Presidency of John Adams

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Adams (circa 1792)

The presidency of John Adams, began on March 4, 1797, when John Adams was inaugurated as the second President of the United States, and ended on March 4, 1801. Adams, who had served as vice president under George Washington, took office as president after winning the 1796 presidential election. The only member of the Federalist Party to ever serve as president, his presidency ended after a single term following his defeat in the 1800 presidential election. He was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party.

When Adams entered office, the ongoing war between France and Great Britain, was causing great difficulties for American merchants on the high seas and arousing intense partisanship among contending political factions nationwide. His tenure as president was dominated by the Quasi-War, an undeclared war against the French Republic waged primarily in the Caribbean. The conflict grew out of the so-called XYZ Affair, a political and diplomatic episode during the first year of the Adams administration, and had its roots in the turbulent state of Franco–American relations following the 1789 French Revolution. In 1798, as the toll from attacks on American shipping and the possibility of war with France increased, Adams directed an expansion of the U.S. Navy, and creation of the Department of the Navy to manage it. The increased expenditures associated with these actions required greater federal revenue, and Congress passed the Direct Tax of 1798. The war and its associated taxation provoked domestic unrest, resulting in incidents such as Fries's Rebellion.

In response to the unrest, both foreign and domestic, the 5th Congress passed four bills, collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Signed into law by president, these acts made it more difficult for immigrants to become U.S. citizens, allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous or who were from a hostile nation, and criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government. The Federalist majority argued that the bills strengthened national security during a time of conflict with France. The Democratic-Republican minority argued that they were primarily an attempt to suppress voters who disagreed with the Federalist party, and violated the right of freedom of speech in the First Amendment.[1] They were a major political issue in the elections of 1798 and 1800. Opposition to them resulted in the highly controversial Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Opposition to the Quasi-War and the Alien and the Sedition Acts, as well as the intra-party rivalry between Adams and Alexander Hamilton, all contributed to Adams's loss to Jefferson in the 1800 election.

Historians have difficulty assessing Adams's presidency. Samuel Eliot Morison has written that "he was by temperament unsuited for the presidency. He did know more than any other American, even James Madison, about political science; but as an administrator he was uneasy."[2] Nonetheless, Adams was able to avoid war with France, arguing that war should be a last resort to diplomacy. In this argument, he won the nation the respect of its most powerful adversaries. Although Adams was fiercely criticized for signing the Alien and Sedition Acts, he never advocated their passage nor personally implemented them, and he pardoned the instigators of Fries's Rebellion. "Seen in this light," observed historian C. James Taylor, "Adams's legacy is one of reason, moral leadership, the rule of law, compassion, and a cautious but active foreign policy that aimed both at securing the national interest and achieving an honorable peace."[3]

Election of 1796[edit]

The election of 1796 was the first contested American presidential election,[4] Twice, George Washington had been elected to office unanimously; however, during his presidency, deep philosophical differences between the two leading figures in the administration—Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson—regarding domestic economic policy and U.S. foreign policy caused a rift between them,[5][6] and led to the founding of the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. Thus, when Washington announced that he would not be a candidate for a third term, an intense partisan struggle for control of Congress and the presidency began.

1796 electoral vote totals
Name Party Votes
John Adams Federalist 71
Thomas Jefferson Democratic-Republican 68
Thomas Pinckney Federalist 59
Aaron Burr Democratic-Republican 30
Samuel Adams Democratic-Republican 15
Oliver Ellsworth Democratic-Republican 11
George Clinton Democratic-Republican 7
John Jay Federalist 5
James Iredell Federalist 3
John Henry Democratic-Republican 2
Samuel Johnston Federalist 2
George Washington None 2
C. C. Pinckney Federalist 1

Like the previous two presidential elections, no candidates were put forward for voters to choose between in 1796. The Constitution provided for the selection of electors who would then elect a president.[7] In seven states voters chose the presidential electors. In the remaining nine states, they were chosen by the state's legislature.[8] The clear favorite of Democratic-Republicans was Thomas Jefferson, although he was very reluctant to run.[9] There was little doubt that John Adams would be the choice of a great majority of the Federalists.[7] Even so, Hamilton also had hoped to lead the Federalist Party following Washington's retirement.[10]

The Democratic-Republicans in Congress held a nominating caucus and named Jefferson and Aaron Burr as their presidential choices.[10] Jefferson at first declined the nomination, but he finally agreed to run a few weeks later. Federalist members of Congress held an informal nominating caucus and named Adams and Thomas Pinckney as their candidates for president.[9][11] The campaign, was, for the most part, unorganized and sporadic, confined to newspaper attacks, pamphlets and political rallies;[7] of the four contenders, only Burr actively campaigned.[8]

In early November, France's ambassador to the U.S., Pierre Adet, inserted himself into the political debate on behalf of Jefferson, publishing statements designed to arouse anti-British sentiment and to leave the impression that a Jefferson victory would result in improved relations with France.[7][12] Then, late in the campaign, Alexander Hamilton, desiring "a more pliant president than Adams," maneuvered to tip the election to Pinckney. He coerced South Carolina Federalist electors, pledged to vote for "favorite son" Pinckney, to scatter their second votes among candidates other than Adams. Hamilton's scheme was undone, however, when several New England state electors heard of it, conferred, and agreed not to vote for Pinckney.[13] As the election took place before the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, each presidential elector cast two votes for president, though electors were not allowed to cast both votes for the same person. The Constitution prescribed that the person receiving the most votes would become president and the person with the second most electoral votes would become vice president.[10]

The electoral votes were counted during a Joint Session of Congress on February 8, 1797; the top three vote recipients were: Adams 71 votes, Jefferson 69, and Pinckney 59.[9][14] The balance of the votes were dispersed among Burr and nine other candidates.[15] As President of the Senate, it fell to Adams to announce himself as President-elect (and his chief opponent, Jefferson, as the next vice president). A week later he delivered an emotional farewell speech to the body whose deliberations he had presided over for eight years.[14] The American two-party system came into being during the run-up to the 1796 election – the only election to date in which a president and vice president were elected from opposing parties. The rivalry between New England and the South, with the middle states holding the balance of power, began to geminate at this time as well.[16]


Adams was inaugurated as the nation's 2nd president on March 4, 1797 in the House of Representatives Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia. Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth administered the Oath of office. He was the first president to receive the oath from a Supreme Court chief justice.[17]

Adams began his inaugural address (Full text Wikisource has information on "John Adams' Inaugural Address" ) with a review of the struggle for independence,

When it was first perceived, in early times, that no middle course for America remained between unlimited submission to a foreign legislature and a total independence of its claims, men of reflection were less apprehensive of danger from the formidable power of fleets and armies they must determine to resist than from those contests and dissensions which would certainly arise concerning the forms of government to be instituted over the whole and over the parts of this extensive country. Relying, however, on the purity of their intentions, the justice of their cause, and the integrity and intelligence of the people, under an overruling Providence which had so signally protected this country from the first, the representatives of this nation, then consisting of little more than half its present number, not only broke to pieces the chains which were forging and the rod of iron that was lifted up, but frankly cut asunder the ties which had bound them, and launched into an ocean of uncertainty.

The 2,308 word speech[18] included an eloquent tribute to George Washington, a call for political unity, and a pledge to support the development of institutions of learning. Additionally, Adams also stated his desire to avoid war and, to the disappointment of some of his Federalist allies, praised the nation of France.[19]

At the time he entered office, the country's population stood at around five million people, with two-thirds of those living within one hundred miles of the East Coast of the United States.[20] The greatest population growth, however, was occurring in regions west of the Appalachian Mountains. By the end of his term, 500,000 people, principally from New England, Virginia and Maryland, had migrated west into Kentucky, Tennessee and the Northwest Territory.[21]



The Adams Cabinet
Office Name Term
President John Adams 1797–1801
Vice President Thomas Jefferson 1797–1801
Secretary of State Timothy Pickering 1797–1800
Charles Lee 1800
John Marshall 1800–1801
Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr. 1797–1801
Samuel Dexter 1801
Secretary of War James McHenry 1796–1800
Samuel Dexter 1800–1801
Attorney General Charles Lee 1797–1801
Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert 1798–1801

Aside from the appointment process, the Constitution included only a passing reference to the operation of executive branch agencies.[22] Additionally, while the Constitution made it clear that the persons appointed to lead these agencies had to answer to the president, it was silent on termination of Cabinet appointments.[23] When Adams became president, there was no precedent regarding the continued service of the previous president's top officials. Rather than seize the opportunity to use Patronage to build a loyal group of advisors, he retained Washington's cabinet, although none of its members had ever been close to him.[24]

Three Cabinet members, Timothy Pickering, James McHenry, Oliver Wolcott Jr. each devoted to Hamilton, referred every major policy question to him in New York; they, in turn, presented Hamilton's recommendations to the president, and often actively worked against Adams's proposals.[2][25] "The Hamiltonians by whom he is surrounded," wrote Jefferson in a May 1797 letter, "are only a little less hostile to him than to me."[26] Upon apprehending the scope of Hamilton's behind the scenes manipulations, Adams dismissed Pickering and McHenry in 1800, replacing them with John Marshall and Samuel Dexter, respectively.[27] Wolcott remained in office, but resigned on the last day of 1800 due to his growing unpopularity.

Vice presidency[edit]

Adams and Jefferson started off cordially; they had become friends 20 years earlier, while serving together in the Second Continental Congress. On the eve of their inaugurations, they met briefly to discuss the possibility of sending Jefferson to France as part of a three-member delegation to calm the increasingly turbulent relations between the two countries. When they concluded that this would be an improper role for the vice president, they agreed on substituting Jefferson's political ally, James Madison. Shortly after the inauguration, Jefferson informed Adams that Madison was not interested in the diplomatic mission to France. Adams replied that, in any event, he would not have been able to select Madison because of pressure from within his cabinet to appoint a Federalist. That was the last time Adams consulted Jefferson on an issue of national significance. For his part, the vice president turned exclusively to his political role as leader of the Democratic-Republicans and to his governmental duty as the Senate's presiding officer. The distinguishing legacy of Jefferson's vice-presidency is his Manual of Parliamentary Practice.[28] During the early 19th century, it became the official manual of parliamentary procedure in both the Senate and the House, and continues to have authority and influence in Congress today.[29]

Judicial appointments[edit]

Adams had the opportunity to fill three United States Supreme Court vacancies during his term in office. In December 1798, Bushrod Washington, nephew of former president Washington, succeeded Associate Justice James Wilson. One year later, Alfred Moore, succeeded Associate Justice James Iredell. Then, in January 1801, Adams named John Marshall as the Supreme Court's fourth Chief Justice, replacing Oliver Ellsworth, who had retired due to ill health. He initially nominated former chief justice, John Jay, who declined.[30] At the time, all six justices were Federalists, and Ellsworth's resignation gave Adams an opportunity to fill the seat with a Federalist successor prior to leaving office. Marshall, who was serving as Secretary of State at the time, was quickly confirmed by the Senate, and took office on February 4. He continued to serve as Secretary of State until Adams' term expired on March 4.[31]

After being swept out of power in 1800 by Jefferson and the Democratic-Republican Party, Federalists focused their hopes for the survival of the republic upon the federal judiciary.[31] During his 34 years as chief justice, the Marshall Court played a major role in establishing the judiciary as a co-equal branch—with executive and legislative—of the federal government, and in increasing the federal government's power.[32] Later, Adams reflected, "My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life."[33]

From early in his presidency Adams had advocated for the creation of new federal judgeships, but had been rebuffed by Congress. However, after the Federalists lost control of both houses of Congress along with the White House in the election of 1800, many previously-opposed Federalists came to support the proposal, as expansion of the courts would allow for the appointment of numerous Federalists to life-tenured government positions. The lame-duck session of the 6th Congressin February 1801 approved a Judiciary Act which created a set of federal appeals courts between the district courts and the Supreme Court. It also reduced the size of the Supreme Court from six justices to five (upon the next vacancy in the court). This was done in order to deny Jefferson an opportunity to appointment a justice until two vacancies occurred. As Adams filled these new positions during the final days of his presidency, opposition newspapers and politicians soon began referring to the appointees as "midnight judges." Most of these judges lost their posts when the Democratic-Republican dominated 7th Congress approved the Judiciary Act of 1802, abolishing the newly created courts, and returning the federal courts to its earlier structure.[34][35]

Foreign affairs[edit]

Relations with France[edit]

XYZ Affair[edit]

The president's term was marked by disputes concerning the country's role, if any, in the expanding conflict in Europe, where Britain and France were at war. Hamilton and the Federalists supported Britain, while Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored France.[36] The intense battle over the Jay Treaty in 1795 had previously polarized politics throughout the nation and alienated the French.[37] The treaty had resolved few of the major American complaints against the British, including British impressment of American sailors, but Washington viewed the treaty as preferred signing the treaty over fighting another war with the British.[38] The French were outraged by the Jay Treaty and began seizing American merchant ships that were trading with the British. In the 1796 elections, the French supported Jefferson for president, and became even more belligerent at his loss.[39] Nevertheless, when Adams took office, pro-French sentiment in the United States remained strong due to France's assistance during the Revolutionary War.[40][41]

A political cartoon depicts the XYZ Affair – America is a female being plundered by Frenchmen. (1798)

Adams hoped to maintain friendly relations with France, and he sent a delegation to Paris asking for compensation for the French attacks on American shipping. Sentiments changed with the XYZ Affair. Adams appointed a three-member commission to represent the United States to negotiate with France. The commission consisted of John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry. However, when the envoys arrived in October 1797, they were kept waiting for several days, and then granted only a 15-minute meeting with French Foreign Minister Talleyrand. After this, the diplomats were met by three of Talleyrand's agents. Each refused to conduct diplomatic negotiations unless the United States paid enormous bribes, one to Talleyrand personally, and another to the Republic of France.[42] The Americans refused to negotiate on such terms.[43] Marshall and Pinckney returned home, while Gerry remained.[44]

In an April 1798 speech to Congress, Adams publicly revealed Talleyrand's machinations, sparking public outrage at the French.[45] Democratic-Republicans were skeptical of the administration's account of the XYZ affair, and many of Jefferson's supporters undermined and opposed Adams's efforts to defend against the French.[46] Their main fear was that war with France would lead to an alliance with England, which in turn could allow the allegedly monarchist Adams to further his domestic agenda. For their part, many Federalists, particularly the conservative "ultra-Federalists," deeply feared the radical influence of the French Revolution. Economics also drove the divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, as Federalists sought financial ties with England while many Democratic-Republicans feared the influence of English creditors.[47]


The affair substantially weakened popular American support of France. The pro-French Jeffersonians lost support and quickly became the minority as many began to demand full-scale war. The affair heightened fears of sedition by the administration's opponents and legislation was introduced in response. The president knew that America would be unable to win a conflict, as France at the time was dominating the fight in most of Europe. Adams therefore pursued a strategy whereby American ships harassed French ships in an effort sufficient to stem the French assaults on American interests. This was the undeclared naval war between the U.S. and France–the Quasi-War which broke out in 1798.[37]

Scene depicting the February 9, 1799 engagement between the USS Constellation (left) and the L'Insurgente (right) during the Quasi-War.

In light of the threat of invasion from the more powerful French forces, Adams asked Congress to authorize the creation of a twenty-five thousand man army and a major expansion of the navy. Congress authorized a ten-thousand man army and a moderate expansion of the navy, which at the time consisted of one unarmed custom boat.[48][20] Washington was commissioned as senior officer of the army; and reluctantly agreed to Washington's request that Hamilton serve as his second-in-command.[49] It became apparent that Hamilton was truly in charge due to Washington's advanced years. The angered president remarked at the time, "Hamilton I know to be a proud Spirited, conceited, aspiring Mortal always pretending to Morality," he wrote, but "with as debauched Morals as old Franklin who is more his Model than anyone I know."[37] Due to his support for the expansion of the Navy and the creation of the United States Department of the Navy, Adams is "often called the father of the American Navy".[50]

Led by Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, the Navy won several successes in the Quasi-War, including the capture of L'Insurgente, a powerful French warship. The navy also opened trade relations with Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti), a rebellious French colony in the Caribbean Sea.[51] Over the opposition of many in his own party, Adams resisted the escalation of the war. The president's continued support for Elbridge Gerry, a Democratic-Republican who Adams had sent to France at the beginning of his term and who continued to seek peace with the French, particularly frustrated many Federalists.[52] Hamilton's influence in the War Department also widened the rift between Federalist supporters of Adams and Hamilton. At the same time, the creation of a large standing army raised popular alarm and played into the hands of the Democratic-Republicans.[53]

In February 1799, Adams surprised many by announcing that he would send diplomat William Vans Murray on a peace mission to France. However, Adams delayed sending a delegation while he awaited the construction of several U.S. warships, which he hoped would alter the balance of power in the Caribbean. Much to the chagrin of Hamilton and other arch-Federalists, the delegation was finally dispatched in November 1799.[54] The prospects for peace were bolstered by the ascent of Napoleon November 1799, as Napoleon viewed the Quasi-War as a distraction from the ongoing war in Europe. In the spring of 1800, the delegation sent by Adams began negotiating with the French delegation, led by Joseph Bonaparte.[55] The war came to a close when both parties signed the Convention of 1800 in September, but the French refused to recognize the abdication of the Treaty of Alliance of 1778, which had created a Franco-American alliance.[56] The United States gained little from the settlement other than the suspension of hostilities with the French, but this proved fortunate for the U.S. as the French would gain a temporary reprieve from war with Britain in the 1802 Treaty of Amiens.[57] News of the signing of the convention did not arrive in the United States until after the election, but Adams was able to win Senate ratification of the convention in the lame duck session of Congress.[58] Having concluded the war, Adams demobilized the emergency army.[59]

Relations with Spain[edit]

The U.S. and Spain had signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795, setting the border between the United States and the Spanish territory of Louisiana. Yet with war between France and the United States looming, Spain was slow to implement the terms of the treaty, which included the Spanish cession of the Yazoo lands and the disarmament of Spanish forts along the Mississippi River. Shortly after Adams took office, Senator William Blount's plans to drive the Spanish out of Louisiana and Florida became public, causing a deterioration in relations between the U.S. and Spain. Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan patriot, also attempted to stir up support for an American intervention against Spain, possibly with the help of the British. Rejecting Hamilton's ambitions for the seizure of Spanish territory, Adams refused to meet with Miranda, squashing the plot. Having avoided war with both France and Spain, the Adams administration oversaw the implementation of the Treaty of San Lorenzo.[60]

Domestic affairs[edit]

Move to permanent United States capital[edit]

Congress, through the Residence Act of 1790, set where the permanent capital of the United States would be established, selecting a locale along the Potomac River; President George Washington was authorized to select the exact site. Congress set a deadline of December 1800 for federal buildings in the city to be ready, and chose Philadelphia as the temporary capital in the meantime (Congress had been meeting in New York City). Washington also had authority to appoint three commissioners and oversee the construction. The commissioners later named the nascent city Washington, in the president's honor, and the federal district surrounding it Columbia, which was a poetic name for the United States commonly in use at that time.[61]

During the early spring of 1791, Pierre Charles L'Enfant began working on a plan for the capital city that identified the future sites of the "Congress House" (the United States Capitol) and the "President's House" (the White House).[62] He placed the Congress House atop a hill which he said, "stands as a pedestal waiting for a monument,"[63] and located the President's House on a natural rise with an expansive view of the Potomac and the Virginia hills beyond.[64] Washington dismissed L'Enfant in March 1792, due to conflicts with the project commissioners, and appointed Andrew Ellicott to complete the city's design. Though Ellicott made revisions to the original plans, including changes to some street patterns, L'Enfant is still credited with the overall design of the city.[61] James Hoban was selected to design the President's House. Construction on the residence was begun in 1792.[65][66] William Thornton was chosen to design the Capitol building.[67] The building's cornerstone was laid by Washington in September 1793.[68]

Congress House (east front), Washington

Congress adjourned its last meeting in Philadelphia on May 15, 1800, and the city officially ceased to be the nation's seat of government as of June 11.[69] Adams made his first official visit to Washington in early June 1800, which lasted for several days. Amid the "raw and unfinished" cityscape, the president found the public buildings "in a much greater forwardness of completion than expected." The north (Senate) wing of the Capitol was nearly completed, as was the White House.[70] The president moved into the White House, on November 1. First Lady Abigail Adams arrived a few weeks later. Upon arriving, Adams wrote to her, "Before I end my letter, I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."[71][72]

The Senate of the Sixth Congress met for the first time in the Capitol building on November 17, 1800. Several days later, on November 22, Adams delivered his fourth State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress in the Senate chamber.[73] He began his speech by congratulating members on their new seat of government and—pointedly—"on the prospect of a residence not to be changed." He added, optimistically, "Although there is some cause to apprehend that accommodations are not now so complete as might be wished, yet there is great reason to believe that this inconvenience will cease with the present session." This would be the last annual message any president would personally deliver to Congress for the next 113 years.[74] The south (House) wing was not completed until 1811. Nonetheless, the House of Representatives began meeting there in 1807.

The following February, Congress approved the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, which officially organized the District of Columbia. In accordance with the Constitution, Congress became the district's governing authority.[61]

Alien and Sedition Acts[edit]

BEP engraved portrait of Adams as President
BEP engraved portrait of Adams as President

The U.S. became increasingly polarized by the Quasi-War, and Adams faced bitter attacks in the press. Many recent immigrants, including those from Ireland, looked favorably on the French and opposed the British. One Irish-American Congressman, Matthew Lyon, became particularly notable after he spat on and fought a Federalist Congressman. In an attempt to quell the unrest among immigrants and opposition to the war, the Federalists introduced, and Congress passed, a series of laws collectively referred to as the "Alien and Sedition Acts," which were signed by Adams in 1798.[37] Historians debate Adams's involvement in the passage of the acts, as Adams would later deny in his memoirs that he had sought the acts, but his complaints regarding the "libelous" attacks on his presidency may have played a role in the passage of the laws.[75]

The Alien and Sedition Acts consisted of four measures – the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act, and the Sedition Act. These statutes were designed to mitigate the threat of secessionists by disallowing their most extreme firebrands. The Naturalization Act increased to 14 years the period of residence required for an immigrant to attain American citizenship (naturalized citizens tended to vote for the Democratic-Republicans.) The Alien Friends Act and the Alien Enemies Act allowed the president to deport any foreigner (from friendly and hostile nations, respectively) which he considered dangerous to the country. The Sedition Act made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. Punishments included 2–5 years in prison and fines of up to $5,000.[76]

The acts became controversial from prosecution thereunder of a Congressman and a number of newspaper editors. Indeed, the Federalist administration initiated fourteen or more indictments under the Sedition Act, as well as suits against five of the six most prominent Democratic-Republican newspapers. The majority of the legal actions began in 1798 and 1799, and went to trial on the eve of the 1800 presidential election–timing that hardly appeared coincidental, according to biographer Ferling. Other historians have cited evidence that the Alien and Sedition Acts were rarely enforced: only 10 convictions under the Sedition Act have been identified; Adams never signed a deportation order; and, the sources of expressed furor over the acts were Democratic-Republicans. However, other historians have emphasized that the Acts were employed for political targeting from the outset, causing many aliens to leave the country. The acts as well allowed for prosecution of many who opposed the Federalists, even on the floor of Congress.[77] Rejecting the constitutionality of the acts, Jefferson and James Madison secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, in which the governments of Kentucky and Virginia purportedly nullified the acts.[78] As debate over the acts continued, the election of 1800 became a bitter and volatile contest, with each side expressing extraordinary fear of the other and its policies; after Democratic-Republicans prevailed in the elections of 1800, they used the acts against Federalists before the laws finally expired.[37]

Taxation and Fries's Rebellion[edit]

To pay for the military buildup of the Quasi-War, Adams and his Federalist allies enacted the Direct Tax of 1798. Direct taxation by the federal government was widely unpopular, and the government's revenue under Washington had mostly come from excise taxes and tariffs. Though Washington had maintained a balanced budget with the help of a growing economy, increased military expenditures threatened to cause major budget deficits, and Hamilton, Wolcott, and Adams developed a taxation plan to meet the need for increased government revenue. The Direct Tax of 1798 instituted a progressive land value tax of up to 1% of the value of a property. Taxpayers in eastern Pennsylvania resisted federal tax collectors, and in March 1799 the bloodless Fries's Rebellion broke out. Led by Revolutionary War veteran John Fries, rural German-speaking farmers protested what they saw as a threat to their republican liberties and to their churches.[79] The tax revolt raised the specter of class warfare, and Hamilton led the army into the area to put down the revolt. The subsequent trial of Fries gained wide national attention, and Adams pardoned Fries and two others after they were sentenced to be executed for treason. The rebellion, the deployment of the army, and the results of the trials alienated many in Pennsylvania and other states from the Federalist Party, damaging Adams's re-election hopes.[80]

Election of 1800[edit]

With the Federalist Party was deeply split over his negotiations with France, and the opposition Democratic-Republicans enraged over the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the expansion of the military, Adams faced a daunting reelection campaign in 1800.[8] Even so, his position position within the party was strong, bolstered by his enduring popularity in New England, a key region for any Federalist presidential victory.[81] Federalist members of Congress caucused in the spring of 1800 and, without indicating a preference, nominated Adams and Charles C. Pinckney for the presidency. The Democratic-Republicans meanwhile nominated Jefferson and Burr, their candidates in the previous election, but designated Jefferson as the party’s first choice.[34]

The campaign was bitter and characterized by malicious personal attacks. Federalists spread rumors that the Democratic-Republicans were radicals who would ruin the country through revolution. They in turn accused Federalists of subverting republican principles through punitive federal laws, and of favoring Britain and the other coalition countries in their war with France in order to promote aristocratic, anti-democratic values. Additionally, Hamilton and his supporters took an active role in trying to sabotage the president's reelection.[82] In October, Hamilton published a pamphlet in which he charged that Adams was "emotionally unstable, given to impulsive and irrational decisions, unable to coexist with his closest advisers, and generally unfit to be president." He also worked at persuading Federalist presidential electors in New England to withhold their vote from Adams, hoping to boosting Pinckney's chances of winning the presidency.[8][34]

When the electoral votes were counted, Adams finished in third place with 65 votes, and Pinckney came in fourth with 64 votes (one New England Federalist elector voted for John Jay instead). Jefferson and Burr tied for first place with 73 votes each. Because of the tie, the election devolved upon the House of Representatives. As specified by the Constitution, each state's delegation voted en bloc, with each state having a single vote; an absolute majority (nine, as there were 16 states at the time) was required for victory. On February 17, 1801—following 36th ballot—Jefferson was elected by a vote of 10 to 4 (two states abstained).[8][15]

1800 electoral vote totals
Name Party Votes
Thomas Jefferson Democratic-Republican 73
Aaron Burr Democratic-Republican 73
John Adams Federalist 65
C. C. Pinckney Federalist 64
John Jay Federalist 1

Historian John E. Ferling attributes Adams' defeat to five factors: the stronger organization of the Democratic-Republicans; Federalist disunity; the controversy surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts; the popularity of Jefferson in the south; and, the effective politicking of Aaron Burr in New York, where the State Legislature shifted from Federalist to Democratic-Republican on the basis of a few wards in New York City controlled by Burr's political machine.[34] Analyzing the causes of the party's trouncing, Adams wrote, "No party that ever existed knew itself so little or so vainly overrated its own influence and popularity as ours. None ever understood so ill the causes of its own power, or so wantonly destroyed them."[83]

To compound the agony of his defeat, Adams' son Charles, a long-time alcoholic, died in late November. Anxious to rejoin Abigail, who had already left for Massachusetts, Adams departed the White House in the predawn hours of March 4, 1801, and did not attend Jefferson's inauguration. Since him, only three out-going presidents (having served a full term) have not attended their successor's inauguration.[34]

The transfer of presidential power between Adams and Jefferson represented the first such transfer between two different political parties in U.S. history, and set the precedent for all subsequent presidents from all political parties.[84] The complications arising out of the 1796 and 1800 elections prompted Congress and the states to refine the process whereby the Electoral College elects a president and a vice president. The new procedure was enacted through the 12th Amendment, which became a part of the Constitution in June 1804, and was first followed in that year's presidential election.


Historical 2-cent stamp with John Adams’s profile.
John Adams, 2-cent U.S. postage stamp, 1938 Presidential Series

Polls of historians and political scientists often rank Adams as an above-average president. Historian George Herring argues that Adams was the most independent-minded of the founders.[85] Though he aligned with the Federalists, he was somewhat a party unto himself, disagreeing with the Federalists as much as he did the Democratic-Republicans.[86] He was often described as "prickly", but his tenacity was fed by good decisions made in the face of universal opposition.[85] Adams was often combative, which diminished presidential decorum, as Adams himself admitted in his old age: "[As president] I refused to suffer in silence. I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore."[87] Adams' resolve to advance peace with France, rather than to continue hostilities, especially reduced his popularity.[88] This played an important role in his reelection defeat, however he was so pleased with the outcome that he had it engraved on his tombstone.[89] Historian Ralph Adams Brown argues that, by keeping the United States out of war with France, Adams allowed the fledgling nation to grow and prosper into the transcontinental nation it eventually became in the 19th century.[90]

In a 2017 C-SPAN survey 91 presidential historians ranked Adams 19th among the 43 former presidents, including then-president Barack Obama (down from 17th in 2009). His rankings in the various categories of this most recent poll were as follows: public persuasion (22), crisis leadership (17), economic management (15), moral authority (11), international relations (13), administrative skills (21), relations with congress (24), vision/setting an agenda (20), pursued equal justice for all (15), performance with context of times (19).[91]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Watkins 2004, p. 28.
  2. ^ a b Morison 1965, p. 347
  3. ^ Taylor, C. James. "John Adams: Impact and Legacy". Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Retrieved February 8, 2017. 
  4. ^ Bomboy, Scott (October 22, 2012). "Inside America’s first dirty presidential campaign, 1796 style". Constitution Daily. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: National Constitution Center. Retrieved August 18, 2017. 
  5. ^ Ferling, John (February 15, 2016). "How the Rivalry Between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton Changed History". Time. Retrieved March 11, 2017. 
  6. ^ Taylor, Alan (October 17, 2016). "Our Feuding Founding Fathers". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 11, 2017. 
  7. ^ a b c d Smith 1962, pp. 898–899
  8. ^ a b c d e Taylor, C. James. "John Adams: Campaigns and Elections". Charlottesville, Virginia: Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Retrieved August 3, 2017. 
  9. ^ a b c McDonald 1974, pp. 178–181
  10. ^ a b c Diggins 2003, pp. 83-88
  11. ^ Hoadley 1986, p. 54
  12. ^ McDonald 1974, p. 183
  13. ^ Smith 1962, p. 902
  14. ^ a b Smith 1962, p. 914
  15. ^ a b "Electoral College Box Scores 1789-1996". College Park, Maryland: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved July 14, 2017. 
  16. ^ Pasley 2013, p. 10
  17. ^ "The 3rd Presidential Inauguration: John Adams, March 04, 1797". Washington, D.C.: U.S. Senate. Retrieved August 23, 2017. 
  18. ^ "Inaugural Address". Washington, D.C.: U.S. Senate. Retrieved August 23, 2017. 
  19. ^ Morison 1965, p. 918–920
  20. ^ a b Brown 1975, pp. 22-23
  21. ^ Taylor, C. James. "John Adams: The American Franchise". Charlottesville, Virginia: Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Retrieved August 23, 2017. 
  22. ^  This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Senate document "First Cabinet Confirmation" (retrieved on August 25, 2017).
  23. ^ "Ten Facts About Washington's Presidency". Mount Vernon, Virginia: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, George Washington's Mount Vernon. Retrieved August 25, 2017. 
  24. ^ Ferling 2004, 96–97
  25. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 90-92
  26. ^ "From Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 13 May 1797". Founders Online. Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved August 25, 2017. 
  27. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 170-172
  28. ^  This article incorporates public domain material from the U.S. Senate document "Thomas Jefferson, 2nd Vice President (1797-1801)" (retrieved on August 26, 2017).
  29. ^ Wilson, Gaye (2000). "Manual of Parliamentary Practice". Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Charlottesville, Virginia: Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Retrieved August 26, 2017. 
  30. ^ "Supreme Court Nominations: 1789-Present". Washington, D.C.: United States Senate. Retrieved August 25, 2017. 
  31. ^ a b Burton, Harold H. (October 1950). "The Cornerstone of Constitutional Law: The Extraordinary Case of Marbury v. Madison". ABA Journal. Chicago, Illinois: American Bar Association. 36 (10): 805–08, 881–83. ISSN 0747-0088. Retrieved August 25, 2017. 
  32. ^ "Life & Legacy". Richmond, Virginia: The John Marshall Foundation. Retrieved August 26, 2017. 
  33. ^ Unger, Harlow Giles (November 16, 2014). "Why Naming John Marshall Chief Justice Was John Adams's "Greatest Gift" to the Nation". History News Network. Retrieved February 8, 2017. 
  34. ^ a b c d e Ferling 1992, ch. 19
  35. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 198–200
  36. ^ Wood 2009
  37. ^ a b c d e Ferling 1992, ch. 17
  38. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 36-37
  39. ^ Herring 2008, p. 82.
  40. ^ Kurtz 1957, ch. 13
  41. ^ Miller 1960, ch. 12
  42. ^ McCullough 2001, p. 495
  43. ^ McCullough 2001, pp. 495–496
  44. ^ McCullough 2001, p. 502
  45. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 96-99
  46. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 104-105
  47. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 106-107
  48. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 105-106
  49. ^ Elkins & McKitrick 1993, pp. 714–19
  50. ^ "John Adams I (Frigate) 1799–1867". Washington, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, U.S. Navy. Retrieved August 22, 2015. 
  51. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 141-143
  52. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 118-119
  53. ^ Kurtz 1957, p. 331
  54. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 112-113, 162
  55. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 162-164
  56. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 165-166
  57. ^ Diggins 2003, 145-146
  58. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 173-174
  59. ^ Ferling 1992, ch. 18
  60. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 138-148
  61. ^ a b c Crew, Webb & Wooldridge 1892, pp. 101–103
  62. ^ Allen 2001, p. 8
  63. ^ "The Temple of Justice and Faith: The Capitol's East and West Porticoes and Dome". Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation. Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress. Retrieved August 16, 2017. 
  64. ^ Gude, Gilbert. "Presidents and the Potomac". Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association. Retrieved August 14, 2017. 
  65. ^ Allen 2001, pp. 13–15
  66. ^ "Inside the White House: History". Washington, D.C.: Office of the Curator, The White House. Retrieved August 19, 2017. 
  67. ^ Allen 2001, p. 19
  68. ^ "September 18, 1793: Capitol cornerstone is laid". This Day In History. New York: A&E Networks. Retrieved August 19, 2017. 
  69. ^ "May 15, 1800: President John Adams orders federal government to Washington, D.C.". This Day In History. New York: A&E Networks. Retrieved July 14, 2017. 
  70. ^ Smith 1962, p. 1036
  71. ^ Smith 1962, p. 1049
  72. ^ "John Adams". [First published in The Presidents of the United States of America (2006), by Frank Freidel and Hugh Sidey. Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association.] Washington, D.C.: The White House. Retrieved August 14, 2017. 
  73. ^ Smith 1962, p. 1050
  74. ^  This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Senate document "The Senate Moves to Washington" (retrieved on August 15, 2017).
  75. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 110-113
  76. ^ Ferling 1992, ch. 16
  77. ^ Chernow 2004, p. 668
  78. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 115-117
  79. ^ Elkins & McKitrick 1993, pp. 696–700.
  80. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 129-137
  81. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 176-177
  82. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 177-185
  83. ^ Smith 1962, p. 1053
  84. ^ Diggins 2003, pp. 158-159
  85. ^ a b Herring 2008, p. 89
  86. ^ Chernow 2004, p. 647
  87. ^ Ellis 1993, p. 57
  88. ^ Herring 2008, p. 90
  89. ^ Herring 2008, p. 91
  90. ^ Brown 1975, pp. 214–215
  91. ^ "Historians Survey Results: John Adams". Presidential Historians Survey 2017. National Cable Satellite Corporation. 2017. Retrieved August 23, 2017. 

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Akers, Charles W. (2002). "John Adams" in Graff, Henry, ed. The Presidents: A Reference History (3rd ed.). New York, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0684312263. online.
  • Brinkley, Alan, and Davis Dyer, eds. (2004). The American Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-38273-9.
  • Freeman, Joanne B. (2001). Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09755-7.
  • Grant, James D. (2005). John Adams: Party of One. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-11314-9.
  • Howe, John R. Jr. (1966). The Changing Political Thought of John Adams. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. LCCN 66-10272.
  • Sharp, James Roger (1993). American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-06519-1.
  • White, Leonard D. (1948). The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History. New York, New York: Macmillan.

External links[edit]

U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
J. Adams Presidency
Succeeded by