John Adams, America’s Second President and First One-Term President
By C. James Taylor
Massachusetts Historical Society
Life in Brief
Before becoming President in 1797, John Adams built his reputation as a blunt-speaking man of independent mind. A fervent patriot and brilliant intellectual, Adams served as a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress between 1774 and 1777, as a diplomat in Europe from 1778 to 1788, and as vice president during the Washington administration.
Federalists versus Democratic-Republicans
The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported a strong central government that favored industry, landowners, banking interests, merchants, and close ties with England. Opposed to them were the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, who advocated limited powers for the federal government. Adams’s Federalist leanings and high visibility as vice president positioned him as the leading contender for President in 1796.
In the early days of the American electoral process, the candidate receiving the second-largest vote in the electoral college became vice president. This is how Thomas Jefferson, who opposed Adams in the election, came to serve as Adams’s vice president in 1797. Adams won the election principally because he identified himself with Washington’s administration and because he was able to win two electoral ballots from normally secure Jeffersonian states. In 1800, Adams faced a much tougher battle for reelection, as the differences between the Federalists and the Republicans intensified—by that time, the terms “Democratic-Republican” and “Republican” were used interchangeably.
The Adams presidency was characterized by continuing crises in foreign policy, which dramatically affected affairs at home. Suspicious of the French Revolution and its potential for terror and anarchy, Adams opposed close ties with France. Relations between America and France deteriorated to the brink of war, allowing Adams to justify his signing of the extremely controversial Alien and Sedition Acts. Drafted by Federalist lawmakers, these four laws were largely aimed at immigrants, who tended to become Republicans. Furious over Adams’s foreign policy and his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Republicans responded with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which challenged the legitimacy of federal authority over the states.
Republicans were equally incensed by the heavy taxation necessary for Adams’s military buildup; farmers in Pennsylvania staged Fries’s Rebellion in protest. At the same time, Adams faced disunity in his own party due to conflict with Hamilton over the undeclared naval war with France. This rivalry with Hamilton and the Federalist Party cost Adams the 1800 election. He lost to Thomas Jefferson, who was backed by the united and far more organized Republicans.
A Personal Life Filled with Politics
John Adams sacrificed his family life for his political one, spending much of his time separated from his wife, Abigail Adams, and their children. John Quincy Adams, Adams’s son, grew up to become the sixth President of the United States. Interestingly, he joined the opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans.
Often lonely and miserable, Abigail viewed her suffering as a patriotic sacrifice but was distraught that her husband was away during the birth of their children and the loss of their unborn baby in 1777. After his term as President, John Adams lived a quiet life with Abigail on the family farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. There, Adams wrote prolifically for the next twenty-six years, including a fascinating correspondence with his political adversary and friend, Thomas Jefferson. Interestingly, both men died on Independence Day in 1826.
Although Abigail Adams saw herself as first and foremost her husband’s wife and helpmate, she was a gifted intellectual in her own right, leaving behind nearly 2,000 letters containing some of the most profoundly compelling commentary on the society and politics of her time. A firm advocate of patriotic motherhood, Abigail believed that women best served the Republic in their roles as educated and independently thinking wives and mothers. Although she did not openly advocate voting rights for women, she did fight for their legal right to divorce and to own property.
The American Political Landscape
Indeed, property was a requirement for political participation during Adams’s time, and he fought to keep it that way, feeling that the “rich, the well-born, and the able” should represent the nation. But the western migration into frontier America—Kentucky and Tennessee were admitted to the Union in 1792 and 1796, respectively—weakened the property requirement for voting in the West. Everywhere except on the frontier, however, wealthy merchants and slave owners dominated office holding, and financial and kinship ties were crucial to political advancement.
Historians have difficulty assessing Adams’s presidency. Adams was able to avoid war with France, arguing against Hamilton that war should be a last resort to diplomacy. In this argument, the President 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.
Life before the Presidency
Born into a comfortable, but not wealthy, Massachusetts farming family on October 30, 1735, John Adams grew up in the tidy little world of New England village life. His father, a deacon in the Congregational Church, earned a living as a farmer and shoemaker in Braintree, roughly fifteen miles south of Boston. As a healthy young boy, John loved the outdoors, frequently skipping school to hunt and fish. He said later that he would have preferred a life as a farmer, but his father insisted that he receive a formal education. His father hoped that he might become a clergyman. John attended a dame school, a local school taught by a female teacher that was designed to teach the rudimentary skills of reading and writing, followed by a Latin school, a preparatory school for those who planned to attend college. He eventually excelled at his studies and entered Harvard College at age fifteen. He graduated in 1755. Young John, who had no interest in a ministerial career, taught in a Latin school in Worcester, Massachusetts, to earn the tuition fees to study law, and from 1756 to 1758, he studied law with a prominent local lawyer in Worcester.
Legal and Publishing Career
Adams launched his legal career in Boston in 1758. He faced several years of struggle in establishing his practice. He had only one client his first year and did not win his initial case before a jury until almost three years after opening his office. Thereafter, his practice grew. Once his practice started to flourish, he began to court Abigail Smith, the daughter of a Congregational minister in nearby Weymouth. They were married in 1764. Five children followed in the next eight years, although one, Susanna, died in infancy. By 1770, Adams was a highly successful lawyer with perhaps the largest caseload of any attorney in Boston, and he was chosen to defend the British soldiers who were charged in the Boston Massacre in March 1770. Through his able defense, none of the accused soldiers were sent to jail. During these years, he lived alternately in Boston and Quincy, an outgrowth of Braintree, where he had been reared. As success came, Adams wrote extensively, publishing numerous essays in Boston newspapers on social, legal, and political issues.
When the colonial protest against parliamentary policies erupted against the Stamp Act in 1765, Adams was initially reluctant to play a prominent role in the popular movement. With a young and growing family, he feared for his legal practice. In addition, he distrusted many of the radical leaders, including his cousin Samuel Adams. He not only believed the imperial leaders in London had simply blundered but also suspected that the colonial radicals had a hidden agenda, including American independence. Nevertheless, under pressure to act, he did assist the popular movement, writing anonymous newspaper essays and helping to churn out propaganda pieces. In time, as Britain continued its attempts to tax the colonies and to strip them of their autonomy, Adams gradually grew convinced that the radicals had been correct, and he became an open foe of ministerial policy.
In 1774, Adams went to Philadelphia as one of the four delegates from Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress. He was reelected to the Second Continental Congress, which convened in May 1775, just a few days after war with the mother country had erupted at Lexington and Concord. When Congress created the Continental army in June 1775, Adams nominated George Washington of Virginia to be its commander. Adams soon emerged as the leader of the faction in Congress that pushed to declare independence. In June 1776, Congress appointed Adams, together with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, among others, to prepare the Declaration of Independence. Adams served on more committees than any other congressman—ninety in all, of which he chaired twenty. He was the head of the Board of War and Ordinance, the congressional committee that oversaw the operations of the Continental army. He was also an important member of the committee that prepared the Model Treaty, which guided the envoys that Congress sent to France to secure foreign trade and military assistance.
Early in 1778, after nearly four years service in Congress, Adams was sent to France to help secure French aid. Subsequently, he was sent to The Hague to obtain a much needed loan and to open commerce. In 1781, together with Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens, Adams was part of the commission of American diplomats that negotiated the Treaty of Paris, the pact that brought an end to the War of Independence. Adams returned home once during the war, a brief sojourn from July until November 1779, during which time he helped draft the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.
Adams remained in Europe following the war. From 1784 to 1785, he served on a diplomatic mission whose goal was to arrange treaties of commerce with several European nations. In 1785, he became the first United States minister to England. During 1784, he had been joined by his wife, whom he had not seen for five years. She was accompanied to Europe by the Adams’s daughter, “Nabby.” Their sons, Charles, Thomas Boylston, and John Quincy, spent these years in the United States completing their schooling.
By the end of the American Revolution, John Adams had earned a solid reputation as a patriot who had served his country at considerable personal sacrifice. He was known as a brilliant and blunt-spoken man of independent mind. He additionally acquired a reputation for the essays he published during the 1770s and 1780s. His “Thoughts on Government” (1776) argued that the various functions of government—executive, judiciary, and legislative—must be separated in order to prevent tyranny. His Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787) presented his thinking that the greatest dangers to any polity came from unbridled democracy and an unrestrained aristocracy capable of becoming an oligarchy. The antidote to these dangers was a strong executive. He spoke of this powerful executive as the “father and protector” of the nation and its ordinary citizens, for this person was the sole official with the independence to act in a disinterested manner. In 1790, he expanded on this theme in a series of essays for a Philadelphia newspaper that were ultimately known as “Discourses on Davila.” Many contemporaries mistakenly believed that they advocated a hereditary monarchy for the United States.
Adams returned home from London in 1788 after a ten-year absence. He came back largely to secure an office in the new national government that had been created by the Constitution drafted by the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 and ratified the following summer. Knowing that George Washington would be the first President, Adams sought the vice presidency. He was elected to that position in 1789, receiving the second largest number of votes after Washington, who won the vote of every member of the electoral college. Adams was reelected vice president in 1792.
Heated conflict broke out early among Washington’s cabinet members over the shape the new nation would take, as well as over divisive foreign policy issues. By late 1792, formal political parties had come into being. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported a strong central government that favored industry, banking interests, merchants, and close ties with England. Opposed to them were the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. Supported by landowners and much of the South, the Democratic-Republicans advocated limited powers for the federal government, personal liberty, and support for France. Adams was a Federalist.
Campaigns and Elections
Throughout Washington’s presidency, Vice President Adams regarded himself as the heir apparent. Indeed, that alone explains his willingness to endure eight years in the vice presidency, an office devoid of power. When Washington, in his Farewell Address, published in September 1796, announced his intention to retire, the nation faced its first contested presidential election. The Federalist members of Congress caucused and nominated Adams and Thomas Pinckney, a South Carolinian who had soldiered and served President Washington as a diplomat, as their choices for President. The Democratic-Republicans in Congress likewise met and named Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York, who had served in the Continental army and as a United States senator early in Washington’s presidency, as their choices. Each party named two presidential candidates, for under the original Constitution, each member of the electoral college was to cast two ballots for President. The winner of the presidential election was the individual who received the largest number of votes, if it constituted a majority of the votes cast. The person receiving the second largest number of votes, whether or not it was a majority, was to be the vice president. In the event that no candidate received a majority of votes, or that two candidates tied with a majority of votes, the House of Representatives was to decide the election, with each state, regardless of size, having a single vote.
When the contest began in full force in the late summer of 1796, only Aaron Burr, out of the four candidates, waged an active campaign. Supporters of the four candidates, however, campaigned vigorously. The Federalist press labeled Jefferson a Francophile, questioned his courage during the War of Independence, and charged that he was an atheist. Adams was portrayed as a monarchist and an Anglophile who was secretly bent on establishing a family dynasty by having his son succeed him as President.
Adams also had trouble in his own camp. Rumors swirled that his chief rival for leadership among the Federalists, Alexander Hamilton, secretly favored Pinckney, as he would be more malleable than Adams. Many believed that Hamilton sought to have some Federalist electors withhold their votes from Adams so that Pinckney would outpoll him.
In the end, Adams won by a three-vote margin. Although virtually all of Adams’s votes came from northern electors (while virtually all of Jefferson’s were from southern electors), Adams won largely because of the votes of two southern electors. A Virginia elector, from a county with a strong tradition of opposition to planter aristocrats, voted for Adams, as did an elector from a commercial district in coastal North Carolina. Jefferson received the second largest number of votes, making him the vice president. Thus, the nation would have a President from one party and a vice president from the other party.
Seven states permitted popular voting in this election. In the remaining nine states, the state legislatures elected the members of the electoral college. Thus, popular opinion is difficult to fathom in this vote, although Adams appears to have received some support in recognition of his long and sacrificial service during the American Revolution. The northern states also thought their time had come to have a President, as a Virginian had held the office during the new nation’s first eight years. In addition, the vocal support for Jefferson by the French minister to the United States probably swung some electoral ballots to Adams.
It fell to John Adams, the vice president and presiding officer of the Senate, to count the ballots cast by the electoral college delegates. When he finished his count, he announced that “John Adams” had been elected to succeed George Washington. The final electoral college tally was 71 votes for Adams to 68 for Jefferson.
The Campaign and Election of 1800
Adams faced a difficult reelection campaign in 1800. The Federalist Party was deeply split over his foreign policy. Many had opposed his decision to send envoys to Paris in 1799, some because they feared it would result in national humiliation for the United States and others because they hoped to maintain the Quasi-War crisis for partisan ends. Furthermore, early in 1800, Adams fired two members of his cabinet, Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, and James McHenry, the secretary of war, for their failure to support his foreign policy. Their discharge alienated numerous Federalists. In addition to the fissures within his party, the differences between the Federalists and the Republicans had become white-hot. Jeffersonians were furious over the creation of a standing army, the new taxes, and the Alien and Sedition Acts.
As in 1796, the Federalist members of Congress caucused in the spring of 1800 and nominated Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, an officer in the Continental army, a member of the Constitutional Convention, and a part of the diplomatic commission that Adams sent to France in 1797. The Federalists did not designate a choice for the presidency but asked their presidential electors to cast their two votes for Adams and Pinckney. The Democratic-Republicans meanwhile nominated Jefferson and Burr, their candidates in the previous presidential election, but designated Jefferson as their choice for President.
In the campaign that followed, the Federalists depicted Jefferson as a godless nonbeliever and a radical revolutionary; he was often called a Jacobin, after the most radical faction in France during the French Revolution. His election, it was charged, would bring about a reign of terror in the nation. The Republicans cast Adams as a monarchist and the Federalist Party as an enemy of republicanism, including the greater egalitarianism promised by the American Revolution. The level of personal attack by both parties knew no bounds. At one point, Adams was accused of plotting to have his son marry one of the daughters of King George III and thus establish a dynasty to unite Britain and the United States. The plot had been stopped, according to the story, only by the intervention of George Washington, who had dressed in his old Revolutionary War uniform to confront Adams with sword in hand. Jefferson, meanwhile, was accused of vivisection and of conducting bizarre ritualistic rites at Monticello, his home in Virginia.
One of Adams’s greatest foes in this election was Alexander Hamilton, a member of his own party. In October, Hamilton published a pamphlet in which he argued that Adams should not be reelected. He charged that the President was emotionally unstable, given to impulsive and irrational decisions, unable to coexist with his closest advisers, and generally unfit to be President. It is unlikely, however, that Hamilton’s attack cost Adams any electoral votes.
Failing in that endeavor, Hamilton schemed to elect Pinckney. He worked to persuade all the Federalist presidential electors from the North to vote for the party’s two nominees, Adams and Pinckney, while he tried to convince some southern electors to withhold their vote for Adams. That would enable Pinckney to outpoll Adams.
Hamilton’s scheme failed, however. Not only did numerous New England Federalists, who were pro-Adams, withhold their second vote from Pinckney but the Federalist ticket was outpolled by their Democratic-Republican rivals. Pinckney finished fourth in the balloting, and Adams stood third in electoral votes, while Jefferson and Burr tied for first place with seventy-three votes each.
The nation had divided once again along sectional lines. Eighty-six percent of Adams’s votes were cast by northern electors; nearly three-fourths of Jefferson’s votes were from the South. Party discipline was much improved over that of the election of 1796. In the 1796 election, nearly 40 percent of electors had refused to adhere to the recommendations of their party’s caucus. In 1800, however, only one elector broke ranks—a New England Federalist elector withheld his second vote from Pinckney.
Public opinion in 1800 is difficult to gauge. Only five states—down from seven in 1796—permitted the qualified voters to elect the members of the electoral college. State legislatures made the choice in the remaining eleven states. Moreover, several states abandoned the election of electors in districts and instituted a winner-take-all system. Virginia adopted the at-large format, enabling Jefferson to win all twenty-one votes from his home state; had the election been by district, Adams likely would have won up to nine votes. In addition, Adams was the first presidential candidate to be victimized by the infamous three-fifths compromise agreed to in the Constitutional Convention. That decision, which permitted the counting of 60 percent of the slave population for purposes of representation in the House and the electoral college, enhanced the clout of the South—Democratic-Republican territory—in this contest. Had no slaves been counted, Adams likely would have defeated Jefferson by a 63-61 margin. Ultimately, the election turned on the outcome in New York. The Democratic-Republican Party won control of the New York legislature in the May elections of that year, principally by winning every contested seat in New York City. Control of the assembly meant that Jefferson would receive all twelve electoral votes from New York, whereas Adams had won those votes in 1796.
Jefferson’s victory in 1800 also stemmed from the disunion of the Federalist Party and, more importantly, the superior party organization of the Democratic-Republicans, which enabled the party to capture both the presidency and Congress. The Democratic-Republicans started several new newspapers and created committees of correspondence to direct the distribution of campaign literature and plan meetings and rallies. Their victories were due to four years of party organizing, sophisticated political campaigning, and the shaping of a party machine that responded to the temper and mood of the electorate.
With the election a tie, the decision was remitted to the House of Representatives, as specified by the Constitution. Every Democratic-Republican delegation in the House stood by Jefferson; however, some northern Federalists favored Burr, whom they found more palatable than their longtime nemesis from Virginia. After thirty-five ballots and five days of voting, the House was deadlocked. Each vote had ended with Jefferson receiving eight votes to Burr’s six. The delegations from two states, Vermont and Maryland, were deadlocked and could not cast a ballot. Burr refused to step down even though it was understood that he had run as a vice presidential candidate in the general election.
Throughout the long battle, Alexander Hamilton had urged the election of his old rival, Jefferson. He viscerally disliked Jefferson and objected to his democratic and egalitarian principles, but he feared and mistrusted Aaron Burr as an unprincipled opportunist. In the end, however, the outcome in the House appears to have hung on Federalist bargaining with both Jefferson and Burr. In return for their vote, Federalist House members sought a commitment from one or the other to preserve Hamilton’s economic program, keep the enhanced Navy intact, and leave Federalist officeholders in their jobs. Burr appears to have refused to bargain. Jefferson, ever after, denied making such a bargain, although several Federalists claimed that he had agreed to their terms. The truth can never be known. What is clear is that on the thirty-sixth ballot, a sufficient number of Federalists broke from Burr and gave their votes to Jefferson. The final House vote was Jefferson with ten states and Burr with four states while two states (South Carolina and Delaware) abstained. With that, Jefferson became the third President of the United States.
When Jefferson assumed office, his opponents stepped down peacefully. This return to domestic tranquility established a powerful precedent for the future. Although it is true that Adams tried to entrench Federalist power in the new administration by appointing Federalist judges in the last weeks of his term, this was viewed as acceptable politics by most observers, yet Jefferson’s refusal to honor these last-minute “midnight appointments” led to the landmark Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison.
President Adams’s style was largely to leave domestic matters to Congress and to control foreign policy himself. Not only did the Constitution vest the President with responsibility for foreign policy but perhaps no other American had as much diplomatic experience as Adams. As a result of his outlook, much of his domestic policy was intertwined with his foreign policy, for diplomatic issues often sparked a domestic reaction that consumed the President and the nation.
On the heels of the XYZ Affair, there were many negative sentiments toward the French. Sensing this mood in the citizenry and identifying an opportunity to crush the pro-French Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson, the Federalist-dominated Congress drafted and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts during the spring and summer of 1798. Adams signed the legislation into law. These acts were made up of four pieces of legislation that became the most bitterly contested domestic issue during the Adams presidency.
Supposedly created as a means of preventing the aiding and abetting of France within the United States and of obstructing American foreign policy, the laws in actuality had domestic political overtones. Three of the laws were aimed at immigrants, most of whom tended to vote for Democratic-Republican candidates. The Naturalization Act lengthened the residency period required for citizenship from five to fourteen years. The Alien Act, the only one of the four acts to pass with bipartisan support, allowed for the detention of enemy aliens in time of war without trial or counsel. The Alien Enemies Act empowered the President to deport aliens whom he deemed dangerous to the nation’s security. The fourth law, the Sedition Act, outlawed conspiracy to prevent the enforcement of federal laws and punished subversive speech—with fines and imprisonment. There were fifteen indictments and ten convictions under the Sedition Act during the final year and a half of Adams’s administration. No aliens were deported or arrested although hundreds of alien immigrants fled the country in 1798 and 1799.
To pay for the military measures it enacted during the XYZ crisis, the Federalist Congress enacted heavy new stamp and house taxes. Farmers in eastern Pennsylvania rioted and attacked federal tax collectors in an incident later referred to as Fries’s Rebellion. They believed that the new taxes were designed to support a large standing army and navy, which they opposed. Several of their leaders were arrested and sentenced to death for treason. However, on the eve of the election of 1800, Adams pardoned all of the prisoners.
In response to the Federalists’ draconian use of federal power, Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and James Madison secretly drafted a set of resolutions. These resolutions were introduced into the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures in the fall of 1798. Jefferson and Madison argued that since the Constitution was created by a compact among the states, the people, speaking through their state legislatures, had the authority to judge the legitimacy of federal actions. Hence, they pronounced the Alien and Sedition Acts null and void. (See the Campaign and Election of 1800 section for more on the political effects of these actions and reactions.)
Although no other states formally supported the resolutions, they rallied Democratic-Republican opinion in the nation. Most importantly, they placed the Jeffersonian Republicans within the revolutionary tradition of resistance to tyranny. The resolutions also raised the issue of states’ rights and the constitutional question of how conflict between the two authorities would be resolved short of secession or war.
Adams’s presidency was consumed with problems that arose from the French Revolution, which had also been true for his predecessor. Initially popular with virtually all Americans, the French Revolution began to arouse concerns among the most conservative in the United States after the excesses that commenced in 1792. The King and Queen (Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) were executed, attempts at de-Christianization occurred, numerous foes of the Revolution—especially aristocrats and monarchists—were executed in the September Massacre (1792) and the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), and the revolutionary leadership moved toward social leveling that would end historic class privileges and distinctions between the social classes. Adams had observed the coming of the French Revolution while living in France and Great Britain, and he immediately realized its potential for terror and anarchy. His skepticism was confirmed.
Nevertheless, the problems that beset Presidents Washington and Adams arose more from the wars spawned by the French Revolution. War erupted in 1792 when France attempted to export its revolutionary ideas and when several European monarchical nations allied against the French, hoping to eradicate the threat posed by the republican revolutionaries. The great danger for the United States began in the spring of 1793 when Great Britain, the principal source of American trade, joined the coalition against France. Although the Washington administration proclaimed American neutrality, a crisis developed when London sought to prevent U.S. trade with France. Numerous depredations occurred on the high seas, as ships of the Royal Navy seized American ships and cargoes and sought to impress American sailors who had allegedly deserted the British navy. Cries for war with Britain were widespread by 1794. Believing that war would be disastrous, President Washington sent John Jay to London to seek a diplomatic solution. The result was Jay’s Treaty, signed in 1794. The treaty improved U.S.-British relations. France, interpreting the treaty as a newly formed alliance between the United States and an old enemy, retaliated by ordering the seizure of American ships carrying British goods. This plunged Adams into a foreign crisis that lasted for the duration of his administration. At first, Adams tried diplomacy by sending three commissioners to Paris to negotiate a settlement. However, Prime Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand of France insulted the American diplomats by first refusing to officially receive them. He then demanded a $250,000 personal bribe and a $10 million loan for his financially strapped country before he would begin peace negotiations. This episode, known as the XYZ affair, sparked a white-hot reaction within the United States.
Adams responded by asking Congress to appropriate funds for defensive measures. These included the augmentation of the Navy, improvement of coastal defensives, the creation of a provisional army, and authority for the President to summon up to 80,000 militiamen to active duty. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to curb dissent, created the Navy Department, organized the Marine Corps, and cancelled the treaties of alliance and commerce with France that had been negotiated during the War of Independence. Incidents, some bloody, soon took place on the high seas. Historians call this undeclared war the Quasi-War crisis. Some Americans who hated the French Revolution, especially the Anglophiles within the United States, hoped for war to save Great Britain and destroy the revolutionaries in France. From the outset, however, President Adams sought a peaceful solution, if it could be had on honorable terms for the United States. He talked pugnaciously and urged a military buildup, but his goal was to demonstrate American resolve and, he hoped, bring France to the bargaining table. During the fall of 1798 and the winter of 1799, he received intelligence indicating a French willingness to talk. When Talleyrand sent unofficial word that American diplomats would be received by the French government, Adams announced his intention to send another diplomatic commission to France. By the time the commissioners reached Paris late in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte had become the head of the French government. After several weeks of negotiation, the American envoys and Napoleon signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine, which released the United States from its Revolutionary War alliance with France and brought an end to the Quasi-War. Adams subsequently said that the honorable peace he had arranged was the great jewel in his crown after nearly twenty-five years of public service.
Life after the Presidency
With his retirement from public office, John and Abigail finally obtained the home life that she had always wanted. They lived at Peacefield, their family farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. For the next twenty-six years, Adams seldom left home. Charles’s widow, Sally, and her young daughters moved in with John and Abigail, filling the house with laughter and life. For five years, John Quincy’s son lived there as well while his parents were abroad on public service. The family of Thomas Adams, another son, also lived nearby. Early in Adams’s retirement, John Quincy came and went constantly, staying for weeks on end as he busied himself in a life of public service that ranged from diplomatic to elected office and culminated in his election as President in 1824.
Within months of retirement, Adams threw himself into his writing and commentary. For the rest of his life, Adams wrote prolifically, including his autobiography and a voluminous correspondence. Nothing seemed too trivial or too weighty for him to address, from the nature of his manure piles at the farm to history and political philosophy. In 1812, mutual friends brought Adams and Jefferson together again, at least via mail, and these two old political rivals exchanged hundreds of letters on every conceivable topic prior to their deaths fourteen years later.
Both Adams and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was an anniversary that both founders were determined to live long enough to see. Death took Jefferson at 12:50 in the afternoon. Near noon, close to the time of Jefferson’s death, Adams awakened from a deep sleep and with great effort proclaimed, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” These were his last words, after which he fell into a coma. At about six o’clock in the evening, as the warm day turned cool, John Adams died. He was ninety-one years old.
Business and politics separated John Adams from his wife and family for much of the time. When Adams was a young lawyer, his travels to distant villages on the court circuit kept him away. Even when he was at home, Abigail scolded him for staying out late at night while attending various meetings. After 1776, he spent weeks and months abroad or in Philadelphia on government business. It seems that John Adams spent little time with his family.
Abigail often felt lonely and miserable, especially when Adams was not with her for the birth of their children. Usually, she viewed her suffering as a patriotic sacrifice. Her most trying time was in 1777, when she lost her unborn baby while Adams was in Philadelphia. Only the death in 1800 of her son Charles from acute alcoholism ever affected her more.
The American Franchise
During John Adams’s presidency, the American population increased from 4.7 million to 5.3 million people—a 35-percent increase since 1790. Four out of five families farmed the land. Most of their produce was consumed on the farm or exchanged within the local community. Only twelve cities in the United States held more than 5,000 people, and only 3 percent of the population was urban. At that time, the greatest growth in the nation occurred in the area west of the Appalachian Mountains. The frontier town of Cincinnati, located on the Ohio River, was the most distant outpost. By 1800—the first century of the new Republic—500,000 people, principally from Virginia and Maryland, had migrated to these western lands. Kentucky and Tennessee both had populations large enough to be admitted to the Union as states in 1792 and 1796, respectively. New Englanders had moved into upstate New York and Ohio while people in New Jersey moved into western Pennsylvania.
Luckily for Adams, Jay’s Treaty in 1794 with the British brought some peace to the Northwest Territory (present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and established the formal designation of sovereign nations for Native American tribes. But the pressure on the tribes to move further west was great. The Treaty of Greenville in 1795, for example, pushed the Shawnees into present-day Missouri in exchange for the cession of 17 million acres in Ohio. The once-powerful Iroquois were confined to a few scattered reservations in New York. No new major engagements with frontier tribes beset the nation during Adams’s presidency.
In view of his much-expressed concern about Shays’s Rebellion in 1786 and the Whiskey Rebellion of western farmers in 1794, John Adams must have been dismayed at the weakening of property requirements for voting in the newest western states. As the population moved westward in the 1790s, the pressure to increase the number of people eligible to vote grew. Most of the original thirteen states still limited the vote to property owners or taxpayers in the 1790s. These restrictions limited male suffrage to half of the white male population. Turnout among eligible voters was low, in part because voice voting made each man’s vote a matter of public knowledge. Most state constitutions stipulated that presidential electors and U.S. senators were to be chosen by state legislators and not by popular vote. Everywhere, except on the frontier, wealthy merchants and slave owners dominated officeholding, and financial and kinship ties were crucial factors in political advancement. However, the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee began a trend that extended the right to vote to all white males over the age of twenty-one.
Impact and Legacy
Historians have difficulty assessing John Adams’s presidency. On the one hand, his aloofness and refusal to enter directly into political conflict probably undermined his effectiveness and cost him his reelection in 1800. His stubborn independence left him politically isolated and alone. Even his own cabinet opposed his policies much of the time. He valued no one’s opinion half as much as his own—except for that of his wife, Abigail. As an active party politician who nevertheless distrusted factionalism and many Federalist leaders, such as Alexander Hamilton, Adams seems to have been hopelessly out of place in the partisan-style Republic that he had helped bring to life. Much of Adams’s isolation reflected a well-conceived value system in which he believed that the executive branch should stand above politics. He viewed the legislature as subject to corruption and thus refused to work with it on a close basis. He prided himself on never giving into public opinion that conflicted with his principles. Adams counted himself among those natural aristocrats who were born for leadership because of their superior reason and virtue. In this sense, he distrusted the people and feared majority rule. Adams believed that the danger to American society in 1800 came not from excessive authority but from conflict and anarchy. Adams’s elite republicanism stood in stark contrast to the more egalitarian Jeffersonian democracy that was poised to assume power in the new century.
On the other hand, most historians agree that Adams was correct in not expanding the naval war with France into an all-out conflict. Another protracted war, especially one so soon after the War of Independence with the populace deeply divided along partisan lines, might have been fatal for the nascent American union. Historians concur that Adams nearly won the election of 1800 and that history might have judged him differently had he completed a second term.
Adams has been justifiably censured for having signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, although it is important to note that he neither openly advocated their passage nor personally implemented them. Moreover, when faced with populist defiance, such as in Fries’s Rebellion, he ignored Hamilton’s call for a strong show of federal force. In the end, he even pardoned the leaders. Seen in this light, 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.
Originally published by the Miller Center, University of Virginia, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.