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.
Adams’ Presidential legacy? It’s complicated. He did one thing extraordinarily well—he managed, while playing a weak hand, to steer the country between the two mightiest powers in the world, England and France, ultimately striking tolerable bargains while fending off harsh criticism from both his own Federalist Party and Jefferson’s Republicans. In connection with that, he correctly perceived that America would need a formidable navy to protect it (Adams called the warships “Wooden Walls”) and pushed for it relentlessly, with some success.
This should not be dismissed. While the British tended toward actions such as ignoring their obligations under the Jay Treaty (which was irritating, but not necessarily fatal), the French were particularly treacherous. They began seizing American merchant ships while playing a diplomatic bait-and-switch game. In what became known as the XYZ Affair, three emissaries of French Foreign Minister Talleyrand demanded a bribe of 50,000 pounds just to arrange a meeting. Among other reasons given, the ruling revolutionary Directory and Talleyrand claimed to be disturbed by some of Adams’ criticism of French behavior, and their pain could only be assuaged by…cash. Adams ordered two-thirds of his negotiating team home (leaving behind his old friend Elbridge Gerry (that Elbridge Gerry—the one who gave gerrymandering its name) to provide an unofficial back-channel and give him on-the-ground information. He also did something else that showed uncommon, and even self-sacrificial tact—he temporarily withheld from Congress the official dispatches describing the bribery request. While it would have certainly helped his domestic political standing, Adams knew release of the information would almost certainly lead to demands for full-scale war. Adams also knew the United States was not ready for that, no matter how distracted the French might otherwise have been. Instead, the two sides engaged in harassing one another in the Quasi-War, with Adams’ new Navy gaining some important victories. This, plus pressures on the French to focus on the British, convinced Napoleon that a negotiated settlement would make more sense, and talks between the sides renewed in 1800. Ultimately, an agreement was reached (word, naturally, reaching the United States just after the 1800 election), and its success later helped Jefferson (again, naturally) consummate the Louisiana Purchase.
What Adams did not do well, he often did exceedingly badly. First and foremost of his failures was in practicing politics. He was awful. Last month I wrote that Adams really was an 18th-Century man. His idea of governance generally and of the Presidency in specific, was driven by what the historian Joseph Ellis has called “a long-term collective interest for the public that could be divorced from partisanship.”
It’s a lovely concept, and something that has an emotional appeal for centrists even today—a President who genuinely works for all Americans. Yet, just as we are now reminded over and over that politics infects the perception of any issue, it was just as true the day George Washington left office. The old General had stature like none other, but even he could not hold back the tide of groups of men aligning themselves to pursue their parochial interests at the expense of national ones. Parties, and their oft-times narrow interests, will inevitably dominate.
What was beyond the reach of Washington at the end was certainly impossible for a John Adams. Equally clear were the cracks in the Hamilton-led Federalist Party. Too many Americans of influence instinctively rejected the more autocratic philosophical underpinnings of the Federalists’ view of individual liberties. The French Revolution and writings like the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” inspired many to reject not just monarchs, but monarchical tendencies, well-intended or not. Many of the newly-minted Democratic-Republicans thought they were choosing freedom, and even if they didn’t aspire to elevated principles, they surely were seeking the freedom from being governed.
In fact, the Republican caricature of Federalists as monocrats and potential autocrats had more than a little truth to it. This was especially true of “High Federalists,” and Adams’ Cabinet was filled with High Federalist holdovers who were beholden (and reported) to Hamilton. Hamilton had an abiding love for centralized authority—when he was close to the central authority.
A lot can be made of the policy differences between Adams’ Cabinet and Adams himself—although, ultimately, he often followed their advice. Of just as much consequence was the animosity and even contempt some of the members had for Adams. Faced with that, he did something no other President, while in office, had done before or has done since….he literally went home, and stayed there. For seven months, between March to September 1799, Adams was in Peacefield, working in comparative solitude. As bizarre as that might seem to some (and it was noticed by his contemporaries), in a time when there were no long-standing traditions to adhere to, and public opinion was formed more by preference than norms, Adams went his own way—literally. He walled himself off from the hostility of some of his Cabinet, his Party, and perhaps even the public.
The great Presidents have egos strong enough that they are capable of surrounding themselves with able advisors with creative minds and a willingness to provide contrary views. They also have the capacity to absorb criticism while not being deflected from their primary purpose. Lincoln and FDR had those qualities. Adams had an extraordinary intellect and an ample ego, but a thin skin.
That thin skin got him into trouble more than was necessary and certainly contributed to his most egregious political mistake, one that mars his reputation to this day, his signing of the four laws that have come to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Politics is essential, but it can bring out the ugly in people. In November of 1860, in “The American Experiment,” the New York Daily Tribune asked, “Is it possible for a Government to be permanently maintained without privileged classes, without a standing army, and without either hereditary or self-appointed rulers? Is the democratic principle of equal rights, general suffrage, and government by a majority, capable of being carried into practical operation, and that, too, over a large extent of country?”
In 1860, with the nation on the brink of Civil War, that question seemed particularly timely, but if you had asked it in 1800, I think the answer would have been even less clear. Breaking free of England did not mean breaking free of the passions, ambitions, and sometimes expedient behavior of men. With the biggest man of all retiring to his figs and his vines, the center did not, and could not, hold. Ellis suggests that the center did not even exist. There may be something to that when you consider that many of the very same people who were “in the room” during the Revolution and the drafting and ratification of the Constitution fundamentally disagreed on what the entire exercise meant.
Too many people of influence simply did not recognize that the system they adopted had room for both an elected-but-time-limited government with real authority, and a perhaps-fierce-but-essentially loyal opposition. In the 21st Century, we talk about breaking norms, but, at the beginning of the 19th Century, there were no norms. Disagreements turned venomous; long-time friendships not only frayed, but broke apart; some of the press was unbelievably toxic; and an astonishing number of people committed acts that, objectively, could have been considered genuinely treasonous.
If Lord Acton was correct about power corrupting, the Federalists, perhaps sensing they were losing the argument, decided to flex their muscles. With comparatively little debate, they passed the Naturalization Act, the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act. Immigrants (particularly those from France and Ireland, who were hostile to England, and therefore to Federalists) were targeted in the first three. The Sedition Act cast a much broader net…it was to be a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government or its officials. The Senate passed them on, of all dates, July 4th, apparently thinking them an appropriate way to celebrate the day. Adams wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about any of the four, but, after urging from Federalists and his wife Abigail, who usually had impeccable political instincts, he signed them all.
It was a monumental mistake that perhaps a man who really understood how to play the game would have sidestepped. He could have vetoed it, showed himself as a man of principle, someone who really would put the Constitution over narrow personal or party interests.
Unfortunately, Adams didn’t have the ear for it, and an already angry country got angrier. Suffice to say, the partisan press was not cowed. In response, Federalist prosecutors filed a total of 18 indictments against those who spoke unkindly of the “government or its officials,” making many local heroes, or at least martyrs for the cause. In one particularly embarrassing moment, a New Jersey publisher who was a bit of a lush was prosecuted for referring to the size of Adams’ backside—and acquitted by the jury. Adams did have a capacious one, and truth was a defense.
Beyond the theatre, there was also a more formal and cerebral response that would have an impact well beyond the moment. Jefferson (as in, “Vice President Jefferson”) consulted with Madison, and both got busy authoring legislative responses—Jefferson’s the Kentucky Resolutions and Madison’s the Virginia Resolutions. Madison’s was widely circulated in the national press. Far more the Constitutional scholar than Jefferson, he made cogent arguments that led inevitably to the idea that individuals have rights (in this case freedom of speech and the press) that, if infringed upon by the government, must ultimately be vindicated in the federal courts through what would be called Judicial Review. As for Jefferson, much less the institutionalist and far more the revolutionary, he initially drafted his Kentucky Resolutions explicitly to include both nullification and secession. The Kentucky Legislative leadership excised nullification from the final bill, and Madison quietly persuaded Jefferson to step back from the secession portion. Still, Jefferson’s approach toward defining the relationship between the states and the federal government was echoed by those who joined the Confederacy in 1861.
There were other, more immediately practical political considerations as well. The Anti-immigrant portion of the bills was, unsurprisingly, noticed by immigrants, and helped bring large numbers of Irish in New York and Germans in Pennsylvania over to the Republican side.
The truth was that the Federalists were losing the argument across the country, and the Alien and Sedition Acts were just one cause among many. Election Day proved that, and more. Adams actually ran more strongly than down-ballot Federalists. Two years later, Federalists were crushed in the Midterms—Jefferson had veto-proof margins from 1802 on. Federalists never elected another President, and, beyond holding some pockets of strength in New England, were never a serious factor again on a national level.
What did it all mean? That is hard to say. Jefferson later referred to his victory as the Revolution of 1800, but Republican ascendency, despite its Philosopher King, wasn’t as much about a unifying set of principles as it was a rejection of whatever it was that the Federalists stood for. As Jefferson would later come to realize, Republicans really weren’t united on much beyond not being Federalists.
A few final ironies. Adams’ bad luck carried through to the end, but he had the pleasure of signing the Treaty of Mortefontaine, which formally ended the Quasi-War. Alexander Hamilton’s irrational dislike of his fellow Federalist Adams led him to author a scalding repudiation of the President, which, coming late in the campaign, did virtually nothing to hurt Adams, but enraged many Federalists and all but destroyed Hamilton’s reputation. And, finally, with but a month to go in his term, Adams nominated John Marshall, our greatest Chief Justice. Marshall stayed on the bench until 1835, almost certainly the last Federalist of national importance.
Now, John Adams was going home, have served his country imperfectly, and often crankily, but well and with honor. He climbed up into the stagecoach, and found he was sharing it with Theodore Sedgwick, the just deposed Speaker of the House. The two men had been allies at one point, but now cordially and thoroughly disliked each other. The good news, for Adams, was that Sedgwick would be getting off—in Massachusetts.