When John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson in a hotly contested election for the presidency in 1796, Jefferson claimed to find solace in the extraordinary challenges awaiting the second president. By the end of George Washington's administration, the Hamiltonian economic program, the Jay Treaty, and the Whiskey Rebellion had left the public contentious and divided—and new troubles lurked on the horizon. France, seeing in the Jay Treaty a de facto commercial alliance between Britain and America, had increased its attacks against American shipping. In 1796 alone, 300 American ships were seized. Leaving the presidential headaches to John Adams was perhaps not such a bad thing, Jefferson mused, commenting that "no man will bring out of that office the reputation which he carries into it." President Washington had been fortunate, Jefferson elaborated to his friend James Madison, "to get off just as the bubble is bursting."20
John Adams was not oblivious to the challenges that lay ahead, but he was also a man of considerable intellect and political talent and he believed that Washington had charted a prudent course. Like his predecessor, Adams believed that national security rested on avoiding entanglement in European affairs. Between Republicans advocating intervention on behalf of France and members of his own party promoting stronger ties with Britain, Adams hoped to steer a middle course. In addition, Adams wanted to follow Washington's lead in trying to temper the country's growing political divisions. Like Washington, he would try to reconcile the emerging political differences by building a bipartisan administration that contained rather than polarized the emerging political factions.
These two objectives came together in an idea Adams began tossing around before his inauguration. To complement and balance the pro-English Jay Treaty, he would send a delegation to France to pursue French recognition of America's rights as a neutral carrier. And to this delegation he would name Thomas Jefferson. Inviting his political opponent to play a critical role in his administration would temper political discord and convey to the Republicans that this diplomatic mission was a serious gesture.
But both of these plans would fail. Jefferson would reject Adams's invitation, preferring to build his base as the leader of the opposition rather than join in a genuinely bipartisan government. And the French mission would backfire spectacularly in the so-called XYZ Affair. Adams's administration would not, however, go down as a complete failure; the president would eventually negotiate an agreement with France, but it would be achieved by defying, rather than reconciling, the emerging political parties.
After Jefferson refused Adams's diplomatic offer, Adams turned to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry to negotiate an arrangement with France. Pinckney, a South Carolina planter, was nominally a Federalist, but he sympathized with France and had welcomed Edmond Genet when he landed in Charleston in 1793. Marshall, an ardent Federalist, was practicing law in Virginia in 1797, preparing for his historic tenure as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Gerry had temporarily withdrawn from public life after representing Massachusetts in Congress. Something of a political maverick, he voted for Federalist John Adams in 1796, but would serve as James Madison's Republican vice-president after the death of George Clinton in 1812.
Adams had sought political balance in naming this diverse delegation, but within the politically charged arena of foreign policy, no one was satisfied. For starters, Adams faced opposition within his own party. A group of Federalists more loyal to Alexander Hamilton—and suspicious of Adams's overly soft stance on France—had opposed Adams since his inauguration. This faction had briefly attempted, in fact, to throw the election to Adams's running mate, Thomas Pinckney, in 1796. Largely to appease this group, Adams had retained Washington's cabinet, even though three of the five were intensely loyal to Hamilton rather than to the president. (Hamilton had returned to private life in 1795. The person most responsible for reconstructing the nation's finances was in constant personal financial trouble, but he was anxious to recapture his public influence.) Adams's decision to retain Washington's cabinet would therefore prove disastrous to the president, as these Hamilton loyalists would plot with the former Secretary to undermine Adams and resurrect Hamilton's political career.
This Hamiltonian, or High Federalist, faction feared an overly conciliatory approach toward France. To them, recent French attacks on American commerce were merely the last straw; they believed that war against France had been necessary for some time. In the escalating radicalism of the French revolution, they saw a contagion that threatened social stability everywhere. Britain's war against France therefore deserved American support; it was a fight for good order, which carried the additional benefit of strengthening relations with Britain, a crucial economic partner.
Republicans, consequently, were understandably suspicious of all Federalist initiatives. Despite Adams's attempts to separate himself from the war-ready faction within his party, they feared Adams's outreach was just an empty gesture, a planned failure that would set the stage for a more belligerent policy toward France. Therefore, despite Adams's attempts at balance, by the time the American delegation departed for France in the fall of 1797, the diplomatic initiative had become a source of political division rather than reconciliation. And as the public awaited news of the delegation's progress into the spring of 1798, both sides began to predict the worst.
When news did finally arrive from Paris, the political mood was explosive. Adams notified Congress on 5 March 1798 that the mission had failed, and there were immediate fireworks. Federalists began calling for military preparations. Republicans declared that the mission had been just what they expected: a planned failure and a pretext for war. Therefore, they demanded a more complete accounting from Adams, as well as the release of all the dispatches from Paris.
Adams had withheld the details, knowing that they would inflame the public and feed the war hawks in his own party—or perhaps he did so in order to reel the Republicans in to set them up for a more dramatic revelation of French misbehavior. Whether Adams initially withheld the dispatches out of concern for public overreaction or did so as part of more elaborate political strategy to humiliate and silence his Republican critics is unclear, but when he did finally surrender the diplomatic dispatches demanded by his opponents, he reaped huge political rewards.
On 4 April 1798, Adams delivered to Congress all communications from Paris. Republican skeptics sat on the edges of their chairs expecting to hear of conciliatory overtures from France parried with half-hearted counters from the Americans. Instead, they heard that the French negotiators—pseudonymously labeled X, Y, and Z—had demanded a bribe for just the privilege of meeting with the French foreign minister, and that any talks would be premised on an American commitment to make generous financial payments to France. The American delegates had been stunned, as the House was now, by this attempted extortion. To demand a bribe just to engage in diplomatic discussion was contrary to the very premise of modern diplomacy, a violation of the spirit that underlay the rational arbitration of international disputes. Coming from the government of revolutionary France, believed by Republicans to be the latest expression of progressive, republican ideology, this was shocking, disillusioning, and silencing.
For John Adams, the political victory of the XYZ Affair was huge, but double-edged. While his Republican critics were humbled, his Federalist cohorts began clamoring for revenge against France. The slogan, "Millions for defense, but not a penny for tribute," soon translated into a concrete package of troop authorizations. These were accompanied by the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of restrictions on civil liberties passed in the name of national emergency. For Adams, still intent on a course of neutrality, the challenge would be to exploit the political opportunity provided by the XYZ Affair while avoiding the warmongering excess he perceived among his Federalist colleagues.
Adams's first task was to delay the organization of the "new army." Congress quickly authorized a force of up to 22,000 men and General Washington himself agreed to come out of retirement to assume command. The dicier issue was who would be named his second in command; this is where Adams found his opportunity. The most logical candidate in terms of Revolutionary rank and age was Henry Knox. Almost as logical was the appointment of Charles Pinckney of South Carolina; if the French were to attack, they would most likely land in the more Republican—and thus French-friendly—states of the south, hence the wisdom of selecting a southerner to rally volunteers and popular opinion to the American cause. Alexander Hamilton was also itching for the post. He had Washington's confidence and High Federalists loved him, but Knox bristled at the suggestion that Hamilton, who had been his subordinate in the Revolution, would leapfrog him.
For months, these negotiations continued, and Adams deliberately strung them along. By the time all parties had been reconciled to the choice of Hamilton, much of the initial fury surrounding the XYZ Affair had dissipated, and recruitment for the new army lagged.
While Adams strategically dragged his feet on this front, he moved forward aggressively on another. Strengthening the American navy was an objective he had set when first elected. America's naval inferiority was acknowledged by everyone, but attempts to increase its size were resisted by many. Republicans saw all military expenditures as excessive and suspect. In times of national crisis, they preferred to rely on the militia, a citizen army that would rise to meet emergencies and then disband immediately after. Historically, they reasoned, standing armies threatened civil government and created a cadre of professional militarists that could never be trusted. Navies were perhaps even more dangerous. Jefferson argued that navies bred bands of "aristocratic officers" that violated America's egalitarian principles. Moreover, navies extended borders; a larger navy would draw America into distant foreign affairs and threaten the safety and purity of the young republic.
While Republicans protested naval expansion on grounds of philosophy and economy, Federalist objections were more complex. While many embraced a larger navy as consistent with their nationalizing philosophies, others recognized that a weak navy encouraged dependence on British good will. For those that believed America's commercial future lay in cultivating British friendship, talk of naval development, with its underlying theme of maritime independence, represented a threat to the sort of British-American cooperation they considered most beneficial.
Bolstered by the nationalist excitement that followed the XYZ Affair, Adams was able to rapidly expand America's naval strength. The navy he had inherited had a few coastal patrol vessels and a dispatch boat, but no warships. In 1794, Congress had authorized the construction of six frigates, but only three had been completed by 1797. By 1799, Adams had added another dozen warships; by 1800, America had 50 warships at sea—enough to control the American coast and maintain a viable presence in the Caribbean.
Historians generally agree that Adams's navigation of the political current to this point was flawless, but his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts has been heavily criticized. His defenders, however, have argued that his support for these measures was a necessary part of his overall strategy—the bone that had to be tossed to the High Federalists he was trying to keep at bay as he pursued his own centrist course. There is merit in this argument; by 1800, despite all the Federalist talk and bluster, Adams had succeeded in avoiding war with France. The new army had managed to recruited only 4,000 men, and Adams had succeeded in strengthening the navy. He was now ready to send another delegation to France to negotiate with a stronger hand.
By 1800, John Adams was, to a large extent, politically isolated; his own cabinet was plotting to achieve the objectives of Alexander Hamilton, while his Republican critics had rediscovered their critical voice. But from Europe, he received more friendly news. According to several sources—including his son, John Quincy, serving as minister to Prussia—the French position had softened. Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, was unsettled by America's loud talk of war, and the recent defeat of French forces in Egypt had made the prospect of yet another military conflict unsettling. If the United States would send another delegation, Talleyrand pledged, it would be properly received.
When Adams announced that he had decided to accept Talleyrand's invitation, his Federalist colleagues exploded; Republicans were equally critical. But Adams's information and geopolitical instincts proved sound. In the fall of 1800, his second delegation returned with the Treaty of Mortefontaine, or more simply, the Convention of 1800.
The treaty was not perfect for either side. The French did not secure the alliance they had pursued since the visit of Edmond Genet to America in 1793. The United States received no compensation for cargos lost through past French actions. The treaty did, however, secure peace for several years; in the volatile context of Napoleonic Europe, that was no small thing. Just as important, the treaty acknowledged Americans' rights as neutral shippers. Combined with Washington's Jay Treaty, this trade concession would lead to several years of commercial prosperity, as American ships carried goods to both French and British ports, even as France and Britain fought each other in the Napoleonic Wars.
But the price Adams paid for diplomatic success was political rejection. In the end, he achieved a great deal and managed to play his political cards quite deftly. But he ultimately chose policy over politics, and there was little room for that in the overheated political environment that had taken root in America by 1800. Ironically, having begun his term with dreams of a bipartisan administration with visions of an inclusive cabinet containing both ends of the political spectrum, Adams left office a president without a party. In this sense, he retired from public life much like George Washington, stubbornly clinging to a vision of a political order rooted in a different time and a different set of understandings. But Adams and Washington were not entirely alone. Other Federalists found the new political realities equally troubling; some retreated to private life, while others accepted the new styles and methods as the price of continuing involvement in American politics. But whether they retreated or adapted, no one could claim that they saw this new political world coming. As Harrison Gray Otis—speaking perhaps for Washington and Adams, and a whole generation of Federalist statesmen—admitted, "We did not imagine, when the first war with Britain was over, that the revolution was just begun."21