letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams wrote:
Slavery in this Country I have seen hanging over it like a black cloud for half a Century …. I have been so terrified with this Phenomenon that I constantly said in former times to the Southern Gentlemen, I cannot comprehend this object; I must leave it to you. I will vote for forceing no measure against your judgements. (misspellings in original)
The Anglo-French War dominated Adams’ presidency. By the time he took office in 1797, France was incredibly hostile towards us, seizing our ships to stop us from trading with England. Adams sent a delegation to Paris. The French demanded a bribe from that delegation. The bribe was reported back to Congress referring to the frenchmen who demanded the bribes as X, Y, and Z instead of their real names.
American public opinion raged against the French as hawks screamed for war. People felt that we weren’t being respected as a new country on the world stage. While he himself did not like the French, Adams sent a second peace delegation to Paris for which he was vilified by warmongers. Adams stood against these men, including those in his own party. He was firm and adamant in seeking a peaceful resolution which he got in 1800 with the Treaty of Mortefontaine.
Alien and Sedition Acts
During the quasi-war with France, there were many dissident voices within America. Men, newspaper editors and even some politicians voiced their distress with the Adams administration. Adams said the verbal acts were seditious and dangerous to national security. In 1798, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law making it a crime to falsely speak out or write against certain federal officeholders including the President.
Adams was a Harvard educated New Englander, and this fed into his reputation as an arrogant aristocrat who believed he was royalty. The Alien and Sedition Act overshadowed the treaty he negotiated to end the war, and his solution for American readiness overseas, the creation of the Department of the Navy in 1798.
Not succumbing to joining the war, in spite of enormous pressure, was a monumental achievement. Our history as a nation would certainly be different if he had. Unfortunately, Adams managed to alienate Congress and members of his own party, and ultimately lost his bid for a second term.
Those who were particularly vocal about America’s reputation as a world player were extremely active during this time. Any kind of disrespect on the world stage was interpreted as an act of war. What’s interesting is that a lot of the problems that Adams encountered were due to lack of action on the part of his predecessor Washington, whom most absolved from any blame.
Adams was also a victim of those of you who rail against “Harvard educated arrogant elites”. His credentials as a patriot and founding father did not make up for the fact that he was unrelatable. Unlike General Washington, Adams wasn’t “empathetic to your problems” in today’s poll parlance. Ironically, Washington wouldn’t have even shook your hand as he felt that action was beneath the Presidency.
- The alien and seditions act | American experience | PBS. (2017, October 26). PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/adams-alien-and-seditions-act/
- Bill to establish the Department of the navy, April 11, 1798. (n.d.). U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. https://www.visitthecapitol.gov/exhibitions/artifact/bill-establish-department-navy-april-11-1798
- Encyclopedia of greater Philadelphia | Treaty of Mortefontaine. (n.d.). Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia |. https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/quasi-war/treaty-of-mortefontaine/
- John Adams. (n.d.). UnderstandingPrejudice.org. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/draft/slavery/presinfo.php?president=2
- XYZ affair. (n.d.). Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/xyz-affair
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) would follow John Adams
George Washington (1789-1797) preceded John Adams.
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.