by Michael Liss
Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by? Their passions. There may be in every government a few choice spirits, who may act from more worthy motives. One great error is that we suppose mankind more honest than they are. Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest…
–Alexander Hamilton, 1787.
March 4, 1800. John Adams, Second President of the United States (and first President to be defeated for reelection) was leaving Washington on the 4:00 a.m. stagecoach to Baltimore, the first stop on his way back home to his beloved home and his wife Abigail. He would not be in attendance when, later that day, his successor (and former Vice President), Thomas Jefferson, would take the Oath of Office and deliver his Inaugural Address.
It was considered by his contemporaries (and most of us would agree) a sour note to end a Presidency. As Washington had voluntarily given up the office when he could have been President-for-Life, a peaceful transition of power was a demonstration of continuity and the stability of a young nation’s experiment in democracy. Adams had lost, fairly so under the rules of the day, and many felt he needed to express public acceptance, particularly at a time when the verdict was not merely a change of person, but also of political philosophy.
There are many explanations for Adams’ behavior, one of which is that Jefferson might have made it known that Adams would not be welcome, but the one that fits best is that, in the absence of a real tradition, Adams was following his heart. He’d had enough of Philadelphia and the new swamp that was Washington, of politics and political infighting, of being judged too harshly for his failures and praised too little for his accomplishments. Like every President since who has lost, the sense of rejection was unavoidable. In Adams’ case, more so because Jefferson and he had once been close, and because some in Adams’ old party, the Federalists, had pointedly withheld support—Alexander Hamilton foremost amongst them, but even some of his old friends. It was time for him to leave. Read more »