Life Before Presidency
Before he became the second president of the United States, John Adams established himself as a successful lawyer. He was known for defending the British soldiers who participated in the Boston Massacre as well as serving in the Continental Congress before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War.
Before the outbreak of the war, Adams contributed to the Declaration of Independence working alongside Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin which would signify the 13 colonies independence against Great Britain.
During the Revolutionary War, John Adams survived as an American ambassador in France and would later help arrange the Treaty of Paris which ended the war. He stayed in Europe after the conflict ended in 1783 and became the first American ambassador in England.
Adams later returned in 1788 to secure a government position where he would secure two terms as vice president under President Washington. During this time, Adams joined the Federalist party which was led by Alexander Hamilton which supported a strong central government with a pro-business and pro-English stance.
The opposing party, led by Thomas Jefferson, was called the Democratic-Republican party which supported a limited central government and a pro-agrarian and pro-French position.
After joining the Federalist party, Adams barely won the election of 1796 by narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson by three electorial
votes. It is here where John Adams the President would serve as the second president of the United States after George Washington in 1797.
Unlike Washington, who was well-liked and respected, President Adams would have a tough time serving as the leader of the United States.
President Adams’ Style and Cabinet
Much can be said about the demeanor of John Adams. The President has often been remarked as an outspoken individual, who would take his word over the advice from his own cabinet.
Even though President Adams was well-qualified for the position due to his experience as a diplomat and his expertise on law, he often unintentionally alienated his cabinet. For example, rather than appealing to his cabinet for decisions, he would often ignore his cabinet’s advice and make decisions for himself.
Critics declared that President Adams appealed to be a stubborn aristocrat who would ignore the public’s opinion and this would come to haunt Adams in the election of 1800.
Even with these flaws, President Adams was known for his knowledge concerning law and diplomatic issues; however, he had trouble getting along with others. His cabinet consisted of a wide range of individuals who would come to fight against President Adams in a range of issues. Although President Adams would enjoy friendship with his wife, First Lady Abigail Adams, he would come to fight most of his cabinet.
President Adams’ Cabinet:
- Vice President Thomas Jefferson (1797-1801)
- Secretary of State Timothy Pickering (1797-1800) and later John Marshall (1800-1801)
- The Secretary of War James McHenry (1797-1800) who was later replaced by Samuel Dexter (1800-1801)
- The Postmaster General Joseph Habersham (1797-1801)
- Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott Jr. (1797-1800) and later Samuel Dexter (1801-1801)
- Attorney General Charles Lee (1797-1801)
- Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert (1798-1801)
Foreign Relations with France and the XYZ Affair
Upon entering the presidency, John Adams immediately encountered foreign relation problems with the French. For example, the French
did not support the Jay Treaty of 1794, which supported trade between the United States and Great Britain.
The French were angry that Americans could serve as neutral traders while France and Great Britain were at war. Wanting to finance their wars, French officials decided to seize American ships in order to demand payment.
With this crisis, President Adams decided to send three American delegates to solve this dilemma; however, upon arriving the American delegates learned that they would have to bribe French officials in order to quell the situation.
Understanding that the French were simply trying to get funds, Adams quickly exposed the affair of the three French officials who arranged the deal by labeling them as x, y and z. Overnight, many Americans changed their views about the French due to the bribery as well as the continued seizure of American ships.
Rather than going to war, President Adams successfully adverted the so called “Quasi-War of 1798” by sending additional delegates to end the seizure of American ships. In 1799, the situation between the United States and French was dissolved in the Treaty of Mortefontaine. With this action, President Adams and the Federalist party gained fame for their actions.
Alien and Sedition Acts
Around the same times as the troubles with France and the XYZ Affair, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts served as domestic policy in which President Adams hoped would dissolve foreign agents intervening with the United States during the French Revolutionary Wars in Europe.
The first three acts were concerned with aliens. The first was called the Naturalization Act which in lengthened the time for an immigrant to be concerned a citizen from five to 14 years. The second was called the Alien Act which allowed the government to detain any alien with consent or court approval. The third, called the Alien Enemies Act is similar to the Alien Act; this act allowed the United States to deport any alien that they considered to be a threat to national security.
Probably the most controversial was the fourth called the Sedition Act which outlawed any form of conspiracy against the federal government–whether with demonstrations, spoken or written actions–as justifiable for a prison sentence. This meant that if people criticized the federal government in any method, they could be sentenced for jail time.
Many advocates such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison crafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to denounce these acts as unconstitutional against John Adams. The President’s actions were not question until the Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed in 1832; it severely damaged President Adams’ attempts to run for reelection in 1800.
Failed Reelection and Legacy
In the election of 1800, President Adams ran with Charles Pinckney while the Democratic-Republicans hosted Thomas Jefferson and
Aaron Burr. In a close election, Thomas Jefferson won the most electoral votes and became the third president of the United States in 1801. After serving only four years, John Adams the president stepped down and handed power over the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson.
Did President Adams have good leadership qualities as America’s second president? For the most part, historians have mixed feelings about President Adams’ short term.
Although he had excellent experience as a foreign ambassador, some historians question whether Adams should have taken a different route when dealing with France and its revolution. Critics also point out that President Adams had a difficult time working with his cabinet and alienated the American public with examples such as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Even though President Adams is often portrayed in a negative light, he also helped America in certain aspects. For example, historians generally agree that President Adams’ neutrality during the French Revolutionary Wars helped America from staying out of European affairs.
The United States also enjoyed a population increase under President Adams’ term by increasing from 4.7 million to 5.3 million. Even though he is often misunderstood, President Adams was well-versed in his ability to lead–even though he made mistakes along the way.
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