The Founders Flounder: Adams Agonistes

by Michael Liss

My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me. —Benjamin Disraeli

John Adams was not the kind of man who easily agreed, and it showed. Nor was he the kind of man who found others agreeable. Few have accomplished so much in life while gaining so little satisfaction from it. When you think about the Four Horsemen of Independence, it’s Washington in the lead, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and, last in the hearts of his countrymen, John Adams. You could add to that mix James Madison and even the intensely controversial Alexander Hamilton, and, once again, if you were counting fervent supporters, Adams would still bring up the rear.

He was an exceptionally talented man, willing to take up unpopular causes, to assume enormous personal risks. He was also dedicated, patriotic, and just a royal (in the “democratic” sense of the word) pain. Of Adams, Franklin once said, “I am persuaded however that he means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his Senses.”

Adams knew it as well. He understood both his flaws and his place in the firmament. He wrote to his friend Benjamin Rush: “The Essence of the whole will be that Dr Franklins electrical Rod, Smote the Earth and out Spring General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy Negotiations Legislation and War.”

Nevertheless, after eight years of being George Washington’s loyal (but largely unheeded) Vice President, he had just enough support to be elected to succeed him in 1796. As much as he wrestled with his own ego and even his insecurities, he (and Abigail) thought he had earned it, and he had.

He was stepping into a monumental mess. Adams’ core problems coming into office were in some respects similar to any newly minted President. Like it or not, you inherit the issues the previous Administration couldn’t resolve, and, in Adams’ case, George Washington had left a doozy—the very real and constant threat of hostile acts of the two most powerful countries on Earth, England and France. Washington had a vision of an expanding America, one that would grow to dominate the continent. The reality, in 1796, was that the British and French (along with the Spanish) controlled large chunks of North America, and, more importantly, dominated the Atlantic Ocean. American ships were constant targets, and the feebleness of the American response wasn’t as much a policy failure as it was an expression of the simple fact that we were a young nation with then-limited resources. Both parties had their (opposing) ideas on how to fix that (the Federalists aligning with the British, the Republicans with the French), but that didn’t change the reality (or potency) of the foreign threat.

Adams also inherited an unresolved and intensifying political issue: The Federalists and the Republicans didn’t just pick a foreign partner as a tactical judgment. They also were expressing a preference for a form of government. Subsequent generations of politicians (to this day) ritualistically claim that their vision is the Founder’s vision, but that can’t possibly be true: The Founders themselves lacked consensus as to the substance of what had been agreed. Moreover, as men sorted themselves out into Federalists and Republicans, the disagreements became more personal, more hostile, more poisonous. In a proto-democratic climate where a vocabulary for opposition hadn’t been developed, it became an easy step for many to see even close former associates as now treasonous. Each could say the other had abandoned the ideals of the Revolution.

In broad strokes, Jefferson and Madison’s newly created Democratic-Republican Party rejected the Federalists and Washington’s concept of government. Washington (and Adams) understood the compact made in 1787 as one of consent of the governed (the people and the states). The public works within a framework of choice as to whom to lead, not the scope of leadership’s authority after that choice is made. The next election, they may choose someone else, but the grant of authority is the same.

Jefferson’s vision, upon close inspection, not only views the initial “consent of the governed” to be an impermanent one (he proposed that each generation should review and renew the Constitution), but also seems to be more than a little situational—he wanted a form of government that would advance his (and Virginia’s) interests.

The problem with Washington’s approach was that it was more monarchal than the public was ready to support for any President—except for George Washington. The problem with Jefferson’s (and Madison’s) is something that remains relevant today: If one really does support the idea of diffused political power in most things (not just self-interested ones), how does a country move as one to meet a national challenge? Jefferson’s implicit answer (demonstrated vividly later, during his own Presidency, when he imposed and enforced the massively unpopular Embargo Act) is, in its own way, very monarchal: When the issue interests him specifically, the grant of authority is always great enough to ensure that he’s in charge.

It’s easy to look at the ambiguities and contradictions of both sides and ascribe them solely to political opportunism, but that’s probably unfair. Jefferson really did believe that we threw off the British for greater freedom not just from King George III, but Kings everywhere. He admired the French Revolution for this very reason—ordinary people upsetting the traditional order to assert their individual liberties. Washington and, like him, Adams believed that their monarchical tendencies were benign—a President should float above petty political disputes and do what’s best for the country. Since Washington was the physical embodiment of personal sacrifice and leadership, most of the citizenry trusted in his intentions even when they did not agree with his policies. Neither Adams, nor anyone else, could possibly pull that off. Even Jefferson acknowledged that succeeding Washington might be the most thankless job in the world. You can’t replace Babe Ruth.

All that being said, Adams was peculiarly unsuited to the moment. He was, in one critical way, an 18th Century man, where Jefferson was a modern one. Presidents who lacked the awesomeness of a Washington needed a political party behind them—the infrastructure, the legislative support, the critical mass of ideas and talents willing to serve. From Jefferson’s time on to today, Presidents are both heads of political parties, and creatures of them. Adams didn’t get it, and wouldn’t have wanted it.

Contrast this with Jefferson, who resigned as Washington’s Secretary of State to form, with Madison, an opposition political party. In doing so, he was playing the long game, on the one hand “retiring” to his beloved Monticello and pretending to be above it all, on the other, constantly (privately) scheming with Madison to build a potent political organization. Jefferson was also quite the behind-the-scenes gossip, particularly in using others to peddle derogatory material about Washington himself.

It was a quintessentially modern move, and one as to which it’s hard not to be at least a little cynical. On the one hand, given his political differences with Washington, Jefferson’s resignation might be seen as an act of conscience. On the other, his ambitions were limitless, and it’s altogether possible that, by 1793, he saw time slipping away: Washington would serve at least another three years, his favorite was the hated Hamilton, and Adams was Vice President and would surely have a strong claim to the Presidency. We love to see Jefferson as a romantic (Joseph Ellis, in his biography American Sphinx, calls him “light, inspiring, optimistic”). That he was does not preclude the possibility that he also every inch the politician, with a thirst for the top spot. Staying within the Washington orbit probably would have blocked his path, whereas he was the undisputed political leader of the Republicans.

So, when Washington dropped his “Farewell Address” bomb in September 1796 (only 10 weeks before the Election!), Jefferson cashed in his bet. As always, he affected a disinterest, claimed to be completely content with his bucolic-yet-enlightened life at Monticello, and accepted the nomination. The short sprint to the Presidency ensued (with neither man campaigning—the custom of the time was that it was too crass) and Adams edging Jefferson by just three Electoral Votes.

John Adams had reached the pinnacle, and it was all downhill from here.

First, fate dealt him a bad hand—the original text of Article 2, Section I of the Constitution instructed the Electors to cast two votes for President, then “In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President.” John Adams was to be President. Thomas Jefferson, his former friend, now fierce political and ideological opponent, his Vice President.

To our contemporary eyes, this seems insane. Imagine a Trump-Clinton Administration or a Biden-Trump. It’s fairly clear the drafters of the Constitution didn’t quite grasp the possibilities of political parties, and, if you contextualize it that way, it makes a certain amount of sense. The Electors would look for sane, competent men (at least initially from the Revolutionary generation), and why not have the runner up (not unlike in a beauty pageant) serve out a Presidential term if the President were unable? The fact is that the Framers worried about partisanship, but had not yet fully grasped that it would be delivered through political parties.

This created almost insuperable difficulties for Adams. While no one had a better idea of the limitations of the Vice Presidency than he, he was stuck with Jefferson in a different way than Washington had been. Jefferson was no fool—he was now a heartbeat away from the Presidency, did not serve at the pleasure of the President, and there was absolutely no reason for him to resign or support the Administration. They were stuck together (or, more accurately, Adams was stuck with Jefferson).

Adams being Adams, and remembering the old days, when the two were close friends, then made a remarkable suggestion: He let it be known that he planned to send a delegation to France (not England) to see if a peace treaty could be worked out. And, he wanted it to be a bipartisan delegation. Would Madison and Jefferson head it up?

You can’t help but admire Adams for making this gesture, which went against the advice of and even enraged much of the rest of his Cabinet. Not only was he inviting in the enemy, he wanted to talk to the French instead of continuing the Federalists’ Anglo-centric policy.

Whatever its generosity and even bravery, it was doomed to fail. Adams still didn’t understand partisanship and didn’t quite grasp that Madison and particularly Jefferson were now party leaders. As too many politicians have demonstrated down through the years, the pursuit of power often causes one to make the decision to keep an issue alive, rather than participate in its solution. Madison said “no”; Jefferson, in his more circuitous way, the same. All Adams had accomplished was irritating his own “side.”

There would be more rejections for Adams in the weeks to come. For some reason, perhaps out of misplaced loyalty to Washington, perhaps because of familiarity, he failed to pick his own men for his Cabinet. What he did not know, and wouldn’t come to realize for two years, is that those old hands did not see themselves as members of his team. Rather, they worked for, and took their orders from, the “retired” Alexander Hamilton. Their advice to Adams would be directed by Hamilton. That did not, automatically, render it incorrect, but, since Hamilton had different motivations than Adams, it often reflected Hamilton’s priorities instead of Adams’.

Spurned by Jefferson and Madison, held at arms-length by the very people upon whom he should have been able to rely for support and advice, Adams found himself in no-man’s land. One of the great mysteries of the first few months after his election was why he didn’t move decisively to change this. The answer may lie partially in his background: for all his accomplishments, as an advocate, a representative, a negotiator, a political theorist, he had never actually led. He had no executive experience, either in war or peace. But the rest was surely his temperament. He ranted privately, to Abigail, to John Quincy, to a handful of friends, but accepted it.

It was a fateful decision. As Adams prepared to face the twin and even existential threats of a foreign policy crisis and a political one, he was in a singular place for an American President, mostly alone. This created opportunities, but would, in the long term, leave him a man without a home, and with few moments for joy.

He had been warned, by Washington himself, on Inauguration Day: ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which one of us will be happiest!’”

We will pick that one up next month.