President #2, C-SPAN Historians’ ranking #17
May all your wars be Quasi Wars
For most of our lives, John Adams was an historical figure whom people recognized, yet thought little of. We figured he must have been important since he helped write the Declaration of Independence and also became President. But he was no George Washington, a larger than life military hero and “Father of the Country.” He was no Thomas Jefferson, Renaissance man, and thinker of deep thoughts.
John Adams was one of the Founding Fathers whom people had never developed a great deal of reverence for. His face didn’t appear on any currency that was commonly in use. He was just “that guy between Washington and Jefferson.” He doesn’t have a monument or memorial in Washington, D.C. that people go out of their way to see. (There are plans to build a new Adams memorial there.)
But recently, John Adams has had a significant revival among historians. Much of this came from David McCullough’s John Adams, which was a best-seller and later an HBO miniseries. And 175 years after he passed away, John Adams has become one of the most popular historical figures in American history.
John Patrick Diggins, a professor of history at City University of New York, got on board the John Adams train with his biography of the second president, which was published in 2003. Diggins’ biography, for a 150+ page book, is densely packed with discussions about Adams political writings. If you’re looking for something that would be starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, this isn’t the book.
Diggins spends one chapter discussing at length (at least it seemed so to me because it was a slog despite being just over 20 pages) going over two of Adams political writings. One is A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America, which Adams had published in 1787 and 1788. It was Adams’ response to criticisms of the new U.S. Constitution by French philosophers.
In Defence, Adams explains why America needed a relatively complex system of government with numerous checks and balances instead of a model like the French National Assembly, where all the power was held by one body. If you’ve read the whole thing (it’s three volumes long), you have my admiration.
The other book Adams penned was titled Discourses on Davila. It serves as something of a fourth volume to Defence and it was published in 1790. In it, Adams answered charges that he was a monarchist and an aristocrat.
Adams felt that an aristocracy was something that could not be avoided in society. There was a natural tendency for people to associate with people from their own backgrounds economically. Also people always wanted to better themselves, so there was always going to be some group that people wanted to aspire to become part of. Adams felt that the U.S. Constitution was well-suited to providing a maximum amount of liberty despite the presence of an aristocracy.
Diggins spends a long time in a short book comparing the political philosophies of Adams and Thomas Jefferson and Diggins clearly believes that Adams was the superior. Jefferson is portrayed by Diggins as someone who claimed to be a champion of civil liberties and the common man, but failed to grasp the fact that the style of government Jefferson advocated ended up being the Directory of France, which led to the Reign of Terror. Diggins argues that Adams, as a constitutionalist, actually did more for civil liberties because it takes government action to grant such liberties. The Constitution, as Lincoln said, protects us from ourselves.
One of Adams arguments against always bending to majority rule boiled down to this “What if one day 51 people supported one issue and 49 people opposed it? And what happens if one person changes his mind the next day?” John Adams would not be a big fan of California’s initiative system.
However, Diggins book was supposed to be about Adams’ presidency. And after about 80 pages, Adams takes over the Presidency, edging out Jefferson in the election of 1796 by three electoral votes (there was no popular vote at the time). Prior to 1804, the Vice President was whomever finished second. So, Adams had the uncomfortable position of having his arch-rival serving as his second in command. (Hey, it’s like California where we have a Republican governor and a Democratic lieutenant governor!)
Adams was not a successful president as he was presented with a difficult diplomatic situation with France and he faced opposition from Jefferson’s Republicans (who thought Adams was a monarchist) and Alexander Hamilton’s arch-Federalists (who thought Adams was too conciliatory toward Jefferson).
One of Adams first acts was sending three envoys to France to start negotiations about the problem of French ships preying on American merchant ships that were trading with England. But the French demanded, for lack of a better word, a bribe before they would talk with the Americans. This event became known as the XYZ affair and since zippers had not been invented, I will state that XYZ referred to the three anonymous people who solicited the bribes. That ended that attempt at diplomacy and the United States and France soon started what became known as the Quasi War, a war that existed in all but name (see also Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.).
Adams hoped that building an American Navy would help with the problems with France, but Hamilton wanted an Army and managed to get himself appointed to be general. Jefferson and his faction opposed any hostility with the French because they admired the French Revolution, which was mostly about lopping off heads at the time. A full-scale war was averted through a mixture of diplomacy and increased internal problems in France (such as Napoleon coming to power) which left the French not particularly interested in pursuing a war with a pipsqueak republic in North America.
Tensions during the Quasi War ran high in the press, which was extraordinarily partisan at the time. Personal attacks on Adams and Jefferson by either side were the norm, and often done by printers who were on the government payroll. To combat this, Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which served to curb immigration (Irish and French immigrants tended to be on Jefferson’s side) and also make it crime to say anything bad about the President and Congress in the press.
So you might be saying to yourself, “This Sedition Act sounds unconstitutional.” It very well was, but there was never a court test of it and the concept of judicial review wouldn’t be established until 1803. The Acts themselves had built in expiration dates, and they ended as Adams left office. Diggins doesn’t believe Adams came up with the idea of the Alien and Sedition Acts, but since they happened on his watch, he was ultimately responsible, and they remain the biggest blot on the historical record for Adams.
Another event in Adams’ term in office that is little remembered now, but was a big issue at the time was something called Fries’ Rebellion. John Fries was a German immigrant who worked as auctioneer in Pennsylvania. To help fund the Quasi War, Adams had Congress pass a measure which was called the House Tax, which was a nationwide property tax of sorts. Fries led a movement (a rather tame one) that encouraged Pennsylvanians to not pay the tax since it wasn’t proportional to the population. Fries and two others were arrested for this and convicted of treason and sentenced to hang.
However, Adams pardoned Fries because he felt that he had not committed treason, but rather just led a protest that was not intended to overthrow the government. Hamilton and his supporters were aghast and in the election of 1800 they would get revenge on Adams for his perceived apostasy.
The election of 1800 is often called “The Revolution of 1800.” As Diggins points out, it was the first time that a nation that was born out of a violent revolution ever had a peaceful change of power. The election was nasty as Adams’ and Jefferson’s supporter slung mud in what would soon become an American tradition for campaigns. Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr tied for the top spot and Hamilton (who didn’t campaign too much for Adams) was able to get the House of Representatives to put Jefferson in the top spot, because while Hamilton hated Jefferson, Hamilton hated Burr twice as much. And of course, Hamilton and Burr ended up as the Tupac and Biggy of the early 19th Century.
And on March 4, 1801, heroic Thomas Jefferson rode his horse into Washington, D.C. and was inaugurated in front of an adoring crowd and gave an inaugural address that would be the standard by which others were judged for over a century. And dour John Adams slipped out of town and didn’t watch his successor’s inauguration, although Diggins speculates that Jefferson never invited Adams.
After both men had left office, Adams and Jefferson patched up their differences and started a famous series of correspondence where they debated the issues of the day. The standards of the time prevented either man from going on the lecture circuit or writing memoirs to make money, which is sad because I would have paid pretty good money to watch John Adams and Thomas Jefferson debate the issues of the day. It sounds a bit more appealing than watching David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon.
If you are inclined to take in Diggins book about Adams, bring your thinking cap. It is not a romp through the American Revolution and the Federalist Era. It’s a study about how Adams and his political philosophy stood up against the likes of Jefferson, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. It’s a biography of Adams for people who may be interested in placing Adams in the grand scheme of things as a political thinker, rather than just picturing him as a character in a premium cable series.
Other stuff: As mentioned in his son’s post, the Adams are remembered at the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Henry Adams, the great grandson of John Adams, does have a famous statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens by his grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.
John Adams died on July 4, 1826 at the age of 90 years, 247 days. That was the longest lifespan of any President until Ronald Reagan surpassed Adams in 2001. Gerald Ford later surpassed Reagan’s lifespan, passing away at age 93.
Adams was the first U.S. President who was a college graduate. Adams graduated from Harvard, the first of five alums (as undergrads) from Harvard who would become Chief Executive. John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy were the others. George W. Bush received an MBA from Harvard, but was an undergrad at Yale. Rutherford Hayes and Barack Obama attended Harvard Law School, but were undergrads elsewhere.
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