Presidency of John Adams

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"Adams administration" redirects here. For the administration of the 6th United States President, see John Quincy Adams § Presidency (1825–1829).
Adams (circa 1792)

The presidency of John Adams began on March 4, 1797, when John Adams was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended on March 4, 1801. Adams, the second United States president, took office after winning a majority of Electoral College votes in the 1796 presidential election.

Each elector was given two votes to cast for President. Adams, a Federalist, received 71 of the 138 votes cast for the win. Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, who received 68 votes, was the runner-up and was thus named vice president. As a result, the nation would have a president from one political party and a vice president from the other party.[1]

In his single term as president, Adams encountered fierce criticism from the Democratic-Republicans, as well as the dominant faction in his own party, led by Alexander Hamilton. This intra-party rivalry cost Adams the 1800 election. He lost to Thomas Jefferson, whose party was united and far more organized.[2] Much of this domestic political agitation was a direct consequence of the turmoil that embroiled Europe following the French Revolution, and the fears of many that that unrest would spill across the Atlantic and polarize America.[3]

Adams signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, and built up the army and navy in the face of an undeclared naval "Quasi-War" with France. The major accomplishment of his presidency was a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the face of Hamilton's opposition. Due to his strong posture on defense, Adams is "often called the father of the American Navy".[4]

He was the first U.S. president to reside in the executive mansion, now known as the White House, in the nation's permanent capital, Washington, D.C..[5] In 1825, John Quincy Adams, Adams's son, became the sixth President of the United States.

Historians have difficulty assessing Adams's presidency. 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, Adams's legacy is one of reason, virtuous leadership, compassion, and a cautious but vigorous foreign policy. At the same time, Adams's stubborn independence left him politically isolated. He alienated his own cabinet, and his elite republicanism stood in stark contrast to the more egalitarian Jeffersonian democracy that was poised to assume power in the new century.[2]

Presidential Elections[edit]

Election of 1796[edit]

1796 Electoral College Vote

The 1796 election was the premier contest under the First Party System. Adams was the presumptive presidential nominee of the Federalist Party; the other Federalist candidate was Thomas Pinckney, the Governor of South Carolina, considered electable as the vice-president. At that time there was no formal practice of naming a vice-presidential nominee–the result was left to the electoral college in determining the vice-president as the second-place winner of electoral votes.[6]

Adams' and Pinckney's opponents, of the Democratic-Republican Party, were former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who was joined by Senator Aaron Burr of New York as the party's second nominee. Many Federalists would have preferred Hamilton to be a candidate. Although Hamilton supported Adams, his more austere background made him somewhat resentful; some suspected Hamilton of supporting Pinckney over Adams, though this was later demonstrated to be false–Hamilton was more determined to defeat Jefferson. Hamilton and his supporters did however believe that Adams lacked the seriousness and popularity that had caused Washington to be successful, and feared that Adams was too vain, opinionated, unpredictable and stubborn to follow their directions.[7] Adams vowed he would resign if elected to the second place spot of vice-president under Jefferson.[6]

Burr was the only active campaigner in the group. In keeping with the current practice, Adams stayed in his home town (as did the others) rather than actively campaign for the Presidency. He specifically stated that he wanted to stay out of what he called the "silly and wicked game" of campaigning for office. The Federalist Party, however, campaigned for him, while the Democratic-Republicans campaigned for Jefferson. It was expected that Adams would dominate the votes in New England, while Jefferson was expected to win the Southern states. In the end, Adams won the election by a narrow margin of 71 electoral votes to 68 for Jefferson (who became the vice president). Adams's vote totals included one crucial vote from Jefferson's own Virginia and also one from North Carolina.[6]

Election of 1800[edit]

1800 Electoral College Vote

The death of Washington in 1799 weakened the Federalists, as they lost the one man who united the party. In the presidential election of 1800, Adams and his fellow Federalist candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, opposed the Republican ticket of Jefferson and Burr. Hamilton tried his hardest to sabotage Adams' campaign in the hope of boosting Pinckney's chances of winning the presidency. In the end, Adams lost narrowly to Jefferson by 65 to 73 electoral votes, with New York providing the decisive margin.[8]

Adams' defeat resulted from 1) the stronger organization of the Democratic-Republicans, 2) Federalist disunity, 3) the controversy of the Alien and Sedition Acts, 4) the popularity of Jefferson in the south and 5) the effective politicking of Aaron Burr in New York State, where the legislature shifted from Federalist to Democratic-Republican on the basis of a few wards in New York City controlled by Burr's machine.[8]

In the closing months of his term Adams became the first president to occupy the new, but unfinished President's Mansion (later known as the White House) beginning November 1, 1800.[9][10] "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it," Adams wrote on his second night in the mansion. "May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."[11]

After his defeat in the hotly contested election, Adams was depressed when he left office. His son Charles had also recently died from alcoholism, and he was anxious to rejoin his wife Abigail, who had left for Massachusetts months before the inauguration. As a result, he did not attend Jefferson's inauguration, departing the White House at 4:00 a.m. that day, and making him one of only four presidents surviving in office not to attend his successor's inauguration. Adams' correspondence with Jefferson at the time is not indicative of the animosity and resentment that scholars have attributed to him.[8]

Presidency, 1797–1801[edit]

President's House, Philadelphia. Adams occupied this Philadelphia mansion from March 1797 to May 1800.

Adams followed Washington's lead in using the presidency to exemplify republican values and civic virtue; and his service was free of scandal. He continued to strengthen the central government by expanding the navy and army. In July 1798 Adams signed into law the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen, which authorized the establishment of a government-operated marine hospital service.[12]

Historians debate his decision to retain en masse the members of Washington's cabinet. Many felt he was oblivious to the political danger of such a decision, in light of the cabinet's loyalty to Hamilton. The "Hamiltonians who surround him," Jefferson soon remarked, "you are only a little less hostile to him than to me."[6] Although aware of the Hamilton factor, Adams was convinced their retention ensured a smoother succession.[13] Adams' economic programs maintained those of Hamilton, who indeed had regularly consulted with key cabinet members, especially the powerful Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr.[14] Adams was in other respects quite independent of his cabinet, often making decisions despite strong opposition from it. Such self-reliance enabled him to avoid war with France, despite a strong desire among his cabinet secretaries for the conflict. The Quasi-War with France resulted in the detachment from European affairs that Washington had sought. It also had psychological benefits, allowing America to view itself as holding its own against a European power.[6]

Historian George Herring argues that Adams was the most independent-minded of the founders.[15] 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.[16] He was often described as "prickly", but his tenacity was fed by good decisions made in the face of universal opposition.[15] 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."[17] Adams' resolve to advance peace with France, rather than to continue hostilities, especially reduced his popularity.[18] 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. Adams spent much of his term at home in Massachusetts, ignoring the details of political patronage nursed by other office holders.[19]

Quasi-War and peace with France (1798–1800)[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.[20] The French had supported Jefferson for president and became even more belligerent at his loss.[21] When Adams entered office, he decided to continue Washington's policy of staying out of the European war. The intense battle over the Jay Treaty in 1795 had previously polarized politics throughout the nation.[22] The French saw America as Britain's junior partner and began seizing American merchant ships that were trading with the British. Nevertheless, most Americans were initially pro-French due to France's assistance during the Revolutionary War, and would not have sufficiently rallied behind anyone to stop France.[23][24]

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

Sentiments changed with the XYZ Affair, in which the French demanded huge bribes before any discussions could begin regarding American complaints; this 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.[22]

There was danger of invasion from the more powerful French forces, so Adams and the Federalist congress built up the army, bringing back Washington as its commander. Washington wanted Hamilton to be his second-in-command and Adams reluctantly accommodated.[25] 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."[22]

Adams also rebuilt the Navy, adding six fast, powerful frigates, most notably the USS Constitution. To pay for the military buildup, Congress imposed new taxes on property: the Direct Tax of 1798.[23][26] It was the first (and last) such federal tax. Taxpayers were angered, especially in southeast Pennsylvania, where the bloodless Fries's Rebellion broke out among rural German-speaking farmers who protested what they saw as a threat to their republican liberties and to their churches.[27][28]

Hamilton assumed control in the War department, and the rift between Adams' and Hamilton's supporters widened. Many sought to vest Hamilton with command authority over the army, and they also resisted giving prominent Democratic-Republicans positions in the army, which Adams wanted to do in order to gain bipartisan support. By building a large standing army, Hamilton's supporters raised popular alarms and played into the hands of the Democratic-Republicans. They also alienated Adams and his large personal following. They shortsightedly viewed the Federalist party as their own tool and ignored the need to pull together the entire nation in the face of war with France. Overall, however, patriotic sentiments and a series of naval victories, popularized the war as well as the president.[29]

In February 1799, Adams surprised many by sending diplomat William Vans Murray on a peace mission to France. Napoleon, realizing that the conflict was pointless, signaled his readiness for friendly relations. At the Convention of 1800 the Treaty of Alliance of 1778 was superseded and the United States was then free of foreign entanglements, as Washington had advised in his farewell address. Adams brought in John Marshall as Secretary of State and demobilized the emergency army.[30] Adams proudly avoided war, but deeply split his party in the process.[31]

Alien and Sedition Acts[edit]

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

Despite the discredit of the XYZ Affair, the Democratic-Republicans' opposition persisted. In the midst of war, which included the "reign of terror" during the French Revolution, political tensions were incendiary. Some pro-French Democratic-Republicans even fostered a movement in America, similar to the French Revolution, to overthrow the Federalists.[32] When Democratic-Republicans in some states refused to enforce federal laws, some Federalists voiced the intention to send in an army and force them to capitulate. As the hostility sweeping Europe bled over into America, calls for secession began to reach new heights.[33] Some Federalists accused the French and their associated immigrants of provoking civil unrest. In an attempt to quell the uprising, the Federalists introduced, and the Congress passed, a series of laws collectively referred to as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were signed by Adams in 1798.[22]

Congress specifically passed 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. Although Adams had not promoted any of these acts, he signed them into law.[6]

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, namely: 1) only 10 convictions under the Sedition Act have been identified; 2) Adams never signed a deportation order; and 3) 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.[34] In any case, the election of 1800 in fact 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.[22]

Administration and cabinet[edit]

The Adams Cabinet
Office Name Term
President John Adams 1797–1801
Vice President Thomas Jefferson 1797–1801
Secretary of State Timothy Pickering 1797–1800
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

Judicial appointments[edit]

Supreme court[edit]

Supreme Court Appointments by President Adams
Position Name Term
Chief Justice John Jay 1800 (declined)
John Marshall 1801–1835
Associate Justice Bushrod Washington 1799–1829
Alfred Moore 1800–1804

Adams named John Marshall as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States to succeed Oliver Ellsworth, who had retired due to ill health. Marshall's long tenure represents the most lasting influence of the Federalists, as he infused the Constitution with a judicious and carefully reasoned nationalistic interpretation and established the Judicial Branch as the equal of the Executive and Legislative branches.[8] Adams himself called his appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice "the proudest act of my life."[35]

Other judicial appointments[edit]

The lame-duck session of Congress in late 1800 enacted the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created a set of federal appeals courts between the district courts and the Supreme Court. The purpose of the statute was twofold – first, to remedy the defects in the federal judicial system inherent in the Judiciary Act of 1789, and second, to enable the defeated Federalists to staff the new judicial offices with loyal Federalists in the face of the party's defeat in 1800 – the party had lost control of both houses of congress in addition to the White House.[36] Adams filled the vacancies created in this statute by appointing a series of judges, whom his opponents called the "Midnight Judges" because most of them were appointed just days before his presidential term expired. Most of these judges lost their posts when the Jeffersonian Republicans enacted the Judiciary Act of 1802, abolishing the courts created by the Judiciary Act of 1801 and returning the federal courts to their original structure as specified in the 1789 statute.[37]


  1. ^ "John Adams: Campaigns and Elections". Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Retrieved February 8, 2017. 
  2. ^ a b "John Adams: Life in Brief". Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. Retrieved February 8, 2017.  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  3. ^ "John Adams (1735-1826)". National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved February 8, 2017. 
  4. ^ "John Adams I (Frigate) 1799–1867". Retrieved August 22, 2015. 
  5. ^ "John Adams". the White House. Retrieved February 8, 2017. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Ferling, ch. 16.
  7. ^ Elkins and McKitrick, pp. 513–37.
  8. ^ a b c d Ferling, ch. 19.
  9. ^ "President John Adams moves into a tavern in Washington, D.C.". Retrieved February 11, 2013. 
  10. ^ "Overview of the White House". White House Museum. Retrieved July 16, 2008. 
  11. ^ Friedel, Frank; Sidey, Hugh. "The Presidents of the United States of America". White House. Retrieved March 6, 2015. 
  12. ^ "Congress Passes Socialized Medicine and Mandates Health Insurance – In 1798". Forbes. Retrieved August 23, 2015. 
  13. ^ McCullough, p. 471.
  14. ^ Kurtz, ch. 12.
  15. ^ a b Herring, p. 89.
  16. ^ Chernow, p. 647.
  17. ^ Ellis, p. 57.
  18. ^ Herring, p. 90.
  19. ^ Herring, p. 91.
  20. ^ Wood, Gordon S. (2009). Empire of Liberty: A history of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199741093. 
  21. ^ Herring p. 82.
  22. ^ a b c d e Ferling, ch. 17.
  23. ^ a b Kurtz, ch. 13.
  24. ^ Miller, ch. 12.
  25. ^ Elkins and Mckitrick, pp. 714–19.
  26. ^ Miller, ch. 13.
  27. ^ Elkins and McKitrick, pp. 696–700.
  28. ^ Newman, Paul Douglas (2004). Fries's Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 081223815X. 
  29. ^ Kurtz. p. 331.
  30. ^ Ferling, ch. 18.
  31. ^ "2nd President, John Adams". Presidential Pet Museum. Retrieved June 12, 2011. 
  32. ^ Jefferson, Thomas (November 13, 1787). "Letter to William Smith". Retrieved September 8, 2015. 
  33. ^ Knott, Stephen F. (2002). Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. University Press of Kansas. p. 48. ISBN 0700611576. 
  34. ^ Chernow, p. 668.
  35. ^ 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. 
  36. ^ Preyer, Kathryn (2009). Blackstone in America. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521490871. 
  37. ^ Ferling, ch. 19,
  • Chernow, Ron (2004). Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Press. ISBN 1594200092. 
  • Elkins, Stanley M.; McKitrick, Eric (1993). The Age of Federalism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195068904. 
  • Ellis, Joseph J. (1993). Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393311333. 
  • Ferling, John (1992). John Adams: A Life. University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 0-87049-730-8.  [ebook]
  • Herring, George C. (2008). From colony to superpower: U.S. foreign relations since 1776. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199743770. 
  • Kurtz, Stephen G (1957). The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 1795–1800. 
  • McCullough, David (2008). John Adams. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4165-7588-7. 
  • Miller, John C. (1960). The Federalist Era: 1789–1801. 

Primary sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Akers, Charles W. "John Adams" in Henry Graff, ed. The Presidents: A Reference History (3rd ed. 2002) online
  • Brinkley, Alan, and Davis Dyer, eds. (2004)The American Presidency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company,
  • Brown, Ralph A. (2004), The Presidency of John Adams.
  • Chinard, Gilbert. (1933), Honest John Adams.
  • Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. (2001)
  • Grant, James. John Adams: Party of One.(2005)
  • Haraszti, Zoltan. (1952), John Adams and the Prophets of Progress. Incisive analysis of John Adams' political comments on numerous authors through examining his marginalia in his copies of their books.
  • Howe, John R., Jr. (1966), The Changing Political Thought of John Adams
  • Sharp, James Roger. (1995) American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis.; politics of 1790s
  • Visser, Michiel (2008). "Adams, John (1735–1826)". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 5–6. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n4. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. 
  • Waldstreicher, David, ed. 2013), A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams
  • White, Leonard D. (1956), The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History

External links[edit]

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