How We Got Here: The Prospect Before Us

Part Five in a series; see Parts One, Two, Three and Four

By fall 1799, John Adams no longer found the prospect of war with France desirable. He toned down his belligerent rhetoric and dispatched a new peace commission, headed by Oliver Ellsworth, to treat with Talleyrand. He did this over the objections of most of his cabinet, who still held fast to the desirability of war. Then, in February 1800 he decided to disband the New Army, which in any way languished from poor recruitment, inadequate supplies and no feasible plan of action.

Gone was the Adams who’d present a fiery address to Congress or incite a patriotic mob in military uniform. Now he tried remaking himself as peacemaker, hellbent on averting an “unnecessary war” with France. To do so, especially in an election year, he would face the disbelief of Republicans and the wrath of his own Federalist Party.

Adams Hot
John Adams

Adams’ relationship with Alexander Hamilton, never warm, grew increasingly strained throughout his Administration. The final breaking point appears to have been a meeting in Trenton, New Jersey in October 1799. Hamilton had been reviewing the New Army and wore military uniform, addressing the President in a tiresome monologue assuring England would defeat France, restore the Bourbons and wage war against the United States. Thus, Hamilton concluded, there would be no purpose in treating with France.

In these predictions, Hamilton was extremely prescient, though all these developments occurred long after his death. Regardless, they had no bearing on the validity of forestalling war with France. Adams dismissed Hamilton’s argument, remarking that “Never in my life did I hear a man talk more like a fool.” The two men never again met, and rarely corresponded.

Besides the Trenton meeting and Adams’ peace policy, other considerations played their parts in their fallout: George Washington’s death in December 1799, which likely removed the immediate impetus for retaining party unity; the ongoing failure of Hamilton’s New Army to form a sustainable fighting force; the looming Presidential election; and the continued obliviousness of Federalists to the damage wrought by the Alien and Sedition Acts. With Hamilton no longer an ally, Adams felt free to turn on his disloyal cabinet.

James McHenry

Adams’ charge that his cabinet were merely Hamilton’s playthings is overblown. This accusation probably fell fairest on the hapless James McHenry. Like Hamilton, McHenry had moved from idealistic immigrant (originally from Ireland) to ardent Federalist; like Hamilton, he had served on George Washington’s staff during the Revolution. Unlike the brilliant and talented Hamilton, McHenry was hopelessly incompetent, mismanaging the War Department and its military preparations to a degree that sabotaged Federalist efforts to precipitate conflict with France. He was so ill-suited for the basic job of advising the President that he often relayed Hamilton’s suggestions verbatim. He retained his post, it seemed, from dogged loyalty to Federalism and personal amiability rather than his nonexistent skill.

Still, McHenry cannot have anticipated the scene he faced on May 5, 1800. Summoned to Adams’ office, the Secretary of War faced an extraordinary torrent of abuse from the President, who seemed to relish unloading years’ worth of resentments against his party’s Hamilton faction. He called Hamilton “the greatest intriguant – a man devoid of every moral principle – a bastard, and as much a foreigner as [Albert] Gallatin.” He praised Jefferson as “an infinitely better man” than Hamilton, concluding that “Washington saddled me with three Secretaries who would control me, but I shall take care of that!

Dumbfounded, McHenry muttered some halfhearted protests before suggesting that he resign. Adams agreed, concluding that “you cannot, sir, remain longer in office.” Having exhausted his rage, Adams then apologized to McHenry for his crude outburst and, curiously, praised McHenry’s affability and good faith as he departed. Unimpressed, McHenry formally resigned a week later, sending a written account to Hamilton and other Federalists labeling the President as “actually insane.”

Timothy Pickering

Next came Timothy Pickering. Adams and his crafty Secretary of State had long disliked each other, with one observer commenting that they “hate each other with the utmost cordiality.” Nonetheless, their working relationship initially experienced few difficulties, with Pickering ardently endorsing Adams’ saber-rattling diplomacy and his prosecutions of political enemies. Pickering once responded to critics of the Sedition Act by writing that “the Constitution was established for the protection and security of American citizens, and not of intriguing foreigners.” Adams responded warmly, telling Pickering “I…wish you had to answer all the saucy addresses I have received.”

Yet after Pickering opposed the appointment of Adams’ son-in-law, William Smith, as a general in the New Army, a rupture became inevitable. It became harder to hide as Adams intensified diplomacy with France, which left Pickering to complain that “the honor of this country is prostrated in the dust.” Pickering became openly insubordinate, consulting with Hamilton and other High Federalists behind Adams’ back and even blocking correspondence from diplomats suggesting that peace with France was at hand. Where McHenry was an incompetent liability, Pickering became a subversive menace.

Shortly after McHenry’s resignation, Adams’ drafted a terse letter to Pickering requesting that he follow suit. Pleading both duty to his country and a need to provide for his family, Pickering concluded that “I do not feel it to be my duty to resign.” Adams, enraged, responded with a single sentence, its acid barely disguised in formal language: “Diverse causes and considerations essential to the administration of government, in my judgment requiring a change in the department of state, you are hereby further discharged from any further service as Secretary of State.” His replacement was John Marshall, former emissary to France and much more amenable to Adams’ peace program.

Theodore Sedgwick

High Federalists were thunderstruck by this rupture between Adams and his cabinet, long simmering but not entirely expected. (Surprisingly, Oliver Wolcott remained Adams’ Treasury Secretary despite his closeness to Hamilton.) Theodore Sedgwick, Speaker of the House, attacked the President as a “weak and frantic old man” and urged his ouster. Most Federalists were more chary about abandoning Adams, who retained solid support in New England. Samuel Dexter, another Massachusetts Congressman, warned that any Federalists opposing Adams would “crumble the Federal Party to atoms.”

But Hamilton hated Adams so much that he’d risk Jefferson’s victory for revenge. “If we must have an enemy at the head of the government,” Hamilton concluded, “let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible.” Thus he covertly supported Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Adams’ ostensible running mate, for President. Hamilton assailed Adams with an open letter characterizing the President as “a man of an imagination sublimated and eccentric; propitious neither to the regular display of sound judgment, nor to steady perseverance in a systematic plan of conduct” and possessing “the unfortunate foibles of a vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of discoloring every object.” Republican wags wondered how long it would be until Adams prosecuted Hamilton for sedition.

This infighting came amidst a presidential election far more heated than any of its predecessors (and which, even today, remains unparalleled for sheer venom). Republicans, again nominating Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, attacked Adams as a monarchist and dictator, accusing him of misdeeds both real and fabricated. One missive claimed that Charles Pinckney procured English prostitutes for Adams during a visit to London. For once, Adams saw the humor in this accusation, telling a friend “if this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.”

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

In turn, the Federalists attacked Jefferson as an atheist Jacobin who planned to destroy the nation. The Connecticut Courant, a reliable Federalist broadsheet, foresaw that under a Republican administration, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” Their most creative slur claimed that Jefferson was actually dead, a rumor which slowly spread around the country before it could be repudiated.

Even Adams’ break with Hamilton, and the looming presidential election, didn’t end prosecutions under the Sedition Act. If anything, during the waning months of his presidency, prosecutions seemed to intensify. With Hamilton self-destructing, Jefferson untouchable and many Republican journalists either dead or jailed, Adams turned his focus on a longtime irritant: journalist James T. Callender.

Fleeing England after advocating Scottish independence and feuding with Samuel Johnson, Callender remade himself into America’s premiere political gadfly. Occasionally writing for Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Philadelphia Aurora, he honed political gossip and innuendo into a savage weapon against Federalism. His biggest coup had come in 1797; he exposed Hamilton’s connections with James Reynolds, suggesting Hamilton’s claims of an “amorous connection with his wife” were merely the cover for financial misdeeds (forcing Hamilton into a humiliating public rebuttal). Now he set his sights on the President.


Callender fully understood that such an attack skirted the law; indeed, he fully expected martyrdom. “He who cannot submit to a few years of incarceration for the good of his country degrades the Dignity of Man,” he boasted. On May 2, 1800, he published “The Prospect Before Us,” condemning President Adams in savage terms – and dooming its author to imprisonment.

“The Prospect Before Us” remains a masterpiece of political invective, savaging Adams for his politics and personality in equal measure. “The reign of Mr. Adams has been one continued tempest of malignant passions,” Callender writes. He savages the President as “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” After dozens of pages of similar invective, Callender urges Americans to “take your choice…between Adams, war and beggary, and Jefferson, peace and competency.”

Retaliation against Callender wasn’t long in coming. On May 24, 1800 the Attorney General of Maryland, Luther Martin, issued an indictment against Callender, describing him as “a person of wicked, depraved, evil disposed, disquiet and turbulent mind and disposition.” Not only that, but Callender found himself in the courtroom of fanatical Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who assured a trial even more rigged than William Duane received before the Senate.

Samuel Chase

Declaring “a licentious press is the bane of freedom and the peril of Society,” Chase made a conviction inevitable. He stacked the jury with Federalists (refusing to select “any of these creatures…called democrats”) and severely limited Callender’s defense team from presenting a proper defense. “No evidence…is admissible that does not go to justify the whole charge,” Chase insisted, claiming that Callender’s testimony on other matters “would…destroy public treaties and public faith.”

One of Callender’s attorneys, future Attorney General William Wirt, protested Chase’s extrajudicial harangues vociferously, insisting that his actions was unconstitutional. Chase haughtily rebuffed Wirt’s complaints, saying that “to believe such an accusation is an attack upon the people themselves,” equating the President’s dignity with the public good and claiming the Constitution irrelevant in this case. In a gratuitous but predictable slur, Chase added that he was “extremely happy that Callender was not a native American.”

Frustrated with Chase’s outrageous behavior, Wirt and his co-counsels quit the case, leaving Callender to his fate. Callender received a nine month prison sentence, which didn’t stop him in the slightest. While imprisoned, Callender published another anti-Adams pamphlet, cheekily entitled “More Sedition,” asserting that Adams was “entitled not only to the laughter, but likewise to the curses of mankind.” This enraged Judge Chase, who threatened to beat Callender upon his release. Callender responded that “in case of an attack, I’ll shoot him.”

William Wirt

(This tale had a deliciously ironic twist. Callender would be pardoned by Thomas Jefferson, who refused to appoint the journalist to a much-coveted government sinecure as Postmaster of Richmond. Callender responded by publishing lurid but largely accurate accounts of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. In 1803 Callender drowned in a Virginia river, ostensibly drunk, though Federalists happily spread rumors that Jefferson or his allies played a role in his demise. Chase, meanwhile, later became the first Supreme Court Justice to suffer impeachment.)

Federalist efforts to silence electoral opponents proved in vain. Adams came an embarrassing third to Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who deadlocked in the Electoral College and set in motion another constitutional crisis. With Adams refusing to intervene, Republicans feared that Federalists in Congress would exploit the deadlock, allowing either Adams or an interim president to retain power. Adams’ efforts to stack the Supreme Court and other judiciary positions with Federalists, the so-called “Midnight Judges,” seemingly lent credence to the idea.

Fortunately, Republican fears of a Federalist coup proved unfounded. Hamilton, forced to choose between two of his biggest rivals, ultimately found Jefferson less distasteful than Burr, allowing Congress to rupture the deadlock. Adams (who, to both his chagrin and satisfaction, received word of a successful peace treaty with France after the election) refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration, an understandable blemish on an otherwise remarkable transfer of power. Despite everything that had occurred in the past four years, the American system still worked.

Hamilton’s reputation seesaws between admiration and scorn, depending on the cultural and political moment. (His current approbation owes far more to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, than an eruption of fresh scholarship.) Certainly his financial genius and recognition of America’s future power and potential cannot be faulted. But his brilliance came seeded with authoritarianism; he remained inherently distrustful of democracy and wedded to an aristocracy of merit. Shortly before dying at Aaron Burr’s hand, Hamilton wrote Theodore Sedgwick that “our real disease is…democracy”; he told another Federalist, Gouverneur Morris, that “every day proves to me more and more, that this American world is not meant for me.”

Hamilton Duel
Exit Hamilton

The same could be said for the Federalist Party. Having guided the Republic through its shaky childhood, after Adams’ defeat and Hamilton’s death the Federalists atrophied into obsolesce. Through the 1800s, the Party shrank into increasingly small enclaves in New England, reinforcing its image as spokesmen of Northern financial elites. Backlash against the War of 1812 briefly revived the Party, with DeWitt Clinton of New York uniting Federalists and antiwar Republicans in a near-victory over James Madison, but their involvement in the Hartford Convention (organized by Timothy Pickering), contemplating secession over the War, discredited them. Four years later, their ostensible candidate, Rufus King, refused to accept a worthless nomination; by the next election, Federalism virtually ceased to exist.

As President, Jefferson largely abandoned his pretenses of small government, for both good and ill. He made little effort to overhaul Hamilton’s financial system, and he accepted the Louisiana Purchase from France without consulting Congress. His efforts to enforce the Embargo Act towards Britain led to arrests and prosecutions of merchants who refused to follow instructions. He even initiated libel cases against journalists perceived to unfairly criticize his administration (one such defendant, Harry Croswell, even hired Alexander Hamilton as a defense attorney!). Jefferson’s rueful lament that “we are all Federalists now” spoke as much to his acceptance of presidential power as the endurance of Hamilton’s framework.

John Adams, meanwhile, outlived his party and lasted long enough to see his son become President. He spent the rest of his life trying to vindicate himself and settle scores through memoirs, letters and other writings, casting himself as the central figure in American independence. Of his tumultuous presidency, he told Abigail that his preferred gravestone would read: “Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of Peace with France in the year 1800.” Regardless, the Alien and Sedition Acts remain a deserved black mark upon his reputation.

Adams Geezer

In hindsight, characterizing Adams’ presidency as a “reign of terror” may seem hyperbolic. Compared to the violent scenes of Revolutionary France, American politics in the 1790s seem relatively benign; heated words, congressional scuffles and even the occasional riot can’t compare to the thousands of Frenchmen slain by guillotines and firing squads. The worst excesses passed with Adams’ departure from office; the Alien Enemies Act immediately expired, and the others were no longer enforced (the Sedition Act still on the books originated from Woodrow Wilson’s wartime excesses 120 years later).

Yet these four years exacerbated divisions in American society that never truly healed, demonstrating how precarious political unity was. Debates over American finances, driven by both class and regional distinctions, remained a defining issue in American politics for decades and shaped political discourse to this day. Eventually, arguments over more malignant issues such as slavery took on a similarly explosive cast. In the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, with their bold assertion of Southern nationalism, future President James Garfield saw that Jefferson’s defiance “contained the germ of nullification and secession.” Certainly the heated rhetoric against foreigners, “media bias” and “subversive” opponents never vanished.

And Adams’ actions provided precedent for future abuses of power: Andrew Jackson’s defiance of the Supreme Court, Abraham Lincoln’s extra-constitutional actions during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson’s crackdowns on civil liberties, Joseph McCarthy’s Red-baiting rampages, Nixon’s paranoid excesses and the assorted abuses of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Certainly, Americans living in 2018 can relate to their country being held captive by a party more devoted to power than public service, and a far less competent and articulate President’s malignant passions.

Alternative facts

Sources and Further Reading

General sources: 

For this series I provided inline, linked citations where possible. Fortunately, for the early American period there is no shortage of primary documents readily available, both online and in print, and I’ve linked them where possible. For those wishing for a deeper understanding of the topic, I’ll provide a brief bibliographic essay summarizing my main sources.

More than anything else, I used three monograms examining the Alien and Sedition Acts: John C. Miller, Crisis in Freedom: The Alien and Sedition Acts (1951); Charles Slack, Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech (2015); and James Smith, Freedom’s Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties (1956). Geoffrey R. Stone’s Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act to the War on Terrorism (2004) devotes its opening chapter to the subject, including detailed accounts of the trials of Callender, Duane and others.

For the era generally, the two most helpful works were Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick’s monumental study The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (1993) and Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (2009), an entry in the Oxford History of the United States. For a counterbalance, Larry E. Tise’s The American Counterrevolution: A Retreat from Liberty, 1783-1800 (1993) argues that America repudiated its revolutionary ideals for the sake of an orderly, functional society.

Part I: There are no shortage of biographies of John Adams, despite (or because of) his mixed historical reputation. David McCullough’s John Adams (2001) is a brisk and engaging read but often overly forgiving of its subject’s faults. John Ferling’s John Adams: A Life (1992) offers a more balanced treatment. Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (2004) deserves its reputation as the best modern biography of that towering but troubled Founder. The debates over the Jay Treaty receive thorough coverage in Elkins and McKitrick, Age of Federalism. See Richard H. Kohn’s Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783-1802 (1975) for a detailed account of debates over a standing military.

Part II: My profile of Matthew Lyon draws heavily on Slack and Stone’s aforementioned works, along with James McLaughlin Fairfax’s Matthew Lyon, the Hampden of Congress (1900). My account of the XYZ Affair comes from Alexander de Conde’s The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801 (1996) and Jean Edward Smith’s John Marshall, Definer of a Nation (1996). Gerald H. Clarfield’s Timothy Pickering and the American Republic (1980) delivers a highly critical portrait of that duplicitous statesman. The Adams Administration’s targeting of French and Irish emigres receives extensive treatment in Tise, American Counterrevolution.

Part III: This article owes a huge debt to Richard N. Rosenfeld’s American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns (1997), a unique book which combines primary source documents, including excerpts from Bach and Duane’s Aurora and other papers, to create a detailed oral history of early America. While Rosenfeld shares his subjects’ Republican sympathies (and incorporates an odd framing device with a fictionalized narrator), it’s an invaluable document for researchers. For more general treatment of early America’s partisan press, see Jeffrey L. Pasley, The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early Republic (2001).

Part IV: For discussions of Franco-American diplomacy and the Quasi-War, see De Conde, Quasi-War. George Logan’s peace mission receives a sympathetic treatment in Tise, American Counterrevolution. The Fries Rebellion receives book-length treatment in Paul Douglas Newman’s Fries’s Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle for the American Revolution (2004).

Part V: Adams’ break with Hamilton and the High Federalists receives heavy coverage in Ferling and McCullough’s biographies, along with the previously cited works by Chernow and Elkins and McKitrick. For Callender’s trial, see Smith, Freedom’s Fetters and Stone, Perilous Times for the most comprehensive treatments. There are numerous monograms on the 1800 election; my brief treatment owes the most to Bernard A. Weisberger’s America Afire: Jefferson, Adams and the First Contested Election (2001).

Thanks to everyone for reading another series! For the foreseeable future, I’ll be posting one-off articles rather than a connected series – easier to research and to write.