John Adams’ Four Turbulent Years as President

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John Adams (1735-1826)

The presidency of John Adams contended with a naval war with France, growing political factionalism, and division over the Alien and Sedition Acts.

John Adams was elected president in 1796. By then, the French Reign of Terror had already ended, Robespierre had been executed, and Napoleon was soon to be First Consul after overthrowing the Directory in 1799. Yet the Adams’ presidency was closely linked with events in France and during his one term America fought the Quasi-War, a naval war with the erstwhile Revolutionary War allies. Domestically, the political “factions” George Washington had warned about in his 1796 Farewell Address had turned Founding Fathers against each other. The Adams’ presidency would be remembered as an early test for the new Republic, a period of turbulence threatening to divide the nation sectionally.

Poor Relations with France Lead to the Alien and Sedition Acts

In June and July 1798, Congress passed an Alien and a Sedition Act, parts of four measures in all dealing with fears ostensibly related to the Quasi-War with France. Historian Alfred Kelly, for example, writes that, “These measures…were deliberately designed to suppress the partisan activities of the Republican political opposition.” Original source writings corroborate this assessment.

Pennsylvania Congressman Albert Gallatin, an anti-Federalist, stated in Congress on July 5, 1798 that, “whoever dislikes the measures of administration and of a temporary majority in Congress, and shall, either by speaking or writing, express his disapprobation…is seditious, an enemy…of the Constitution, and is liable to punishment.” Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, viewed the measures more as an attempt to silence their opposition than as safeguards against republican France.

Congressman Edward Livingston, a New York Republican, equated the presidential powers sanctioned by the measures as “despotism – a union of legislative, executive, and judicial powers.” Even Alexander Hamilton, no friend of Jefferson or Madison in matters political, wrote that the provisions of the Sedition Act were “highly exceptionable” and warned the Congress “not to establish a tyranny.”

The XYZ Affair of 1797 Hurt American-French Relations

The seizure of American ships by the French, leading to the Quasi-War, precipitated the XYZ Affair. Three American envoys, sent to negotiate with French Foreign Minister Talleyrand, were instead met by low level functionaries who demanded a bribe. Americans were outraged. “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute,” a phrase attributed to John Marshall, became the rallying cry. After the publication of the envoy’s dispatches, Federalist Senator Theodore Sedgwick wrote on March 7, 1798, that the publication of the documents “will afford a glorious opportunity to destroy faction.”

Jefferson, writing to Madison on April 6, 1798, referred to the publication as “artful misrepresentations.” In many ways, the XYZ Affair gave the Federalists ammunition to taint the Republican opposition as friendly to the French and therefore potentially threatening. The resulting Alien and Sedition Acts were as much a muzzle on this opposition as they were attempts to stifle French republican influence in the Republic.

End of the Adams’ Presidency

Although the Quasi-War ended in September 1800, Adams was not reelected. His four years had provoked political bitterness between the emerging political parties known as Federalists and Republicans (not to be confused with the current Republican Party which began in 1854).

In the first presidential election decided by the House, Thomas Jefferson would emerge victorious and serve two terms. Relations with France, now under the leadership of Napoleon, would worsen as America became drawn into the Napoleonic Wars.