THE ADAMS ADMINISTRATION
*The campaign of 1796 was extremely dirty, each side slandering the other with abandon. John Adams ultimately was selected over Thomas Jefferson by a margin of three 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, despised Adams (a mutually held feeling). The constant disagreement of Adams and Jefferson would lead to the XII Amendment’s creation.
*In the mid 1790s the French become angry at the United States. They resent the Jay Treaty, which linked the United States economically with Republican France’s enemy, Great Britain. They also are upset about Washington’s 1793 neutrality proclamation and his repudiation of the Franco-American Alliance of 1778. Consequently, the French begin to raid American shipping on the high seas.
*Some American want war, but Adams knows the US dares not do this. He sends a diplomatic mission made up of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Elbrdge Gerry (both signers of the Declaration of Independence), and John Marshall to France where they seek a secret meeting with the French foreign minister Talleyrand. To arrange this, they must deal with three secret French agents who are 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.
*The US diplomats knew 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. The Marine Corps was also established.
*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 is not formally declared, but still results in death and destruction, it is called the Quasi-War, meaning sort of a war.
*The US captures 80 French vessels, but about 300 American ships are lost.
*The Quasi-War does not develop into a real war, and there is 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 Napoleon’s recent seizure of power and concomitant ambitions. Adams here, as elsewhere, demonstrates that his integrity comes before anything else—he does the right thing in this instance even though it makes him very unpopular and ultimately costs him the next election and the Federalists in general a large measure of their power.
*Envoys are again sent to France, and in 1800 end the Quasi-War 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 directed at them from the Democratic-Republicans as well, the Federalists in Congress pass a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798.
*The Alien Acts increase the residency requirements for US citizenship from 5 to 14 years, because too many immigrants favour the Democratic-Republicans, in part because they tend to be poor, and are often farmers who move to the west (and the Federalists dislike 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 may 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 too much power.
*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-dominate Supreme Court backed up these Acts even though they clearly violate the I Amendment and, just to be safe, they are written to expire in 1801, just in case the Federalists do not win re-election.
*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 influences 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 their state 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 disagree, saying that if that is anyone’s job, it is the Supreme Court’s, not the states’. When the courts do it, however, it is called judicial review rather than nullification.
*In 1800 Adams runs for re-election, but is opposed by Jefferson and Burr, both Republicans, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a Federalist, and a number of other lesser candidates.
*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 powerful navy.
*To fight back against the Jeffersonians, the Federalists engaged in a whispering campaign, carefully spreading rumours that Jefferson had once robbed an old widow of her trust fund, that he had fathered numerous mulatto children (which was more or less true) and that he was an atheist (which also had a measure of truth), and so frightened people that many buried their family Bibles so that he could not confiscate and burn them.
*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 Jefferson would be more responsible and sane, and because Burr, a fellow New Yorker, was a more personal political enemy.
*Before leaving office, Adams appointed a number of judges to federal positions, including John Marshall 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 us 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 the political benefits of their good works. It has been said of him ‘Jefferson kept the Federalist edifice while ousting the Federalist architect.’
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This page last updated 16 September, 2003.