Term in Office: 2nd president, 1797-1801
Political Party: Federalist
Home State: Massachusetts
For a short, balding, toothless, pudgy, disagreeable Yankee, John Adams has become remarkably sexy during the last decade. A bestselling book by David McCollough and an award-winning HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti have helped to put John Adams squarely in the limelight after having taken a cultural backseat to Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin since the 18th century.
And a good thing, too. Adams brought a healthy dose of pessimism, realism, and even a dash of misanthropy and curmudgeonliness to American polity, which many of his revolutionary colleagues lacked. Every time Jefferson tried to expound on ethereal notions of liberty and ascendant golden ages of mankind, Adams was there to burst his bubble and remind his erstwhile colleague about our capacity for evil, greed, and cruelty. Perhaps that is why Adams was a B-list Founding Father for so long– he spent so little time and had so little interest flattering his contemporaries and posing for posterity. Brilliant but sensitive to his reputation, accomplished but in perpetual self-doubt, easily hurt but never failing to eventually forgive, Adams is perhaps the most human and the most accessible of United States’ first generation of leaders. He seems made not of marble, but of flesh.
On the balance, I am inclined to put Adams down as one of our most successful one-term presidents. He served early enough to codify and legitimate good, healthy, small-r republican practices, and set plenty of useful precedents of his own. Like my #13 choice, his presidency’s accomplishments fly under the radar because he spent his time in office averting crises and disasters, rather than ratcheting up legislative achievements. Adams made a few key decisions, particularly in avoiding an all-out war with France, that allowed his infant country to survive its tumultuous early years.
Few presidents walked into the job with a more useful array of experience than Adams. He played a pivotal role at multiple times during the American Revolution: as a key voice clamoring for independence. He brought forth George Washington’s name as a potential leader of the Continental Army, he served on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, he secured timely military aid from France and timely financial loans from the Netherlands, and served as an early ambassador to Court of St. James. Adams could have retired at 45 and still merited a place in the American pantheon, but his ambition drove him on, becoming a favorite of the New England delegation. He twice placed second in the electoral college, thus earning the right to become vice-president under George Washington. But as vice-president, Adams was discouraged by the lack of influence the position held. “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” he once groused. When Washington made it clear he would not serve a third term, Adams was his logical successor, and he won a narrow, three-vote electoral college victory over his friend and rival, Thomas Jefferson.
Although reliant on Federalist support, Adams was loathe, throughout his career, to view himself as a party man. “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constition.” Adams said this in 1789, just as Washington was taking office, and his fears transpired during his own presidency. A nascent two party system had formed by then (when earlier, statesmen had been characterized very loosely and very inchoately as pro- or anti-administration.) By the time Adams took office, there was a coherent party called the Democrat-Republicans, headed by Jefferson, and the Federalists, headed not by Adams, but Alexander Hamilton. Although Manning Dauer’s book The Adams Federalists demonstrates that Adams had a surprising number of loyal supporters in Congress, Adams insisted on an apolitical approach to public affairs. He boasted late in life that he had never sought an office himself, but had always been put forward for the job by his fellow citizens.
This apolitical approach was both a blessing and a curse to the Adams administration. In some ways, being the second president is a much harder task than being the first president, especially when you have to follow a man with a truly continental reputation such as George Washington. Adams had no such reservoir of national goodwill to fall back on. One early area of contention was the cabinet– it was loaded with party-line Federalists more loyal to Hamilton than Adams. Adams gets a certain degree of flack for keeping this mediocre and disloyal lot in office, but in his defense, consider that no presidential succession had yet taken place. It was not yet the custom for the incoming president to put his own men in, even if he was in broad agreement with the previous president. Eventually, fed up with having his own subordinates thwarting him, he fired his Secretary of State and Secretary of War, allowing himself a greater measure of control over his administration. This, too, set an important precedent of allowing the president near-absolute control over his cabinet once they were in office, allowing him to fire or request resignations as he chose. The cabinet served at the president’s pleasure.
In terms of his comportment, Adams followed many elements from George Washington’s playbook, visiting nearly every state, delivering his State of the Union addresses in person to Congress (Jefferson would later reverse this practice, and it would not be revived until Woodrow Wilson’s term over a century later.) In life, Adams was often wrongly accused of being a monarchist. The fact of the matter is that he was more concerned about demagoguery and anarchy more than many of the other founders, and thought a strong executive branch and checks on absolute democracy the best way to avoid these unsavory outcomes of “mob rule.” At times this made Adams appear petty and vain and aristocratic, but in hindsight, his views are, as always, a useful check on Jeffersonian optimism.
But, as I said earlier, the wisest thing Adams did as president was avoid a war with France. After the Jay Treaty had been signed during the Washington administration, its favorable provisions toward the British angered France, who began seizing American ships. He worked on solutions immediately; one very farsighted move Adams can claim credit for is the establishment of a Navy Department, and improving the Navy from “virtually non-existent” to “well below average” (actually a considerable improvement.) The new frigates helped bolstered his hand in negotiations and let him argue from a position of strength. Adams sent a team of diplomats to France to smooth things over, but when Talleyrand’s guys demanded bribes before the negotiations even started, war fever broke out, especially among the Federalists. Adams allowed a large standing army to be mustered in preparation of a war, but made it clear that his first priority was peace, sending William Vans Murray of Maryland to France to secure a resolution to the conflict.
Any attempt to cover the Adams presidency, though, would be remiss without addressing the most conspicuous stain on his term in office, the set of laws that has gone down in history as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Let’s talk about the section which has the most toxic reputation in the history books, the Sedition Act. I am going to go against conventional wisdom, and I am going to make my libertarian friends irate for saying this, but I think the act was both constitutional and justifiable. First of all, barely a dozen people were convicted under the act; this wasn’t some Stalinesque act of political oppression, so some sense of proportion is needed. And most of the prosecuted were, in fact, legitimately guilty of defaming the Adams administration during a national crisis and spread provably wrong slanders against him. Finally, in the court of law, the truth of the matter could be used as a defense; if you said something against the Adams administration that turned out to be true, you could not be found guilty.
This is a rather important distinction. When I hear some jackass on the radio calling the president a “Muslim” who “wants to bring America down”, I don’t think “my goodness, isn’t it a wonderful thing that we have a First Amendment that protects that kind of talk, even if I disagree with it.” No. No no no. Criticizing an administration is fine; libeling an administration is not. On the contrary, I want to throw the bugger in jail- when one knowingly spreads information that is not true about the president, or any public official, one poisons the well of public discourse, and needs to be held accountable. Although its sister, the Alien Act, which expanded the number of years someone had to wait before earning U.S. citizenship from 5 to 14 was, in its way, troublingly xenophobic, I see nothing unethical about the Sedition Act. It sounds far worse on paper than in practice. If you want to go after presidents with bad records on civil liberties, start with Woodrow Wilson, not Adams.
In his quest to avoid war with France, Adams was a success, and Napoleon, now in power in the metropole, was eager to strike a deal and end a distracting skirmish with the United States. Unfortunately, Adams secured a tentative deal with France only after the election of 1800, where he was voted out of office. The Federalists lost control of Congress as well, leading to a Democratic-Republican sweep, and the first change of party rule under the Constitution.
Like Fillmore, Adams contributed to the death of his political party. But while Fillmore rent his Whig Party apart by being thickheaded and clueless, Adams self-destructed the Federalist Party out of principle and farsightedness. (This is why Adams is #12 and Madison is at #25 and McKinley is at #28– one guy avoided an unnecessary war and two guys initiated an unnecessary war) After Thomas Jefferson won in 1800, the Federalists never came within sniffing distance of the presidency, or control of Congress, again. Adams’ is, perhaps, the most admirable of administrations: the “throw yourself at the grenade” presidency. He could have revived Federalist fortunes and perhaps won re-election by saber-rattling and satisfying American honor by taking on France, but a large-scale war against a continental power would have been most unwise. They don’t make medals big enough for guys like John Adams. His ability to eschew what was popular and expedient for what was right secures his place among our top dozen presidents.
Here is what does not get said all that often: Adams gave up power he still wanted to have. When Washington left office, he was ready to retire from public life; he was weary of the barbs thrown at him in derision, especially over the unpopular Jay Treaty. Adams left office involuntarily; he was put on the ballot for a second term, he wanted to stay president, and the electorate chose Jefferson in his stead. It is so very easy to forget that when this took place, Adams remained commander-in-chief. He was head of the military, and he held a very proactive view of a president’s power. If he wished, Adams could have challenged Jefferson’s claim to the presidency by force of bayonet. And yet, he stepped down. He was not especially gracious about it– he skipped town in the middle of the night on the red-eye hackney coach back to Quincy, Massachusetts, and never saw Jefferson in person again in this life. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he stepped down, establishing a virtuous precedent every bit as deep as Washington’s. You step down not just when you are ready to retire, but when you are voted out of office.
Addendum: One of the interesting things about writing Adams’ piece immediately after Fillmore’s is that I have now covered two Unitarians in a row. In fact, it is helpful to point out that three out of our fifteen antebellum presidents were Unitarians (John Quincy was the other), meaning that 20% of our presidents before the Civil War were doctrinally opposed to the idea of the Trinity and would have thought Christ a good man, but surely not God. (Come to think of it, Jefferson and Lincoln also believed something along those lines as well, although neither was a Unitarian.) Keep this in mind next time you end up in an argument with someone who perceives America as “a Christian nation.”