How We Got Here: The Reign of Mr. Adams

Welcome to the latest How We Got Here series! The next few columns will examined the frenzied politics and repressive policies of John Adams’ presidency, especially the Alien and Sedition Acts. 

March 4th, 1797 was a glorious day for the United States of America. After eight years as America’s president, George Washington peacefully left office, turning the reins over to Vice President John Adams. Dressed in an elegant outfit, flanked by Washington and incoming Vice President Thomas Jefferson, Adams addressed Congress, the Supreme Court and a smattering of other notables with an address remarkable in its verbosity, high-mindedness and conciliatory nature:

There may be little solidity in an ancient idea that congregations of men into cities and nations are the most pleasing objects in the sight of superior intelligences, but this is very certain, that to a benevolent human mind there can be no spectacle presented by any nation more pleasing, more noble, majestic, or august, than an assembly like that which has so often been seen in this and the other Chamber of Congress, of a Government in which the Executive authority, as well as that of all the branches of the Legislature, are exercised by citizens selected at regular periods by their neighbors to make and execute laws for the general good…For it is the people only that are represented. It is their power and majesty that is reflected, and only for their good, in every legitimate government, under whatever form it may appear. The existence of such a government as ours for any length of time is a full proof of a general dissemination of knowledge and virtue throughout the whole body of the people. And what object or consideration more pleasing than this can be presented to the human mind? If national pride is ever justifiable or excusable it is when it springs, not from power or riches, grandeur or glory, but from conviction of national innocence, information, and benevolence.

It was an indelible moment for the young country, and the high point in the prolific, often stormy career of John Adams. It showed that American democracy worked, at least to the extent of allowing peaceful transitions of power. It offered an olive branch to Vice President Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans, inviting them to abandon nascent party politics and join Adams and the Federalists in common cause for their country. Even Benjamin Franklin Bache, the fiercely Republican editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, assured readers that the new President was “a man of incorruptible integrity, and that the resources of his mind are equal to the duties of his station.”

It also provided an overture to one of the most bitterly divisive periods in American history. For within weeks of Adams’ inauguration, any appearance of national harmony had been rent asunder, as the nation faced imminent war abroad and oppression at home. And the President, despite his belated efforts to check them, bears much of the blame for both.

Adams head
John Adams

Few Revolutionaries could match John Adams’ distinguished pedigree. From Braintree lawyer to delegate to the Continental Congress, from diplomat negotiating French and Dutch alliance to affecting a postwar rapprochement with England, Adams had most recently languished for eight years as Washington’s Vice President. Given few duties besides presiding over the Senate, Adams dubbed his post “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” After such suffering, enduring taunts as “the Duke of Braintree” and “His Rotundity” for his efforts to gain Washington a more regal title than “Mr. President,” becoming President himself seemed a just reward.

Historians have long pondered the contradictions in Adams’ character: his brilliance and pettiness, eloquence and vitriol, farsightedness and vanity all competing for pride of place. Adams himself admitted that “I sometimes suspect that I deserve a character of peevishness and fretfulness, rather than firmness.” Benjamin Franklin, who served with Adams both in the Continental Congress and as a diplomat in Paris, provided the most lasting, and telling, interpretation of the man’s character. “He means well for his country,” Franklin wrote, “is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”

Franklin Adams Jefferson
Franklin, Adams and Jefferson in happier times

Thus Adams proved during his administration. He adopted bellicose language towards enemies foreign and domestic and sanctioned repressive laws against political opponents, then attempted to negotiate with peace with France over the objections of his own party. He sanctioned the construction of a Navy and the creation of a “Provisional Army” while hobbling them with inadequate funding. One historian accused Adams of following “a dogma of balance,” attempting with mixed success to reconcile the forces warring within American society. Yet in other ways, he dutifully followed the Federalist program, not least in his contempt for civil liberties.

Early Federalists expressed shockingly blunt contempt for democracy, deriding the will of the electorate as “King Numbers” and rejecting utterly the Republican attachment to states rights and limited government. Fisher Ames, Congressman from Massachusetts, warned that democracy was “the worst of all governments” and “government by the passions of the multitude,” while James Kent of New York feared that universal suffrage would “jeopardize the rights of property and the principles of liberty.” Alexander Hamilton initially supported a hereditary presidency and the lifetime appointment of Senators and continued to champion a strong, even authoritarian central government.

Alexander Hamilton, fallen Party leader

Hamilton’s program of a national bank assuming state debts, his system of taxation, lobbying for a standing army and his abrasive personality caused many to view him as a nascent dictator. Worse for Republicans, he openly advocated an alliance (commercial, if not necessarily military) with England, arguing thatWe think in English, and have a similarity of prejudices and of predilections.” Thus opponents viewed many actions advocated by Hamilton, notably his role in crushing Pennsylvania’s Whiskey Rebellion by force, as returning America to the very monarchy they had rejected a decade earlier.

By the time Adams took office, however, Hamilton no longer held significant power. He had resigned from the Treasury Department in 1795, and a humiliating personal scandal ruined his chances at a comeback. Rumors of a financial conspiracy with speculator James Reynolds (exposed by James T. Callender, a Scottish-born Republican pamphleteer) forced Hamilton to disclose his affair with Maria Reynolds in a self-immolating confession that torched his public career. Smoldering with resentment, Hamilton nonetheless hoped to exercise control over Adams, despite detesting the incoming President’s “disgusting egotism…distempered jealousy and…ungovernable discretion.”

Hamilton Washington
Washington and Hamilton in wartime

Adams, for his part, couldn’t stand the man he branded “a bastard brat of a Scotch peddler,” a revolutionary upstart ruled by his naked lust for power. Abigail Adams, her Massachusetts Puritanism offended both by Hamilton’s naked ambition and womanizing, remarked on his “wicked eyes” and warned her husband that Hamilton was “as ambitious as Julius Caesar, a subtle intriguer. His abilities would make him dangerous if he was to espouse a wrong side.”

This mutual contempt dated from the first election in 1788, when Hamilton convinced several electors to withhold votes from Adams to ensure Washington’s victory. Hamilton affected this maneuver to circumvent the labyrinthine rules of early American politics (where electors voted separately for President and Vice President, which in 1800 caused Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, ostensible running mates, to tie) rather than from any dislike towards Adams. Once Adams learned of Hamilton’s perfidy, however, he never forgave him. And no one nursed resentments better than John Adams.

Timothy Pickering, Federalist Machiavelli

Nor could Adams rely on his cabinet, inherited without change from Washington. This gesture of continuity backfired, as Adams never trusted men he deemed “subservient to Hamilton.” Oliver Wolcott proved a competent, efficient successor to Hamilton as Treasury Secretary, but he regularly leaked cabinet documents to Hamilton and other Federalists hostile to Adams. James McHenry, Adams’ Secretary of War, was branded an affable, slow-witted incompetent even by friends (Hamilton labeled him “wholly inefficient for his place, with the additional misfortune of not having the least suspicion of the fact”). Not to mention Timothy Pickering, the devious Secretary of State who emerged as the era’s singular villain.

For now, however, Adams, Hamilton and High Federalists alike focused their wrath on other enemies, rather than each other. One enemy was internal: the so-called Democratic-Republican Party coalescing around Thomas Jefferson, whose election as Adams’ Vice President made him no less suspect. The other was external: France, still in the throes of their anti-monarchical Revolution, the agonies of the Directory and violent wars with reactionary Europe.

Louis XVI
French Revolution: Louis XVI’s execution

Americans debated, almost from its beginning, whether the French Revolution signified an extension of their own uprising against monarchical tyranny or an outrage far beyond their own democratic revolution. Some, like Jefferson, recalled France’s instrumental role in American independence and insisted the United States must return the favor. Hamilton and other Federalists pointed out that their alliance had been concluded with a now-dead King, not the fractious, fanatical new Republic.

Still, much of the initial public reaction was Francophiliac. Americans in Philadelphia and other cities donned French cockades, addressed each other as “Citizen” and “Citess” in imitation of the Jacobins, and sang revolutionary ballads in the streets; many shops even sold toy guillotines to children. Dozens of so-called Democratic-Republican Societies sprung up around the country, especially in the mid-Atlantic, organized mainly by middle-class merchants and German immigrants. But the longer and bloodier the Revolution became (especially in 1793, following the executions of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the onset of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror), the harder it became for many Americans to stomach its apparent excesses.

Citizen Genet

The French Directory erred disastrously in April 1793 by appointing Edmond Genet as Ambassador to the United States. A well-educated but fanatical revolutionary, Genet seemed to deliberately antagonize President Washington and other American officials with his hot rhetoric and offensive actions. Genet used his diplomatic mission as cover to recruit privateers and American volunteers to fight against France’s enemies, even raising an army to invade Spanish Florida. Such provocations led to Genet’s recall as Ambassador; nonetheless, Washington granted Genet asylum the following year when the Directory sentenced him to death.

Washington’s efforts to maintain neutrality increased pressure both at home and abroad. In 1794, Washington sent John Jay to negotiate a peace with England in response to British attacks on American vessels and support for hostile Indians. The resultant treaty, which Republicans characterized as appeasement to the country’s natural enemy, caused a ferocious backlash which eroded Washington’s near-universal popularity and gave impetus to the burgeoning Democratic-Republicans. Jay claimed that he could travel from one end of the country to the other by the light of his burning effigies.

Jay’s Treaty: the death of national unity

Even President Washington, once sainted above all Americans, became a target for ridicule. Benjamin Franklin Bache commented that “if ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington,” while Thomas Paine savaged him as “treacherous in private friendship…and a hypocrite in public life.” Another Republican editor, Philip Freneau, penned a grotesque satire entitled “The Funeral Dirge of George Washington,” which depicted gleeful Republicans guillotining the President as a traitor. Such attacks infuriated Washington, who attributed to them his eagerness to leave office after a second term.

By the time Washington turned over the reins to Adams, America’s split over foreign policy, exacerbated by growing party tensions, became irrevocable. Thomas Jefferson commented that “The President is fortunate to get off just as the bubble is bursting, leaving others to hold the bag.” Washington’s admonishment to avoid “the baneful effects of the spirit of Party” fell on deaf ears, as the country tore itself apart over issues both momentous and trivial, political and personal.

Thomas Jefferson

Within weeks of his inauguration, Adams received distressing news. After Jefferson and James Madison declined requests to serve as envoys to France, Adams selected Charles Coatesworth Pinckney, an independent-minded Federalist from South Carolina who’d clashed with Washington over the Jay Treaty. But the French refused to accept Pinckney’s credentials, a pointed insult to the new President. Then the French Navy escalated its attacks on American shipping, destroying American merchant vessels and impressing their sailors into service (a practice which, executed by England, later triggered the War of 1812). Tales of savage mistreatment of American sailors, including a captain tortured with thumbscrews, infused horror with rage.

Adams responded with a belligerent address to Congress. On May 16th, 1797, he attacked the “depredations to our commerce, the personal injuries to our sailors and the general complexion of our affairs,” urging Congress to authorize the arming of American merchant vessels. Shortly afterwards, following a special session of Congress, Adams approved the creation of six frigates to form the backbone of a modern American navy. With diplomacy flagging as Adams scrambled to find new commissioners, the country seemed headed on a path to war.

Overnight, faddish Francophilia transformed into revulsion and fear. Federalist newspapers warned of dire plots involving foreign emigres; by some estimates, some 30,000 Frenchmen lived in the United States in 1797, including refugees both from Europe and the slave revolt in Haiti. Among their number was Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, a former Assemblyman who became the unofficial head of France’s exile community. Once welcomed in America, Saint-Méry observed that under Adams, “everybody was suspicious of everybody else…everywhere one saw murderous glances” and encouraged his fellow Frenchmen to “get out and get out quick!”

Quelle Horreur!

Nor were French exiles the only suspect immigrants. America’s Irish population, though still relatively small in number and concentrated mainly in coastal cities, were  considered a vulgar, un-American rabble. Wolfe Tone’s abortive rebellion in 1798, aided by French troops, led to a further diaspora of so-called “United Irishmen” to the United States, suspect both in religion and politics. Worse, many Irishmen had the effrontery to become active in American politics, from Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon to newspaper publisher John Daly Burk, almost invariably as Republicans. Many German-Americans, too, aligned themselves with Jefferson, especially in Pennsylvania where resentment of federal taxation still burned, long after the Whiskey Rebellion.

Dire, hysterical warnings about these alleged radicals abounded. In a much-republished bromide, the Albany Centinel warned readers that the French threatened “your houses and farms with fire, plunder and pillage! And your wives and sweethearts with ravishment and assassination, by horrid outlandish sans culotte Frenchmen!” Others added racial terror to the mix, insisting France would unleash Haitian soldiers and rebellious American slaves on patriots. The York General Advertiser advised Americans to “remove your daughters, unless you would be silent spectators of their being deflowered by the lusty Othellos!” (These esteemed organs didn’t explain why Haiti would side with France against America while simultaneously fighting a war of independence against them.)

Haitian Revolution: massacre at Cape Francais

Such imprecations were as absurd as they were racist, not least because the Federalist leaders counted immigrants among their own leadership. Few missed the rich irony of Alexander Hamilton, born on St. Nevis, arguing that “the mass [of immigrants] ought to be obliged to leave the country,” with exceptions made for merchants and skilled tradesmen. James McHenry, Secretary of War, harbored equally reactionary views despite hailing from Ireland. Not to mention opinion-makers like William Cobbett, the English historian and journalist living in New York, who published scabrous anti-Republican essays under the pseudonym “Peter Porcupine.”

Occasionally, the Federalists proved more candid about their motivations. Uriah Tracey of Connecticut labeled Irishmen “the most God-provoking democrats on this side of Hell,” as unlikely to support federalism as they were to abandon their Catholic faith. William Bingham of Pennsylvania was even blunter, arguing that stripping immigrants of rights and protections would “deprive them of the power of influencing elections.” Thus Federalist allegations of voter fraud (not entirely unfounded in the corrupt early days of American politics) proved another handy tool for achieving one-party rule.

Wolf Tone
Irish Revolution: The Battle of Vinegar Hill

And Napoleon Bonaparte’s smashing victories in Europe, destroying Austrian armies in Italy, lent surface credibility to fears of a French invasion of America (which Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, ill-fated though it ultimately proved, and his vows to reconquer Haiti further reinforced). With Spain wobbling towards an alliance with France, their control of Florida and Louisiana, lands already coveted by American expansionists, provided another potential menace to American sovereignty, especially in the face of the new republic’s westward expansion.

Worse, America, at this point, lacked any real military – an issue which became another partisan flash point. President Washington, well-acquainted from his wartime leadership with the inefficiency of state militias, watched two expeditions into the Northwest Territories succumb to better-organized (and British-backed) Shawnee and Miami Indians. Only the creation of a “Legion of the United States” led by Anthony Wayne, which in 1794 smashed the Natives at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, overcame this resistance.

Yet most Americans still viewed a standing army as anathema to liberty. Did not the Revolution begin, in part, over Britain installing military rule in Boston? Did not the Constitution’s Third Amendment prohibit private quartering of soldiers? Many knew that American military officers were in hoc to foreign powers (like James Wilkinson, a paid agent of the Spanish Empire). There were also fears, memorably expressed by Elbridge Gerry, that a standing army would resemble an erect penis, becoming “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Battle of Fallen Timbers

As hysteria grew in place of an army, Federalist conspiracy theories become even more elaborate and absurd. John Fenno of the American Gazette warned that Americans must avoid French tutors and nursemaids, who would “make [children] imbibe, with their very milk, the poison of atheism and disaffection.” Jedidiah Morse delivered several sermons blaming the French Revolution on the Illuminati, even claiming to possess a Joe McCarthy-like list of “known Illuminati members” residing in the United States. (His son, Samuel Morse, played a major role in spreading anti-Catholic conspiracy theories a generation later.)

Such conspiracies naturally incorporated the Republicans, whose affections for the French Revolution often took material form. After all, Thomas Jefferson had helped the Marquis de Lafayette draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and, as Washington’s Secretary of State, strongly advocated support for, if not active alliance with the French Republic. Even when the Jacobins turned to violence, Jefferson asserted that “France [is] the sheet anchor of this country” and branded Federalists “apostates…who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.” The Republicans were more than capable of their own heated rhetoric, wild conspiracy theories and reckless character assassination.

But in 1797, the Federalists alone possessed the power to act on their fears. Thus, when a Federalist paper asserted that “whatever American opposes the Administration is an anarchist, a Jacobin and a traitor,” it carried behind it the force of law and weight of government. Or at least it would, if only the Government would act.

Sedition Cartoon

Part II will discuss the XYZ Affair, the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the prosecution of Congressman Nathaniel Lyon. I will attempt to provide linked citations for each article, along with a short bibliographic essay in the last entry.