John Adams was our second President, serving from 1897-1801. He came to the office with a wealth of political experience. Adams had served in the Massachusetts colonial legislature, the Continental Congress, and a variety of diplomatic missions in Europe. He had also served as the first American minister to the Court of St. James (England) after the Revolutionary War. That had proven a particularly difficult assignment, as most Englishmen considered him a rebel traitor who should have been executed rather than a minister from a sovereign nation.
When the new Constitution went into effect, George Washington had been elected President. John Adams had been elected Vice President, and was the logical choice to become the second President. Still, he won in a very close election over Thomas Jefferson, who became his Vice President.
Probably the biggest issue of Adams’ administration was the issue of neutrality and American rights on the high seas. Both England and France were expecting and pressuring the United States to join them in their fight against the other. Both sides had seized American ships heading for ports in the other country. The new Federalist Party, of which Adams was one, wanted to join England against France. The Democratic-Republican Party wanted to join France against England. Adams, following George Washington’s precedent, wanted to remain neutral and get both sides to observe America’s rights.
X-Y-Z Affair. Over time, the United States and France began to fight openly in what was called the Undeclared Naval War. France seized a number of American ships, and war seemed unavoidable. President Adams sent three commissioners to Paris to try to negotiate a solution to the growing problem and prevent war between the two nations.
When the American commissioners arrived, they were kept waiting for days at their hotel. Finally, they were contacted by three officials from the French Foreign Ministry. They were told that the French Foreign Minister would receive them only if they paid him a tribute, another word for an official bribe. This tribute would not guarantee a resolution of the problems but merely that the Americans would be received as representatives of a recognized government. The American commissioners refused to pay the tribute, and returned home.
When they prepared their written report for President Adams, they called the three French Foreign Ministry officials Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Mr. Z. Although the real names eventually leaked out, they were attempting not to create further problems with France by embarrassing their officials. When the report of the “X-Y-Z Affair” became public, war fever immediately swept the United States. “Millions for defense, but not one red cent for tribute!” was the main war cry of those who favored declaring war on France.
Navy Department Created. President Adams immediately began preparing for war. He created the Navy Department; prior to this, the Navy had been under the War Department. The coming war with France was going to be a naval war, and the creation of a Navy Department would allow for a more efficient command structure.
President Adams also appointed a new commander of the Army. He appointed George Washington, who immediately traveled to every state where he conferred with the militia commanders and made plans for when war was finally declared. Washington then returned to his home at Mount Vernon to await developments. The crisis passed without a war, and Washington resigned his commission and returned to private life.
President Adams avoided the war by sending another delegation to Paris. By this time, the French were worried about the United States joining the British in a war against them. The French immediately received the American delegation, and a solution was negotiated. The war fever in America passed without shots being fired. This did not permanently resolve the problem, but it did avoid a costly war.
President Adams was not popular with his own party for avoiding this war. The Federalists were hoping a war with France would thoroughly discredit the pro-French Democratic-Republican Party. They were furious with Adams for working so hard to prevent a war, which would have guaranteed a Federalist victory in the next election (which they ultimately lost). President Adams considered this his greatest achievement, and once proposed that his tombstone read “Here lies John Adams who took upon himself responsibility for peace with France in the year 1800.”
Alien and Sedition Acts. The Federalists, a party primarily of the upper class, were alarmed at the growing power of the Democratic-Republicans that attracted the common man (farmers, and immigrants). To stem the growing numbers and power of the Democratic-Republicans, the Federalists passed three acts designed to preserve their power.
The Immigration Act raised the residency requirement for citizenship from five years to fourteen. This would prevent the mass of newly arrived immigrants (who, it was assumed, would vote for the Democratic-Republicans) from voting for an extra eight years. This would at least buy the Federalists some time.
The Alien Act gave the President the power to deport dangerous aliens (foreign born people, not little green men) without a trial. This was also designed to keep aliens from supporting and working for the Democratic-Republicans.
The Sedition Act made it illegal to criticize or ridicule the President or Congress. Newspaper editors printing anything bad about the President (a Federalist) or Congress (controlled by the Federalists) could be jailed. About a dozen editors were arrested and jailed under this act. The act did not include similar protection for the Vice President, who was a Democratic-Republican. Federalist editors were free to heap all the criticism they wanted on Thomas Jefferson, the Vice President, who was running against President Adams in the next election.
The Alien and Sedition Acts did not keep the Federalists in power. They lost the election of 1800 to the Democratic-Republicans. Actually, resentment over the Alien and Sedition Acts, especially the Sedition Act which greatly limited the right to free speech in spite of the First Amendment, worked against the Federalists.
Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. When the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Democratic-Republicans responded with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. The Democratic-Republican controlled legislatures in Kentucky and Virginia passed resolutions (non-binding declarations of opinion) condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Virginia Resolution was authored by James Madison. The Kentucky Resolution was authored by Thomas Jefferson.
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions stated the States’ Rights Theory. According to this theory, the federal government was a creation of the sovereign states. The states, therefore, were the superior and they had the right to pass judgment on the actions of the federal government. A state, therefore, had the right to declare a law passed by congress to be unconstitutional, and therefore null and void and not in effect in that particular state. This was called nullification, and any state had the right to nullify a federal law.
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions stopped short of declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts to be unconstitutional. But the statement that a state had the right to nullify a law became the basis for the southern states’ rights and justification for their secession from the Union prior to the Civil War. Thomas Jefferson certainly wanted to cause as much trouble for the Federalists as he could, but it is agreed by most historians that he did not want to be one of the causes of the dissolution of the United States. When the Democratic-Republicans took office after they won control of the White House and Congress in 1800, they allowed the Alien and Sedition Acts to expire.
Midnight Judges. In the election of 1800, the Democratic-Republicans won control of the Presidency and the Congress. During President John Adams’ lame duck period, the Federalists tried desperately to gain solid control of the judicial branch. They created a large number of new positions, from district judges to marshals, U.S. Attorneys, and even justices of the peace in the District of Columbia. Their goal was to so fill the judicial branch with Federalists that the Democratic-Republicans would not be able to appoint enough of their party over the next four years to have much effect on the judicial branch. After the new President took office, the Supreme Court ruled in Marbury v. Madison that the positions were not properly filed, and the new Democratic-Republican President, Thomas Jefferson, got to fill them. Again, as with the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Federalist plans backfired and actually worked against them. (Marbury v. Madison will be fully discussed in the next article.)
Capital moved to Washington, D.C. One other event of note took place during the Adams Administration. The nation’s capital was, by law, required to move from Philadelphia to the new city of Washington in the District of Columbia no later than November 1, 1800. The White House was not yet completed, but on the evening of November 1, 1800, John Adams moved into the White House. The walls were not finished, and he had difficulty finding adequate places for him and his staff to sleep that night. Later, he was joined by his wife, who used the large and unfinished East Room to hang her laundry to dry. A quote from one of his letters to his wife appears on a mantle in the White House. “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”