Friday, June 25, 2021

The Founders Fight: Adams Goes Home

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.

The Founders Fight: Adams Goes Home was first posted on June 22, 2021 at

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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

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.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.

The Founders Flounders: Adams Agonistes was first published on May 24, 2021 on

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