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.


*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 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 for tribute!’


*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 1797 when some limited treaties between the US and France were rescinded by Congress out of anger at years of French privateering.


*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, 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 their power.


*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 Democratic-Republicans, the Federalists in Congress passed a series of 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 Democratic-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 never enforced, it frightened many foreigners out of the country, and gave the President a great deal of power (perhaps too much).


*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 borders. 


*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 was elected.


*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 the two men would still have to be from different states.


*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 12 September, 2015.
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