UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Adams Administration
*The campaign of 1796 was extremely dirty, each side slandering
the other with abandon. Vice-President John Adams ultimately
was selected over Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson by a margin
of three electoral votes (71 to 68), and Jefferson, as the
runner-up, became Vice-President. He would try to sabotage
Adams’ work, as would Alexander Hamilton who, though a Federalist,
tried to control the Adams administration and then came to despise
Adams for his independence (a mutually held feeling).
*In the mid 1790s the French had become angry at the United
States. They resented the Jay Treaty, which linked the
United States economically with Republican France’s enemy, Great
Britain. They were also upset about Washington’s 1793
neutrality proclamation and his repudiation of the Franco-American
Alliance of 1778. Consequently, the French began to raid
American shipping on the high seas, violating America’s Freedom of
the Seas--the right of a neutral country to sail wherever it
wishes and trade with whomever it wishes, even when other
countries are at war.
*Some Americans wanted war, but Adams knew the United States dared
not do this militarily or economically. He sent a diplomatic
mission made up of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Elbridge Gerry
(both signers of the Declaration of Independence), and John
Marshall to France where they sought a secret meeting with the
French foreign minister Talleyrand. To arrange this, they
had to deal with three secret French agents who were called in
American dispatches by the code names X, Y, and Z. Before
they would even arrange a meeting, they demanded a loan worth
about $10,000,000.00, which would have violated the neutrality
proclamation, as well as an outright bribe of $250,000.00.
Worse, these bribes guaranteed nothing except the chance to talk
to Talleyrand, not any actual assistance from him.
*The American diplomats understood that bribes such as this were
standard practise in European politics, but the American public by
and large did not. When word of the XYZ Affair got home,
people were outraged, and any hope for peace died.
*For refusing to pay the Bribe, John Marshall became a hero, and
the slogan of the day was ‘Millions for defence but not one cent
*Fearing that war was imminent, the US created the Department of
the Navy, adding another cabinet position in 1798 with Benjamin
Stoddert as Secretary. He began to oversee the construction
of a navy, which was vital, as the United States had sold off all
her warships after the Revolutionary War ended, just keeping a few
ships to try to catch smugglers. The United States Marine
Corps was also officially established, although Continental
Marines had served during the Revolutionary War (and been
disbanded at its end).
*A 10,000-man army was authorised, and George Washington was
called out of retirement to lead it. The plan was, if
necessary, to invade France.
*The American and French navies begin an undeclared war on the
high seas. Because this war was not formally declared, but
still resulted in death and destruction, it is called the
Quasi-War, meaning sort of a war. Although there is no
official start to the war, it is generally considered to have
begun in 1798 when some limited treaties between the US and France
were rescinded by Congress out of anger at years of French
*The US captured 80 French vessels, but perhaps as many as 2,000
American merchant ships were lost.
*The Quasi-War did not develop into a real war, and there was no
invasion of France (or the US) because, despite the fact that many
Americans, led by the High Federalists (including Hamilton),
wanted war. However, both Adams and Talleyrand did
not. Adams suspected, with good cause, that the US would
lose, and Tallyrand had his hands full dealing with all France’s
other engagements in Europe and with Napoleon’s recent seizure of
power and concomitant ambitions. Adams here, as elsewhere,
demonstrated that his integrity came before anything else—he did
the right thing in this instance even though it made him very
unpopular with a public eager for war and ultimately cost him the
next election and the Federalists in general a large measure of
*Envoys were again sent to France, and in 1800 the Quasi-War ended
with the Convention of 1800, in which the old Franco-American
Alliance was formally ended and the US agreed to pay for their own
losses in the war.
*Annoyed by trouble within their own party and criticism directed
at them by the Jeffersonian Republicans, the Federalists in
Congress passed a series of four laws known as the Alien and
Sedition Acts in 1798.
*The Alien Acts increased the residency requirements for US
citizenship from 5 to 14 years, because too many immigrants
favoured the Jeffersonian Republicans, in part because immigrants
tended to be poor, and were often farmers who moved to the west
(and the Federalists distrusted the west; recall that when
Tennessee joined the Union in 1796, the Federalists permitted
Tennessee one less representative than was proper, just to limit
western power). The president could also deport dangerous
foreigners at any time, and imprison them in times of war.
Although not enforced at the time, this frightened many foreigners
out of the country, and gave the President a great deal of power
(perhaps too much). The Alien Enemies Act was later used to
justify the expulsion of Confederate sympathizers during the Civil
War, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and
even the banning of Muslim visitors from some nations, as part of
the current War on Terror.
*The Sedition Act was directed against anyone who impeded the
policies of the government or falsely defamed its officials.
Such seditious folk could be fined or imprisoned. Because
the power to do this rested with the Federalist-controlled
government, many Jeffersonian newspaper editors were locked up or
fined for printing unpleasant stories about the Adams
administration—ten men were tried under it and all were convicted.
*Matthew Lyon (‘the Spitting Lion’ who had spit in the face of a
Federalist) was locked up for four months for mentioning Adams’
‘Unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and
selfish avarice.’ Another newspaperman was fined $100 for
wishing that the wad of a cannon fired in Adams’ honour would have
hit the president in the seat of his breeches.
*The Federalist-dominated Supreme Court backed up these Acts even
though they clearly violated the I Amendment but, just to be safe,
they were written to expire in 1801, just in case the Federalists
did not win re-election (which they did not).
*All this got by because the Acts had popular support. In
1798 and 1799, the people were whipped into frenzy over the
Quasi-War, and considered such laws useful for keeping the country
safe from French influence and strong in the fight against them.
*In opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson secretly
wrote the Kentucky Resolution, and Madison produced the Virginia
Resolution, which was a bit less extreme. Both were adopted
by those states' legislatures, and proposed the doctrine of
nullification—if a law is unconstitutional, the state governments
may declare it so and refuse to enforce it within their
*The Federalists disagreed, saying that if anyone had the right to
declare a law unconstitutional, it was the Supreme Court and not
the states (although the Constitution does not specifically give
the Court that power). After all, the Constitution was
created in large part to give the national government ultimate
supremacy over the state governments.
*When the Supreme Court does declare a law unconstitutional, as
they sometimes do (although they did not do so until 1803), it is
called judicial review rather than nullification.
*In 1800 Adams ran for re-election, but was opposed by Thomas
Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Republicans, and Charles Cotesworth
Pinckney, a Federalist, and a number of other lesser candidates
(because the two-party system was not yet really organised).
*Adams was attacked by both Hamilton and Jefferson, and he fought
back, especially against Jefferson.
*The Federalists were troubled by this split between Adams and
Hamilton and their respective followers, and by the unexciting
conclusion to the Quasi-War. Peace was dull, but the prior
fighting had run up debt, especially through the creation and
support of a navy with six state-of-the art frigates, despite
attempting to pay for it in part through an unpopular Federal
property tax (the only one in American history).
*To fight back against the Jeffersonians, the Federalists engaged
in a whispering campaign, spreading rumours that Jefferson had
once robbed an old widow of her trust fund, that he had fathered
numerous mulatto children (which was true) and that he was an
atheist (which also had a measure of truth, although he was really
more of a Deist), and so frightened people that many buried their
family Bibles so that he could not confiscate and burn them if he
*Nonetheless, Adams came in third with 65 votes, and Aaron Burr
and Thomas Jefferson, both Republicans, tied with 73. This
meant that the decision would be made in the House of
Representatives, where Hamilton used his influence to get
Jefferson elected because he thought that, of the two, Jefferson
would be more responsible and sane, and because Burr, a fellow New
Yorker, was a more personal political enemy.
*To ensure that such a problem would not arise again, and to avoid
situations like the one faced by John Adams where the
vice-president was a rival rather than an assistant, the XII
Amendment was created in 1803 and ratified in 1804 declaring that
in the future, separate votes would be cast for the presidency and
vice-presidency, although electors still could not cast both votes
for someone from the elector’s own state.
*Before leaving office, Adams appointed a number of judges to
federal positions, including John Marshall as Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court. These would later be called the midnight
judges, and would be disliked by the Jeffersonians but would have
a lasting impact on the nation.
*The Federalists, despite their errors, had a number of important
accomplishments. They built a solid financial base for the
nation and kept America out of war with Britain, France, or Spain,
giving the young nation a little breathing space before
undertaking any major projects. Unfortunately for them,
Jefferson got to enjoy the political benefits of their good
works. It has been said of him 'Jefferson kept the
Federalist edifice while ousting the Federalist architect.'
This page last updated 20 January, 2021.